The Chains of Superstition
ARE you superstitious? If you are, you are not alone. One researcher found more than four hundred thousand different superstitions in all parts of the world. The fact that many hotels do not have a thirteenth floor, or that people try to avoid walking under ladders or allowing black cats to pass in front of them, shows the existence of superstition in the Western world. The same unhealthy influence of superstition is evident in Africa, as the following experience illustrates.
About twenty years ago Wawa’s husband died after a long illness. For the three days following his death, Wawa lay on the ground next to his deathbed crying and wailing, while dozens of weeping, wailing, dancing and drinking people held a wake around her for the dead. Many of the mourners were so engrossed that they missed out on sleep and work. Why? They wanted to prove to the dead man’s spirit and to his family that they were his friends.
Living in Fear of the Dead
On the third day the body was carried to the cemetery, and everyone went with it. The casket was lowered into the ground and small stones and chunks of dirt were thrown onto it. Why? “To say good-bye to my husband’s spirit,” says Wawa. Then, before the grave was filled in, Wawa swore before everyone that she had always been faithful to her husband. “If not,” she proclaimed, “let his spirit strike me to death.” From now on Wawa’s life was to be governed by her fear of the spirit of her dead husband.
Her husband’s family kept telling her: “If you do anything kirikiri [“unreasonable,” in the Sango language], his spirit will come back and kill you.” To show that she had really loved her husband, she did not fully bathe for three months, wore a simple cloth around her body and slept on a straw mat on the dirt floor. Wawa believed that her dead husband was watching every move she made. The man whom she had loved seemed to have become her worst enemy.
Some tribes require the mourning widow to carry a knife to ward off attack by the dead husband’s spirit. She must not look into a fire when she lights it for fear of seeing him. She wakes up at three or four o’clock each morning and cries and wails to show that she still loves him. And she offers him the first serving of every meal by throwing some of it on the ground.
At the end of three months Wawa was taken by the husband’s family to the banks of the nearest river and thrown into the water. This was a sign that, insofar as she had carried out the mourning satisfactorily, she was clean of any wicked spirits. Some say that this also indicates that she had no part in the death of her husband.
But Why Did He Die?
In the minds of many people in this part of the world, no one merely dies. A dead man must have been killed because of either human or supernatural malice. Hence, Wawa’s in-laws did not help her through her ordeal. Right after her husband’s death, his younger brother screamed at her: “You gave him medicine so that he would love you, but you made it too strong and it killed him!” Others accused her: “You performed witchcraft on him so that he died.”
After the third month’s “washing clean,” their harassment increased. She was constantly forced to give them money, food or alcoholic beverages. Poor Wawa complained to herself: “I am the one in need. Why must I keep bringing these things to my husband’s family?” However, she dared not refuse, for fear of her husband’s spirit.
Finally, after two fear-filled years, Wawa’s mourning period ended. She was given the opportunity to marry her husband’s eldest brother, and then his younger brothers. When she refused all offers, she was free to return to her own family. But, even then, Wawa believed that her dead husband was looking for occasions to cause her harm.
The sad thing is that all Wawa’s fears were without real foundation. There are no “spirits of the dead” to come back to harm their loved ones. The Bible tells us that the dead ‘go down into silence.’ In fact, the dead “are conscious of nothing at all . . . Also, their love and their hate and their jealousy have already perished.”—Psalm 115:17; Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6.
Fortunately, Wawa has since learned this. She knows now that her terrible fear was unreasonable, superstitious and without any foundation. But many millions still have such fears. Why? What is it that enchains people to superstitions? Can those chains be broken?
[Blurb on page 4]
After Wawa’s husband died, his younger brother screamed at her: “You gave him medicine so that he would love you, but you made it too strong and it killed him!”