Monday, August 30, 2010

Superstitions-- When Truth is Stranger, and More Horrifying, Than Fiction

Have you ever had those moments of strange coincidence? When you wonder if you're meant to notice something?

I had a moment like that this week.

My son is in Cub Scouts because he saw the flyers handed out at school and liked the idea of shooting bows and arrows like he saw the boys doing in the pictures. Last Wednesday they had the soapbox derby and the boys got to drive these really cool cars down the street and try to get the trophy for the fastest time. All the parents showed up, all of us in our fold-up chairs in the 113 degree heat, hoping for the sun to go down early.

I don't always go to the Cub Scout events since it's become kind of a father-and-son thing in our household, but the soapbox derby sounded like fun (though I agreed to go before the forecast said it was going to be soooo hot) and I enjoyed meeting some of the moms I hadn't run into before. We all sat down and chatted about our kids and stopped intermittently to videotape our kids steering off the road and onto the neighbor's lawns before getting back to the conversation. And as I was talking to one of the moms it dawned on me that she was unusually pale. Not strange looking, just pale. And then I realized that she had white eyebrows-- not blonde, but white. After taking a closer look (surreptitiously I hope) I realized she was albino. I thought it was funny that I didn't realize it right away, but she didn't look how I suspect most of us imagined an albino would look when we're kids. She's a pretty women who just appears fair skinned and light haired at first glance. After the initial realization I kind of just mentally shrugged and forgot about it.

But then the following day I'm flipping through the channels on the TV when I come a across a 20/20 special about the Tanzanian Albinos and was pretty much stopped in my tracks.

It's easy to think, when we live in our air-conditioned homes in close proximity to the shopping mall, that the world is a civilized place that isn't prone to dangerous superstitions. Oh sure, we might walk around a ladder or cringe over a broken mirror, but most of us who live in the developed world don't hold to the old superstitions that point the finger at a neighbor and call them out as a witch when something goes wrong. So it's hard to believe that these things do occur in other parts of the world in this day and age-- but they do.

In Tanzania people are being murdered because they're albino.

I had never heard this story before, though apparently it has been going on for a few years. While albinism is a mild curiosity in the U.S., thanks to our varied culture, it is a condition that stands out far more in African society for obvious reasons. From what I've read it is something that stigmatize whole families-- which is bad enough-- but far worse is the superstitious culture that has taken root in Africa. According to the 20/20 story, and some articles I've found online, witch doctors are still well regarded as healers in Africa, though it appears they are little more than snake-oil salesmen; and dangerous ones at that. And the current snake-oil they are selling are potions made from the body parts of albinos that are believed to increase the health and wealth of the person who takes it. Over 50 albinos have been killed in the last three years because of myths these witch doctors are peddling and many others have been maimed.

Those of us who love fantasy often play with the idea of superstitions and frequently incorporate them into our own stories. I've read many, many books built on old folk tales about witchcraft and vampires (and who here hasn't?) but it's jarring to see something like this. The modern world I live in often celebrates the unusual and recently we have seen the rise of beautiful women like Diandra Forrest and Connie Chiu who have used their unusual and ethereal looks to their advantage. Despite how difficult it must have been growing up being defined as different than everyone else, they didn't (as far as I know) grow up in a world that would have killed them for their white skin.

This story kind of smacked me in the face because I couldn't have thought up something more strange and more horrifying if I tried. It's exactly the kind of thing that I would put in a book thinking that it was outside the realm of what we would consider normal-- and thankfully most of us live in a world where that is still true. But it makes you think doesn't it? I've always known that the human experience is a vast place, that most ideas I come up with are certainly not unique. But I always hope that the horror stories we dream up are beyond the scope of the uglier things we find in the real world. Sadly, I'm often proven they're not.


jmkirk said...

It's not just the albinos that are persecuted because of superstition or witchcraft. A university course I did last year was showing modern day witch hunts, particularly in the poorest parts of Africa, where children were being exiled (if they were lucky) or killed because they were accused of being witches.
There is a gentleman who started a refuge for these children and the numbers have increased faster than expected.
There was a three year old girl who had been abandoned in the jungle, a six year old that had had boiling water poured over her head and lots of other children that had been beaten and driven out of their villages.
The saddest thing was in the documentary the lecturer showed us where there was six year old twin boys - already thought of as unlucky - that had been accused by an eight year old of being witches but the journalists had to leave them in the village! We can only guess what happened to them! : ( It's so shocking such medieval attitudes are still present today in parts of the world.

RD Williams said...

Sad to say...but when we take a good hard look at ourselves as a world, in the mirror...we rarely like what we see. Human beings have believed in all various things since the dawn of time, and there was a time when it was the norm for Human sacrifices to take place.

Charles Gramlich said...

And there's one of the selection pressures that produce and push the evolution of varities.

SQT said...

@Jmkirk--That is just chilling! There's such a disconnect between the developed world and third world countries. I don't have any sweeping answers nor the desire to get into a political discussion. But I think anyone who is fortunate to live far away from that is going to have a hard time wrapping their brain around it.

@RD-- Sadly you're right. I think if we looked at it from a global perspective we'd be alarmed at how much of the world still holds to some pretty barbaric behavior. I know that I won the lottery simply by virtue of where I was born.

@Charles-- I'm not sure what you mean...