Soon the gathering crowd had their tongues wagging: “What’s a snake doing in the city?” one asked. The theories began to fly around. The snake belonged to a Satanist, some said. The owner of the car under which it hid is the Satanist. He uses the snake to steal money from the bank. One passerby even went further and said he saw the snake spewing wads of US dollar notes onto the lap of the owner of that particular car only the other day.
The crowd got very animated and bayed for the blood of the “Satanist”. Dear me! — When the Wright brothers took flight for the first time almost a century ago and the bloody Americans landed on the moon more than 40 years ago; when scientists are delving into nanotechnology, Zimbabweans still believe a simple snake can rob a bank!
It has been written innumerable times that Harare has become a “rat city”. This is simple to explain; garbage collection has been inefficient. Leftover food is strewn everywhere because there are inadequate waste bins provided. Rats have proliferated at an alarming rate. Naturally, this attracts predators that feed on rats. This is where snakes come in; nothing to do with Satanists or any such fanciful use of animals for self-enrichment.
But why are Zimbabweans so superstitious?
Only the other day there was, reportedly, an outbreak of mass hysteria at a school in the working-class high-density suburb of Highfield. The hysteria was quickly linked to Satanism. Supposedly respectable newspapers hailed loudly the occurrence reinforcing the Satanism myth.
Gullible parents immediately withdrew their children from the school.
The mass-circulating The Herald reported: “There was chaos at the school yesterday morning after more than three pupils fell into a trance. Some of the affected pupils were reportedly bleeding through their noses…Since last Thursday, over 30 pupils have reportedly been affected by the hysteria, blamed on suspected Satanic practices. The strange occurrences were affecting mostly Grade One and Two pupils who are said to have turned violent and exhibited extraordinary strength while speaking in unusual voices and tongues.”
This is an irresponsible interpretation of the events that took place at Yemurai Government School. What happened was not a “strange occurrence”. There is nothing strange about pupils bleeding through their noses. Every year such incidents are reported from across the country; not only across the country but across the world. Look at the tenuous use of figures in The Herald story, “more than three pupils”. Then we are told over 30 pupils.
For goodness’ sake how many children were affected?
There are famous incidents of mass hysteria from around the world including the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic of 1962. It “was an outbreak of mass hysteria, believed to have occurred in or near the village of Kashasha on the western coast of Lake Victoria in the modern nation of Tanzania near the border of Kenya. It is possible that, at the start of the incident, a joke was told in a boarding school, and that this joke triggered a small group of students to start laughing. The laughter perpetuated itself, far transcending its original cause. Six to 18 months after it started, the phenomenon died off. (Amazon.com)
Perhaps the most infamous incident of mass hysteria took place in Salem Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. This was after several people were accused of witchcraft when an outbreak of mass hysteria among young girls caused panic in the whole community. Hundreds of people were convicted and hanged. Later it turned out the hysteria was not linked to any witchcraft.
According to a newspaper called Gothamist, only last year 12 teenage girls from LeRoy Junior-Senior High School, located in a town about an hour’s drive outside Buffalo, upstate New York, began to show symptoms including painful shaking and jerking of their necks.
After the incident a neurologist who interviewed the girls, a Dr Laszlo Mechtler, came forward with an explanation. He said the girls suffered from a conversion disorder or commonly mass hysteria.
He said conversion disorder is a condition in which a person can experience blindness, paralysis, or other neurologic symptoms that can’t be explained by another disease. The disorder often occurs because of a “psychological conflict”.
According to the National Institutes of Health, symptoms of a conversion disorder are thought to resolve a conflict a person feels inside. For example, a woman who believes it’s not acceptable to have angry feelings may experience numbness when they get really mad.
Mechtler told US Today that when a conversion disorder occurs in a large group, it’s known as a “mass psychogenic illness,” because it affects groups of people in the same environment, such as in a classroom or office.
Dr Jonathan Mink, chief of child neurology at the University of Rochester Medical Centre had an almost similar explanation for the hysteria: “It’s extremely unlikely that anything in the air, in the water or in the food they’ve eaten is the cause of tics” and suggested one cause could be stress, “A person gets exposed to those symptoms and they take on those symptoms. It may be that the stresses of everyday life and how these girls deal with stress (that is the cause).”
There was never a link between all the incidents cited and Satanism.
School-going children in all high-density suburbs are living in a stressful environment, what with the real threat of typhoid and cholera! Most come from poor households where they are living way below the poverty datum line; most do not afford breakfast meaning the children go to school on empty stomachs. Add to this the tyranny of school authority. It would be very difficult for children not to be stressed.
Zimbabweans have got to grow up and cast away the superstitious beliefs that have kept whole communities entrapped in the underworld when the rest of the world has moved so far forward that witchcraft and the so-called Satanism have ceased to make any sense.
BY NEVANJI MADANHIRE