When Cultural Beliefs Make Truth Telling a Taboo, Society Stagnates (True Story)

Doing reliable social research in societies where people tell “unnecessary lies” in responding to questionnaires, can be a frustrating endeavour.

University of Ibadan’s Professor Janice Olawoye (a white American married to a Nigerian), in a paper she published over 30 years ago, explained the real life experience of a popular researcher who visited a Nigerian village.

Across the various cultures in the world, people’s beliefs and practices differ greatly.

For instance, in the society I was born and bred (i.e. Nigeria), opinion polls don’t often work the way they do in a place like the USA.

You see, majority (of course not all) Nigerians in Nigeria are heavily influenced by what they know is the popular position or thinking, at any point in time.

Sometimes they do this because of potential rewards they think they can get. Or the negative consequences they may feel a need to avoid.

As a result, seldom do majority respond to “surveys” based on how they really “feel” about issues.

Don’t ask me why this is so. I have no idea.

Read the story below, told by Professor Olawoye, who also wondered why…

True Story: Getting Nigerian Women in a Village to Say How Many Children They’ve Had – An Impossible Task?!

As one of her students in Agricultural Extensions Services in 1991, I got hold of a copy of a paper published back in the ’80s, byProfessor Janice Olawoye.

In it she discussed the problem created by unwillingness of Nigerian village women to be “truthful” about their child bearing history.

Among other examples, she narrated the experience of a well known researcher from abroad, who travelled down to conduct a survey.

The researcher expressed frustration on being told that answers provided by village respondents to questions like “How many children have you given birth to?” were NOT totally truthful.

The reason was that some village women had lost babies at birth, or their children had died later in life.

They believed it was degrading to count children born that were no longer alive!

So, a woman may actually have given birth to six children, two of whom died of malaria for instance. She would however respond in the questionnaire that she had only ever given birth to four children!

According to Prof. Olawoye, the visiting researcher could not understand why they thought this way and exclaimed:

“How can one ever carry out an accurate survey when people do not give the truthful answers to the questions?”

I still feel his pain – even now.

But just like anything else started by human beings, changes can always be made. And that is the point of this article.

The limited thinking of the women made them adopt that mindset about talking about their dead children.

They did not realise telling the truth in the survey, could help them prevent future child deaths.

For instance, the research survey findings could highlight frequent cases of infant mortality. Researchers could pass that information to policy makers in the health sector. A corrective programme could uncover improper practices by health workers or midwives. This could make government organise better training and/or supply of improved equipment.

Sometimes the survey information could catch the attention or interest of other bodies e.g. NGOs, and even relevant arms of the United Nations.

A decision could be reached to donate a grant or some improved health centre to cater to the needs of children, infants and child bearing mothers.

The Need for Regular Orientation and Education of Citizenry on Issues

I’ve used a health issue as an example here. But the same thinking should apply to current affairs (politics, voting rights and responsibilities etc) and so on.

The above case happened in a village. That does not mean it cannot happen in the city. Variants of it do! And that’s why HIV/AIDS still spreads despite readily available information about how to prevent it.

We must not wait till when an event – like a research survey – happens.

Rather, on a regular basis, we can progressively inform and educate those who need it. We will do so in a way that reduces the influence of wrong cultural beliefs, and practices, in their decision making.

When people are empowered to think responsibly and competently, they will take smarter decisions. Instances of adopting thinking that amounts to shooting themselves in the foot will no occur less.

Parents can help solve (or even prevent) problems by exposing kids to the good sides of culture, while encouraging them to challenge any questionable beliefs and practices.

We must let children know they have a choice, and urge them to exercise that right to make a choice.

No one can force them to accept a line of thinking, if they do not feel it serves them well.

We can do that for them as early as possible in life. By the time they leave home, they will have grown accustomed to thinking and acting based on the training we’ve given them.

And they will influence others to do the same – resulting in a society free from limiting beliefs!

[IMPORTANT: This blog's contents are being updated following the transfer to www.tayosolagbade.com from my former domain - Spontaneousdevelopment.com. As a result, some parts of it may not work properly for now. Quick Tip: If a link contains "spontaneousdevelopment.com", simply change it to "tayosolagbade.com" - and it should work. This applies to article links as well as image links. Work continues to update the links(in over 500 articles). Tayo K. Solagbade.]

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