Ghana’s day of shame, lynching old ‘witch’
There are many good things about Ghana for which we need to be rightly proud of. On any single day, many good things happen in Ghana.
Sadly, however, bad things equally happen with some coming to the attention of the public.
Such was the case of the unfortunate and shameful lynching of a 90- year old woman, Akua Denteh, alleged to be a witch. The lynching was instigated by a traditional priestess, perhaps more appropriately, traditional false priestess, who proclaimed grandma Denteh a witch.
A young lady and an elderly woman are seen in the video directly molesting and beating her, with a crowd standing by and watching, whether in delightful amusement or in helpless amazement they are equally guilty.
Expectedly, the whole nation has been thrown into anger and righteous indignation. It has elicited the response and sympathy of many Ghanaians, high and low, from different camps.
President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo and the First Lady have condemned the action, with the President describing it as a disfigurement of the image of Ghana.
The former President and flag bearer for the opposition National Democratic Congress, Mr John Mahama, has equally criticised and condemned it. Both the Daily Graphic and the Ghanaian Times have dedicated their editorials to the lynching.
The Ministry of Gender, Women and Social Protection (MoGWSP) has not been left out with human rights advocates and many more. The Gonja Traditional Council has openly, in a press release, condemned the act and the police have mounted a search for the perpetrators.
God bless the video (wo)man and the video technology. You can imagine how many such lynches have gone unreported because nobody filmed them.
Witches, witches’ camps
There are witches’ camps in the country. This practice has a long history but the bottom line is that some people are believed to be witches and the only way the society thinks they can deal with them is to eliminate them, lynch them.
There are, however, some overlords, I won’t call them witchdoctors, who claim to be able to exorcise the witchcraft. Thus, if you have kind family members, then they will take you there for ‘exorcism’.
If they are not kind, or neighbours find you, they will want to lynch you, so you sneak out to the camps for refuge.
Interestingly, who are those they describe as witches? My little study and anecdotes indicate that for every 20 persons believed to be possessing witchcraft, 19 may be women (witches), with only one being a man (wizard).
Obviously an issue of vulnerability is at the bottom. The typical ‘witch’ is an elderly woman, childless or all her children having pre-deceased or abandoned her, may have some deformity of some sort, poor, no relatives around and perhaps lost all teeth.
She may be suffering from dementia which makes her forgetful and behave like a child, or depression which makes her confess to imaginary crimes, or schizophrenia which muddles her thinking and behaviour.
This is a typically vulnerable person and is subject to the society venting their spleen in what sociologists consider a social strain gauge (as a measure of the strain on society to release its pressure or pent-up anger on a perceived enemy), or simply scape goatism for the society's deflection of its weakness and challenges to blame the innocent individual — that after all it is not our fault that our society is, or I myself am not prospering, it is this little ugly old bitch.
Whether witchcraft exists or not is a subject of a full length article and we cannot do justice to that here in this piece.
However, it is largely a superstitious belief which does a lot of harm to us as a society and sends us to 400 years back to the history of Europe, where they had the papal malleus maleficarium (witches hammer) to hunt and lynch ‘witches’.
For now let me say, if you believe in it, that is your entitlement, keep your belief. The 1992 Constitution guarantees freedom of belief, but do not attempt to influence other people’s belief and do not allow that belief to influence your dealing with others and lead to abuse of their human rights.
In this regard I was sad when I heard on the radio, a prominent journalist insisting that “the thing is real, it exists”. Imagine how many minds he polluted that day.
If I may ask, since when have we suddenly realised this practice exists and is abhorrent? Witches’ camps dotted in the northern part of the country, why do they exist?
They exist as a haven of refuge for suspected ‘witches’ otherwise they will be lynched and many have been lynched.
The traditional rulers, the opinion leaders, the government appointees in those communities where the witches’ camps exist, why the inaction all along?
If grandma Akua Denteh’s lynching becomes a reason for our waking up from our slumber to stop this practice, then she has died a martyr. If after a few days we go back to our old norm, then she has died in vain.
The perpetrators will have to be hunted and as popular as the priestess is said to be in the locality, it should not take time to flush her out, drag her before the courts of law and give her the just treatment. But I am afraid that will not be enough.
We will need to go further and uproot the practice. And I am not just talking about lynching, which is the ultimate abhorrent practice, but also the incarceration in the witches’ camp. We need to disband and abolish the witches’ camps and that also means we need to uproot the belief in the need for the practice.
There must be systematic education of the people in the traditional area, starting from the chiefs and other traditional rulers, then the spiritualists or prayer healers, pastors and traditional priests (sociologically a preferred term to fetish priests), then other opinion leaders including youth leaders, then the churches and mosques, market places and then the general public.
Thereafter we need education of the overlords and proprietors of the witches’ camps. Then the inmates, alleged witches. Then relatives of the alleged witches
We may need to provide incentives or ‘compensation’ to the overlords in lieu of the services of the ‘witches’ (they use the capable ones among them for farming). Then be sure where these women will be taken to.
Do not close down the camps all at a go, but systematically as we watch the effect and impact, to avoid an undesired boomerang effect. Then eventually close down all the camps with the people fully integrated into the society.
Where there is going to be a challenge, create a sheltered home for the women and call it ‘aged peoples’ home,’ while we systematically look for means of eventually integrating them back into the society.
The MoGWSP can spearhead this and bring together the Ministry of Chieftaincy and Religious Affairs, the National House of Chiefs and the Mental Health Authority of the Ministry of Health to collaborate. We are happy and prepared to offer our support in this matter.
The writer is Chief Executive, Mental Health Authority (MHA)