Close Encounters With Superstition

Adey Lettu loved to drink coffee early in the morning after attending church mass. She trusted St. Michael but distrusted her neighbors very much. She loved a God whom she could not see and hated people whom she saw and felt and touched and drank coffee with. She was, to put it mildly, a hypocrite.

Anyway, Adey Lettu’s coffee ceremony, which was held at seven in the morning everyday, was a lonely and gloomy event. She sipped her steaming coffee alone and in a pensive mood. The cat, sitting by her side, played with its tail while waiting for a piece of bread that might inadvertently fall from Adey Lettu’s trembling hands.

On the tray there are six handleless porcelain cups: one for her, the rest for the spirits who come to pay her a visit (close encounters of the coffee kind!). Adey Lettu’s invisible guests adore the swirling smock of incense and cherish the colorful tray, including the violent colors in her traditional dress. AdeyLettu is a superstitious woman.

But before we proceed with superstition I would like to say something regarding Addey Letu’s extra work as a traditional psychiatrist.

Malu’s relation with his wife is ice cold. The ice however gets broken from time to time when one of them raises hell, an infernal concerto accompanied by the bawling of toddlers and the swearing and curses of the youngsters not to mention the nervous barking of Tarzan, the dog.

“I know why you don’t have a single cent on you when it comes to buying exercise books and pencils for the kids, because there is a whore bent on ruining the family….”

“Well, to tell you frankly, I am tired of you……”

Malu is in need of medical help. If he continues like this he will probably crack up and that’s very dangerous for his already crumbling health.

Addey Lettu lives a stone’s throw from the already broken family.  And she has heard and seen a lot during her long and lonely life as a widow.

When young and beautiful, she married a Sicilian named Signor Trombetti and had it nice until he died of a heart attack, a result of too much pasta, vino, formaggio and anger! He swore like a sailor, blaspheming the Madonna and hurling his working tools into the sky to probably strike his Dio che l’ha inganato (the God who cheated him). This could have accelerated his departure from this world. 

“Good morning, Addey Letu,” intones Malu.

“What good wind brings you here?” chimes Addey Letu.

“I have to talk to you. It is a secret,” whispers Malu as he seats himself on the hard wooden bench resting by the side of the squeaking bed. The cat, named Shashu because of her white coat, sneaks out of the room.

And then Malu pours out his heart to Addey Letu and by so doing purges his soul of its impurities. Addey Letu gets the message and prescribes the proper medicine which includes buying a white bleating sheep for the wife and telling the whore to go to hell.

Malu didn’t have to go to the psychiatrist to get cured of his ‘mental illnesses’. He didn’t have to send his problems to the Mr.-X–Replies-to-Your-Questions corner of a magazine or a newspaper. He found his psychiatrist in Addey Letu, and he didn’t have to pay a penny for the medical visit. On the contrary, he had a traditional coffee served to him for free!

During the lonely coffee time, Adey Letu never forgot to place a knife and menkerker (tongs for poking the glowing charcoal in the brazier) near the open door in order to keep the evil spirits away and the good spirits in. Once during the Derg time, a self-proclaimed communist regime, a relative jokingly told her to put a hammer and sickle instead. The idea was to ward off the evil spirit of communism from her house and from the country once and for all.

Superstition is everywhere in this small world of ours. From the Maori tribes of New Zealand to the staff members of mission control in Kennedy Space Center, the minds of people are never safe from its grips. Even great scientists such as Isaac Newton and Lavoisier were superstitious.

Superstition is a decayed form of religion or in other words a religious ‘nuclear waste’. When religion dies (as it surely must, to be replaced by newer revelations) it is in need of resuscitation. Very old religions when left on their own tend to change into superstitions because when the inner truth crumbles down only the outer shell remains to misguide its followers. Hence, a rotting religion does not take a long time to change into a heap of irrational and confused ideas where fanatics are manufactured and zealots are fashioned.

Superstition can also be described as the direct product of ignorance and the absence of strict scientific discipline. No scientific analysis can satisfy the rational mind, for example, as to why Adey Lettu thinks that the slaying of a red rooster can alleviate her mental torture or stop her nightmares. But it helps Addey Letu and her likes as any faith healing practiced by Gospel slingers in Texas and everywhere. It is all simply a matter of pure faith, mind over matter, a placebo effect!

During the armed struggle for our country’s liberation, Eritrea was cleansed of various types of superstition thanks to the EPLF leadership which brooked no cultural backsliding in its politicization program. People were taught that colonization was a reality and that the only way to drive the enemy away was by using real guns and bullets and not by black magic. No one could stop a bullet except by another bullet or through diplomacy. Thank you so much EPLF for your timely contribution! But now we need someone else to cleanse Eritrea of your absurd doctrines and crazy policies!

 When the Eritrean forest or maybe desert demons and all types of elves, goblins and gremlins saw that things were not to be the same henceforth, they left the minds of the people for some time. But it seems that they are now back with a vengeance and many PFDJ officers are at present consulting witches and sorcerers that perchance they might get an assuring glimpse of an uncertain future:

“Will I partake of Bisha’s bonanza before I die?” “Will my son return from Sawa in one piece?” “Will my daughter remain virgin after her National Service? “How many blows will I get from Issaias before I get the post of a minister or ambassador, ten or twenty?” “How can I love diskela and live with it?” “Is there life after PFDJ?” etc.

Italians, Sicilians in particular, who arrived en masse in Eritrea in the 1920s, contributed a lot to the rise of superstition in this country. The population of ghosts (fantasma), phantoms and witches increased significantly during the Italian period. Porca miseria!

A friend of mine who lived in Asmara a long time ago kept on turning back home from Dongolo on his way to Massawa for vacation, just because a black cat kept crossing his path. After several spoiled holidays, he found out to his dismay that the black thing that crossed his path was none else than a frightened squirrel scurrying off to safety. The reason why he turned back was due to the Italian superstition that a black cat crossing your path meant disaster. Quando un gatto nero attravesa la strada, torna indientro e scapa via! (when a black cat crosses your path, turn back and run for dear life!)

If you saw a funeral hearse passing by, it was Tocca Ferro! Or Touch wood! I have been doing this as recently as a few years back for fear of being struck by a lightening and die on the spot. When I couldn’t find any metal object in my person to touch I reached for the buckle on my belt. What else could I do?

You are traveling by bus or by plane and you suddenly realize that nuns or padres are part of the passengers. According to Italian superstition you will have no guarantee of arriving safely home because of these special guests. The bus may fall down into a river and you may end inside crocodiles’ stomachs or perhaps the pilot may try to force land the plane in a tennis court or a crowded beach.

A plausible explanation is given for the above. Priests and monks are prone to attract God’s attention. Eager to take His own to paradise, the Good Lord may provoke a crash inviting in the process all passengers to a heavenly reunion.

Neighboring countries did also contribute in spreading superstitious beliefs in Eritrea, bringing fresh supply of demons, magic and sorcery.

When I was an 8th grade teacher in a neighboring country in 1967, Worku, a seventh grader and probably in the devil’s possession, entered the body of Workitu, and eighth grader.

One day as usual I called the roll and I shouted:

“She is absent, Sir.”
“What happened?”
“She is being exorcised, Sir.”
“Exorcised!? You mean…”
“She had been possessed, Sir.”

After a week had elapsed, Workitu reappeared in class once again. She had been “absolved” by the evil spirit. As for poor Worku, I was told that he was in chains awaiting further interrogation.

 “Sir,” said the students by way of advice,” don’t look directly into Worku’s eyes when he comes back to school.”

I told them not to worry. “I don’t believe in the Evil Eye.”

Rural Eritrea has also its share of superstitious beliefs. For example, whistling in the house in the evening is believed to attract snakes. A windy day is a sign of on going war (this changed after liberation for some mysterious reasons). A howling dog forebodes death. A bee landing on you brings you fame and honor. If it is a preying mantis, you get new clothes. Arriving home in the evening and then going out may entail trouble or even death. Bad comments regarding people or events have to be spitted out (literally) lest they come true.

A sun coming out and shining while it is still raining causes the female hyena to give birth to puppies. Among the English speaking peoples of the world in such aberrant situation, it is the devil who, getting angry, is beating his wife. If you remember someone and that someone suddenly appears in front of you, you tell him or her that he or she will live to be very old. Speak of the devil they say in English.

Superstitions never die but change forms. At present one can see the image of Santa Rita hanging from a modern car’s dashboard. It keeps the driver safe.

With such a mentality, it won’t be surprising to see in the immediate future images of saints in the form of stickers attached to computers to save the hard drive from collapsing! Goodbye Norton Antivirus!


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