“Dear Sir,–I am in a madhouse. I quite forget your name or who you are. You must excuse me, for I have nothing to communicate or tell of, and why I am shut up I don’t know. I have nothing to say, so I remain yours faithfully, JOHN CLARE.”
So wrote John Clare to an inquirer in 1860. At that point he had spent 18 years in a Northamptonshire asylum, after a promising if penurious career as a nature poet. His first volume, in 1820, had been brought out by Keats’ publisher and highly praised, but by 1835 he was descending into alcoholism and mental illness, confusing himself with Byron and Shakespeare and at one point interrupting a performance of The Merchant of Venice to berate Shylock.
Today Clare is ranked among the greatest of 19th-century poets, one whose sensitive nature had become increasingly disjoint as the industrial and agricultural revolutions swept the idyllic English countryside of his youth.
More’s the pity. When completing the paperwork to confine him to the asylum in 1841, Clare’s doctor had considered the question “Was the insanity preceded by any severe or long-continued mental emotion or exertion?” He answered, “After years of poetical prosing.”
Ordinarily, not much is heard about Malawi—a country that was ruled for so many years by the late dictator, Kamuzu Banda. Apart from the recent case of a gay couple convicted and later pardoned by President Mutharika who is also the current Chair of the African Union, Malawi is hardly in the news. But that does not mean that all is well with this country. No, all is not well with ‘Nyasaland’.
Malawi like many other African countries is trapped in the vicious circle of poverty, ignorance, superstition and religious fanaticism. Independence has not brought this nation emergence and prosperity. Education has not resulted to emancipation, civilization and enlightenment. The different religious groups in the country are living together in peace. They are not fighting or killing each other as is the case in Nigeria. But many Malawians are suffering and dying due to crazy religious notions, superstitious and irrational beliefs. Unfortunately nothing is being done by the government to address this ugly situation. Instead the politicians are busy travelling abroad or are engaged in political infighting and scheming to win or influence the next election.
Palpable misery, despair, stagnation, resignation and alienation prevail in the land.
I arrived Malawi two days ago to address meetings at Chancellor College in Zomba and in Blantyre. A local humanist group, the Association of Secular Humanism in Malawi is organizing the events. One of the issues in the news here is the tragic story of five children, Lamace, Etta, Annie, Petro and Maria who reportedly threw themselves into fire at night after prayers in a bizarre case of mass suicide. Three of them died on the spot but two, Petro and Maria were rescued and taken to a local hospital. Photos of the fire and the bodies of the three that roasted to death appeared on the front page of the dailies. I was shocked to see the graphic images and to read about this horrifying incident. I was more shocked by the way the government had handled the matter.
The father of the children told a local newspaper that he recently noticed the children’s strange behaviours and complained to local authorities. It appears they did nothing to call the children to order. According to him, the children established a ‘strange church’ in his house and commenced their prayers around 10 pm each day. He tried stopping them without success. And on this fateful night, the children, in the course of praying, made fire with some household items which they soaked with petrol. At a stage, they took off their clothes and jumped into the fire holding copies of the Bible. Three of them who died on the spot have since been buried.
No one knew exactly what led the children into acting in such a ‘strange’ way. But some of the witnesses interviewed by a local newspaper said the children acted on the advice of a local pastor who told them that their parents were responsible for their joblessness and not getting married. He advised them to burn the items in their home because that was where the parents hid their magic. The village head, Matope, blamed the churches whom he said were misleading the people for this horrible incident. He promised to summon the religious leaders in the area so that ‘they could explain what type of worshipping this is’. This kind of bizarre religious experience is not new to Malawi.
Last year, police rescued some women who locked themselves up in a hut in one of the country’s remote villages. They were reading their Bible, fasting and praying for weeks expecting some revelations from God.
Poverty, ignorance, hopelessness and bad governance have driven many Africans to religious insanity, absurdity and extremism. Africa is literally in a dark age. There is a proliferation of churches, mosques and worship centers. Blind faith, thoughtlessness and spiritual mumbo jumbo direct people’s lives. Many Africans spend a lot of their time praying, fasting and keeping vigil at their homes, in churches, on the hills(also known as holy mountains) and valleys, besides rivers and streams. There are few countries that promote and encourage critical thinking, scientific temper and technological intelligence. Many Africans devote much of their time to all sorts of crazy, useless and meaningless spiritual nonsense. And this is the time they could have used productively to acquire relevant skills and lift themselves out of poverty by working to generate income for themselves. Instead of developing their potentials, most Africans have embraced this fashionable nonsense of blaming others-one’s parents, grand parents, witches and wizards, the West, colonialism and imperialism for all the problems and difficulties they encounter in life.
Unfortunately, the local authorities are doing nothing to tackle religious nonsense and its discontent among Africans. Instead, African states are sponsoring, aiding and abetting the spread religious absurdities including the misleading messages of priests, pastors, imams and witch doctors. The educational system in most parts of sub Saharan Africa has virtually collapsed. Most industries have been shut down or have taken over by foreigners because Africans lack the required skills- the scientific and technological skills to manage these companies efficiently and profitably.
The police and justice system is corrupt and inept. African governments are not creating institutions to fight religious indoctrination and promote reason and critical thinking. There are no programs to combat the negative influence of churches, mosques and traditional belief systems and liberate Africans from mental slavery and religious stupor.
Surely, humanists in Africa are in for an uphill task.
Leo Igwe is the IHEU representative for West Africa and Southern Africa. He wrote this article from Malawi.
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