The Rhodesian Syndrome


Elizabeth Ohene

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 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.

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?

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.

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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.

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

End Quote 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.

•Ohene, a minister in Ghana’s former NPP government, wrote this article for the BBC

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