Ebola: Schools, Science and Age of Enlightenment?


SEPTEMBER 5, 2014 By Oswald Hanciles

All schools in Nigeria have been ordered to remain shut until 13th October, 2014 as part of measures to prevent the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.  Schools were ordered closed in Liberia when their second semester was to start in August this year.  Are schools going to re-open as usual during the first or second week of September in Sierra Leone? Nigeria has a population of about 170million people – and, only 16 people infected with the Ebola virus so far; with 5 deaths to Ebola. Juxtapose that with Sierra Leone – 6 million people; with 1,130 infected with Ebola, and about 400 deaths. Yet Nigeria can order its schools closed to prevent….Not only to prevent Ebola infections; but, to prevent palpable worry and fear among parents if they send their children to school….. Really, I don’t think that a question should arise about sending our children to schools this term – until we reduce Ebola deaths to almost zero for a month or so.  As the Ebola outbreak spreads doom and gloom in our country, it brings with it inherent opportunities. There is the opportunity for us to confront, and, exorcise, from our collective psyches those ‘thought monsters’ which have kept Sierra Leone, and most of Africa, relatively backward over the past three hundred years or so. Let us go back in history to gain depth.

The Bubonic Plague in Europe and Ebola Outbreak

In the early 1330s an outbreak of deadly bubonic plague occurred in China. The bubonic plague mainly affected rats, but flea was able to transmit the disease to people.  It was like the Ebola – once people are infected, they can easily infect others. Like with the Ebola virus, the plague causes fever. In winter the disease seemed to disappear, but only because fleas –which were now helping to carry it from person to person– are dormant then, because of the ice and snow that covers the land in Europe. Unlike, the plague, the Ebola virus is able to spread pretty fast because of the rainy season – in the dry season, the warm sun here would ‘kill’ the Ebola virus. In Europe, the return of warm weather, Spring, the plague attacked again, killing new victims. After five years 25 million people were dead–one-third of Europe’s people. Even when the worst was over, smaller outbreaks continued, not just for years, but for centuries. We should have this history of Europe’s bubonic plague in mind as we do combat with the Ebola virus today.  Even after, say, in six months we would have had the last case of Ebola infection and/or Ebola death, we must henceforth always be on our guard against the Ebola virus, and other such disease-causing micro-organisms. To be able to overcome the Ebola virus today, and ‘Ebola-like viruses’ tomorrow, we have to dip deep into the abyss of the sub-Saharan African’s primordial  thought patterns which is about a thousand years behind that of more scientific and more rational Europe –  and, move into present time.

‘Dark Ages Mentality’ in Present Day Sierra Leone

The vast majority of Sierra Leonean society thinks in terms of witchcrafts dominating our society. While in Liberia, I was close for many years to a medical doctor whose father was a science teacher in a secondary school; and, when this man’s children started failing in school, the man was sure that his children had been bewitched. A petty trader, or, a show owner has to get some fetish (or, as is the case now, ‘the fetish of Jesus Christ’ in the form of ‘blessed holy water’) for him/her to believe he can make profit from his/her business – and when he/she fails, the belief would be that someone has ‘taken his luck to mamie water……’ In Sierra Leone today, indeed, most of black Africa, the perception of the supernatural seems so natural that it is the natural that becomes supernatural.

Today, the sudden death of an individual that appears perfectly healthy is put down to the works of witches. Even if, for example, a pathologist would reveal that a ‘father’ or ‘uncle’ died of kidney failure, the family would not be convinced that over-drinking of alcohol would have caused the deceased’s kidney to pack up. The ‘new age evangelical churches’ have come to replace the traditional medicine man – ferreting out, and, identifying witches in the lives of their congregation; and, doing speaking-in-tongues frenzied ‘exorcisms’ to drive away witches and demons. (Ideas from: Brou KOUAME (Vice-president of the ASR (Alphabetization and Health in Rural Areas, Ivory Coast)

Let us go back to European history to understand some of the African present

1326: The Church authorized the Inquisition to investigate Witchcraft and to develop “demonology.” This is the theory of the diabolic origin of Witchcraft. In 1330, the popular concept of witches as evil sorcerers was expanded to include belief that they swore allegiance to Satan, had sexual relations with the Devil, kidnapped and ate children. By the 1430, Christian theologians started to write articles and books which ‘proved’ the existence of witches.

The first major witch hunts began in many western European countries in 1450. The Roman Catholic Church created an imaginary evil religion, using stereotypes that had circulated since pre-Christian times. Historians have speculated that the religiously inspired genocide then was motivated by a desire by the Church to attain a complete religious monopoly, or was “a tool of repression, a form of reining-in deviant behavior, a backlash against women, or a tool of the common people to name scapegoats for spoiled crops, dead livestock or the death of babies and children.” Walter Stephens, a professor of Italian studies at Johns Hopkins University, proposes a new theory: “I think Witches were a scapegoat for God.” Religious leaders felt that they had to retain the concepts of both an omnipotent and an all-loving deity. Thus, they had to invent Witches and demons in order to explain the existence of evil in the world.  A rational thinker who attends services in the majority of jam-packed evangelical churches in Sierra Leone today can draw an uncanny parallel between the ‘Dark Ages’ in Europe and today in Africa – into this walks in the Ebola Virus.

Philosophical Weapon Against Ebola

When I was a student at FBC, University of Sierra Leone, over thirty years ago, it had become fashionable to denigrate those students who study subjects like Philosophy, History, Greek and Roman Culture, Religion, etc. Those studying Economics or Engineering would derisively ask the Liberal Arts student: “When you leave college, how are you going to use such subjects to get a job?”. It was a global trend. Today, this has changed.

The financial and climate crises, global consumption habits, and other 21st-century challenges call for a “killer app”.…. (Philosophy!!!)  Philosophy can help us address the (literally) existential challenges the world currently confronts, but only if we take it off the back burner and apply it as a burning platform in business……. The Wealth of Nations, a book that serves as the intellectual platform for capitalism, lays out how markets should be organized and how people should behave in such markets. The book’s author, Adam Smith, was not an economist, as many believe, but a philosopher….(Thought from Dov Seidman, ‘Philosophy is Back in Business’; Seidman is the author of HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything  [Foreword by President Bill Clinton] and the founder and CEO of LRN )

Lucy Adams, human resources director of Serco, a services business and a consultancy firm (US), says: “Philosophy lies at the heart of our approach to recruiting and developing our leadership, and our leaders. We need people who have the ability to look for different approaches and take an open mind to issues…”

Deborah Bowman, associate dean for widening participation at St George’s, University of London, which offers medicine and health sciences courses, says philosophers are increasingly sought after by the NHS: “Graduates of philosophy who come in to graduate-entry medicine, or to nursing courses, are very useful. Growth areas in the NHS include clinical ethicists, who assist doctors and nurses. ..More and more people are needed to comment on moral issues in healthcare.” (Thoughts from, ‘I think, therefore I earn’ http://www.theguardian.com/education/2007/nov/20/choosingadegree.highereducation).

As the countries or Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are embroiled today in a war being waged on them by the Ebola virus, we have to confront profound philosophical and historical questions.  Do we dismiss the probability that Africans in the Mano River Union have been used (are being used) as guinea pigs for some bio-terrorism experiment by the West?  Do we use experimental Ebola drug on Africans on a large scale – and, knowingly make ourselves guinea pigs with the hope of being cured? Can we get the World Bank, diverse UN agencies, churches in the United States, etc. to pay for Ebola drugs like ZMapp; or, we have huge demonstrations all over West Africa so that the West can fast-track its production of Ebola vaccines?  We need philosophical thinkers, and writers, like this humble writer to pose such questions, and, goad the learned elite first, then, the majority, to think, and, change their attitudes and habits.

We are demographically lucky in Sierra Leone.  About 80% of our population is below 35 years of age. They are in that age when they are most impressionable.  We can feed them with the right information, and provide leadership for them, so that they can change – from superstition to science, from Darkness to Light. The technological tools that Africans have today – the internet; satellite TV – are awesome; and we can easily make a 1,000 leap in development with the right leadership. The Ebola outbreak gives us an opportunity to question all the primitive thinking of our fathers, and maintain only those which we determine are necessary for individual and collective survival.  We have to teach philosophy, and what it would engender, science – from the primary school to the tertiary levels. In the ‘FALLAMAKATA’ programme I am developing, I would not only promote achievers who the youth and children can ‘fallamakata’, but, also raise such philosophical questions. And, accelerate science. And, technology to gallop Africa’s development. Learning can take place in and out of classrooms.