Northern Ghana is a powder keg, waiting for a fuse. Whether it’s a dispute over the enskinment of a chief or over a bad left turn in traffic, things turn violent quickly.
This week, as I was reporting on mob justice, the violence turned to me.
Walking through downtown Tamale on a sunny afternoon, I hear a commotion outside a small mosque. It isn’t time for afternoon prayers, so I am surprised to find 100 people gathered outside the doors. I look on bemused, wondering what the fuss is over. A friendly bystander gives me some context.
“There’s a thief. He’s inside the mosque. You see, them with sticks? He must stay inside or he will be beaten.”
Innocent until proven guilty. It’s a fundamental human right and the basis of Commonwealth law. Yet something tells me the mob wouldn’t be too impressed with my paltry legal knowledge.
“But the police station is just there,” I say gesturing down the street. “Why don’t they take him there?”
We are 100 metres away from the biggest police station in Northern Ghana, the district offices of the Ghana Police Service. The irony is not lost on me.
I want to start taking pictures, but first I have to assess the risks. In Ghana, violence against journalists is not unheard of. My bulky Nikon SRL is not easy to disguise. The crowd’s anger is reaching its zenith.
Comforted by the daylight and proximity of female bystanders, I start photographing. My journalistic instincts take over. I take wide shot of the crowd from a safe distance. Some women gesture at me and try to jump out of my shot, but I ignore them.
The alleged thief emerges from the mosque and the crowd swarm him, some brandishing sticks. Nursing a fresh head wound, he somehow manages to evade them by climbing into a taxi.
Undeterred, the mob surrounds the car, rocking it back and forth. It’s all happening so quickly, it’s impossible to see what’s happening. A few minutes pass before the car is allowed to leave.
The crowd starts to disperse. Pulses are raised and the crowd needs a new scapegoat: me. I have been ignored until this point and am surprised when a young man approaches me.
“Why are you snapping pictures?” he demands, his brow drenched in sweat
“I am just watching,” I shrug and smile. I am hoping my characteristic, wide grin will diffuse the situation.
He laughs, as if to say “silly foreigner” and rejoins the throng.
“You shouldn’t be snapping. Close.”
This advice comes from a man in a tan suit, who looks to work at the hospital.
“Why?” I ask earnestly.
The man draws closer, inches away from my face. A crowd of onlookers is now joining around us.
“Things will end badly for you. They will snatch your camera and spoil it.”
My temperature is rising. Now I am getting reckless
“Are you threatening me?” I ask. “Who are you anyways?”
The tan-suited gentleman backpeddles.
“No, I am not threatening you. You are not permitted to snap photos. Where will you put them?”
Despite his assurances that he is not threatening me, he and four onlookers are closing in on me.
Emboldened by the fact I am leaving in two weeks, I tell them what I think of their advice.
“I don’t care.”
I loop my camera around my neck, swing my backpack onto my stomach and start to walk away.
The jeering crowd follows. I hear sandals flopping against the pavement, running towards me. I brace myself to be hit from behind.
One of the women who didn’t want her picture taken is following me. She’s tall, wearing a flowery blue blouse and is livid. Thankfully her friend is holding her back, a safe 10 metres away.
“Sal’minga,” she hisses.
She starts yelling expletives at me that I can’t print here.
I beam at her and say, “Bye bye now”.
I continue walking away.
A nurse walks alongside me and gives a reproving look.
“You cannot show those pictures,” she says, chastising me. “It is a shame to the hospital.”
“I’m a journalist,” I explain. “I am here to witness what’s happening. If you have security problems you need to fix them.”
Behind the nurse, my bullies continue to taunt me.
“Your ugly legs! Your ugly legs! Look at your ugly legs!
I continue to walk away and escape the crowd in an internet cafe.
Somehow I thought I was immune to the violence and threats; that my Canadian passport and white skin meant that the mob couldn’t come after me. I was wrong, but I am grateful I discovered this before it was too late.