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Ditch these bizarre superstitions

I read a news report from India recently that left me thinking I had been flung back in time.

Apparently farmers in Bihar, one of India’s most backward states, are forcing their unmarried daughters to plough their fields naked after sunset. This is in an attempt to “embarrass” the gods into sending rain to the drought-stricken land. According to the wise elders of Bihar, this is the final resort when it comes to causing rain.

Now, I ask myself: Is Bihar backward because these ignorant people live there? Or are they ignorant because they live in a poor society? Or do they reinforce each other? Clearly, the level of ignorance is breathtaking. India purports to become one of the world’s richest nations in the next two or three decades, but it has a great deal left to do in its more remote reaches.

Belief in this rain-making ploy requires belief in a number of bizarre things. First, that there are ‘gods’ sitting around somewhere in charge of rain. Second, that these gods do not send rain just to prevent people from starving – misery is not enough to move them. Third, that embarrassment works in prompting them, and that the sight of naked young women taking to the plough is sufficiently embarrassing.

In addition, note that for such a ploy to be recommended, a society needs to be both backward and patriarchal. It needs to be the sort of place where male elders sit around doing sweet nothing and smoking intoxicating substances and indulging in brainless superstitions and taboos. The embarrassments and punishments, please note, are almost always meted out to women. In neighbouring Pakistan, elders often see fit to order the gang-rape of women as forms of ‘justice’.

That so many societies in the 21st century have been unable to educate their people to rise above this kind of nonsense is indeed worrying. It makes me fear for the future when so many people across the globe remain dependent on the elements, and still imagine the elements can be influenced by drum beats and dances and rituals. What have all these educational advances been for, if so many are left behind in this way?

In Kenya we are reportedly close to a state of national emergency. Our wells and rivers and reservoirs have dried up, leaving millions exposed to thirst and hunger and the rest of us subjected to power and water rationing. We are ripe for superstition-mongering and paranoid delusions. In our rural heartlands, there is no shortage of superstitions relating to ancestors, animals, mountains, rivers and forests.

But what is interesting is how superstition-prone even educated people in urban areas are. People still believe that touching wood somehow wards off misfortune; that you should not leave the house after sneezing; that you shouldn’t step on the cracks in the pavement when walking.

Now, I admit that I was brought up to believe those very things; but at some point in my early teens rationality kicked in. Most of these things were told to us by our grandmothers because they were told to them by their grandmothers. Generations ago, these things held some merit because people knew no better. But for us to go around believing them now suggests that most of us remain children who are afraid of the dark and the unknown, and are all too willing to ascribe supernatural causes to phenomena we don’t understand.

The problem is that many, many hucksters and con men step forward to take advantage of this ignorance. The world is filled with witchdoctors, medicine-men, astrologers, gurus, elders, pastors, clerics and healers who prey on the fearful and impoverish them. All you have to do is observe the antics of these charlatans on any given Sunday to see the loud fakery that passes for ‘healing’ and ‘salvation.’

Way back in 1948, the psychologist B. F. Skinner experimented on the origins of superstition. He placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food randomly, with no reference to the birds’ behavior. He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered. They subsequently continued to perform these same actions in the hope that they would deliver food.

And so one would observe birds doing strange dances, tossing their heads or conducting complicated pendulum motions – all convinced that these rituals would make the food come. Which of course came randomly. There is little difference between those pigeons, the farmers of Bihar, and those who believe that the entrails of chickens ward off evil.

As a footnote, let me tell you that some rain actually did arrive after the naked daughters of Bihar did their thing. That is indeed tragic. It means that today’s children will pass it on to their progeny, and this custom will probably survive another century or more.

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