Ghana’s undercover reporters expose a local ‘mommy’ who starved orphans whilst making them clap and sing for ‘voluntourists’

“Sing! You must sing when there are visitors. You know that they bring donations but you just sit there looking reluctant. If you don’t sing loudly, and clap, I’ll whip you later, I promise!” The ‘mommy’ of Bawjiase Countryside Orphanage in Ghana, Emma Boafo, is not joking when she sternly warns the orphans in her care to perform for the many ‘voluntourists’ and supporters when they come. Much money depends on this; like many orphanages in Africa, her institution is sponsored by important charities. Among Emma Boafo’s sponsors are the World Health Organisation and Dutch construction company Ballast Nedam.

Among Emma Boafo’s sponsors are the World Health Organisation and Dutch construction company Ballast Nedam

Unknowingly, however, ‘mommy’s’ words are recorded and later broadcast. The Tiger Eye* team has gone undercover in the orphanage for two months, unearthing numerous incidents where children were beaten with whips and canes, babies and toddlers were left covered in faeces and teenage girls unprotected from pimping, forced sex and unwanted pregnancies by older boys and teacher in the adjacent school. Our reporters have also recorded the sale of food donations by ‘mommy’ Emma Boafo to traders whilst children, sometimes crying with hunger, were submitted to forced ‘fasting’.

No exception

An orphanage from hell, a monstrous exception, a blemish on an otherwise fine set of charitable institutions in Ghana? Far from it. When Tiger Eye investigated Bawjiase’s main competitor, Osu Home, five years ago, we found similar conditions. Furthermore, Osu Home and Bawjiase Countryside are the most reputable orphanages in the country: they are known and advertised worldwide, praised by Ghana’s own VIP’s and international charities alike. Countless blogs by enthusiastic young westerners narrate how they ‘loved, loved, loved’ spending time with the children, never knowing how ‘mommy’ had drilled the cheerful laughing, singing and clapping into them.

Countless blogs by enthusiastic young Westerners narrate how they ‘loved, loved, loved’ spending time with the children

Many of the children, Tiger Eye discovered in Bawjiase, weren’t even orphans. “Not even five of ten here are real orphans”, the undercover reporters recorded one of the institution’s assistants as saying. “They are taken in as paying boarders; their parents send them here so they can attend school. But ‘Mommy’ parades them as orphans when the tourists come.” One 15 year old girl, called Mary, narrates on the Tiger Eye programme which was broadcast in Ghana last month, how she was forced to pretend she was an orphan “even though others at school teased me as they knew full well I have parents.”

Predictably, when the Tiger Eye programme aired and the news of the orphanage’s reality travelled the world, all hell broke loose. Volunteer organisations expressed deep shock and regret. The website ‘Volunteer to change’ stated that it was ‘totally unaware of the corruption and cruelty’ and that it “will no longer support them with aid or volunteers as long as this woman (meaning ‘Mommy’ Emma Boafo) is in charge.”

Emma Boafo
Founder of the orphanage Emma Boafo with a child.

This is no longer the case. Boafo and four of her staff members, including a high school graduate who went by the title of ‘doctor’ and administered injections to children when ill, have been arrested and charged since the programme aired. The children –at least the real orphans among them, estimated at forty-four among more than a hundred- have been relocated to other ‘places of safety’.

The Ministry of Gender and Social Protection is supposed to regulate all orphanages

But if ‘Volunteer to change’ thought that that would have solved the problem, they would be wrong. A comment on the website of the Ghanaian radio station ‘MyJoy’,, put the finger on the ‘systemic failure’ of child care in Ghana. “The Ministry of Gender and Social Protection (under the Ministry of Social Welfare) is supposed to regulate all orphanages. Registered orphanages are supposed to receive a subvention from the government. These subventions don’t come at all.”

As a result, the commentator says, the orphans have become the responsibility of (donors who bring) foodstuffs, which ‘have to be liquidated into cash to keep the place running.’ He further points at the lack of registration and monitoring of orphanages by the government and raises the possibility that ‘crude methods’, such as having a clinic run by an unqualified high school graduate, happen because of the absence of public services in this regard. Lastly, he asks where the children –at least those among them who are actually orphans- must find shelter now.

Founder of the orphanage Emma Boafo is receiving goods from a company operating in the community
Founder of the orphanage Emma Boafo is receiving goods from a company operating in the community

As if to underscore his point, the Ghanaian authorities have meanwhile transferred the orphans to Osu Home: the same orphanage that was exposed for similar ‘corruption and cruelty’ by our team in 2010. With inspections lacking, there is no way of knowing if the children will be better off there now.

The minister admits the failures

I put the orphanage situation to the new Minister of Gender and Social Protection, Nana Lithur, in an interview. Responding to my questions, the Minister seemed very willing to admit to failures in her Ministry. She promised better registration, regulation and monitoring and explained that under her tenure, some bad orphanages in the country have already been closed. Practically simultaneously however, Ghanaian media reported comments from the Social Welfare Ministry to the effect that its monitoring structure is overloaded and cannot carry out ‘more inspections than it currently does’.

Whether the Ministry could get its act together soon remains therefore to be seen. After all, we at Tiger Eye have been exposing the horrific realities surrounding abandoned children in Ghana for years. We have written about the child prostitution behind Accra’s railway line; we have filmed the little boys exposed to radiation on the capital’s electronics dumping ground, highlighted the exploitation of street children by beggar syndicates; the list goes on. Every time we informed the Ministry of Social Welfare and every time there were promises to act.

The Ghanaian authorities transferred the orphans to Osu Home -where cruelty was exposed five years ago

However, the fact that the new minister admits that there are problems is a marked difference from the past, when ministers would get angry with you and would shout that you were only ‘attacking’ them because of some ‘nefarious’ agenda. Pressure on our government, both from inside and outside our country, may help to keep the ministry on this new, serious track. Such pressure would probably be more helpful than the money and donations that now go straight into the pockets of ‘mommies’ like Emma Boafo.

Anas Aremeyaw Anas is a member of the African Investigative Publishing Collective, a regular documentary maker for Al Jazeera and the BBC and a ZAM correspondent.

* Tiger Eye is a private investigation agency in Ghana led by Anas Aremeyaw Anas.

Note: The people on the cover picture (photographer unknown) have nothing to do with the Bawjiase Countryside Orphanage, nor have they ever been associated with any child abuse. ZAM chose this picture because the article discusses 'voluntourism' . This picture illustrates the general phenomenon of 'voluntourism', which is volunteering to do charity work in developing countries.