African viewpoint: The Rhodesian Syndrome

Sisters at Kukuo village, one of Ghana's six witch camps Some elderly women accused of being witches are dumped in camps

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Elizabeth Ohene - who was a minister in Ghana's former NPP government - reflects on why sometimes journalists seem to turn a blind eye to what is happening in their own countries and report, instead, about faraway places.

I have been asking myself these past few weeks if I have the Rhodesian Syndrome after all.

The Rhodesian Syndrome is the name I gave to the condition which afflicts journalists that makes them write about events in far off places when they do not have the courage to tackle matters at home.

Up until Zimbabwe independence, we journalists in these parts always had a ready-made subject whenever there was a tricky subject at home that would get you into trouble with the authorities.

Ian Smith Ian Smith led Rhodesia from 1964-1978

I refer of course to a time when the media was largely state-owned on the continent.

The most dramatic example of the Rhodesian Syndrome in my experience was the day in 1979 when six top military leaders, including three former heads of state, were publicly executed here in Accra and the editorial in a state-owned newspaper the next morning was about some antic or the other of Ian Smith, the white-minority leader of the then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

Bless that man, Ian Smith - he could always be counted upon to provide colourful copy for any journalist scrambling around for something to write about.

The BBC World Service recently broadcast a programme in the Your World series on the witch village in northern Ghana.

The programme was titled No Country for Old Women and I recommend it to those of you who missed it. The story is also online.

I have been asking myself some questions: Why have I not written before about the witch village? and the answer, I think, is I have never been there; and why have I never been there, I do not know - especially since I have been in the vicinity of those villages.

But I do not think it was a case of deliberately avoiding the villages.

Modern and progressive?

I suspect the subject had not caught my imagination. But why not, when I have been known to take on causes that are less dramatic?

Two men pushing a car in Accra The 21st, 20th and 19th Centuries live side-by-side in Ghana

Why have I not tackled the subject of old and vulnerable women, accused of being witches and thrown out of their homes and villages, why have I not been outraged by the existence of villages in Ghana, called witches camps where real living women are thrown and left to manage on their own?

The programme-maker asks in dismay: "How could such things happen in a 'modern and progressive country like Ghana'?"- her words, not mine. Therein lies the enigma.

Is Ghana - my home, the country I live in - a modern and progressive country?

There are bits that are modern - and progressive even.

You should watch the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament at work. There are very few of the latest makes of cars that are not on our roads; pot holes and all; the latest iPhone that was launched a few days ago will be here as soon as they hit the shops. There are penthouses on sale for $1.4m (£900,000), and there is no central sewage system in the city.

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The truth is we live in three different centuries in this country, not just in terms of physical facilities”

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Over one million of the population are on Facebook and we are tweeting away about the latest star to have joined Manchester United and how much the club paid for him, we know what Didier Drogba had for breakfast last Tuesday, and over 50% of the people resident in Accra, the capital city, do not have toilets in their homes.

We are in the midst of an election campaign, and some will spend their energies devising ways to facilitate multiple voting and we are a self-respecting democracy.

The truth is we live in three different centuries in this country, not just in terms of physical facilities.

Those who live in the 21st Century try to simulate 21st Century conditions for themselves and do not want the 20th, never mind the 19th Century conditions and people to stray into their horizons.

Every once in a while, you can pretend that you live in a modern and progressive country, but mercifully you bump with reality all the time.

It might be a radio programme about witches. In your century, with your iPads and Samsung Galaxy Tabs, people do not believe in the existence of witches.

But try and listen in on a class of medical students at our leading medical school. Out of 45 students, 41 of them believe witches do exist.

What chance then that the camps will ever disappear or that people will be outraged about their very existence.

And here I had been planning to write about South Africa and Mr Julius Malema and his old friend Jacob Zuma, but I really would have succumbed to a serious case of the Rhodesian Syndrome.

If you would like to comment on Elizabeth Ohene's column, please do so below.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    UDI was declared on 11/11/1965, for 12 yrs under the rule of Ian Smith, Rhodesia only prospered, harvesting food which not only supplied Rhodesia, but most of Africa. Its mining industry also provided capital for investment. For all the time that Mugabe has been in power which the UK government help to put in place, there has only been hunger and death on a scale which people will never realise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I was in Zimbabwe for 1 year on a work exchange programme and was surprised to see the country in a much better shape than being reported ion western media. economic situation is better than some european countries believe me and I'm dont like Mugabe one bit.

    Dont belive all that you read in the sun newspaper and Murdochs empire.

    There is money to be made in Zim I swear!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Local journalists are frightened by frightening conditions. What reporting could they do, IF they are dead, assassinated. No doubt it takes extreme courage to report on local conditions, especially where corruption & bloodshed are right & left. Home-reporting is necessary to foster change; so, how to encourage? Stiff penalties, but what good are they IF you cannot find the assassin?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Zagreb, the capital of Croatia began constructing its central sewer in the last years of XIX century, and Dubrovnik, today also in Croatia, in the last years of XIII century. Centuries are pretty poor metaphor of progress, heavily location-dependent. Obviously Great Britain is the reference point. But why not choosing one in Africa? It would render more sober conclusions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I thought believing in witches was a medieval pastime?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Elizabeth, why don't you rather ask yourself "what did I accomplish the last time I was in government?" and spare reminding us that you served as a minister in any article that you write even when there is no need to do so. You keep finding excuses to your ineffectiveness as a minister, and now referring to your journalism days you are still giving excuses to your failures. Be real, Lizy Lizy!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    When the British left it was one of the richest countries in Africa, a few years of self rule it is now a basket case. Still Mugabe has his palaces and 20 Mercedes cars so not all is lost.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    seldom does education change mentality.i ask; why is a witch always an old woman with bloodshed eyes from cooking in a smokey hut ,who can not defend herself never the wife of the chief?Last week youths ,cellphones in hand , horribly abused a dog before trying to kill it ,because it belonged to a 'witch".
    Zimbabwe is a tragedy and so is the rest of the continent there is very little good news.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Wow! Great Article! I am heading Vic Falls for New Years and I will be in Zimbabwe for the very first time! I feel for the people up there!
    Proudly South African!

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    The 'Rhodesian Syndrome' was a very real propaganda tool used extensively by the international and African media to destroy Africa's most progressive and economically viable multiracial nation and replace it with a one-man one-party demagoguery from which it will probably never recover. A blot forever on the mis-use of media journalism worldwide.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    We have some friends at church from Zim. When we sit down after a service, we try to talk about Zim, even thought they haven't been there for nine years. What do we say? That Zim should turn back to the days of Ian Smith? That's out. Life under Mugabe? That's out. Hope for the future? That's out. So, we turn our attention to the weather, and then go home. That's about all we can do . . .

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    The only African journalist who don't have the Rhodesian Syndrome that I know is probably Nigeria's Sola Odunfa who writes it they way he saw it. African journalists need to emulate Odunfa and Nigeria's free press and not be afraid in pointing out what's wrong with their society and country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Ms Ohene has just put voice to my thoughts. If Ghana was a human being, her head will be in the 21st century, her trunk in the 20th and her feet in the 19th...if not the 18th! That says a lot: that we are going nowhere fast! Sadly no one should dare dragging the rest into the 21st.....they'll be dubbed "too known" (Ghanaian slang for someone all knowing...not a very pleasant accusation, trust me!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Perhaps the "Rhodesia Syndrome" would be less prevalent if journalists were less ashamed, or afraid, of their own countries? With so much of Africa in the grip of tyrants exploiting "traditional" prejudices, there is little incentive (or stomach) for the accurate reporting of home issues. However, given the ethical vacuum in so much of Western journalism, one can't be too critical!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    It seems to be a journalist's disease. They all seem to highlight the bad that's going on in far away places, while mainly overlooking what's happening next door.

    Perhaps it's in pursuit of 'justice' or, to avoid stepping on the toes of those who butter their bread. Maybe, it's meant to justify their trips to exotic destinations investigating these leads!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    since the 'advancement' from the days of Ian Smith that part of Africa appears to have fallen back to the 19th century almost competely - there always was a mix of old and new but the modern not in view so much now. I feel sorry for the people who have to live this way while the rest of the world is watching telelvision and playing video games

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Strange that all the main news items are about Muslim objections to public criticism of their religion, mostly misguided I'm sure.

    Have Your Say seems frightened to feature the subject.

    Can we not have open debate?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The paradoxicality of modern africa really hits home with this one. I greatly appreciated this article. Rare introspective candour and flair from an african journalist.
    What can I say about co-opted journalism? Be bold, be bold, but not too bold, lest your heart's blood should run cold. I'm not in your shoes. Only you can make them bigger.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    It is important to point out that witchcraft, voodoo or the worship deities & many gods is not unique to Africa. Everyone today, remember all the Greek's gods and godesses. Who can forgot witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, in early America. Voodoo & witchcraft are still being practised in both developed & developing world.The West often called their practice clairvoyant & call others' voodoo.


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