Recent Posts from the Mumena Team

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Love Letters (Culture): Rumors and Lies

Living in Mumena, it is amazing to see the power of the rumor. Rumor is the main source of knowledge for the Kaonde people. Most everything they believe is based in what they have heard from others by word of mouth. In addition, this is a major entertainment for their lives. Most Kaonde sit around the camp fire each night listening to the latest rumors. This is their news, their entertainment, and their culture.

The best thing I can compare this to is junk email. However, most educated people who have access to email know to be skeptical of anything they read in an email forward. Even someone who is very gullible does not waste much time talking about what they have read in the latest email forward.


However, rumors are treated quite differently by the Kaonde. First of all, they don't have any concept of fiction. Everything they hear is considered true. Even the educated in Zambia are taught by rote memorization. So everybody is taught to believe everything and doubt nothing. Very few ever doubt what is spoken. Even fewer think rationally about the rumors or say to themselves, "That doesn't even make sense."


This way of thinking is often called puddle thinking. Each random belief is considered true. It is never evaluated or doubted in the person's mind. Because of this lack of reasoning, many contradictory beliefs can be "true" at the same time.


This all makes for a culture where lies spread like wildfire. In fact, the entire set of spiritual beliefs comes from these rumors. Each person's beliefs are based on what they have been told from their family, friends, neighbors, witch doctors, and others. Education and books (like the Bible) have very little input compared to the hours spent listening to these rumors each day.

In addition, rumors (just like news) focus on negative, extreme, or bizarre events. So because these are the main things that people talk about, it effects a person's concept of reality.


For example, in the 1980s a landowner killed a python on his farm. Soon after, the village where his farm workers lived started having fires. Each day a hut would burn down because of these spontaneous fires. The people started fleeing the village because they believed the spirit of the python was angry at the farmer. A local witch doctor told the farmer to make a certain sacrifice to appease the spirit of the python.

The police recommended the farmer should listen to the witch doctor. Because most of his workers had fled, the farmer finally relented and made the sacrifice. However, the fires continued.

Finally, a deranged boy was found starting a fire.


Clearly, from the story and a little thought, all the fires were caused by the deranged boy. However, if I tell this story here in Mumena, most people will have a different conclusion. Because they have more belief in bizarre spiritual events, they will believe that the spirit of the python had really started the fires instead of the boy. Even if I could convince them that the boy had started the fires, they would still believe that the python had something to do with it. Maybe the python had made the boy demented. In fact, as they retold the story to others, they would probably completely forget about the boy and embellish the parts about the spirit of the python. The focus is on strange and spiritual mysteries rather than evidence and logical thinking. After all, a story about a small boy starting fires is not nearly as interesting as an angry python spirit attacking and destroying an entire village.


I have thought about using this story as an example of how mysterious events often have logical causes. However, I am afraid if I mention anything about the python spirit, the point would be lost. The power of suggestion is so strong in this culture, that even if I tell the listeners that the story is a lie, they will still believe the story is true. Even some of my well educated friends will ask, "Is that true?" whenever I tell them about something that is obviously impossible and contradicts many of their beliefs. "What do you mean, 'Is that true?' Of course it's not true, use your brain a little bit. Why did you go to school for 12 years if you won't even think about what you hear?"

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