A story is told of a lizard that rested on a tree trunk. Standing at a distance was a man who wanted to take a good look at the creature on the tree, but each time he moved around the tree to gain a clear view, the lizard also moved around the tree, always keeping the tree between itself and the man. The man and the lizard were moving around the tree together as if in synchronisation. This went on for some time without any progress.
People watching this spectacle were sharply divided. Some said the man went round the lizard, others said he did not, arguing that he only went round the tree but not the lizard. They argued for hours on end and never reached a compromise.
It was all a question of interpretation. One group thought to go round something was for that thing to be stationery while the one going round it was mobile. The other group thought it did not matter whether the thing that another went round was stationery or mobile. If you go round in circles, as long as there is an item within your circle, regardless of the motion status of that item, you will be going round it.
The same event can be interpreted differently by people with different viewpoints. I am sure that at the end of the argument, each group was more deeply entrenched in its position than when the argument started. This is true of many human issues. We have many denominations, for example, because although we all read the same Book, our interpretation of the messages therein and our emphasis on the issues discussed in it is different.
Imagine for one moment that one group in the above scenario decided that because their interpretation was the correct one, all the members of the other group, whose interpretation was flawed, should be put to death. Would justice have prevailed?”
How we interpret things depends on our own upbringing, our training and our experiences. Like Stephen Covey put it: “When we see the world we do not see it as it is but as we are.”
If I got news that somebody was struck and killed by lightning, my immediate reaction would be: “Where was the victim standing, what type of shoes was he/she wearing, was he/she soaked or dry as the lightning struck?” Answers to these questions would help to understand the event in terms of static electricity being aided to convert to current electricity through a conductor that, in this tragic case, happens to be a human being.
The same event would be interpreted differently by somebody who has been brought up believing that lightning can be created by humans and can target specific people that the “creator” wants to eliminate. When you understand that this is, at the end of the day, just an interpretation, it would be extremely sad if some people’s lives were lost as a result of the action of a group violently pursuing their interpretation and holding it to be the correct one, to the exclusion of other interpretations.
Two weeks ago, I was shocked to read the news of four elderly people having been murdered in Neno on suspicion that they were responsible for “creating” a lightning bolt that killed a 17-year-old. Those people died needlessly. Like many others have done before me, I condemn that act most unreservedly. These unnecessary killings must stop.
Malawians will, at the drop of a hat, accuse an individual of practising witchcraft. There is no logic in such accusations and no evidence is required to substantiate the charge. The next thing you hear is that the accused has been killed or chased or their belongings damaged. It is just a “convenient” way of getting rid of people that the accusers want to eliminate or to scandalise.
Many people suffer needlessly in Malawi in tragedies such as the one in Neno. It happens in rural areas as well as in urban areas, among the illiterates and among the educated. The terminology used may be different but the effect on an individual is equally devastating whether they are accused of witchcraft or Satanism. And Malawians have taken to applying such terms willy-nilly, with disastrous consequences.