Nigerian car thief turns into goat! (The Christian Science Monitor)

In West Africa, widespread belief in witchcraft, black magic, and superstition undermine the fundamentals of journalism.

By Walter Rodgers / July 6, 2009

In Nigeria recently, an angry mob demanded that police jail a goat. Vigilantes insisted the animal was a human car thief who transmogrified upon being apprehended. Nigerian law doesn’t recognize magic, witchcraft, or voodoo. Yet, faced with an angry mob, police acquiesced, arresting the goat.

This story was my object lesson for a Practical Reporting 101 class I taught to Nigerian journalism students this spring. There was just one problem: Some felt the goat was guilty. “These things actually happen,” one woman protested.

Objective truth is the ideal of journalism. It’s a destination reached through rigorous reporting rooted in skepticism. That’s a tall order in a society that’s so heavily riddled with superstition. In Nigeria, the sharp line between fact and fiction is badly blurred by centuries of animism and occultism that infects contemporary Muslim and Christian thinking as well as secular thought.

Journalistic skepticism is hard to teach where public imagination supersedes rational disbelief. As a result, journalism’s leavening effect on society is diminished. Reporters must always tread lightly in matters of religion, of course. Nearly all faiths hold to beliefs that defy everyday evidence. But, in the West at least, it’s understood that private religious beliefs – along with political beliefs – should be compartmentalized from the practice of journalism. A reporter’s religious beliefs, no matter how odd, don’t necessarily preclude good journalism. But when those beliefs clearly interfere with basic fact-checking and verification, then it’s worth examining how collective belief in magic can impede the civic development that good journalism fosters.

Black magic, malevolent curses, and witch doctors are woven into the fabric of West African society. “I don’t believe in witches, but I know they exist,” one of my students said. Television soap operas feature a villain sprinkling green powder on the doorstep of the woman next door. The following day she is shown writhing in agony. Great swaths of Nigerian society take these curses seriously.

Not infrequently, police hear reports that a man claims someone cast a spell to capture his spirit. Tradition here holds that if you sleep in bed with your feet at the headboard, you are communing with witches. Criminals buy charms from witch doctors to become invisible and escape arrest. A hairdresser tells of a client of another customer who reported a snake in her house that turned into a young woman. When the girl was taken to a Pentecostal church service she turned back into a snake. The journalistic canon of having two independent sources to confirm a news story becomes irrelevant when an entire congregation insists “it really happened.”

In Nigeria hearsay becomes conviction, then “truth,” and credibility grows in the retelling.

TV coverage lends currency to rumor. Take the story of four thieves apprehended by vigilantes who tied and bound them. According to dozens of village witnesses, there was supposedly a puff of smoke and the bound villains became four tethered crocodiles. One student insisted this was more credible than transubstantiation at Roman Catholic communion – the doctrine that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ – because “the TV news showed video of the four crocodiles.”

“We believe in God,” says Lydia Tolulope Adeleru, an American-educated daughter of a Baptist minister. “We also believe in our cultural gods like Sango, the god of iron, as well as Esu, the devil. We are a deeply religious people but we never left the old ways.” Africans often look for an unknown element to blame for disasters, floods, and crop failures. “If Christians have a God who makes Lucifer fall from heaven,” adds Ms. Adeleru, “what’s so strange about our juju [black magic]?”

The “rules of evidence” are easily contaminated here. Beatrice Funmilayo, a diplomat’s daughter, was a rare skeptic. “Nigerians have rich traditions of storytelling, but as journalists, we have to divorce ourselves from our cultural inclinations.” “Besides,” she said, “if these things really happened, wouldn’t they happen everywhere and not just [in] Nigeria?”

Shebanjo Ola is a university-educated attorney. He told of a woman in his village mixing sand and stones in a bowl and covering it with paper. When she removed the paper, the contents had magically turned into rice and meat. I asked, “Did you see it?” “No, but my mother did, and she never lies,” he replied. So much for the journalistic canon: “When your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”

In one class I abruptly asked, “Has anyone here actually seen someone magically disappear?” Temple Ojutalayo assured me he had. He said his university professor teaching traditional folk medicine “disappeared in front of the entire class.”

I asked how many of these aspiring journalists believed in ghosts. The hands shot up. “What about UFOs?”

No response. Then a voice from the rear said, “Those only happen in America.”

Walter Rodgers is a former senior international correspondent for CNN. He writes a biweekly column for the Monitor’s weekly edition.