Elderly disabled woman accused of witchcraft narrowly escapes lynching

An elderly woman suffering from mental problems narrowly escaped lynching on May 13 when she was spotted wandering naked down the streets of the Ghanian capital and accused of witchcraft by a volatile mob.


An elderly woman suffering from mental illness narrowly escaped lynching on May 13 when she was spotted wandering naked down the streets of the Ghanian capital and accused of witchcraft by a volatile mob.

Local media outlets described Barbara Boakye-Yiadom as a Canadian woman of Ghanaian origin in her seventies. On May 13, the woman, who suffers from mental illness, slipped out of her clothes and then left her house, without being noticed by her caretakers. Local residents of the Madina neighbourhood to the west of Accra spotted her wandering around naked. She was lucky to survive what happened next.


Barbara had returned to Ghana from Canada three years ago and was being closely monitored by a psychiatric hospital. Her family also told Ghanaian media sources that she was recovering from an operation on her uterus.

According to witnesses, locals spotted Barbara taking a nap, completely naked. When they approached her, she was unable to speak. Onlookers quickly accused her of being a witch, citing as evidence her supposedly 'masculine' facial features. The sight of her genitals, altered by her recent operation, was for onlookers another sign that she was 'half-man, half-woman'.

Photos taken during the incident, as well as several eyewitness accounts, established that several assailants covered Barbara with anointing oil in order to 'exorcise' her. Other images suggest that her head was shaved by people in the crowd. Fortunately, police officers intervened before things got even more out of hand.

Naked and vulnerable, the woman was mocked relentlessly by the crowd and accused by some of being a witch. Photos taken by eyewitnesses and blurred by France 24.

"None of the assailants were able to prove that this woman had any supernatural attributes"

Kwaku Nti is a journalist for The Multimedia group in Accra. He covered the incident.

"When people were questioned by the police, all they could say was that Barbara ‘seemed weird.’ That shows that traditional beliefs are still very present for certain people in Ghana, to the detriment of rational thinking and empathy."

According to a witness, no one was arrested for threatening the old woman. The neighbourhood police chief simply called on the crowd "to exercise a lot of discretion in handling the aged or persons suspected to have mental challenges."

Barbara is seen here after being covered with a liquid by members of the crowd. According to our Observer, the liquid in question was anointing oil used on the woman to 'exorcise' her. Other witnesses assert that her hair was also cut off. Photo taken by eyewitnesses and blurred by FRANCE 24.

"It's the third time one of our patients has been accused of witchcraft in only one month"

Akwasi Osel, a psychiatrist at a hospital in Accra, says he has seen plenty of similar cases throughout his career.

In Ghana, there is widespread ignorance about mental illnesses. People suffering from depression or schizophrenia are regularly accused of witchcraft. I've often had to deal with patients who feel liable for their own problems. In the worst cases, that allows people with bad intentions to push them into admitting to have carried out imaginary 'crimes' in order to take advantage of them, either physically or financially.

A few weeks ago, one of our patients escaped from the psychiatric hospital and almost suffered the same fate as the woman in Madina. She was found wandering in the street, unable to make herself understood. In only one month, it's the third time one of our patients has been accused of witchcraft. This continues to happen despite the fact that we make a big effort to spread awareness of mental problems, even in the most remote areas. But that has very little effect because these old beliefs are so firmly entrenched.

'Witch camps' in the north of Ghana

The mixing up of witchcraft and mental health problems is a common phenomena in Ghana, to such an extent that six 'witch camps' have been created in the north of the country. According to NGOs who have visited the camps and worked with occupants, 70% of people living there are women accused of being witches. Most of them suffer from mental illness. Last December, the Ghanian government began closing some of these camps and started resettling many of the women back into the communities they originally came from, with success for the most part.

This post was written with FRANCE 24 journalists Corentin Bainier (@cbainier) and Alexandre Capron (@alexcapron).