Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sierra Leone Witch Gun-A scientific analysis

Olu Gordon my role model
Died too young
Death of the young is a phenomenon that is very common in my country Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone as a country has never really embraced science into the general explanation of natural phenomena. Most tragic occurrences in Sierra Leone are always given interpretations based mainly on traditional beliefs.

In Sierra Leone, death among the young, people in the prime of life is so common that it has become accepted as just another aspect of the complex puzzle of life. If you tell a typical Sierra Leonean that young people are not supposed to die, they would probably laugh in your face and view you as someone whose western education has gone to their head. The truth however is that young people are not supposed to die. America has a population of over 300 million people, but if you look at the obituary section of most American newspapers, most of the deaths you will see are people in their 70s, 80s, to 90s. Of course I know that standard of living and the miracle of modern medicine prolongs life in America, and the comparison in this case may be incongruous, but the point I am trying to hone into the minds of people in my country, especially those responsible for preventative health care education, is that death among the young should be an exception rather than the rule. 

Late Abdulai Keita Bangura
A Sierra leone Gem
When you sometimes call to old friends in Sierra Leone and ask about old acquaintances, it is not uncommon to be told, "did you not hear? So and so died two years ago", leaving you in shock and awe. Though death among the young has become common in Sierra Leone, in their heart of hearts, most Sierra Leoneans know that young people are not just suppose to die like that, in untimely fashion (with the definition of untimely a subject for intellectual discourse). 

Juju man
Sierra Leoneans generally believe that death among the young can be explained by looking for sinister forces at play; the evil machinations of the childless aunt, the dark practices of the rival at work, the midnight visit to the marabout of the uncle whose heart burns at the success of the brothers child, and so on and so forth. The death of a young relative becomes a time for mutual suspicion, a time for pointing hands, a time for victimization of those without influence, without much social status, without wealth. When a young person dies, seeking scientific explanation for the event is given the least priority. The explanations of doctors are routinely and consistently dismissed in search of more heinous interpretations that will seek to lay the blame not at the failure of the health care system or even at the lifestyle choices of the deceased, but interpretations that will just increase the depth of disharmony and acrimony that already exists among friends and relatives.

Witch Gun?
In Sierra Leone the concept of the dreaded and much revered "witch gun" is alive and well today in the country and those of us who argue against these simplistic interpretations are dismissed as people who do not know what they are talking about, people who have a lack of cultural understanding, people who have fallen into the river of western education and have now become shallow minded fishes. I do not know the specific origin of the concept of the "witch gun", but it is a concept that is part of the folk lore of most tribes in Sierra Leone, the Mende, Temne, Limba and Kono  and other tribes. Even the Krios, who are an amalgamation of African peoples, have come around to believing in the concept of the "witch gun". People who engage in the dark arts of withcraft and wizardry are supposed to have an invisible mysterious gun forged in the very depths of hell  that can instantaneously snuff out the life of any body who it is pointed at, as long as the trigger is pulled, regardless of how healthy they are. It is believed that the range of these guns are simply incredible. With the right set of incantations, these guns have the amazing ability to reach their targets as far as the north pole, by simply  pointing them at a picture of the intended target.

The proliferation of money seeking, fear mongering, and traditional culture infused Nigerian churches to the Sierra Leone Christian religious landscape has just added fuel to the belief in these dark phenomena. These churches whose religious preachings are a blend of Nigerian traditional beliefs diluted with doses of scripture, preach about the underworld, demons, and witchcraft and have given scriptural credence to the already existing cultural explanation of random happenstances. Most deaths among the young these days in Sierra Leone are ascribed to the dreaded "witch gun". People looking for simplistic explanations to mysterious events have found an outlet, and the interpretation is widely accepted. 

Late minister Mohamed Daudis Koroma
Since 2007, two aide-de-camps (ADCs) to our current President Ernest Bai Koroma, the deputy inspector general of police, and a minister or two, young notable people on the political scene in Sierra leone have died suddenly. Sierra Leoneans have generally rushed to the explanation of witch gunnery for these sad and traumatic events. Among the opposition SLPP, some young potential leaders of the party have also lost their lives in like fashion over the past years.
Late SLPP strongman Jonathan  Alpha

 Reports from Freetown reaching the Segbwema blogger states that over the past years, practitioners of this purportedly evil craft do not hide anymore, and sit, "gbangbawoday"  around Ross road in the Eastern part of Freetown, openly plying their craft. Sometimes it is reported, the government makes half-hearted attempts to round up these scoundrels that are mostly people displaced by the war from the localities around Freetown who no longer want to go back to the boredom of village life since the war ended. So they stay in Freetown, preying on the gullible citizens that believe in their crafts, which is a sizeable portion of the Freetown populace, including those who are "educated".

Merely dismissing this "witch gun" phenomenon without proffering an alternative explanation would be neither judicious, nor scientifically acceptable. So I will attempt to give a summary explanation of what I believe is responsible for these happenstances (as I am getting ready to watch the "Super Bowl" and cheer on the New England Patriots).

Sierra  Leone has a serious problem with cardiovascular diseases. Genetic factors, the typical Sierra Leonean diet of rice and palm oil, and the lifestyle of alcohol and smoking, are known primary risk factors for cardiovascular diseases like Coronary Artery Disease CAD and Hypertension, the main factors responsible for the "witch craft phenomenon and early deaths in Sierra Leone. Palm oil is full of saturated fats that cause plaque build up in the blood vessels. When Sierra Leoneans become affluent, they replace healthy foods like fish and nuts for  fatty meat and eggs, sources of cholesterol, the main agent that accelerates the build up of plaque in the blood vessels. If there is build up of plaque in the vessels of the heart (an organ that never sleeps, is perpetually at work and continuously needs to have oxygen) blood flow to the heart is compromised leading to cardiac arrest and cardiac death, "heart attack". This occurs so suddenly it is almost as if one has been shot by a gun. The ultimate effect is sudden untimely death of the victim.

Ex Zambian leader-Stroke Victim
Hypertension is the more insidious killer. Foods high in salt increase the osmotic concentration of blood vessels, which are fragile vessels. The vessels in the brain are particularly delicate. If they burst, the brain becomes bathed with blood, a condition known as hemorrhagic stroke, a quick killer as brain death is true death. Plaque build up in blood vessels of the brain may also deprived brain cells of oxygen by reducing blood flow to the region of the brain supplied  by the vessels, causing ischemic strokes, mostly caused when blood clots block vessels. If blood flow to the  right side of the brain occurs, left sided stroke occurs, and vice versa, based on the complex biology of the human body.

Sierra Leoneans can control these occurrences by becoming more proactive in health care matters. Avoiding alcohol and smoking, both of which cause blood vessels to narrow or vasocontrict is a major step to longevity and cardiovascular disease prevention. Limiting the intake of salt, palm oil and other saturated fats, eggs and other foods high in cholesterol, are good food choices that may contribute to the longevity. Regular lab tests to determine cholesterol levels and daily blood pressure monitoring are essential in knowing one risk for cardiovascular disease. Refined sugars, flours and excessively starchy foods should also be substituted with fruits, nuts and green vegetables. Beans and other legumes are good sources of protein and good oils.

Sierra leoneans, let us monitor our health and make good lifestyle choices in order to combat an early introduction to the bullet of the witch gun.

By Sheku Sheriff
Segbwema Blogger
Sheku Segbwema Moi Sheriff

3 comments:

Ali Francis Pabai said...

A very useful article Sheku. The internet is perhaps one of the best things that might have happened to our badly underdeveloped country. What we really need is not just education for education sake but pertinent, useful and empowering education for ourselves and our people. This blog of yours is a blessing of enlightenment serving as an information sharing forum that we need. I for one have been advocating and stressing the need for a change in the Sierra Leonean mentality that is typically presumptious and made even more complicated by the 'Dem Say' culture of information dissemination. No effort is made to carry out valuable research into the causes of illnesses or sudden deaths. Nowadays when there is peace and time to devote ourselves to improving our living standards through developmental education and hard work,many Sierra Leoneans have resorted to their old ways of female genital mutilation and the masquarade culture with people wasting valuable time with unproductive cultural activities like building up masquarades such Paddle, Nafali, Gorboi, Falui and Bondo Debul with some people posting images of these time wasters on the internet to demonastrate their interest and love for such idleness. If any of these were helpful why didn't they protect people from harm, hunger and starvation during the perilous rebel years of massacre? We should leave these unproductive tradition and belief system and try to interpret each incident with hard evidence using scientific research methods. Of course I am not saying that occult practices don't cause death,they do but only when one dabbles into the dark spiritual realm of the underworld would one be at risk. Simply put in scientific terms if you play with a venomous snake, there is nine out of ten chances you will get bitten by such a wild creature.
Ali Francis Pabai

Sheku Sheriff said...

Pabai I do agree with a lot of what you wrote, though aspects of our culture such as paddle and goboi celebrate our heritage and represent no evil in themselves as long as they remain ceremonial activities that have no bearing on how we make decisions regarding societal development and prosperity.Of course I am now convinced that FGM is cruel and unusual punishment which has no place in the 21st century and should be eradicated from civilized society.

George B said...

Sheku Sheriff,

Even if you are an old man, you are wise beyond your years. Your remark about the educated being prey as well. It's so true, some people want to believe so badly.

The Western World is full of the same problem, we have our own "witch gun" beliefs.