Health, demons and superstition

If you were to believe some people, the devil lurks in every corner. When a common cold is spreading in this cold season – there are people ‘binding the devil’ and praying that it will not reach them. Even among those who sat in biology classes and will put ‘virus’ as the cause of common cold and ‘droplets’ as the means by which it spreads – in their answer sheets on exam papers. I once had a friend who would ‘bind demons’ if she tripped on a pavement. As far as she was concerned, God intended us to be 100 percent healthy and any illness was brought on by the devil.

I would not be so bothered with such statements if they did not, in the end, actually cause a lot of pain and anguish to sufferers. Last week, I wrote about how the current Ebola virus disease in Western Africa has been fuelled by superstition. Dying patients have been withdrawn for hospitals by relatives seeking cure through prayers or witchdoctors – meaning that the virus gets a chance to spread widely within the community. This has greatly hampered control efforts and this Ebola outbreak has been the worst in the history of the disease.

But bringing you closer home, let me give you an example from just a few days ago.

My younger brother had been admitted last year in a malaria coma from which he fully recovered. My older brother has been recovering from an illness, the stress of which got my mum sick. She is now doing very well after fighting of a minor infection that she had ignored as she worried about my big brother. I was feeling very good about how well everyone was by the end of the week and filled with gratitude to God, when I got a call that really irritated me.

An old family friend called and after a bit of chit chat, she dropped a few bombshells.

‘Your mum looked so sick, I thought we would be collecting a coffin from the airport,’ she chuckled.

I was gobsmacked – this is my mother she was talking about so casually…. but worse was to come.

‘I believe that in your family right now, there is a demon of death hovering over you’

I was silent

‘You know how to pray. You need to pray to get rid of this demon of death. It was going for your small brother, your big brother, now it is trying your mother. You must pray. The spirit of death is there’

I must have seemed rude because I just ‘mmmm-ed’ and ‘aii-ed’ and she finally said good bye.

A demon of death now it is!

I have known this lady for many years so I know her heart is in the right place – she is probably spending many hours a night praying for our family. She means well. But I could not help feeling this annoyance, irritation, that ‘please, not that again!’ feeling. I had lunch with a friend and as I ventilated about it, she asked me to think a bit about it.

‘After all she did not tell you that an evil spirit had been sent by so and so to get rid of you. If it was a witchcraft issues, you would right now be going for someone’s neck. At least with the devil, you can have a plan – the plan is to pray – and then it will go. No one looses much.’

True – if you pray and take your sick to hospital – no harm is done. However belief in evil spirits and witchcraft are very tightly intertwined in Africa. When we suffer sudden illness, or there happens to be an untimely death or even financial hardships within a family – we revert to blaming witchcraft or demons. In this day of rising cancer, diabetes and heart disease, we hear more and more about ‘the devil did this and that’ and ‘demons of heart disease’ and ‘demons of cancer’.

In both church and at the witchdoctors, people are blamed for being the bearers of the evil spirits. What is so sad is that a lot of times, even children get blamed for the evils that befall families. Ghana has been particularly notorious.

There were a lot of newspaper articles on this issue of child witches in Ghana that a scientist decided to conduct some research on the issue. Mensah Adinkrah published a paper titled ‘Child witch hunts in contemporary Ghana’ in the Child Abuse and Neglect Journal in 2011 that describes just how bad this witch hunting can get.

In Ghana – writes Adinkrah, children have been isolated, tortured, neglected, some have almost been killed in lynch attempts while two murders were reported – all for suspicion of being witches. A lot of times, Christian clergymen and fetish priests encourage this behaviour.

But why is it that with all the knowledge we have, we still want to blame the devil or the bad neighbour with an evil eye for all the things that befall us?

Adinkrah in his paper on child witches concludes that labelling people as witches or demon possessed is all about scape-goating which is defined as ‘a person or group made, unjustifiably, to bear the blame for the problems and misfortunes of others.’

I will quote fully from the discussion in Adinkrach’s article here:
‘A number of features characterize a scapegoat. First, scapegoats are often visibly identifiable groups such as racial and ethnic minorities. Second, individuals or groups that serve as scapegoats are typically the most vulnerable persons or beleaguered segments of society, having the least social, economic and physical power and status. As a result of their condition or state, they are incapable of offering effective resistance to persecution at the hands of their detractors. Third, central to the scapegoat principle is the notion that scapegoats are blamed for the misfortunes of others, often as a way of distracting attention from the actual underlying causes of societal woes. As noted in a previous section of the article, children in Ghana are a marginalized group. They are wholly dependent on parents, guardians, and other adult caregivers for economic survival and have no political voice. Consequently, it is easy for them to be scapegoated for all manner of problems in the home, and in some cases, the public arena. Witchcraft accusation provides one such example of scapegoating.’

Adinkrah notes that in Ghana, witch-hunting is focusing less on women and more on children as women are receiving more protection – making it harder for them to be suitable scape-goats.

We need to deal with the root causes of our problems and leave our children, old people and women alone. Women are slapped by tele-evangelists in the name of demons being cast out. Children confess to floating in the sky, targeting and killing people – on TV. In Kilifi, Kenya, old people live in fear of being killed when bad things happen in the family as they are suspected to have bewitched the family.


We traumatise our children, old people and women because we would rather not face the facts of the root causes of our conditions. Sometimes, we need to face the fact that little is known about a lot of cancers for example – when the discoveries will be made – which will happen in due time – we shall be able to explain more of what is happening to us. We now know cervical cancer is caused by a virus – with that came a vaccine and knowledge that early detection can prevent progression of the disease. Who knows what shall be discovered in our lifetime about the other cancers?

Diabetes, cancer, heart diseases – many of these chronic illnesses have a genetic component. So if your mother has breast cancer, your risk of breast cancer is double that of a person whose mother does not have breast cancer. So instead of blaming the devil for a curse that is befalling your family, raise awareness within your family for early diagnosis so that it can be treated as soon as possible among those will the illness. Pray too – but do what you can do as well.

To varying degrees, most people are superstitious, we carry around irrational beliefs that have no scientific or factual basis. Some are more extreme than others to the point of being dysfunctional, some creep up on us without us even noticing it and before we know it, we are caught up in some superstition. We think we are very spiritual – but really, we are just superstitious. Some cast out demons, others go to witchdoctors – most do both at the same time.

I have seen prayers work – so don’t get me wrong. But we need to give each other a break and stop seeing demons behind every illness -it is disabling. I may need to preach here – the only being that is Omnipresent and Omniscient is God – and God is in charge. Our eyes should be focused on God, the creator – not devils and demons.

Stop with the superstition.