I had a conversation today that might seem odd to be having at work. A guy I work with and I were discussing some of the accidents our vehicles have been in. This wasn’t unusual, in and of itself, vehicles crash. We even refer to the crashes in the third person, like ‘the car crashed into a tree’ as if it crashed of its own accord. Into trees, into ditches, these cars flip and roll. By far the majority of humanitarian aid workers who are killed die in these types of accidents rather than in the violence all around. We were discussing one vehicle accident in particular – vehicle 13 – that was severely damaged in an accident. It rolled three times. Luckily, no one was hurt. My friend had gone back to investigate the scene hoping for some clue as to the cause of the accident. There was none. It was a flat road – no sand, no ditches, no curves or hills. It was inexplicable. The next day another organization’s vehicle flipped at the same spot. People went back to talk to the villages around and the villagers walked out to the spot and shrugged, ‘there are lots of evil spirits around now,’ they said.
It wasn’t the first time I had heard this. In Indonesia, after the tsumani, some of our staff lived in IDP camp and they told us stories - ‘incidents’, we called them - of people going crazy. We often chalked it up to living for nearly a year in inadequate housing, with inadequate food, trauma, stress, etc. But perhaps there is more to it than we can see.
I once read a book about a journalist travelling in Africa. It wasn’t a religious book and the author, by the rest of his writing, didn’t seem to be a particularly religious man. However, after visiting Rwanda, immediately following the genocide, he said that it didn’t matter whether you believed in the devil or not there was no question in his mind now that the devil existed and in 1994 he had been in Rwanda.
It’s interesting to me that in Africa people are more willing to talk about the presence of the supernatural – of God and angels and demons – as if they are commonplace. And perhaps they are. Perhaps we, in the rational, explained, detached, scientific West, are afraid to look too close, or to talk too much, about things that we cannot see or explain. Most of us live with an unspoken fear that the world is not entirely of our own making or under our control.