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Opinions of Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi

Can a Josef Fritzl happen in Ghana?

One year on, many of us are still shocked at how Josef Fritzl could do all the things he did. This Austrian father locked up his daughter in a cellar (some tabloids call it a dungeon), physically assaulted, sexually abused, and raped her several times and in the process fathered seven children by her within a period of 24 years! His discovery and arrest were due more to his luck running out than to any societal safeguard measures that could have ensured his arrest much earlier on. Recently, we also heard of the Italian Fritzl who is alleged to have sexually abused his daughter for over 25 years and encouraged his son to follow his example. The little western Austrian town of Amstetten has still not gotten over its embarrassment. It is reported that the social welfare services in the town paid regular visits to the Fritzl house and found the patriarch’s tales “very plausible”.

As we ponder over these abominable happenings, the thought that kept coming into my mind has been: Can this happen in Ghana? Can such a horrible thing happen anywhere in Ghana? To be sure, Josef Fritzl is a very mad man and what he did to his daughter is a very exceptional case even by Europe’s decadent standards. But Europe has a society which overprotects its children. The social services are very active and little children are taught in school how to recognise abuse by their own parents. This is a society where children can call the police with complaints like: “Mama has raised her voice at me”! There are shelters where abused and battered women can take refuge and be given protection (even if our brothers complain that the women they bring from Ghana and maltreat just go there and tell a heap of lies against them). If such things can happen in a society with such safeguards, then what about Ghana where children are brought up in fear of their parents and women may not even recognise it if they are abused? But I still want to convince myself that something like Fritzl can never happen in Ghana! Oh no, it can’t. Or ... can it?

Despite all the advances of civilization that have found their way into our society, and our ability to quickly learn all the bad things from Europe and USA but not the good things, the family structure is still strong in our society. The extended family is still a thing to reckon with and many a time, we get even tired of all the cousins and the distant relatives who will take umbrage at your not calling them “brother” or “sister” to emphasise how close you are to them. A birth is still the affair of the larger family and it is difficult to have a child that no one knows of. We still celebrate deaths on a large scale and not even children die without anybody knowing about it. No, a Josef Fritzl in Ghana could not deceive anybody that his daughter of 18 has left home to join a cult that nobody knows of or that she has been kidnapped by sasabonsam and nobody will check to make sure it is true. No Ghanaian mother will just take the story from her husband of their daughter’s disappearance for 24 years without raising hell. Not even a mad Ghanaian mother.

Our social structure is still strong in other ways. Incest is a serious thing in all tribes in Ghana. I still remember what happened to my cousin who was caught sleeping with two sisters. No, he couldn’t do that. We may still marry our distant cousins of a certain order but no one is allowed to sleep with two sisters. A sheep was slaughtered and a few bottles of schnapps knocked off to pacify the gods and punish my cousin. Our white-haired elders may not even know the kind of traditional punishment to mete out to a father who slept with his daughter. There is just no precedence to go by.

One of the things which still irritate me when I visit Ghana is the over-inquisitiveness of people and the interest they take in the affairs of others – affairs which are none of their business. Let two women start fighting in a street corner and everybody will leave whatever serious things they are doing and act as spectators to this fight. But this inquisitiveness is also a sign that we are still very much each other’s keeper – so much that it may even get on your nerves. Your relatives, friends, and others can pop up in your house whenever they are in the neighbourhood and whether you like it or not. Relatives will never leave you alone for one minute! Contrast that with Europe where your next door neighbour living alone can die and nobody will know until the corpse starts to smell. This can take a very long time during the winter. Let a Fritzl hide his 18 year old daughter in Ghana for a few months and somebody is bound to know what is happening.

Fritz lived in a house where he could build and expand on the cellar area. He fixed a bath tub, water closet, shower, refrigerator and other conveniences of life, working all alone. He also provided a television set for them. Then he fixed a huge electronic door with a good lock. And the neighbours were none the wiser. Not even ordinary Ghanaians who have not been imprisoned underground can afford such things for themselves. How many Ghanaians have the technical knowledge to transform a cellar to a living area that can sustain a large family for 24 years without anybody knowing? Europe still has bomb shelters under houses and public buildings which can easily be transformed into comfortable living quarters. We don’t have such things in Ghana. No, a Fritzl for 24 years will be nigh impossible in Ghana!

These, and some other reasons, convince me that while it is possible that there may be a sociopath of Frtizl’s calibre somewhere in Ghana, he may not be able to do all the things Fritzl did even if he wants to. But what I have been wondering about is the fact that, even though our society may not allow a Fritzl who can give full rein to his peculiar madness, there are still many sociopaths doing terrible things to our children and women. I even dare say that many practices we consider as normal may, in fact, be abuses.

Many parents in Ghana still believe in not sparing the rod for fear that they may spoil their children. I don’t know if corporal punishment is still as common in schools as it was in my day. Often we may be confused about when discipline crosses the line into pure abuse. How many people in Ghana are likely to report their neighbours who go too hard on their children, and to which authority?

We cannot truly thump our chests today and say there are no parents in Ghana abusing their children sexually. It may, perhaps, not be as widespread as in Europe (which has a better rate of reporting such things) but there are certainly parents in Ghana doing funny things to their little daughters who may not be able to stand up to them. And there are adults doing similar things to other people’s children. Who knows what really went on in Maame Dorkono’s orphanage? If the tendency for people to do bad things to others is part of human nature, then Ghanaians, too, can be susceptible to such human vices. There are paedophiles in Ghana too and many others inclined to other deviant sexual behaviour of a criminal nature. How does our system (both traditional and formal) cope with such abnormalities?

Many Ghanaian men, even educated ones, still do not believe that marital rape is a technical possibility. There are still many relationships in Ghana where the woman regards complete subjugation to her husband as a requirement of her conjugal duties. Think about our illiterate mothers in the villages. How often do their domineering husbands respect their “no” to sex? So when the Domestic Violence Victims Support Unit of the Ghana Police tells us that 708 girls were defiled nationwide in 2008 and the Department of Women and Children’s Affairs adds that there were only 713(!) rape cases during the same period, we all know that is just the very tip of the iceberg.

Sometimes, I look back with a tinge of guilt at the escapades of my fiery youth. I think back to how persistently we pursued all those girls, taking every nay as only a girl’s coy attempts that are really meant to urge you on. Who wanted a girl who said yes at the first asking, anyway? We pursued them through all the many dark alleys there are because of poor lighting even in the cities. The girls wore skirts and as for the wrapper around the village girl’s waist, it was so easy to reach the tight ends and loosen them. At times you didn’t even need to loosen those ends. We could get as far as possible, often the whole way. But there were times when even the village girl’s no really meant a NO! But didn’t we often ride rough-shod over every no? And didn’t we, at times, leave some of them in tears, afraid and ashamed of telling anyone of their defilement? Some of these were pure rape and we wouldn’t have gotten away with them in Europe. Such things are still happening in Ghana today. And I am sure the village school teacher is still picking the most beautiful girl to carry exercise books to his house for correction. Ok, these days, the little school girl is likely to “saplaise” the teacher, but should he be doing such things?

Yes, many bad things are happening in Ghanaian homes too and we must freely discuss and take steps to prevent them. But for a Ghanaian father to lock up his daughter and brutally rape her into submission for 24 years with the mother and no one else knowing of it? I am still shuddering at the very thought...

Kofi Amenyo (kofi.amenyo@yahoo.com)