Local Superstitions over Okra Soup

“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?

-C

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7 responses to “Local Superstitions over Okra Soup

  1. You are the best. Such awesome entries every time!

    I hope you are having an amazing time and I can’t wait til you come back so I can hear all about your adventures in person!

  2. Lol I’m picturing you breaking it down to Single Ladies, JSYK. UNSURPRISED. Also, the comment about the spoon was intriguing, how did it help you eat the soup? Was it massive? Was it made of sweet potato? INQUIRING MINDS.

    I like your assessment of the different explanations accepted by the two groups – however, my mind couldn’t help but extrapolate that to sanitation and other kinds of sickness, for example if the entire class had (as per your hypothesis) eaten rotten food, or food with e coli, and become very ill, or if they were drinking contaminated water. Is it still then a case of each group accepting their own explanation and moving on? (The entire sanitation sector of development would say no, as would you I’m sure.) It just seemed to echo a lot of the rhetoric we have in behaviour change, in examining alternate worldviews and explanations and understanding what people think before we try to present any kind of Western Sciency Answer and go “well! Now you know! Case closed!”

    (Also, you ain’t lost your writing touch, boy. This was hysterical. Stop being good at everything.)

    • If only! No, instead we had some pretty awesome Ghanaian music. I’m totes going to bring some back with me to share.
      Okra soup has the consistency of snot and usually you ball up the TZ and dip it into the soup and eat it. Apparently the consistency makes it very difficult to get out of the bowl and into your mouth. Not so with a spoon!

      As for the last bit, I agree wholeheartedly! A part of me felt powerless to suggest that perhaps some other factor was at play, since it wasn’t my place by any means. I certainly looked at it as a sort of microcosm of Development: do we know which of our ideals to share and which to hold back? Where is that line? Are they our ideals in the first place? In a case like this, where public health is at play, I think the benefits of working towards behaviour change outweigh the risks big time. However, that’s not true of every situation (obviously). What it comes down to is understanding why before doing, I think.
      Have you read The Critical Villager? It’s essentially a textbook, so I wouldn’t suggest reading it cover-to-cover, but some sections are certainly enlightening in this regard.

      • Yusssss Ghanaian music. *begins pre-grooving* I totally sniped the Malawian music you and Alex posted. And yeah, TZ = not always the best spoon (or fufu, the Kenyan variant). Ugh this is making me hungry lol. Souuuuuup do want.

        I think it’s so often a one-way street, us sharing our explanations with them (lololol ‘us’ and ‘them’ fail grrrr), and not a collaborative process or development workers accepting the validity and legitimacy of peoples’ beliefs (yes, even the legitimacy of ghosts). Because obviously behaviour change can be beneficial when it comes to sanitation, but we/dvm workers also need to be flexible towards having our behaviours changed in other ways 🙂

        …#hippieanswer

        I have not read it, no, but I’m potentially (and FINALLY) taking the Intro to DVM course next year (which both excites me and makes me roll my eyes) so it shall no doubt happen! ‘Twas my summer reading goal to tackle DVM books but I’m experiencing library/finance roadblocks, so it prolly won’t happen until later in the summer.
        much love!

    • P.S. Thank you for the compliments!

  3. I’m glad this primacy-of-belief-over-proof-thing hit you so early–I found it one of the most (frustrating and) ridiculously interesting parts of my placement!
    I’d be interested to know your host community’s views on “souleminga magic”–from my limited experience, some people were pretty cavalier about talking to me about superstition because they didn’t believe white people were susceptible to juju (because we were good at channelling our magic to make technology work. Like in cell phones. I’m not kidding.), where others thought that because I was so clearly rich (/pale), I was more at risk than many folks.
    Where do YOU fit in, Yaw-Chris? Hmmmm? 😉
    (You’re doing fantastically, by the way–keep it up, and I can’t wait to pick your brain in Ottawa after all of this!)
    -Ash

    • Honestly, it seems like everything’s hitting me early! Leading questions, workplace hierarchy, traveller’s diarrhea–each time it’s to a higher degree! I’m just waiting for malaria to hit! haha.
      I’m interested in their perceptions of juju, too. Mostly because it’s a very Muslim community and I had previously assumed that such superstitions and Islam are mutually exclusive, despite what people have told me about the integration of animism and Christianity/Islam in West Africa. Maybe when I’m more “in” the community, I’ll probe for the perceptions of Souleminga magic.

      Ah! Thanks for the encouragement! Brain-picking will certainly happen upon my return!

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