Watch a man--say, a politician--being interviewed on television, an you are observing a demonstration of what both he and his interrogators learned in school: all questions have answers, and it is a good thing to give an answer even if there is none to give, even if you don't understand the question, even if the question contains erroneous assumptions, even if you are ignorant of the facts required to answer. Have you ever heard a man being interviewed say, "I don't have the faintest idea," or "I don't know enough even to guess," or "I have been asked that question before, but all my answers to it seem to be wrong?" One does not "blame" men, especially if they are politicians, for providing instant answers to all questions. The public requires that they do, since the public has learned that instant answer giving is the most important sign of an educated man.
In Uganda, I wrote a questionaire that I had my research assistants give; on it, I asked about the embalasassa, a speckled lizard said to be poisonous and to have been sent by Prime minsister Milton Obote to kill Baganda in the late 1960s. It is not poisonous and was no more common in the 1960s than it had been in previous decades, as Makerere University science professors announced on the radio and stated in print… I wrote the question, What is the difference between basimamoto and embalasassa? Anyone who knows anything about the Bantu language—myself included—would know the answer was contained in the question: humans and reptiles are different living things and belong to different noun classes… A few of my informants corrected my ignorance… but many, many more ignored the translation in my question and moved beyond it to address the history of the constructs of firemen and poisonous lizards without the slightest hesitation. They disregarded language to engage in a discussion of events… My point is not about the truth of the embalasassa story… but rather that the labeling of one thing as ‘true’ and the other as ‘fictive’ or ‘metaphorical’—all the usual polite academic terms for false—may eclipse all the intricate ways in which people use social truths to talk about the past. Moreover, chronological contradictions may foreground the fuzziness of certain ideas and policies, and that fuzziness may be more accurate than any exact historical reconstruction… Whether the story of the poisionous embalasassa was real was hardly the issue; there was a real, harmless lizard and there was a real time when people in and around Kampala feared the embalasassa. They feared it in part because of beliefs about lizards, but mainly what frightened people was their fear of their government and the lengths to which it would go to harm them. The confusions and the misunderstandings show what is important; knowledge about the actual lizard would not.