Evil spirits in frame for strange goings-on at Gambian school


Traditional beliefs vie with Islamic orthodoxy, as society grapples with girls’ odd behaviour

WHEN, EARLIER last month, up to 100 teenage girls at a large secondary school in the Gambia began to faint uncontrollably in class and were seemingly overcome by fits of screaming and shrieking, it might be assumed that the reaction would be one of scepticism, incredulity or even a little amusement.

Perhaps one or even two occurrences might just be considered plausible, but dozens of pupils reportedly collapsed during class, apparently overwhelmed by uncontrollable outbursts, resulting in a temporary release from their studies.

Were such an episode to occur in an Irish classroom, it would likely be attributed to adolescent histrionics, attention-seeking behaviour mimicked by impressionable classmates in an attempt to get a few days away from the classroom. An elaborate version of “pulling a sickie”.

However, here in the Gambia, the response from education and religious leaders has taken a different form. Officials have publicly attributed the happenings to the malign intervention of “evil spirits”, known locally as jinneh. Supposedly, these jinneh have been tormenting young girls across the country for several years now.

Accounts from the affected institution, the Ming Daw Upper Basic School in Farato, describe how the events began to unfold at 10am when 30 pupils were initially affected. Local media reports describe how “some of the affected pupils were screaming and running away from people”. Attempts to restrain them were hampered because apparently “it was difficult for anyone to control them, as they seemed to possess extra powers”.

The school was immediately closed for the rest of the day.

However, it seems that it was not to be a one-off occurrence. Speaking on a visit to the school the next day, the regional educational director with responsibility for the school described the scene he encountered: “While I was driving past the school, I saw a good number of students standing outside. I stopped and entered the school and all I could see again were students falling and screaming on the ground all over the school campus.”

The director explained that at a Parent Teachers Association meeting convened following a similar previous occurrence there was unanimity as to the cause of the incident: “We agreed that the phenomenon has something to do with spiritual powers. Whenever the evil spirits attack someone, he or she becomes very powerful, making it difficult for three or even four people to control him or her.”

In an attempt to counter the evil spirits, the director has said he plans to invite Islamic scholars to the school to recite the Holy Qur’an, while he also appealed to parents to change their children’s attire, encouraging girls to wear longer dresses and keep their heads covered. “Their skirts need to be thoroughly looked into, as many of the female students’ uniforms are very short,” he said.

In a country with an overwhelmingly Muslim population – 90 per cent of the population adhere to the faith – Islamic religious leaders have also verified the existence of these jinneh and spoken about their damaging impact.

Abdoulie Fatty, the imam of the State House, claims there are both good and bad jinneh. He said: “Anyone attacked by the bad spirit always possesses extra power because when the spirit enters any of its victims’ blood, it gives additional strength that makes the person convulse.”

A few days back, in order to help counteract their destructive influence he urged every school to take their morning devotion seriously to help conquer these evil spirits.

The Gambia, as seems to be the case in many parts of West Africa, exhibits this particular juxtaposition of conventional religious practices with supernaturalism.

All communities, even small villages, are likely to have a resident official imam who will lead his congregation at the call to prayer and is considered the head of the local mosque. However, equally, there will probably be another variety of religious leader known as a marabout.

These individuals keep pre-Islamic practices alive and perform supposed paranormal-like activities such as foreseeing the future and making amulets known as “jujus”. These jujus purportedly have supernatural powers and can stave off misfortune, protect against ill-health or bestow someone with magical physical strength.

Significantly, marabouts tend to exist principally in West African Muslim states and are not found in Middle Eastern or Asian Islamic nations.

The rationale for this might be that prior to the arrival and subsequent acceptance of mainstream religious like Islam and Christianity, multiple spiritual traditions existed and functioned actively within the culture. So when Muslim proselytisers established the religion in the Gambia during the 19th century, they did not succeed in entirely eradicating the old beliefs. On the contrary, these long-established and deep-rooted practices are still very much part of the country’s psyche.

Tellingly, in this incident, the parents of those girls allegedly possessed by spirits eschewed treatment from mainstream medicine. The regional director reported that: “A number of doctors and nurses came to the scene in an effort to control the affected pupils, but as the news spread quickly, parents ran to the school to take away their children back home.”

I suspect that the local marabout is in for a busy few days. A classic case of “old habits dying hard”.

Daniel English is in the Gambia on a 12-month placement as an accompanying volunteer with Voluntary Service Overseas. He is working with the Gambian Press Union, an organisation that promotes press freedom and media development in the Gambia, and with Concern Universal. In Ireland, he has worked as a media and communications officer with the Health Service Executive and the Houses of the Oireachtas