One of the celebrities thrown up by the just concluded World Cup tournament in South Africa is the German Octopus Paul. The two-year-old psychic cephalopod achieved global fame for correctly predicting all of Germany’s World Cup matches, including their two defeats by Spain and Serbia. It also successfully tipped Spain to win the World Cup – predictions that reportedly led to the mollusc receiving death threats from Dutch fans as it did from German supporters in the two occasions it successfully predicted German defeats. Surprisingly the animal announced its retirement just a day after the conclusion of the World Cup.
There are a number of lessons from Octopus Paul.
One, belief in divination and other paranormal experiences is not an exclusively African thing, as is sometimes wrongly presented in the Western media. In addition to Octopus Paul, there are TV stations in Europe that are dedicated to broadcasting occult practices and paranormal experiences. Wives of some prominent politicians in the West have also been rumoured to be avid customers of those who claim to possess supernatural powers. In many African countries, even though the belief in occult and paranormal phenomena is pervasive, very few people want to be openly identified with them – for fear of being thought primitive. Will the open resort to divination in the West during the World Cup (as the case of Octopus showed) remove the stigma attached to such practices in Africa?
Two, the method used by Octopus Paul was transparent: it got the choice of picking food from two different transparent containers lowered into his tank - one with a German flag on it and one with the opponent ‘s flag. The container Paul opens first is regarded as his pick. Another creature that achieved a celebrity status during the World Cup, though less celebrated than Octopus Paul, was a parakeet, Mani, who in far away Singapore was said to have correctly predicted the results of the last five but one matches in the World Cup tournament. Mani’s method was also transparent: the 13-year-old parakeet would grab a card in his beak bearing the flag of the country it was predicting to win.
It is tempting to speculate on what would have happened if Octopus Paul was owned by a Nigerian, and the animal correctly predicted the outcome of one or two matches during the World Cup. It is likely that the owner would paint his face and eye lashes with the weirdest chalk around, build a mysterious grove for the creature (and if possible let decomposing corpses litter the pathway to the shrine) and spend the better part of an hour chanting incantations whenever any customer showed up. Of course he would only enter the shrine with his back, and tell every customer that the octopus was a gift from his great grand father or from a benevolent Water Mermaid. Were Octopus Paul owned by a Nigerian, we would by now have had priests and worshippers of the poor creature! Additionally, unlike Octopus Paul whose psychic power was apparently limited to predicting football matches, the Nigerian owner would claim the octopus would predict any event, heal any disease and infirmity and even tell you the person ‘blocking’ your success in life.
Three, despite the successes of Octopus Paul, it is unlikely to convince most Europeans that the alleged psychic abilities of the mollusc is reliable. For instance though he had a 100 percent success rate at the World Cup, of the six predictions he made during the 2008 European championship, he got only four correct. Similarly Mani wrongly picked the Netherlands to defeat Spain at the finals of the World Cup. For many, Europeans, yes, Octopus Paul has a high success rate, but he is unreliable.
Unlike Europeans, in Nigeria, the mere fact that the octopus achieved 100 percent success rate at the World Cup will mean that whatever he says (or is contrived to have said), will henceforth be taken as gospel truth – not mere prediction with a reasonable chance of error. How many diviners and pastors have created eternal enmity in families and communities by fingering people who are probably innocent, as the cause of other people’s misfortunes? By forcing practitioners (including pastors who claim healing and miracle powers) to make their methods more transparent to encourage public interrogation of such claims, the people will be better served, and abuses and bogus claims checked.
Four, anything that has a name probably exists in one form or the other so I am not totally discountenancing the existence of esoteric phenomena and occult practices. But there is something that does not seem right the way these claims are bandied around in Nigeria. Tales of occult practices – of people who could make your manhood disappear simply by shaking your hands, of women who could use ‘love potion’ to ensnare you into marrying them or to do their wishes, of people turning into yam tubers simply from wearing Okada helmets – are a daily staple instilling fears, even paranoia in the hearts of many. Often opportunities to raise questions about the supposed powers of these ‘forces’ are missed. For instance even though many people tremble when some shrines like Okija are mentioned, we do know that people like Dr Chris Ngige, former Governor of Anambra State, and Governor Theodore Orji of Abia State who apparently swore an oath of allegiance to their godfathers at the shrine fell out with these god fathers without anything apparently happening to them. Don’t we deserve an explanation from the administrators or priests of the Okija shrine - to help other clients hedge their risks? In the same vein, the curse famously placed by the Oba of Benin on kidnappers in the state does not seem to have stopped the menace of the hoodlums in the state. Doesn’t the public deserve to ask the Oba some questions about this curse, and why it doesn’t seem to have worked? This point is important because there are many people who consult oracles and accept whatever they are thought to have said as gospel truth – without any question on the method they used to arrive at their conclusions or the level of error in their judgments. There remain to this day illiterate and poor villagers who are forced to swear to deities and to accept whatever judgment or punishment they purportedly hand out – even though they do not understand how such forces work. The same is also true of people who rely on the jurisprudence of their pastors as intermediaries between them and God.
Five, though Octopus Paul has retired, the celebrity status it acquired during the World Cup is likely to spur further research on the psychic abilities of molluscs. There will certainly be books on the invertebrate and its psychic powers. How many books have been written about such phenomena in our country to inform or encourage debate? But come to think of it: what is really the difference between what the Asians proudly package and market as yoga and some of our traditional religious practices? Is there any difference between those Asians market as ‘gurus’, ‘earth masters’, ‘holy men’ and our ‘babalawos’, ‘dibias’ and ‘juju men’?
We can only tap into the positive aspects of psychic phenomena and occult practices by removing the stigmas that are attached to them and encouraging public scrutiny of claims.