We were careful those days in Duakwa not to be shamed and mocked as ‘Awengaa.’ A thirty-year old man who had ‘slept’ with an under-aged girl; he was Awengaa. A forty-year old having his way with a class four girl; he was tagged, ‘Awengaa.’ He had grey hair, and the girl was only eight: Awengaa. So therefore young girls took to their heels seeing him from afar: ‘if you cross his line, he will not spare you,’ little girl would giggle, and scamper off. In some cases, the victim was really a baby, and the idiom carried a literal meaning: Awengaa: ‘a predator of crying babies.’

It was a virtual taboo, a serious cultural breach. The offender if caught would be paraded in the streets, gong gong, songs of shame and booing trailing him: ‘Waware ne ba, Akwasi,’ was the song stigmatizing the bad man: ‘he has slept with a girl young enough to be his daughter.’ The publicity was to caution the innocent one who might make an awengaa’s home, a temporary day care: ‘Look after my girl-child until I return from the farm.’ But it could also be an underage groundnut seller, retailing from house to house; an awengaa could be a regular customer. Unfortunately, the awengaa of this world may not be strange looking. It could be efienipa, who doubles as a prowler.

Society expresses rage by depicting any such victim as a ‘baby:’ whose tender cry or babble tells you it’s underage, and could not possibly have given consent. She was reeling in pain crying, and you still had your way with her; you pedophile, you beast of prey!

But our mothers were experts, diagnosing every restless cry or baby’s whimper. It could be hunger, fatigue, stress; it could also be pain from a bad touch. Yaa Nyakoa our Mother knew it all. In several cases though, mother’s breast milk was the prescription. It was nature’s syrup and lullaby, lulling baby to sleep, sometimes with mother’s breast still in the firm grip of a sleeping baby. Though asleep, baby bounces back crying should mother stealthily drag away her nipples; baby would cry protesting the violation of toddler rights until nipple returns. The mother-baby prank continues until baby finally drifts away in sound sleep, and excess milk rolls off nature’s fountain, untapped.

But sleeping babies could mean something else. In the late 1990s I travelled to the Western region for a funeral, and learned more of this world. A baby was fast asleep when we arrived at the village. For how long had it slept; some three hours or more, we were told. Why that long? The horrifying truth rolled off the mother’s lips. This was a site well known for Indian hemp plantation; and weeping babies interfering with household chores, were routinely doped to sleep. It was a widespread practice, we were told; a marijuana syrup was their lullaby. Dr Bonnah Koomson and I were dumbfounded hearing this. Tracking the social progress of such babies would be interesting. Baby drug addiction could start by default and, like child marriage, be considered normal in parts of Ghana.

April 1, when news broke of a 12 year-old girl in marital engagement with a virtual ‘grandfather,’ the nation dramatized its shock in the spirit of April 1st. We pretended this was news, but it was not. It was national hypocrisy at work; yet child welfare foundations and think tanks stampeded to put their protests on record, hoping to make the six o’clock news. ‘Tofiakwa!’ ‘How the hell!’ ‘This is an abomination!’. ‘Silly customary rites!’ All that was April theatre.

But we gave the game away when choreographers forgot to fix the girl’s age before the public drama started. They could at least have advised her age not to dance back and forth. We should have consulted the Black Satellites of old, on how to memorize your soccer age without tongue slips. As things stood, the age of our customary bride kept changing by the day, and could by this Christmas hit the age of her spiritual spouse.

Yet the April ceremony that went viral, was generally understood by all conversant with marriage rites. Commentaries by spokespersons and intruding voices of well-wishers during the ceremony were instructive and a great learning experience. The ‘tear rubber’ repeatedly chanted at the ceremony, had only one meaning on earth: a new bride, a brand new car with rubber seat-covers. Note however the pieces of advice given the bride at inventory taking of gifts.

Traditional cloth underwear, ankle beads, and sturdy waist beasts. The counseling spokesperson, however, subsequently did not mince words: ‘The big beads are for the old man’s pleasure; the old man should play romance today,’ was the ritual injunction. The cat was out of the bag, but scary considering the girl’s age! The entire ceremony was probably a betrothal, and should give no cause for alarm. But do spirits only play romance and walk away? Eventually, an intrusive voice put the matter to rest, using a vulgar directive I cannot print here.

But, Ghanaians, we are hypocrites! We point accusing fingers in the single example gone viral; but ingredients in the famous April ceremony are on display daily in our great nation. But our lips are sealed.

Check the records. Child marriage is rampant and happens next door daily. It is the lowest reported crime in Ghana. According to national statistics, nearly 80,000 girls in Ghana today are in forced marriage below 18 and living together with a man. Out of the number, 25,000 are of JHS age, 12 to 14 years.

Most are given away out of poverty. Some are above 18 at the SHS level, but the circumstances are pathetic. The Community E Block Day school has not helped the vulnerable. Girls who are stranded without nearby boarding facilities fall prey to pedophiles; they are sometimes compelled to live-in with neighborhood landlords several times above their age. This has led to premature pregnancies and fatherless babies particularly in rural community day schools. But lips are sealed. These schools should be turned into boarding facilities to protect our girls.

But we have all connived as a nation. Listen to parts of a popular song we have enjoyed without complaining. It was put out by a celebrity who was once MUSIGA President. The title, Aboa konkontimaa (the tadpole).

This one is underaged, I know she is

But she is my choice

She has stripped before me

But it’s hard to look

Aboa konkontima, the tadpole, will grow up

And turn into a frog.

We hailed this song, and could have made it song of the year. Let’s bow our heads in shame, heal our collective conscience, and cast not the first stone at Nungua.