“You actually came at a good time,” Bailey, another JF, told me after I greeted her. She seemed nervous.
I had just moved in with my new host family, a young couple named Yaku and Ayisha, and set up my hut when Bailey arrived to welcome me to the neighbourhood of Sagnarigu (she’s about four compounds away from me). We strolled over to her compound so that I could get a key to the toilet we’ll be sharing. As we did, Bailey explained the situation to me.
Apparently her host sister had come down with an illness and had left school early. Now, she was at home and in a strange state; she seemed to be confused and talking as if she were a different person named Mustafa who would be gone in the evening. Stranger still is that apparently the entire class, headmaster included, had come down with the same illness and were all in similar states. Needless to say, I was a little (I’ll admit it) freaked out by the situation.
Later, after the evening prayer, I had Okra soup and TZ with my host father. I had been warned that Okra soup is a particularly challenging Ghanaian food, but I found it to be quite palatable and easy to eat. Of course, that may have had something to do with the spoon they gave me. Yaku isn’t much of a talker, so I used the time to think up some rationalization for the strange occurrence of the day.
I know that all of the classes eat the same food through the School Feeding program, and I’ve heard of cases of mass hysteria due to improperly-prepared food before. I took comfort in this rationalization, even if it wasn’t accurate–that there was a rationalization to be investigated suited my Western ideals. Plus, if I could think of one in the time it took to eat my Okra soup, then I’m sure there were hundreds of other testable explanations for the situation.
After dinner, Bailey arrived at my compound with her host sister and some local young people to introduce me. I met Dan, who is my new best friend, and Miriam, a friend of Bailey’s host sister. We all went to Miriam’s yard to look at some photographs and show off our Souleminga dance moves. Apparently I know how to get down, by Ghanaian standards (it’s in the hips!).
While were are all sitting around laughing, the strange situation of the afternoon and the fear that Bailey and I shared around it, was mentioned. “Ah! It’s okay,” reassured Dan, “it’s just a ghost that entered her.” The others agreed and we went on merrily with the dancing and photographs.
Um, what? Just a run-of-the-mill case of spiritual possession? No big deal. The cavalier attitude of the group surprised me; did nobody want to investigate this further? The next morning, Bailey told me that the final explanation was that the school was built next to a graveyard and this led to the class falling ill so strangely. Case closed.
After some thinking, I’ve realized just why the rationalization by the community ended on such a seemingly incomplete note. Like my own explanation, the one used by the group to explain the situation fit their world view perfectly and therefore needed no further development. For them, it was comfortable. Even if I could investigate further and generate a scientific explanation for the occurrence, as I am apt to do because of my upbringing and socialization, I’m sure it would not be accepted by the community. This is, of course, a hypothesis I’m in no position to test.
And in the end, who’s to say what’s right? If all of the facts fit the world view of the community then, for all intents and purposes, their explanation is true. This is exactly what we do in the West when we perform science, with the only exception being that the hypotheses must be testable. It’s an interesting first-hand view of the relativity of truth, then, to examine the community’s explanation.
At this point, all I can say is that I hope everyone who became ill gets better soon.
What a strange way to be introduced to the local customs. I wonder what other adventures await me in Sagnarigu?