For some Ghanaians above a certain age, stories of ritual murders almost always bring rather uncomfortable memories of the story of little Kofi Kyintoh in the Sefwi Bekwai area back in the 1980s, with Abesim in the Bono Region also another hotspot back then.
Perhaps what made the story of Kofi Kyintoh more compelling was the chilling and almost iconic photograph in the newspapers of his uncle, Benjamin Affi, a 28-year-old farmer, holding his severed head.
It was his uncle who had lured the nine-year-old boy to be killed and had actually witnessed the execution.
For many years, both the Sefwi and Abesim areas evoked negative connotations as epicentres of ritual murders in the country.
Sadly, Abesim is back on the front pages for all the wrong reasons, more than three decades after the Krontihene of the area, Nana Twene, and two others, were arrested, tried in the local tribunal, found guilty and executed for the ritual murder of a pregnant woman.
The chief’s body was brought to the Abesim town. Soldiers of the then military government tied up the body behind a car and dragged it along on the ground.
Women and children reportedly followed the vehicle as they sang and danced.
What I find frightening about the unfolding case of Richard Appiah, the young man alleged to have murdered two little children in order to sell their parts to others for ritual purposes, is how ordinary he looks.
Of course, one does not have to judge a book by its cover, neither is there a textbook definition of what a murderer looks like. But for an apparently regular member of society, respectful, a football player and a sports enthusiast, he could easily be a cousin or uncle or friend or neighbour we hold in some affection.
Who would have thought that human heads would be sitting in his refrigerator as he went about his daily business, or that a human torso was lying in a pool of blood behind a locked door in his house?
It is his ordinariness, and even his likeability, that makes it rather scary, because in a way, it makes you look around and wonder what dark secrets the people around you are harbouring, and to what extent you can even trust your child in the care of a relative, given that Richard is apparently the stepson of the father of the poor boy whose murder led to the grisly discoveries?
But if we lose faith and trust in those around us, then what else do we have left? It is a tightrope.
‘Get rich’ syndrome?
On some social media platforms, I have come across the narrative that ritual murder is a symptom of a growing ‘get rich’ syndrome in a society that does not care about how people suddenly become rich overnight, the argument being that people engage in all sorts of rituals involving body parts as a means to get rich.
My problem with this argument is two-fold. First, not all who murder for ritual purposes or otherwise get involved in the ‘value chain’ of ritual murders do so in anticipation of wealth. For some, it may be for spiritual protection against perceived enemies or to entrench oneself in power, as was in the case of the Abesim chief referred to earlier.
My second challenge is whether human body parts rituals really deliver whatever goals are sought.
Do these rituals lead to pythons in the bedroom vomiting money, complete with Bank of Ghana serial numbers, as some of us have heard time without end, or some other fantastic money-making schemes whose stories have been told over and over again, even on our television screens by its practitioners?
What is the track record of success such as would encourage others to seek body parts for such schemes and thereby create a demand for which set themselves up as merchants of death to kill and obtain these parts for a ready market?
Do you believe these wealth-creation ‘schemes’?
Without doubt, African philosophical thought and daily expression is deeply rooted in spiritualism as a core part of our lives, and even with slavery and colonialism and globalisation, we remain fundamentally welded to this.
Everything has a spiritual dimension and that seems to define who we are, because they carry far more weight than we would care to admit.
The typical ‘Onyame adom…’ (by the grace of God…) as the default response to a ‘how are you?’ query is perhaps the simplest example of this, which you will not find in western societies, for instance.
We are a miracle-seeking population deeply anchored in spirituality, and which finds expression in several ways, whether it is running to all manner of religious personalities from pastors to mallams to traditional practitioners to cure infertility, secure a job or a visa, improve our business, strengthen our marriages, or get rid of a work or business or love rival.
In all of these quests, the ‘client’ may be asked to bring white eggs, anointing oil, Florida oil, a spotless cockerel or some other ‘sacrifice’.
Prayer sessions, replete with prayer warriors, fasting and a whole array of tools are marshalled in order to seek answers to our daily challenges – challenges which are resolved in other societies through science and simple efficiency or proper management.
Is the belief that body parts can deliver whatever goal its adherents seek an extension (albeit extreme) of what goals many of us seek through spiritual means?
Long road ahead
Murder, for whatever reason, is a horrible thing. For the purposes of performing or facilitating the performing of rituals for whatever purpose, it is a dastardly thing, and our society rightly finds it repulsive.
The state, through law enforcement, has a duty to bring its perpetrators to book in order to instil public confidence, allay fears and probably deter would-be perpetrators.
My worry, however, is that given the deep-seated beliefs held by some in the potency of human parts to help them spiritually to achieve whatever they desire, and, therefore, the demand that it creates, we as a society have a long way to go in stamping this practice out.