Zolaconda: The allure of mass hysteria

Hundreds held vigil during the search
Hundreds held vigil during the search

On Tuesday afternoon, the southern half of Gaborone was brought to a standstill, after a seven-year-old girl reported that another child had been snatched by a snake-like creature near a stream in Old Naledi. With the incident subsequently debunked as a hoax by police, Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI, asks why mass hysteria is so seductive

The stories are well known.  Boarding school learners, usually girls, report that some mysterious, supernatural creature or force is terrorising them.

Others regularly report sightings of paranormal fiends.

In villages countrywide, a body of water, hill or mountain is said to be inhabited by an aggressive creature or spirit, most commonly an immortal reptile or disgruntled ghost of a former villager.

In each case, reports of sightings spark panic, fear and hysteria and in the case of learners, have often led to closures of institutions and the sending home of petrified students.

Experts describe mass hysteria as a phenomenon that transmits collective delusions of threats, whether real or imaginary, through a population in society as a result of rumours and fear.

Historically, nearly all parts of the world have reports of this phenomenon gripping communities.

From the ‘ghost’ allegedly spotted in Jamaica pushing a three-wheeled coffin in the 1970s, to the frog that reportedly went around Bulawayo, Zimbabwe forcing women to suckle it in the 2000s, triggers of mass hysteria abound.

The Jamaica incident is immortalised in Bob Marley’s 1970 hit, Mr Brown, which was the name that one of three crows perched on the coffin. would reportedly ask about whenever it encountered anyone!

 As the crowds near Therisanyo Primary School grew exponentially after the report in Old Naledi, similar fear took hold in the neighbourhood, with residents reporting that they had long suspected the presence of a supernatural snake in the area.

The presence of police, soldiers, wildlife and emergency medical officers, heightened the panic in the area and the city in general, where high summer temperatures already had residents on guard against dreaded reptiles such as cobras, black mambas and others.

As is common with the river monsters and ghosts in rural villages, many in the throng at Therisanyo knew someone who knew someone who had encountered the creature at some point.

“The child will not be seen again.  Fa e mo tsere, e mo tsere. These things are not for everyone’s understanding,” said Fanuel Kebakile, 45, a long-time resident of the area.

For the police, the Old Naledi incident is done and dusted, a clear hoax.

“The Botswana Police Service would like to assure members of the public that the search team cleared the area and there is no sign or traces of a snake-like creature,” police spokesperson, Christopher Mbulawa said in a statement on Wednesday.

The fact that the police felt the need to release such a statement, to many, underscored their efforts to quell the rising hysteria in the community closest to the incident.

On Wednesday morning, a day after police had called off their search, two vehicles were involved in an accident at the abduction scene, as the two drivers craned their necks towards the dreaded stream, losing focus on the road.

The subsequent arrival of police to attend to the accident, then led to a resurgence in the numbers of onlookers who mistook the appearance of police for fresh developments in the case.

According to one expert, there is a science to the panic within the crowds at Therisanyo and citywide.

“Mass hysteria is a survival reaction that says conformity to the group equals safety,” local clinical psychologist, Cobus van der Walt, said in an interview yesterday.

“Humans have a tendency to conform to the majority as a survival mechanism.”

 According to Van der Walt, when it comes to perception, nothing is at it seems. The millisecond process of looking at an object or situation, processing it, understanding it and responding to it, is highly dynamic and complex.


Cutting back on the technospeak, Van der Walt tried to simplify the process. Essentially, the image formed in the retina of the eye starts as a chemical reaction and then is transmitted as an electrical impulse to various parts of the brain.

The brain attempts to make connections with past events (hypocampus), applies emotion to the thoughts (amygdala) and triggers an appropriate response.

Belief systems are highly influential in perception and determine what the viewer sees as true, untrue, real or unreal.

For  Onkemetse Phaladi, 35, there is no question of the authenticity of supernatural creatures.

“When we were young, we used to think the stories about river and stream monsters were meant to keep us from drowning,” she said.

“However, that could not explain the sounds we would hear from the river at dusk. As a teenager, I personally saw the water on the river violently disturbed by something one evening and I will never forget that day.

“No one has ever proven that these things don’t exist.”

 For Van der Walt, there is a reason many of these incidents are reported by the youth, such as the seven-year-old in this week’s matter.

“The upper cerebral cortex needs to be well developed for one to distinguish between fact and fiction and youngsters may not have reached that level of neurological maturity,” he explained.

“That’s why young children have strong imaginations. Also, children are more inexperienced in processing their emotions.”

From a single eyewitness, the report of mysterious creatures or spirits grows and soon clouds a whole community in anxiety and fear.

“There’s an environmental interlink between people and their belief systems,” Van der Walt said.

“There’s a saying that ‘everybody cannot be wrong.’”

From the man-fish creatures often reported across water bodies in the country, to Bob Marley’s coffin-pushing ghost, to the suckling frog in Bulawayo, triggers of mass hysteria are not going away anytime soon.

Old Naledi residents are simply joining communities all over the world wrestling with belief systems, neurons and the question of what is real and what is not.

Editor's Comment
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