Chris Blattman

Manimal update

There have been updates in the manimal case, but I’ll save those for the end.

Possibly a more worthwhile a topic: one commenter was disappointed in the whole affair, thinking it demeaning and sensationalist. I’m trying to decide if that’s so.

In this case, the manimal debate started out as good-humored dinner chatter before my colleagues found out real money was involved. After that, they approached me to witness the feat (as the prize requires publication in the media before they’ll consider your application).

But am I skeptical to the point of being dismissive? Yes. Did I write about it because I thought people would be amused? Guilty as charged. Is that entirely a bad thing? Some say yes:

Whether this individual transforms himself into an animal in a way that matches you Hollywood-informed imagination is not as important as the fact that many people around him operate as if this was possible and true. Also, I’m hard pressed to imagine how such a belief could be detrimental to these people.

I think the fact that so many operate as if these powers are real is precisely the reason to be worried. An easy example is the astonishing number of witch killings each year, many of which target poor, single women. (See Ted Miguel’s paper on this in East Africa)

I’ve also spent the last years working in northern Uganda and Liberia, places where leaders claiming spiritual powers had laid waste to their nations in long and bloody civil wars. Widespread belief in their power is no small contributing factor to their success. (Stephen Ellis has a nice volume on just this subject.)

Another example: Just today a senior diplomat bemoaned a recent by-election. The popular, qualified candidate lost to a less scrupulous one whose entire campaign aimed at convincing the populace that his opponent would die from evil spirits if elected. It seems to have won him the election.

People ought to be left in peace to decide their own spiritual beliefs. If I had to rewrite the manimal post, I’d probably be less condescending. But what I would say is this: When claims of spirit power are used in the pursuit of power and money—whether an American faith healer, a Liberian politician, or a village elder pursuing a million dollar prize—I tend to think the world would be a more peaceful place if we heaped skepticism on all and scorn on the obvious frauds.

Back to our prize seeker. In the end, it turns out he can’t perform the full transformation in the city, only in forested regions. We offered to drive out of the city, but it seems only in his home county of Nimba can he do so. Nimba will have to wait for my next trip (we have, in fact, a project there) but you’ll forgive me if I haven’t reserved judgment.

6 Responses

  1. Whether this assistant professor mocks people who claim to transform into animals in a way that offends you Hollywood-informed imagination is not as important as the fact that many people around him operate as if this was reasonable and funny. Also, I’m hard pressed to imagine how such mocking could be detrimental to these people.

  2. Ellis’ ‘Mask’ is great, but Ellis and Gerrie ter Haar co-authoring is mandatory reading, in my opinion: The book: ‘Worlds of Power’, 2004; various papers:
    ‘Religion and politics in Sub-Saharan Africa’, Journal of Modern African Studies, 36:2, 1998;
    ‘The role of religion in development’, The European Journal of Development Research’, 18:3, 2006;
    ‘Religion and politics: taking African epistemologies seriously’, The Journal of Modern African Studies, 45, 2007

  3. FWIW, I don’t think you can begin to understand Africa unless you really understand what Africans themselves think and feel. That seems blindingly obvious, and hardly worth mentioning, but it’s amazing to me how few social scientists have made that effort–with Ellis being one of the notable exceptions.

  4. You preferred to be a lunatic, a minority of one. Only the disciplined mind can see reality, Winston. You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external….

    O’Brien held up the fingers of his left hand, with the thumb concealed.
    “There are five fingers there. Do you see five fingers?”
    And he did see them, for a fleeting instant, before the scenery of his mind changed.

    …I’m always reminded of Orwell when I’m told about the spiritual world manifesting itself in the real world.

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