What does it really mean to say that we live in a fast-changing world? The meaning of this well-worn phrase seems to have narrowed greatly over time to focus mainly on economic development while glossing over the many social implications of technological progress. The world has only just begun to grasp the importance of this aspect of development early in the 21st century, and there is so much more we can discover by paying attention to the critical new developments that are occurring all around us.
The sakawa phenomenon is one example that hits close to home, particularly if you live in West Africa, where the practice is known by several different names. The true meaning of the word is unclear to me, but I first encountered the term in reference to certain types of rituals performed by traditional priests with the specific intention of granting obscene wealth to the seeker. As a rule, the wealth comes at the cost of an early death along with a similarly prohibitive bill, livestock and alcohol inclusive. The practice has undergone a rapid transformation over the past few years, having been cut out from the past somehow and pasted into the future, in a unique fusion between high technology and centuries-old tradition.
The cyber-crime epidemic in West Africa has been the main driver of this change, luring untold thousands of young men and women to taking the fastest route out of the poverty trap. Despite the fact that these youth are growing increasingly sophisticated in their schemes, a significant number of them seem to be turning to traditional belief as a means to guarantee a high rate of success. Those who engage in this practice, dubbed sakawa boys, employ the services of traditional priests with the purpose of supernaturally enforcing the co-operation of their ‘clients;’ the potential victims of their online scams.
Sakawa boys have managed to hack Africa’s natural mystic; redefine her unique cosmology, and twist it to suit their purposes. As destructive as their activities are, we still can learn from this fascinating illustration the way in which cultural evolution occurs over time, mediated by technology, in constant exchange with the rest of the world, growing ever more nuanced and intricate with each step forward. I expect to see many more of such interactions between culture and technology in the near future, and I’m sure that if we pay more attention to such phenomena we will be better able to navigate through the turbulent waters of our near future.
This article was originally published in the December 2010 edition of DUST Magazine. It’s just a thought to keep in mind for now, but I plan to deal further with the sakawa phenomenon in the near future.