Editor's note: The author in this piece talks about strange explanation surrounding the disappearance of N36 million naira from the vault of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) in Benue state.
By now, almost everybody in Nigeria has heard, and, maybe, laughed out loud over Philomena Chieshe and her spiritual money-eating snake.
The bizarre tale is the illogical submission to an audit at the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board Makurdi’s office. Chieshe’s fantastical tale has seen domains that nominally ignore Nigerian news featuring the story on their websites.
While a big part of me thinks she is a phoney, and the story is an attempt to deceive, there is also a little part that also wants to believe that the woman might be sincere after all. No, I did not just suggest she was telling the truth as it happened; I meant that she might sincerely believe that it was possible for a supernatural agent to creep into JAMB’s safe and swallow money in paper currencies.
Ms. Chieshe’s tale of the snake that eats money is congruent with Africans’ belief about how reality can be folded and unfolded, and which are spun into tales of supernatural happenings. The woman is no different from some Christian leaders who testify about driving 200km on an empty tank, or church folks who place a church sticker on their cooking gas cylinder, so they never had to refill it.
What I deduce from the issue is that we either have a case of corruption by an individual or a group of people, or, a series of theft by any person who knew the office safe’s combination. Rather than question her competence, the woman did what many Nigerians do when confounded – seek refuge under the banner of the Devil. Whatever happened, most of us can agree that no snake can -or did-crawl into any office and swallowed money.
While the extremity of the case draws hilarity, the belief system that undergirds her reasoning is not atypical. The Yoruba, for instance, believe in Agbana (devourer) and Anabo (metaphysical fraud in which money paid in a transaction vanishes and returns with everything in the seller’s pocket).
Both are concepts that illustrate how one can be materially impoverished through the acts of supernatural agents who steal from one’s resources. If you think those beliefs are firmly locked in the past and have no place in our modern existence, please, turn on a Yoruba Nollywood film.
Beliefs about supernatural forces that crawl into people’s houses, minds, and bodies in different forms are a staple feature. Filmmakers draw from the repertoire of cultural beliefs because they are spectacular.
Nollywood picks its stories from popular beliefs; their audience watches the films and uses the realistic portrayal to validate their prior beliefs about the supernatural. Thus, we are locked in an ouroboros cycle of self-validating, self-reproducing, and self-fulfilling charlatanry.
Even if we argue that films are mere fictions and the Deux ex Machina used in the film are narrative devices, they resonate with the Nigerian religiosity and its obsession with the spell of the supernatural.
In some churches, the stories pastors narrate about supernatural activities in the natural make you wonder if you are reading a D.O. Fagunwa, Amos Tutuola or Ben Okri’s novel.
In all my experience of this phenomenon, the most intriguing of them all is the Mountain of Fire and Miracles church. I have read about two dozen “tomes” authored by their pastor, Dr. Daniel Olukoya. I have listened to a number of his sermons as well.
I admit I am baffled by the MFM’s penchant for storytelling. Olukoya tells stories of witches and wizards who relentlessly pursue people all their lives; people who develop mysterious sicknesses after being fed some food in their dreams; humans that transmogrify into snakes to enter offices in hyper-urban areas; animals that turn into beautiful women to ruin an unsuspecting brother’s faith; those whose glorious destinies turned to ashes after someone from their village visited them either in their dreams or physically.
All the tales one sees in Nollywood and deems illogical are regularly reproduced in his books and sermons.
Now, the curious part is that all his books’ blurb never failed to indicate that he graduated from the University of Lagos with a First Class degree and that he has a PhD in Molecular Genetics from the University of Redding, UK.
Also, that he has about 70 scientific publications to his credit. I am infinitely curious about Pastor Olukoya’s trajectory – how does a man go from being a scientist to peddling some of the most anti-science beliefs in the world? Why does he do so while still proudly displaying his “scientific” credentials?
What is his Saul to Paul story? Olukoya’s religiosity negates the most basic principles of science yet they are propped by his certification as a scientist. Has he ever considered that the stories he tells have a tremendous impact on our social and political life, an example being this money-eating snake?
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