Two years after the state-backed witch–hunting exercise, the survivors are battling against failing health status to re-build their shattered lives. If president Jammeh believes the science of witchcraft is metaphysical, the method he used to rid the country of evil spells could be criminal. But in a zoo without a ‘Jata-muta-jata’ who will tell the lion his breath stinks? Kissy-Kissy Mansa writes…
Without bidding farewell to her garden, 82-year-old Satou Badjie rushed home, leaving behind an unfinished job of quenching the thirst of her vegetable crops. But she did not know she was not coming back; that her crops would never smile at her. Not in this world.
Like most women in her native Makumbaya village in the West Coast region of The Gambia, the octogenarian set out on her routine economic activity when the last star were still visible on Wednesday morning of 25 February 2009. She paved her way through narrow, shadowy paths to the horticultural garden.
Alongside other women gardeners, she however urgently returned to the village after information reached her that Gambian president Yahya Jammeh had sent an envoy to deliver important information to the villagers. Every elder was to be present.
On arrival, she found a gathering of some armed men believed to be from The Gambia Armed Forces, four so-called witch doctors, government sponsored youth group called the Green Youth and some villagers, at the village square.
Put at gun point, she was ordered to embark a waiting bus; that she possessed some evil spirits. She was to be treated.
To the shock of the villagers, Satou Badjie and other abductees were then piled in a bus and whisked away to a compound believed to belong to late Mr Baba Jobe, a former parliamentarian and ally to President Jammeh.
There, some slippery liquid was poured over their bodies with their clothes on. That was the preliminary ritual. The old woman and other abductees were forced to drink hallucinogenic concoctions. She went unconscious.
“After regaining my consciousness a day after I drank the concoction, I became ill and they returned me to the village,” Foroyaa newspaper quoted her as saying in its 17 April, 2009 edition.
When the old woman was released on February 27, she was immediately hospitalised. She died on March 2 at Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital, the country’s main referral hospital in Banjul, the capital.
Virtually non existence, abduction is illegal in The Gambia. There are no available data on it, though sporadic reports emerge in the newspapers.
As in murder, every abductor has a motive. Late Satou Badjie was abducted in a three-month-long apparent state-backed witch-hunting exercise in which an estimated one thousand elderly Gambians, 65 to 70 percent women, were taken away from their families, against their will on suspicion of possessing evil spells.
The belief in witchcraft is widespread in The Gambia. For those who believe in it, all witchcraft is evil and typically female, ranging for extraordinary beautiful women to old, haggard women.
In Gambian tradition, ‘buwa’ or ‘doma’ is a vampire-like mythological creature that inhabits the bodies of ordinary people.
However, it is believed that, over the years, the inroads of both Islam and Christian influences in the country have helped push the witchcraft ideology into the back ground.
Besides, the 1997 Gambian constitution entitles every person with the right to enjoy and practice one’s belief.
Section 32 of Gambian constitution says: “Every person shall be entitled to enjoy, practice, profess, maintain and promote any culture language, tradition or religion …”
Yet this constitutional provision could not protect hundreds of Gambians from being forcefully taken away by people who claimed have been on a mission to rid the country of evil spells.
The witch doctors, four of them clothed in mysteriously red garments, with charms all over their bodies, droved into Gambian villages, accompanied by Gambian security forces and government sponsored youth movement, Green Youth.
In respect of Gambian tradition, they would consult the village headman, who would deliver his people to them, according to Foroyaa, the only local news media outlet that dared cover the exercise.
Elderly women were dumped in a room without sleeping facilities. Undressed half-naked, they claim, they slept on bare floor.
As if that is not enough, some were reportedly beaten and forced to drink herbal potions, which made them unconscious. They crawled and rolled over and urinated on themselves. They were forced to confess being witches.
As if the vicious cycle of inhumane and degrading treatment and general exposure to harzardous health conditions were not enough, some abductees claimed that they raped.
“I personally saw 3 women who were undressed by the witch hunters and raped by them at a time when they were unconscious,” an abductee from Makumbaya village told Foroyaa
A 35-year-old market vendor from the same village said, she was raped during the second day of abduction by a very young man.
“While I was in detention, this young man who was so rude asked me to take a bath and while I was taking the bath, he stood and watched me.
“When I went to the toilet, he would insist that he would accompany me. One of these times, he wrestled me to the ground and raped me, with force,” Foroyaa quoted her as saying in its March 20, 2009 publication.
Three of those subjected to such degrading treatment died shortly after their abduction while the survivors are baffling with failing health status to rebuild their lives ravaged by the exercise.
One such person is visibly weak and frail Manjiki Cham, a 70-year-old woman in an-out-the-way village of Jambur in West Coast region of The Gambia.
Conventionally unlettered and without any formal business skills, the old woman was also a farmer in a country that is agrarian.
“I was a good farmer,” she boasted during a recent visit at her home in Jambur village.
However, ever since she was released after spending a night in the hands of her abductors, the strength in her that kept her socially and economically active has waned.
“I haven’t been to my farm for two years,” she says. “And our farms are what we depend on for survival.”
Matter-of-fact, in a typical Gambian household, the three square meal a day is a non-negotiable right. Manjiki Cham however does not have two good ones after the incident.
Aside from the earnings from the farm she is deprived of as a result of the incident, she is as well unhealthy.
“I cannot even eat up half a loaf at breakfast now,” she explains. “I developed constipation and I routinely visit the health facility, yet my health status has not improved.”
The 70-year-old woman is not alone in this predicament. Many other victims interviewed are in a similar state.
A human rights activist, who prefers anonymity, says unless justice is done; unless compensation is made to victims and unless a deterrent effect is put in place, the state-backed mission of ridding the Gambia from evil spells will remain a bitter pill for Gambians to swallow.
He adds:“If it is true, as it has been reliably reported that the so-called witch doctors are citizens of Guinea, they could not have had the audacity to abduct Gambian women in broad day light?”
However, there are overwhelming evidences linking Gambian president Yahya Jammeh to the act.
When Halifa Sallah, an opposition politician visited the affected villages, he was arrested, and tried for among others, sedition. Those charges were dropped to be replaced a new set of charges, which indicated that the ‘screening of witches’ was a government policy. These charges were never filed and Halifa was freed in the ‘interest of peace’.
Besides, President Yahya Jammeh on May 2009 told a gathering in Foni that he sent the witch doctors to cleanse them because they were responsible for the lack of development in the region.
According to an unnamed Gambian human rights lawyer, if Gambian president Yahya Jammeh believes that the science of witchcraft is metaphysical, the method he used to kill evil spells could be criminal.
But in a zoo without a ‘wanjanlanko’ (the real king of the jungle) who will tell the lion his breath stinks?