12/02/2010 03:07 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ghana "Witch" Killing Points to a Broader Culture of Fear and Superstition

The brutal murder of a 72-year-old woman who was suspected of witchcraft in Ghana has been met with public outrage after a photograph showing her in a near naked state appeared on the front page of the nation's most popular newspaper, the Daily Graphic, last week.

The photograph of Ama Hemmah, who had been doused with kerosene and set alight in the courtyard of a family home, was taken at a local hospital and showed her burnt from face to waist with scraps of clothing that barely covered her breasts melted to her skin. Many locals of Tema, the harbor city in which the murder occurred, have expressed shock and anger, but human rights activists have suggested that Hemmah's death points to a deeper culture of fear, superstition and violence against women accused of witchcraft.

Ama Hemmah, a poor 72-year-old woman, traveled on a bus from the village of Ajumako Assasan in Ghana's Central Region to Tema where her two sons and daughter lived. Hemmah rose early in the morning without telling anyone she had left and had not informed children she was coming to visit. At Tema, she got down from the bus and wandered around begging for food, as she often did because she was poor. Then she wandered into a house in Site 7 of the Community 1 area of the city to ask for money and food. She was accused of being possessed by the devil, beaten and then finally doused with kerosene and set alight. This is what her son, Stephen Ofosy Yeboah, a 48-year-old taxi driver remembers his mother saying as she lay in her hospital bed. Hemmah died in the Tema General Hospital the following day. Yeboah said his mother was a devout Roman Catholic and had never engaged in or been accused of witchcraft.

But Pastor Samuel Fletcher Sagoe claimed Hemmah was a witch who intended to do he and his family harm. When I met Sagoe he walked me into the room where he discovered the stranger who had been sent by the devil. He retraced his steps and said he unlocked the gates and came into his sister Emelia Opoku's room to find Hemmah standing by the window.

Sagoe pointed to the barred window that sat behind the countless items of damp clothing strung from lines crossing the walls in the tiny room. Sagoe said he was puzzled and could not comprehend how the woman had gotten through the gate, as it was locked and far too high for her to jump over it. The pastor took Hemmah into the courtyard and questioned her about how she managed to get in then called his family and friends in to witness the strange occurrence. Police believe the interrogation went on for as long as four hours. While Sagoe said he'd never met Hemmah before, the Tema Assistant Commissioner of Police Augustine Gyening said the suspects claimed Hemmah was a known witch.

Pastor Sagoe's account was full of inconsistencies as he claimed Hemmah said she was a messenger of the devil and spoke of flying and "spiritual things", and then alluded to Hemmah refusing to confess to witchcraft after the group had surrounded her. Sagoe also claimed he was not present when they set Hemmah ablaze but that it was his friend Samuel Ghunney, a 50-year-old photographer, who asked Sagoe's sister Emelia Opuko for the kerosene and matches. Those involved in the incident threw water on Hemmah after she began to burn and Ghunney told police that he thought setting her ablaze would scare her rather than kill her.

Hemmah then left the house and stumbled down the road to a provisions shop where 27-year-old Deborah Pearl Adumoah, took her to the police station and the hospital.

"She was in severe pain and tears were flowing down from her eyes," said Adumoah.

Adumoah spent the day with Hemmah and sent someone to her village to track down the contact details of her children in Tema. Deborah's voice quivered as she spoke of Hemmah's condition before she died.

"She couldn't speak and you could only hear her make sounds because her face had been burnt and she couldn't move her mouth properly," said Adumoah. "It was a cruel act. She reminded me of my grandmother: cute and smallish," she added.

Police have two of the accused in custody, with the other three suspects out on bail. They are yet to establish the role that Sagoe and the other two suspects played in the attack.

While the case has attracted a great deal of attention in Ghana, belief in witchcraft and attacks on women and men accused of sorcery are not uncommon, particularly within the Northern Region of the country, home to the notorious witches camps that house women, children and sometimes men that have been exiled from their communities because they have been accused of witchcraft.

However, Canadian journalist and author of Spellbound: Inside West Africa's Witch Camps, Karen Palmer said this particular case seemed highly unusual because there was no clear relationship between the outsider, Hemmah, and the accused. Palmer spent months interviewing accused witches in the Northern Region who had been exiled from their communities and were living in the camps.

"In my experience, I would say that most people know the women who they are accusing of witchcraft and it could be a family member, someone who lives in the same community, a co-wife or even a child accusing a parent, aunt or grandmother," said Palmer. "To attack a complete stranger is a little unusual."

Palmer added that older women in the Northern Region were often targeted because they had developed eccentricities and were no longer able to bear children, or fulfill duties such as gathering wood and water. Women are almost always accused in order to explain some misfortune such as an illness, lack of rain, a bad harvest or even something as simple as a bad dream.

But Palmer was not surprised that residents in a large urban center like Tema believed in witchcraft, as belief in sorcery is common throughout Ghana and is often fueled by preachers at large charismatic churches.

Assistant Commissioner of Police Augustine Gyening said the police department had not handled a case like this before. But, he said that many people believed in witchcraft in Tema. When I asked him whether he too believed in witchcraft he replied:

"Don't you? There are witches in Europe." He added: "Everybody in Ghana will tell you they believe in witchcraft, but they will differ in terms of what things they attribute to witches."

But Gyening said that he and the Tema police force were appalled by the murder.

Ghana's Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) issued a statement last Friday claiming the act was barbaric and reflected poorly on the nation's human rights record. The Coordinator of the Coalition on Domestic Violence Legislation in Ghana Mr. Adolf Bekoe also claimed that witchcraft accusation was becoming a major problem in the country that needed to be addressed by the government.

Palmer agreed that something needed to be done to address violence toward women accused of witchcraft but said that it was complex issue that activists and politicians had attempted to address in the 1990s but had lost the political will in part because of the difficulty of challenging these entrenched beliefs.

"In the West we look at this phenomenon and cannot understand how people could believe in witchcraft and how it could incite violence," said Palmer.

"People take this threat incredibly seriously, because from the moment Ghanaians are born they are told stories about witchcraft and it is ingrained in the culture in away it isn't in the West."