"Where Are the African Intellectuals?" (Part2)

By Tarty Teh

In an interior village in Liberia, two women were working in a palm grove when it began to rain. Then there was lightening. They had felled a palm tree and were working off its branches to get to the soft interior (which we call palm cabbage in Liberia) at the time the lightening struck a nearby tree. But only one of the two women felt a jolt strongly enough to cause her to fall down. And that was the issue.

Why was it that only one woman – standing only inches from the other – absorbed the jolt? The lady who was unhurt was, therefore, accused of causing the lightening which she had aimed at the other lady with the aim of killing her. It made even more sense when you factored in the fact that both women were married to the same man and had had more disputes between them than most pairs sharing a single husband.

So the other woman was accused of witchcraft and was grilled by the town’s witchcraft monitoring council until she confessed; because any treatment administered without the confession would not have worked. Therefore, delayed confession would have compounded the crime. Luckily, there was quick confession, and a life was saved.

Sadly, this is expected in the interior of Liberia that had only lately felt the influence of modern science which explains some otherwise baffling phenomena. This village was the home of an elementary school at the time of this report. So when the schoolteacher heard about the incident, he tried to intervene with his knowledge of science before a witchcraft verdict had been reached. He did intervene, but it made no difference. Instead, he was lectured about the complexity of the witchcraft. Some of the people enlightened enough to profess knowledge of both modern science and "African Science" comforted the bewildered teacher about his fruitless attempt at intervening in a witchcraft case.

Mr. Dixon Donmo, the principle of the elementary school in the town, had explained that the fact that only one of two women took the charge from the lightening was explained by the kind of implements each woman was holding when the lightening struck. The axe with a purely wooden handle did not transmit the charge as directly or as forcefully as the machete that had iron pins in its otherwise wooden handle. The evidence was reviewed before the charge of witchcraft was leveled on the woman whom the lightening had not charged.

I was born in a village barely ten miles from the school where Mr. Dixon Donmo taught, and where he sought to explain nature to a generation steeped in witchcraft. He failed, but he banked on the future because he hoped that his students would grow up with much better understanding of nature than their parents or, perhaps, than their teacher. That was 1958 in the Liberian village of Jatoke, in what is now Pallipo District.

In March 2001, BBC Online carried a Ghanaian wire story that "A Ghanaian man has reportedly been shot dead while testing whether a magic spell has made him bulletproof." The story originated with a Ghanaian news agency that, "Aleobiga Aberima, from the village of Lumbu in northeastern Ghana, had asked a jujuman – a local witchdoctor – to make him invincible to bullets."

Of course the man died from one test blast from a shotgun. But the British who are normally superb headline writers because of the cramp space of their largely tabloid formats nevertheless passed up a wonderful opportunity to poke fun at Africa in titling the story. So instead of saying, for instance, "Friendly Fire Kills Test Dummy," they wrote the bland "Ghanaian Killed in Magic Bulletproof Test."

All this is sad, but understandable in areas that are still considered the stronghold of ignorance. That is not my focus. Again, my concern is the strain of ignorance that has survived supposedly good education. Here is an example.

In 1978 one of my high school classmates earned his Ph.D. from a well-known university in the United States. I was working at the Liberian Information Center in Washington as a research assistant when he came to Washington. I was happy for him and cherished the prospect that he might be teaching in the Washington, D.C., area.

However, my friend first weighed the possibility of returning to Liberia to work for the government of then President Williams Tolbert. Because he majored in mass communications, naturally his interest was in the government Ministry of Information. The agency was headed by another Ph.D., Dr. Edward Kesselly. My friend wrote to the Minister of Information for, I supposed, a job and got a reply by mail.

When he told me that he was unhappy about the letter he received from the Ministry of Information, it took me a while to figure out what he found so offensive about the letter. The letter simply said that since he was planning a trip to Liberia, the Minister of Information would be delighted to meet him to see exactly where his interests in the agency lay.

Well, I found out soon enough that it was not what the letter said, but rather the person who wrote the letter, that bugged my friend. The letter was by a Deputy Minister of Information who merely had a Master’s Degree in something. Did my friend not understand what the letter said for being written by a mere Master’s Degree holder, was my question. No. But if it had come from the Minister of Information proper, my friend reasoned, then "at least we would be on the same level."

Now, I was confused all over again. So I told my friend that as far as levels went, and from the way I saw the situation, he was below the Deputy Minister of Information for being merely a job applicant, and for being – albeit temporarily – without a job. Also, if that letter had been signed by the Minister of Information himself – as would have pleased my friend – it would probably have been composed by a mere high school graduate or a university student working as a cadet at the Ministry.

This is one example of how we waste our own time, and other people’s as well, trying to prove – where no proof is needed – that we are bigger than what we really are, which usually ends up having the net (and unintended) effect by showing how small we really are.

An unacceptably large number of African intellectuals are of the variety just described. If I sought to compile a compendium of sad utterances by Africans in higher places, I would have ended up depressing myself. Here is an example. A few months ago my nephew, who is a computer scientist, told me about a comment that BBC carried about an African member of parliament regarding AIDS.

It was in the discussion about means of preventing transmission of the disease that the African parliamentarian suggested that a condom was no defense against transmission because the sperms of African men are so strong they’d go right through the shield. I did not see the story, but I believe there was a picture of the parliamentarian wearing a smile, which compounded my nephew’s shame and sadness.

I won’t even go on the limb to claim that South African President Thabo Mbeki is now persuaded that the HIV virus causes the disease AIDS. He probably still believes that witchcraft does. And this is the ruler of the land where the first successful human-to-human heart transplant was performed 24 years ago. AIDS is a bad disease, but this is probably worse.

With people like these in decision-making positions, it is difficult to regard whatever they preside over as a system by any standard.

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