Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Witch hunts in Gambia

Yes, this is the 21st century. But medieval times are not going away soon. We have the Taliban insisting on flogging women in public, beheading people on the slightest of offenses, throwing acid on the faces of students. We have Saudi Arabia, so terrified of women behind the wheels that it still does not allow women to drive - over a hundred years after the invention of the automobile. In a fierce competition to take the country back to the medieval times, we now have Gambia. Apart from other crazy things (the least of which is that its ruler insists on being called, "His Excellency President Professor Dr. Al-Haji Yahya Jammeh"), we can now add witch hunts to the list:

The president, it seems, had become concerned about witches in this country of mango trees, tropical scrub, dirt roads, innumerable police checkpoints and Atlantic coastline frequented by sun-seeking European tourists mostly unaware of the activities at nearby Mile 2 State Central Prison, where many opponents of the regime are taken.

To the accompaniment of drums, and directed by men in red tunics bedecked with mirrors and cowrie shells, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Gambians were taken from their villages and driven by bus to secret locations. There they were forced to drink a foul-smelling concoction that made them hallucinate, gave them severe stomach pains, induced some to try digging a hole in a tiled floor, made others try climbing up a wall and in some cases killed them, according to the villagers themselves and Amnesty International.

The objective was to root out witches, evil sorcerers who were harming the country, the villagers were told. Terrified, dozens of other people fled into the bush or across the border into Senegal to escape the dragnet, villagers said, leaving whole regions deserted. Amnesty estimates that at least six people died after being forced to drink the potion, whose composition is unknown.
And this atrocious campaign is focused mostly on the elderly and on top of it, there is shame associated with these accusations:
The witchcraft accusation brings shame in a society where belief in sorcery “was pervasive and still is pervasive,” according to Lamin Sanneh, a Gambian-born history professor at Yale University. Beyond that is the trauma of being uprooted and the illnesses that people say linger from the bitter potion. “This stigma will follow us into our grave,” said Dembo Jariatou Bojang, the village development committee chairman in Jambur, a dusty town 15 miles from the capital. “We will never forget this.”
As he spoke, an elderly man sitting on the floor of the village imam’s house shook his head uncontrollably from side to side. The men in the room said the symptom developed after the man, said to be in his 80s, was forced to drink the liquid.
This is so sad and ridiculous. In a connected world, we have to take some blame for allowing these things to happen in this day and age.

Read the full story here.


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