On the uses of superstition

Last year I visited the Chicago Field Museum and had an epiphany (or a brain fart; judge for yourself).

In the Africa exhibit, I watched a fascinating short film on the customs of the Bakongo people of west-central Africa. The farmers in that area suffer from flooding during the rainy season, and one farmer had built a system of earthen levees to protect his fields. Unfortunately, when the rains came, his neighbor got completely flooded out, even worse than usual, allegedly in some part because the levees had diverted more floodwater onto the neighbor’s fields. Neighbor comes to Levee-Builder all red in the face, shouting that Levee-Builder must give Neighbor spme of his land to make up for the crops he’s lost. Levee-Builder shouts back that this land has been in his mother’s family for generations (I guess the Bakongo are matrilineal?) and that it’s not his fault that Neighbor was too lazy to build his own levees.

So they go to a nganga, an aged holy-man-type-person, and tell him their gripes. The nganga responds to this by pulling out some ancient little wooden statues that supposedly contain the spirits of the Bakongos’ ancestors. He dances around the statues. He sings around them. He chants around them. He spits, with loving care, on each one of them. He sings some more. All this, we are solemnly informed, is to communicate with the spirits of the ancestors, so that they will tell him what to do.

At the end of all this fantastic rigamarole, the nganga announces that the spirits have spoken. He tells Levee-builder to help Neighbor bring in the crops he has left, and show Neighbor how to build his own levees. He tells Neighbor to stop blaming Levee-builder for all his problems, and that he’s got no business with Levee-builder’s land when he hasn’t learned to take care of his own. In my opinion, if that nganga had been a Western-trained judge with a law degree from Harvard, he could not have reached a fairer or more sensible decision.

The total litigation costs consist of one chicken, sacrificed by the two farmers, the chicken’s blood representing the blood that is saved by appealing to the nganga instead of resorting to violence. (They didn’t say what happens to the chicken’s carcass; I enjoy imagining that the nganga eats it).

Now, I am a hard-core skeptic. I refuse to consider the nganga’s song-and-dance routine around the old idols as anything more than absurd mumbo jumbo. I do not believe that the nganga, or anyone else, is able to channel the spirits of the Bakongos’ dead ancestors. I will persist in my disbelief until it is demonstrated to me than two ngangas who have never met each other can both ask the spirit of their great-great-great-great-great-grandmother how long it took her second baby to start sleeping through the night and get the same answer.

What I realized, on watching the movie, is that the nganga very likely no more believes in the guidance of dead ancestors than I do. He knew what to do with Levee-builder and Neighbor as soon as they told him their story. His decision was the logical and sensible thing to do. The hocus pocus with the statues and the dancing and the spitting wasn’t for his benefit; it was for the two farmers’ benefit. If he’d told them, “Look, you two are being silly. Here’s what I say you ought to do,” he’d still have been right, but the farmers wouldn’t have listened to him. They were too angry to do something just because it was logical and sensible. But present the same decision to them as the Mystically Obtained Decision of the Great Council of Spirits, and they accept it. I believe both those men walked away from the nganga satisfied; quite probably more satisfied than the litigants in a western courtroom would have been. The fact is, most human beings are easier to impress with ritual and mysticism than with common sense. British judges wear black robes and long wigs for the same reason the nganga spits on statues; it doesn’t help them do their jobs any better, but it looks impressive and helps their decisions stick.

So do I think Western nations ought to do away with their courts and get ngangas instead? No, I don’t, at least not on the basis of one movie in the Chicago Field Museum. What I saw there was a good nganga and a fairly simple case. I’d have to see a lot more before I was convinced that holy men dancing around statues could deal with the Microsoft antitrust case as well as they did with two neighbors arguing about flooded fields. Also, the nganga system appears to me to be more vulnerable to corruption than ours. But, while I don’t know if Bakongo justice is consistently as good as what I saw in that film, two things seem indisputable to me: it’s cheap, and it’s fast, which you certainly can’t say about our courts.