The article “A rational approach to the primary school ‘demon’ crisis,” was published in the Sunday Monitor Newspaper of April 17th 2011:

click on image to view larger readable version(click on image to view larger readable version) 

It is the short, modified version of my earlier blog post WOO TAKEDOWN #03 – ‘Demonic Attacks’ in Ugandan Primary Schools.

Thanks to Sunday Monitor for its continuous support of science and critical thinking in the Ugandan media!

The above article seems to have suffered under the editor’s knife, and thus it appears disjointed in some places. Here is the article in its original form, as was initially sent to the editor:

A Rational Approach to the Primary School ‘Demon’ Crisis:

Stories of alleged ‘demonic attacks’ in primary schools have become a staple feature of Ugandan Media in recent years, and reports of such phenomena have increased exponentially in recent weeks.

These stories typically follow a predictable pattern:

It will be alleged that a school head-teacher somewhere (or a person he has aggrieved) consulted a witch-doctor to have him request the spirits to intervene in a domestic or business problem… the witch-doctor gives the head-teacher the terms and conditions.. the head-teacher reneges on these terms and conditions (or the aggrieved party fulfils his terms and conditions)… the angered spirits take revenge by taking possession of some of the children at his school… some children, completely disoriented, start ‘barking like dogs’… pandemonium breaks out in the school… clergymen are brought in to pray for the pupils, and cast out the demons… parents scramble to take their children away… school is closed…

..or some variation of this set up.

So what is actually going on in these schools? Are demons and evil spirits actually taking control of the minds of these children?

To the average Ugandan, this is not even a matter of debate. Indeed, as far as they are concerned, demons had possessed those children. To them, what is happening in this school is supernatural. But is that the most likely explanation for these events? Might there be a plausible NATURAL explanation for these same events?


Mass Hysteria.

Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI) or Mass Sociogenic Illness (MSI) is the other name for Mass Hysteria, and is defined by the Canadian Medial Association as:

“..the "rapid spread of illness signs and symptoms affecting members of a cohesive group, originating from a nervous system disturbance involving excitation, loss or alteration of function, whereby physical complaints that are exhibited unconsciously have no corresponding organic etiology." It occurs in the context of a credible threat that provokes great anxiety, such as a noxious odour in a school amid fears of chemical warfare or bioterrorism. In standard psychiatric nomenclature, mass sociogenic illness is subsumed under the general heading of somatoform disorder and subcategorized as "conversion disorder hysterical neurosis, conversion type." In the literature, it is synonymously termed mass psychogenic disorder or epidemic hysteria and distinguished from collective delusions by the presence of illness symptoms.”

They continue:

“A historical review of these events suggests that the features of mass sociogenic illnesses tend to mirror popular social and cultural preoccupations that define distinct eras and reflect unique social beliefs about the nature of the world. Before the 20th century most reports of mass sociogenic illness involved motor hysteria incubated by exposure to long-standing religious, academic or workplace discipline. These produced outbreaks of convulsions, contractures, tremors, paralysis and laughing. In the 20th century and on to the present, strange odours presumed to be an environmental contaminant or toxic gas from a bioterrorist or chemical warfare attack have been commonly blamed in episodes of mass hysteria, producing breathlessness, nausea, headache, dizziness and weakness in affected people.”

Climate of Fear and Anxiety

Prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries to Africa, the most natives of sub-Saharan Africa practiced traditional forms religion which included various forms of ancestor worship. Their worldview included a belief that illness, drought, natural disasters and other misfortunes were the result of angry (or evil) spirits, and that rituals had to be performed to appease these spirits. Various shamans and traditional healers have, throughout African history, claimed to have the ability to intercede between humans and these spirits, making available to them (at a price, of course) charms and other concoctions designed to either appease or repel such spirits.

Charismatic forms of Christianity (mainly Pentecostalism) have incorporated these African traditional practices and ancestral worship into their worldview as part of the wider cosmic battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The ancestral spirits became reinterpreted as ‘demons’, and the shamans, mediums and traditional healers who interceded on their behalf became ‘witches’ or ‘witchdoctors’ – all of them allegedly working in collusion with ‘Satan’ to make life difficult for followers of Christ.

The pastors of these charismatic churches in effect became the ‘new’ shamans, wielding, this time, the power of ‘God’ to be able to ‘bind’ and ‘cast out’ these demons. Like the local shamans, they too rely on incantations (or prayers) to perform exorcisms and alleged healing miracles. Indeed, the typical charismatic church exorcism resembles what one might see being done in a local ancestral shrine. Such acts are routinely practiced in charismatic (mainly Pentecostal) church services across the country, several times a week. We now have at least three 24-hour a day religious channels showing these exorcisms, and sermons on how ‘Satan’ and his demons/evil spirits conspire to cause us all manner of sickness and socio-economic ills – and hundreds of evangelical Christian radios warning millions of Ugandans of the same.

The practice of traditional religion, meanwhile, continues undeterred even with the presence and strong influence of foreign religions like Christianity and Islam. Indeed, many belonging to these Abrahamic faiths routinely visit traditional shrines to consult diviners and mediums, which isn’t surprising given that these faiths do a good job of reinforcing the belief in the efficacy of traditional religion (which they call witchcraft), though denouncing them as evil.

The result of this continuous exposure to the most extreme forms of spiritism is that the religious landscape of Uganda today is one that has become steeped in fear, anxiety and uncertainty. Even leading political figures in Uganda, often attribute many of the country’s problems to the devil and ‘spiritual curses’, and promote increased spirituality and religiosity as a way of solving them.

It is therefore understandable that – while in highly industrialised countries, incidences of mass hysteria (MSI/MPI) might spring up from anxieties about things such as toxic chemicals (where such anxieties are pervasive) – in lesser developed, and highly religious societies like Uganda, the incidences of mass hysteria will spring up from anxieties associated with pervasive religious or cultural beliefs (where those religious and cultural beliefs include particular ways of looking at the nature of the world, which, in Uganda’s case, they do to a very large extent).

‘Demon Possession’ as a form of Psychosis

The most common symptoms exhibited by individuals claimed to be possessed by evil spirits/demons are remarkably similar to those arising from psychosis.

According to the Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, “Patients suffering from psychosis are unable to distinguish the real from the unreal. They experience hallucinations and/or delusions that they believe are real, and they typically behave in an inappropriate and confused manner.” They “often speak incoherently, using noises instead of words and "talking" in unintelligible speech patterns.”

Some of the known psychiatric causes of psychosis include clinical depression, psychosocial stress and exposure to some traumatic event (violent death, etc). Studies have shown that high levels of clinical depression exist in Uganda.  Pervasive anxieties based on fear of attacks by evil spirits can lead to severe psychological stress. Many people in Uganda are victims of severe childhood trauma (through physical, psychological and sexual abuse; suffering from, and surviving life-threatening illnesses; witnessing death of close family members; etc). In other words, although most people are unaware of it, many of the ingredients necessary to trigger a psychotic episode in a person are present in the life of the average Ugandan.

Once a number of individuals from such a background are placed in a confined area (e.g. a boarding school) and subjected to a lot of psychological stress (e.g during, or in preparation for, exams) and anxiety (about the possibility of being ‘possessed by evil spirits’), and one or a more of them experience a psychotic episode, with enough suggestion and exposure to audio-visual cues (due to close proximity to the initial instigators), it should not come as a surprise if others in that vicinity also begin to exhibit those same psychosomatic symptoms, resulting in an outbreak of mass hysteria (MSI/MPI).

Among most Ugandans, there is a serious lack of familiarity with what we’ve come to learn from psychology, psychiatry and related sciences about the nature of human behaviour – and this ignorance is what is allowing many superstitions to flourish, including the belief that demons or evil spirits attack children in schools (and people in general).

It’s high time we started trying to solve our problems rationally. We should get psychologists, psychiatrists, and counsellors to deal with this problem in our schools – not pastors, priests, and witchdoctors… as has been the case of late.

James Onen