Anyone who has ever seen a Yoruba film on a fairly regular basis in Nigeria would be familiar with this mundane storyline: A man is unsuccessful in his business ventures (or, if a woman is unable to have a child); the person takes his/her case to a spiritualist who could be a babalawo/pastor/ Muslim cleric; the spiritualist instructs the victim to carry out some rituals that would strike at the root of his/her affliction; not long after, his/her mother (or stepmother) takes to the street, confessing to witchcraft and reading out a long list of atrocities she has committed.
The conclusion of the story: A crowd of spectators, entertained by the “witch”’s “confessions,” take it on themselves to stone the woman to death.
And after her demise, his/her victim’s business begins to prosper. If a woman, she gives birth to either a set of twins or a male child.
Having seen a number of these films, especially the ones produced by semi-literate filmmakers and packaged for a largely ill-informed audience, I am pretty familiar with how the theme of triumph of good over evil is usually treated. There is insistence on materialising evil through a physical body, and in many cases, aged females are the culprits.
Sometimes, you watch the barbarism peddled in these films and wonder what the job of the censors’ board is, really.
No, these filmmakers are not totally ignorant of the several diseases associated with senescence; they just feed a social neurosis that seeks to unload all our imaginations of the workings of evil on a scapegoat. When we have identified one, we proceed to destroy it so we can get a sense of collective purging from the effort.
A recent example: A newspaper headline screamed, “Bird Turns to Old Woman in Lagos.” From the way the reporter narrated the story, you would think s/he witnessed the transmutation of the old woman who was described as a “nonagenerian.”
Read through the story and you will not find editorial intrusion in the account; no attempt to probe what happened beyond reporting illiterate “eyewitness” accounts that insisted the old woman fell from the sky while flying to Ibadan from Lagos. It seemed the reporter and his/her editor believed the idle spectators who claimed they saw some birds flying when one fell from the sky.
But think about it, who, in an environmentally polluted Lagos, does bird watching at 7am to notice three flying? Did they see these three lone birds in the sky with their korokoro eyes or binoculars? And what is so special about flying birds that they noticed these ones?
Did it even occur to the crowd that when the “nonagenarian” said she fell because she was tired, it was on account of her biological age and nothing else? And could it be that the driver of the van that claimed she fell on his truck fabricated the story of a woman who fell out of the sky because he didn’t want to be held responsible for hitting her?
Most disheartening, however, was the mob that almost lynched the poor woman. People have become so inhuman that the sight of old and weak people no longer compels any sympathy in them.
Up till now, I wonder why there was no proper investigation by the Police.
Even after the woman’s children had shown up and confirmed their mother had issues, should the Police not have gone after the various participants in the near-lynching and charge them for incitement to commit murder?
But the question persists, why are people convinced witches do fly even though nobody has ever seen one?
I know some readers will argue about the existence of evil forces; insist witches truly exist; and if our ancestors believed witches could fly, they sure must know what they were talking about. Perhaps.
All these stories, as pervasive as they are, have never been independently verified. They exist in our imagination and not even the most vociferous defender of the existence of witchcraft has ever seen one woman turn into a bird. These things are created in our imagination by popular culture and then become self-reproducing such that we believe our own fiction.
This is why I blame Nollywood; although, I should clarify that “Nollywood” as I refer to it here is not about all the films produced in the Nigerian film industry. I am specific about a particular genre of films produced in Yoruba language and which tries to toe the line of the late Hubert Ogunde’s cinematographic depiction of evil, witches and witchcraft. I speak of those particular films with linear themes that see the world through only a dual prism of white/black, evil/good. These films are quite popular and are packaged for a market often without enough intellection to filter fantasy from reality.
A lot, of course, has to do with a culture of superstition in which we were raised. While the Oyinbo created Harry Potter and sorcery, hardly any Oyinbo believes that witches fly on broomsticks. In this part of the world, we are steeped in certain cultural beliefs that we have not outgrown. I think a lot has to do with our transition into modernity that was not properly mediated at some point.
When people who were already immersed in cultural beliefs about witchcraft were exposed to Ogunde’s films, and they saw the animation of transmutation and flying witches, it simply sealed their existing beliefs and some of them were locked into that mode ever since. The medium was too credible for transmutation to be incredible. Things are not helped by religious institutions that propagate these beliefs to boost what they sell. The filmmakers, seeing as they have a working formula, continue to sell the same stories about malevolent forces and their exaggerated power over human existence.
Some people, unfortunately, just cannot think outside the oversimplified narratives they see in Nollywood.
When they hear about old women flying from Ibadan to Lagos, they believe it because they already saw it in a film. When old women who “confess” to evil acts are stoned in a film, they want to lynch one in real life too because they think that they are contributing to a good cause by destroying evil. Life, for them, is simply an extension of a Nollywood drama.