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 43.

    How do you overcome centuries of belief in witches in only a few decades of so called enlightenment

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Dear Elizabeth,I was and am an ardent listener of your programs .Also I used to love to listen to Josephine Haisely but I am bit sorry to admit that some time it was a bit difficult to understand your spoken English.Hilton File,Aqua Amesu etc were nice in their pronunciation.You were only solace to me .

    only access to outside world as I was in a very remote area.Good luck

    to you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    She should write again in the Accra daily asking the churches in Ghana, chiefs, elders etc. to stand up and be counted. I am sure she would be free from the Rhodesian Syndrome.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    In their song "CLOCKS"; British band Coldplay sing "..AM I A PART OF THE CURE? OR AM I A PART OF THE DISEASE?"With more on TV about witchcraft,voodoo, occultism and ritual murder purportedly for instant riches, i believe the Ghanaian community should overhaul its structures for national orientation..oops! sorry, there's none! Ghana Syndrome: We act as if we know, but we we never learn!

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I used the piece as a reference on Radio Wa 89.8FM in Lira Northern Uganda... I cannot hesitate to say it really changed something about how the community handle eldery women and widows even in Northern Uganda... Just a couple of months ago; a woman was hacked to death on allegations that she possess power which were setting houses on fire... this can go along way!

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    #18 Kobby

    I have notice that you always use this medium to attack Elizabeth! Why? Did she offend you while in government? I do not always agree with her views and opinions, but i think today's piece is really thought provoking and started a good discussion.

    No need for the personal attacks.

    Good job Liz.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Elizabeth, I hope some day you will discover the real mystery in Africa. I have heard of attacks on Albinos in east Africa as many do not know what they are; children thrown out of their homes in Uganda or Tanzania by parents suspecting they are witches, etc. Across the continent, Churches are filled with new converts running away from Witches and Wizards. Can we pray?

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    This phenomenon is not restricted to African journalism. It also occurs here in Australia when left or right wing journalists (or politicians for that matter) wish to distract the other side for one reason or another.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Come on Man! That was below the belt. Sour grapes!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    To eradicate all Human Problems I propose that we should set up a new Philosophical Subject in Schools and Universities, called Human Made Utopia (Philosophy), as a medium to be used for the exploration of alternatives to human society's problems.

    To Support Me Click on: -
    HM Government e-petition link:

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    The Bush wars were a guise for the slaught, rape and pillaging by africain so called freedom fights of which there were many fractions. Majority of the killings was against small helpless villlages. As for Should Smith take some of the blame the answer is NO. Many White and Black Rhodesian soldiers fort side by side to prevent such atrocities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Yes, bless that Ian Smith, who had from '64 until '79 to broker a deal that could have brought about majority democracy and preserved a lot of the privileges for his kith and kin. Although Smith's administration was progressive by the standards of South Africa, he must shoulder some of the blame for the decline of Zimbabwe under a one party state that prolonging the Bush War brought about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    this is because of your invasion of the black continent for centuries

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    we'll wait till they tell us its back to being literal... until they change their minds again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    them on their beliefs rather than just saying stop, because an NGO of four white kids say so. Rather these sorts of issues should result in concrete discussion about religion in the African context by religious scholars, media and others.
    Otherwise, much like white people first said the bible was literal and are now saying its not,

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    practice. However, there is a more dense question about religious interpretation at the heart of this matter.. Is the bible/Koran etc. literal? Is it figurative? And what assessments are Africans making to reach their own conclusions? Villagers are not just kicking "mama" (and sometimes their own kids) out because villagers are wicked. The most effective wya to get them to stop is by engaging

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Elizabeth, kudos on a reflective piece. I'll take this a different place: to me one of the greatest problems in Africa discourse is that all involved treat it with great paternalism. We often set out to determine whether something is right (as dictated by ouisders) or wrong without asking a centraly question "WHY"?

    Obviously, casting out old women as witches is an awful, discriminatory

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Behind every strong woman
    there is a goat to be shred
    Nations bled
    Tales untold writers
    unsold its all about gold
    Progressive regressive
    The witch hunt is on
    Poor village in Ghana
    Sharp woman in Europe
    The distaste of truth
    Can never be chewed
    So one chooses to stew
    And stew
    To forget the state
    Of ones own shoes

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Why is it a white minority was so wrong, when it was doing so well for a country which for most of its land was totally uninhabited. The claims which Mugabe makes are totally unwarranted. The farm lands which are so called, being reclaimed, are at the cost of the hard work of the white owns who invested their lives, money and knowledge in the land. Why should they be punshed for helping a country

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Ah, the issue lie in the duality of culture clash rather than 19th, 20th or 21st century. For example, if we assume that education is culture, then these African journalist do not suffer from any Rhodesian disease but rather are cognitively challenged on local issues.


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