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Of ‘Killer’ Phone Calls

Ok, have you heard the latest rumor circulating?

I got a call from Naija a few days ago and after the discussions, my interlocutor asked me whether I knew what was going on in Naija. I was about to hang up the phone when this question came flying at me. So, I paused and asked to be told what this all-important news was. You see, usually when I call Nigeria, I try to get posted on the latest events—sometimes, I get the new information before they make it to the online Nigerian newspapers. Yes, word sure travels fast back in Naija.

In a partly unserious, partly scared tone of voice, he informed me that about 5 people suddenly dropped dead somewhere in Adamawa state after they replied a call from some anonymous 5 digit number. So the word spread like wildfire throughout the federation, and people are now being extra-cautious about picking up calls from 5 digit numbers. To understand why this would cause some panic, there is no telecommunications network in the entire country on which you could get a 5, 6 or even 7 digit number for your cellphone or landline. They are usually 10 or 11 digit numbers.

But why was this scary? According to the person who gave me this info, we’ve heard and seen a spate of violence from Boko Haram. His suggestion was that disgruntled and hidden Boko Haram members, fortified with great juju charms, have devised a new means of wasting lives. They would give you a call from this 5 digit number 09141, and as soon as you picked up the call, you would collapse and die—ostensibly from the devastating power of the charms which were being channeled across phone lines.

Hmmmmmm—dis naija people sef. Oh by the way, you can stop laughing now. You think I don’t see you smiling to yourself there?  But on a serious note: Why are so many Nigerians so superstitious and gullible?

I started to laugh after he finished his tale. In a stern voice, he demanded to know why I found the account amusing. I suppose in his mind, and given the plethora of scary supposedly supernatural events he had heard (but never seen), this was something to take seriously; something you dare not scoff at. This was probably in line with what he might have thought or suspected.

Pray tell me, how does one begin to answer this query? How exactly do you convince someone like him that the story is a hoax, or at best heavily embellished? How do you explain to him that people just do not slump and die from answering phone calls? How do you get him to understand that since he was never there and never personally witnessed the story, he couldn’t tell if 5 people really died—and if they did, what the full circumstances of their death was?  Who was it that did the autopsies of these dead people, or who exactly was the investigator that revealed all 5 (or however many casualties there supposedly were) had the particular ‘deadly’ number as the last calls on their phones? How do you explain to him that if at all 5 people died after picking phone calls, then you should first suspect that these unfortunate dead people were tracked and personally executed—and so didn’t die magically from getting a phantom  killer call?

When I began to persuade him not to pay attention to this nonsense, he quickly shot back at me that I was the one who was living in some lala-land because I have allowed myself to be deceived into thinking that rumors like these must have perfectly natural explanations which ought to rob them of their capacity to inspire fear and dread. He claimed that I had completely westernized my mindset and values and I have simply refused to acknowledge the ability of evil persons to channel their malicious ill-will to their targets through whatever technology is available.

I must admit it sounded like a compelling accusation. But when we x-rayed the details of this account, we found out that it really ought to be treated as a rumor. First was the fact that there was no compelling evidence for these claims—there did not seem to be any eyewitnesses to the account, nor any investigators who could verify the cellphones and the ‘killer numbers’. Secondly was the convenient distance and remoteness of the said account. This happened in some nondescript rural environ in an already sparsely populated dusty Adamawa village—at the very edge of nowhere. Thirdly was the fact that since the rumors began to spread it seems as if there have not been any further casualties. Why indeed would these supposedly malicious mobile phone murderers suddenly cease their operation seeing as there was virtually little to no means of being caught? And are we to believe that since this rumor started spreading a few days ago, everybody in Nigeria is now currently aware of this ‘deadly’ number 09141—aware and scared of the number so much so that they have taken great pains to not answer a possible call from the number? How possible is it to believe that these cellphone mercenaries could not find at least one unlucky chap out of 150 million (who perhaps due to sleepiness, tiredness or sheer carelessness) unknowingly answers a call from the ‘killer’ number a few seconds before realizing that he should not have done so?

By the time I was done talking to him in this manner, he was now laughing along with me at the transparent hilariousness of this claim. It reminded us of other urban legends and superstitious hogwash that one can find a dime a dozen in Nigeria. A clever spinner of tall tales is certainly going to enjoy this gullibility-rich environment. It is almost as if a great number of people come pre-packaged with a propensity for believing the utterly absurd. How easy to tap into this rich fountain of unquestioned credulity!

My friend was laughing with me at this stage, not quite sure how he could have allowed himself to be taken in by this obvious sham. As we were laughing at this absurdity, I suddenly stopped laughing and in a serious tone of voice I asked him:

“Hey, what if a call comes to your phone now from that 5 digit number. You will definitely pick it up now that you agree with me that this was just a silly hoax, right?

“You must be mad”, he shot back at me quickly “why would I want to do something stupid like that—did someone tell you that I am tired of my life or something? Stop this joke at once!”

And the line went dead.

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