Opinions Tue, 23 Mar 2021

Of science and 'African electronics'

Chemistry is one of the most rewarding sciences in the world, in the sense that it can yield visible and sometimes spectacular results from simple experiments.

For instance, when the colour blue changes to red or green after a chemical has been added to it, or when en explosion occurs underwater after certain chemical agents have been brought together, one cannot help but be impressed, whether one believes in science or not. I suspect that the term, “Book no lie!”, which most Ghanaian school children accept as axiomatic, originated from the genuine surprise that greeted the results of experiments taken from books.

That being the case, how can a teacher of chemistry refuse to believe that vaccination works in humans and other animals? Can the concept of developing, or creating immunity from disease by helping the body to get accustomed to it and defeat it, be a hoax?

I ask because the late President of Tanzania, Mr John Magufuli, not only denied the existence of Covid-19 but at the same time (rather illogically) he prescribed the breathing of steam as well as other “traditional” methods, for curing the (non-existent) disease!

But – wonder of wonders – Magufuli, according to Wikipedia, “earned a bachelor of science [degree] in education, majoring in chemistry and mathematics as teaching subjects, from the University of Dar-es-Salaam in 1988. He also earned his masters and doctorate degrees in chemistry from the University of Dar-es-Salaam in 1994 and 2009, respectively.”

After graduating, he became a secondary school teacher. The question is: was he tutoring his students in subjects he did not believe in? Or did he think that there was a “dichotomy” of reality in existence – one which produced accurate, predictable results from scientific experiments, and another reality in which the only laws that operated were those laid down by the God in whom he fervently believed as a Roman Catholic?

For he was quoted as saying that Covid-19 was "a devil, [which] cannot survive in the body of Christ... It will burn instantly!" Was he, in saying this, denying the validity of science, alleged mastery of which had earned him his degrees?

The contradictions that filled Mr Magufuli's mind are, of course, also vibrantly present in the minds of many other Africans. I became aware of this very early in my own life.

You see, my mother's younger sister was a life-long Methodist. She would come habitually to wake us all up very early in the morning, and drag us to “morning service” (anᴐpasɔre)!

Now, I loved the Fanti songs that the Methodists sang in the church, especially those beautiful improvisations that the women singers invented to interpose into the actual hymns. But I resented being torn from my dreams at such an early hour! I had no choice, of course, but to tag along.

Now, one year, (when I was about five) my young mind was thrown into confusion when I heard, to my astonishment, that despite her obvious devotion to God and Jesus, this aunt of mine had embarked on a dangerous journey all the way from Asiakwa to Nkwantanang (in the Kwahu District: first, by going by truck to Bosuso; next, sitting in a thing called about fifty miles – to Nkawkaw; then by truck again up some dangerous hills to Mpraeso and finally, to Pepease, from where as footpath led to Nkwantanang).

She had embarked on this adventurous trip to go and “eat kola-nuts” and become a cult member of a fetish called Tigare, that had become enormously popular all over Ghana around the time I was beginning my formal education.

She went to “eat” [join] the cult of the fetish because she wanted to have a child. Her prayers in the Methodist Church were evidently not producing the goods – no matter how devoted to those early morning church services.

I learnt in later life that many so-called Christians in fact do try to “insure” themselves against evil times by also affiliating themselves to several other deities, usually passed to them by their elderly family members, who saw nothing wrong in subscribing to different deities at the same time.

There was, for instance, an old woman in our town who was the priestess of a sacred River called Twafoɔ. This old lady got presented with a lot of fowls from people who wanted to thank the River for all sorts of favours they ascribe4d to it. But it was recognised that the River's powers were of limited potential; certainly, not up to the level of a fetish with a nationwide following, such as Tigare.

However, the River gained immensely in possibility when the Second World War ended in 1945 and the men from our town who had gone to fight for the British in Burma and East Africa came back, and one of them brought an amazing story about how the River had saved his life in Burma. He told his fellow townspeople that the army truck he was driving had, one day, been hit by a bomb planted at the roadside and had been blown into a deep valley. The truck had caught fire just after he'd been thrown out of it. He lay in a field unconscious for some time.

But as the fire came nearer and nearer to him, he heard faintly, “from very far away”, a bush-cat calling him by name: “Kwaku Petro! Kwaku Petro! Get up! Get up!”

The cat wouldn't stop calling his name until its cries got nearer and nearer to him. Finally, the cat's cries became so loud that he woke up. He was able to drag himself away from the vicinity of the truck, just as it blew up with a huge bang!

The noise of the bang brought some military ambulance men to the site, and they laid him on a stretcher and carried him to hospital. “See these scars on my hands!” he showed the townspeople. “Had it not been for the cat, my whole body would have been burnt and I would have died,” he testified.

“It was River Twafoɔ who came and saved my life!” Kwaku Petro affirmed. And he bought a sheep and slaughtered it, draining the sheep's blood into the River, until the water was drenched red. He also poured libation into the water with a bottle of aromatic Schnapps specially imported from Holland.

You ask: how did Kwaku Petro know it was River Twafoɔ that had saved his life in Burma? Silly question. How often do bush-cats talk and call someone by the name?

But by far one of the most amusing stories ever heard in this country about juju – or “African electronics” as some friends of mine call it – was told during the days of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) in the 1970s. A chap was caught and put on trial for attempting to overthrow the government of the SMC by recruiting its Army Commander to carry out a coup.

The chap apparently resided in Nigeria, where he had made a lot of money by dealing in crude oil. When he had convinced himself that indeed the Army Commander would like to succeed his head of state as “Number One”, he brought the Army Commander a huge sum of money and said the Commander should take it to a particular jujuman in Northern Ghana, so that the jujuman would “fortify him” and make him impervious to fear during the coup operation!.

But the coup-inciter had somehow not been able to fortify his own self, and so, was picked up, on the instructions of the Army Commander, during their final tête-à-tête before the coup!

At his trial, the then Attorney-General, a very humorous lawyer called E N Moore, made great play upon the superstitious elements in the coup plot. People laughed a lot when they were asked by their friends, upon undertaking some mission or other, “Have you taken the trouble to get yourself fortified yet”?

In the midst of the trial, I attended a cocktail held at Government headquarters at the Castle, Osu. Whilst going round greeting people, I came across Mr E N Moore.

He knew me and asked pleasantly: “Cameron, how have you been?”

Quick as a flash, I replied: “Unfortified, but still going strong!”

Mr Moore exploded into such a loud laugh that people everywhere turned round to look at the two of us. I very swiftly slipped out of his company, leaving him to explain why he had laughed so loudly.
Columnist: Cameron Duodo