Who killed Amma Hemmah?

Wed, 8 Dec 2010 Source: Gyan-Apenteng, Kwasi

Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng

I am surprised that the majority of Ghanaians who have had the opportunity to comment on the horrific death of Madam Ama hemmah, suspected of witchcraft, pronounced themselves appalled or even surprised; after all, this woman was killed by us, all of us. In fact, given the widespread belief in witchcraft and therefore the high tolerance for the consequences of witchcraft accusations, this horrendous killing is only the tiniest peep into a world of dark horrors, fear and death. There are hundreds of Ama Hemmas dying in a hundred different ways every day across this country. Our revulsion is a misplaced emotion if it is not accompanied by a deep sense of shame and rectification.

It is difficult to have a rational discussion on witchcraft in Ghana because any attempt to discuss the subject is met with a howl of protest in the grounds that witchcraft exists and that witches are wicked and deserve every bit of cruelty that comes their way. The witch, as a self-evident phenomenon in the Ghanaian cosmology, exists in some far flung frontier of the human rights debate – untouched and untouchable – a caste to be despised and condemned without proof.

Let us look at the evidence: In the Northern Region alone, there are six “witches camps”, which are ad hoc communities of mostly elderly women who have been chased out of their homes by accusations, threats, physical and psychological violence. There are no social facilities at these camps and children living there have no access to education, and all residents are denied any form of medical care or even potable water. They do harsh manual work and live like slaves. These women are citizens of Ghana, supposedly living under the protection of the 1992 Constitution of this Republic.

To hear their stories, they are the lucky ones. Madam Shetu (not her real name) had a mundane domestic quarrel with her sister in law. Her brother joined in on his wife’s side in the widened conflict until, apparently sated, they all went to bed. Her brother died in his sleep that night. To the villagers this was incontrovertible evidence that she was a witch. She was helped in her escape from their village by her eldest son and made her way to Gambaga, the location of the biggest of the six witches’ camps in the Northern Region. That was 40 years ago. She has lived there all her life as a refugee in her own land.

At the moment there are hundreds of mostly elderly women and children in the six witches’ camps in the Northern Region but there are hundreds of thousands of women languishing in so-called prayer camps across this country. These prayer camps are worse than torture camps where inmates are subjected to all manner of inhuman and degrading treatment. What country allows this to happen to its citizens? The name is Ghana and it is a democratic republic but behaves like a medieval theocracy.

That is the problem. The widespread belief in witchcraft is an unchallenged starting point in our individual and collective perspective on life, to the extent that anyone who questions this assumption is seen as some kind of misfit. This belief is woven into a cultural theology that has become pervasive and invasive in the new epidemic of superstition in which we find ourselves. The irony is that most Ghanaians profess some kind of enlightened belief such as Christianity or Islam in which God is good and all powerful. However, this belief in, and fear-driven reverence for witchcraft, veer very close to an exaltation of the antithesis of God. Frankly speaking, from my recollection, witchcraft is now more central to our belief system than at any time in our social history.

The consequence is that people are suffering in myriad ways that are not only cruel and degrading but completely unnecessary and avoidable. This is why I worry that we do not trust the evidence of the senses that God has given us. Let me give you some examples: About three days ago, I was told about a three year old boy who nearly died because a “certain man” told the boy’s father that the obvious symptoms of malaria the child was showing were signs of spiritual illness and gave the father some anointing oil to put on the child’s body. The father of the boy told me that he KNEW the child had malaria but was afraid to disobey the instructions of the “certain man” and lose the child.

Another example: A driver of a Mercedes 207 bus who had had a bit too much to drink was returning with a funeral party back to their hometown when the bus collided with a truck killing all the passengers and the driver. The accident was blamed on witchcraft in a bizarre piece of illogic that makes sense only in the convoluted context of elevated irrationality, to wit, ONE of the passengers had been bewitched and so the other 22 victims were accidental victims in an incident in which only the one woman was the intended victim. People believe this.

As has been pointed out countless times, witchcraft beliefs are not confined to Ghana and Africa, and the belief is not the problem. People believe all kinds of things but it is the consequences of the belief and the freedom with which people are accused that is causing the problem. The pervasive belief that every illness or misfortune can be traced to a spiritual source is not an accidental belief. It is being propagated by people who are making huge and obscene amounts of money from exploiting the beliefs that they are themselves circulating. If you ever tune your radio to some of the more backward radio stations in the country you will be appalled at what we allow to pass for commercial advertising on the airwaves.

It is obvious that this current epidemic of witchcraft belief is not a value free integral part of peoples’ religious beliefs but a well orchestrated campaign by some selfish individuals to sow seeds of fear and ignorance. And they do this freely on radio, television, in buses and street corners. They do it with breathtaking impunity knowing that no one will dare touch them. When you think about it, these people must be arrested for causing fear and panic in the country, but no one will arrest them because they are above the law.

This is what killed Madam Ama Hemmah, and we are all implicated in her death by our silence, by our fear and by our complicity in the massive violation of human rights going on in this country. What happened to Madam Hemmah caused an outraged only because it happened in Tema. Hundreds of cases of people harming, maiming and killing suspected witches daily in the rural areas where witchcraft beliefs and their consequences provide a narrative to compensate for the absence of infrastructure to deal with illnesses, poverty and even death.

Madam Hemma, from the available evidence, could have been suffering from some old age related medical conditions that have been diagnosed in modern society and for which help has long been available. Here, the symptoms of such medical conditions are viewed with fear and suspicion and the sufferers isolated and abused. These are signs of fear and general backwardness from which the nation must move away. Unfortunately, those who profit from such fears have made the belief in witchcraft not only central to people’s lives but inevitable.

Those who defend the treatment meted out to suspected witches on the grounds that they have committed some spiritual misdeeds must be reminded that a few decades ago, women in their period were banished to spend a whole week in the bush (which gave rise to the Akan euphemism for the menstrual period (oko afikyire) because they were spiritually unclean. Even when they were allowed back into society, such women were not allowed to cook or get to close to their husbands. Today, such thinking has almost disappeared with no discernible effect on man or woman.

I have not set out to argue against the existence of witchcraft, which would be a futile exercise. I am arguing for justice and fairness for those accused of witchcraft, but more crucially, I am arguing that before we attribute situations to witchcraft, we could do well to look first for other explanations and only move into the spiritual realm when the evidence shows that there is no possible explanation in the material and rational world. And another thing: the misogynistic basis for labelling old women witches must also be the foundation for questioning the spiritual essence of witchcraft accusations in the first place. If we are as truly concerned with Madam Hemmah’s death then we must show by deed and not just words.


Columnist: Gyan-Apenteng, Kwasi