By Agbo Agbo
In 2002, I witnessed an event that would have resulted in an innocent man losing his life had the police not intervened.
I was a full-time reporter with the now rested The Comet newspaper and was at a bus shelter in Obanikoro area of Lagos waiting to board a bus to Lagos Island for an event when one of those standing with me suddenly grabbed another by the neck and started yelling that his manhood had ‘disappeared.’ There were tales back then about ‘disappearing manhood.’ Men were very conscious of close contact with strangers. It was also not unusual during that period to see some men holding their manhood in public!.
As expected, we all gathered around both individuals to try and resolve the issue, but to no avail. The individual that made the allegation refuse all entreaties for him to release his grip in order not to choke the ‘accused.’ Things were gradually getting out of hand when some people started appearing with used car tyres and clubs. Suddenly, a bus conductor at the scene was bold enough to touch the manhood of the guy making the allegation; after the touch he shouted in Yoruba: “but your manhood is intact!” Despite this, the guy remained adamant insisting his manhood had ‘disappeared.’
In order to break the impasse, we all agreed to go behind the bus shelter to ascertain whether the guy’s manhood was intact or had ‘disappeared.’ The guy was asked to unzip his trouser which he did. To our surprise his manhood was intact. But he insisted that his manhood had shrunk in size so a ‘disappearing act’ had taken place which is not “visible to the naked eye.” Luckily, a police patrol car was attracted to the scene by the large crowd. Both individuals were later taken to the station to resolve the issue. I must stress that some innocent people have been lynched in the past over such unfounded allegations.
I relate this story as a prelude to today’s piece. Over a month ago, I got a call from a female undergraduate in a tertiary institution in Delta State urging me to “investigate and write” about the trend of missing female underwear in the state. I politely asked her how that is an issue at a time the country is contending with myriad of problems including university lecturers who are on strike. She said it was a “serious matter” because there were allegations that missing female underwear is being used by ritualists for “blood money.” After listening to her tales I politely thanked her for calling.
Penultimate week, I received another call – also from Delta state – on the same issue from a reader. What he narrated wasn’t different from that of the undergraduate. I asked if he truly believes that such a thing can happen in the 21st century and his reply was in the affirmative. After the call, I didn’t give the issue further thought as I believe it was in the realm which I consider irrational.
However, the issue was brought to the mainstream last Saturday –December 22 – by The Punch newspaper in a report titled: “Fear of ‘Yahoo boys’ has made us stop wearing pants – Women in Delta students’ communities.” According to the long report, some ritualists, also known as ‘Yahoo boys’, have been stealing female underwear, sometimes at gunpoint, particularly around campuses of tertiary institutions in Delta State. Although the veracity of the claims that such stolen undies are used for ritual purposes has not been established, such reports have instilled fear into the hearts of ladies living in such areas, resulting in fear and panic.
The newspaper correspondent wrote that “many ladies in the affected areas in Delta have been devising ways to safeguard themselves against danger. It was learnt that the underwear of girls and women, particularly of ages between 14 and 35, are allegedly considered as ‘hot cakes’ for use by the ritualists.”
The report stated further that “used pants, according to some students at Asaba campus of the Delta State University, sells for as much as N350,000, with some adding that the price can be higher if it is confirmed to have body fluids. At the campus, it was learnt that one of the measures being used by female students to protect themselves is to go out without wearing pants.”
Quoting a lady who only identified herself as Esther, the report went on: “We hear that the pants those ritualists or ‘Yahoo boys’ steal are being used for money ritual. After they finish performing some rituals on the pants, the owners will start bleeding or vomiting blood. Since the news got to us, three of my friends have stopped wearing pants. I have stopped going out at night, even for something as important as going to the campus to study at night. Although, I heard that these evil people also operate during the day, I believe it is more dangerous at night.”
After reading The Punch report, I worked the phone asking my contacts to help investigate further and gauge the mood in Asaba, Warri and other towns in Delta State. The simple question I want answer to is this: there are many used and imported pants at various second hand clothing shops across the state, why are those not targeted?
I single out two responses from some of the answers sent to me. The first is this: “The second hand pants have crossed the ocean so there are no powers in such pants anymore. Also the pants may have been worn by foreigners whose spirit may not conform to our local environment.” The second is this: “The pant that has body fluid is the one that can be used with ease to make the recipient instantly rich. This is why there are allegations that ladies are robbed at gunpoint for their underwear.”
That people believe such things exist speak volumes. However, the issue of superstition on individuals and societies is often difficult to break. It is a common issue in many cultures, especially in ours. No matter how advanced and rational we might like to think we are, superstition is a practice that remains widespread and has an impact – often detrimental – on almost all facets including even our economic lives.
I am aware that even in countries ranked as highly educated, superstitious practices persist when logic suggests that more rational behaviour brought about by education means they should be swept aside. In Singapore for example, ranked among the most highly educated societies in the world, the numbers 8 and 4 still carry particular significance for many in the majority Chinese community. In Chinese culture eight is traditionally believed to be lucky as it sounds similar to “prosperity”, while four – sounding like the word for “death” – is believed to be unlucky.
Psychologists and anthropologists suggest that individuals who follow superstitious practices do so to cope with misfortune and uncertainty and to make sense of a complex world. Other research has suggested that superstitious beliefs can endure if the probability of them being exposed as untrue is low. If there is always some chance of a bad outcome when following superstition and some chance of a good outcome when not, an individual might never realise that it is untrue and continue to follow it.
Although there is no single definition of superstition, it generally means a belief in supernatural forces – such as fate – the desire to influence unpredictable factors and a need to resolve uncertainty. In this way then, individual beliefs and experiences drive superstitions, which explains why they are generally irrational and often defy current scientific wisdom.
For many people, engaging with superstitious behaviours provides a sense of control and reduces anxiety – which is why levels of superstition increase at times of stress and angst like we are experiencing in Nigeria today. Carrying charms, wearing certain clothes, visiting places associated with good fortune, preferring specific colours and using particular numbers are all elements of superstition. And although these behaviours and actions can appear trivial, for some people, they can often affect choices made in the real world.