The world’s leading news networks carried a few days ago a story saying that the death toll from this year’s Hajj had exceeded 1,000, with more than half of the victims being unregistered worshippers who performed the pilgrimage in extreme heat in Saudi Arabia.

According to the reports, new deaths reported days ago included 58 from Egypt, according to an Arab diplomat who provided a breakdown showing that of 658 Egyptians who died, 630 were unregistered pilgrims.

About 10 countries have reported 1,081 deaths during the pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam which all Muslims with the means must complete, at least, once.

The Hajj, whose timing is determined by the lunar Islamic calendar, fell again this year during the oven-like Saudi summer, with the national meteorological centre reporting a high of 51.8C (125F) this week at the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

Rising temperatures, rising poverty 

A Saudi study published last month said temperatures in the area were rising by 0.4C each decade. And, we are told that each year, tens of thousands of pilgrims try to join the Hajj through irregular channels as they cannot afford the often costly official permits.

Saudi authorities reported clearing hundreds of thousands of unregistered pilgrims from Mecca this month, but it appears many still participated in the main rites which began last Friday. This group was more vulnerable, because without official permits, they could not access air-conditioned spaces provided for the 1.8 million authorised pilgrims to cool down.

“People were tired after being chased by security forces before Arafat day. They were exhausted,” one Arab diplomat said on Thursday about Saturday’s day-long outdoor prayers that marked the climax of the Hajj.

The diplomat said the main cause of death among Egyptian pilgrims was the heat, which triggered complications related to high blood pressure and other problems. The report added that Egyptian officials were visiting hospitals to obtain information, and help Egyptian pilgrims receive medical care.

Intriguingly, there are large numbers of Egyptian citizens who are not registered in Hajj databases, which requires double the effort and a longer time to search for missing persons and find their relatives.

In the welter of confusion, Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has ordered that a crisis management team headed by the Prime Minister follow up on the deaths of the country’s pilgrims.

Sisi stressed “the need for immediate coordination with the Saudi authorities to facilitate receiving the bodies of the deceased and streamline the process.

East Asia 

Pakistan and Indonesia also confirmed more deaths on Thursday. Out of about 150,000 pilgrims, Pakistan had so far recorded 58 deaths, a diplomat said. “I think given the number of people, given the weather, this is just natural,” the diplomat said. This was a diplomat speaking. Over 50 deaths was normal – all because such deaths was considered martyrdom – dying for one’s faith, without even knowing which side of your anatomy you would be landing on beyond the grave…

Indonesia, which had about 240,000 pilgrims, reported its death toll to be 183. Last year, its Religious Affairs Ministry said, they recorded 313 deaths.

Deaths have also been confirmed by Malaysia, India, Jordan, Iran, Senegal, Tunisia, Sudan and Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region. In many cases, authorities have not specified the cause.

Frenzied relatives

Friends and relatives have been searching for missing pilgrims, scouting hospitals and pleading online for news, fearing the worst.

Two diplomats said last week that Saudi authorities had begun the burial process for dead pilgrims, cleaning the bodies and putting them in white burial cloth and taking them to be interred.

“The burial is done by the Saudi authorities. They have their own system so we just follow that,” said one diplomat, who said his country was working to notify loved ones as best it could. We haven’t had or heard any in the case of Ghana.

Another diplomat, apparently used to the ritual of burying dead bodies as a state duty, said it would be impossible to notify many families ahead of time, especially in Egypt, which accounts for so many of the dead.

Religious graveyard

Saudi Arabia has not provided information on deaths, though it reported more than 2,700 cases of “heat exhaustion” on Sunday alone. Last year, various countries reported more than 300 deaths during the Hajj, mostly Indonesians.

The timing of the hajj moves back about 11 days each year in the Gregorian calendar, meaning that next year it will take place earlier in June, potentially in cooler conditions.

A 2019 study by the journal Geophysical Research Letters said because of the climate crisis, heat stress for Hajj pilgrims would exceed the “extreme danger threshold” from 2047 to 2052 and 2079 to 2086, “with increasing frequency and intensity as the century progresses”.

That is interesting, with the Saudi authorities and neighbouring Egypt being saddled with the onerous responsibility of playing host to funerals, without families being in attendance. The carnage, however, goes on.

Hajj preparations

In Ghana, preparations for the pilgrimage have been taken over by the politicians. They have hijacked it from the Muslim clerics and traditional bodies that arrange the event.

The hijack started from Jerry Rawlings and succeeding political parties found capital in that. It has been the same for traditional durbars – with the pouring of libation being now considered part of the ritual of our state protocol chiefs.

But there are also those who make capital from it by organising flights and related hospitalities. One eye on the money and another on the opportunity for gain. So, at a time, we had multiple organising bodies that had to be unified for political purposes as the political animal also inserted political names into a protocol list.

So far, so good

So far, so good, if all that culminates in socio-economic wellbeing, law and order, and enhanced moral rectitude that touches public and community life. Unfortunately, it is a NO.

But what should be worrying the host nation and countries like Egypt is why those nations whose citizens stridently break the law to be part of the sacred event are the very countries that have their sons and daughters breaking laws to enter greener Europe and oily Saudi. Each time I have had opportunity to scan the big networks, I visit websites to check the pulse of the migrant landscape.

More and more people dying have not been deterrent enough for the poor and wretched who nonetheless finds money to trek through the Savannah or Sahel’ or the Congo through Mozambique to the Americas and Europe. His pals in travel are packs of bread and gallons of water.

Goro Boys and Boats

The world is full of Goro Boys. From our lorry parks and markets like Abossey Okai and Katamanto or Kejetia to Asafo, they know where every item is sold, except that they don’t know how to find the money to buy and sell those fast-moving items. What they intriguingly haven’t got is the courage of competing or living out their personal dream responsibly and independently.

These boats and their owners that pop up, and trucks that ferry migrants across the space, knowing they do not have licenses or that they are not seaworthy…not much difference between them and bandits. Yet, they all are religious

They are like a certain shellfish species that uses some other shell covers, besides their own. Call them party delegates for bookmen or ushers in churches or deaconesses who only know how to get people dress well, without ensuring that her house and kids are in order.

But that’s how some of our politicians behave: they won’t chase out the boat owners who commit acts of ferrying these pilgrims through dense forests or snake and bandits infested terrains, in offering services that they know are criminal.

It is holy activity burying dead pilgrims. It is holy activity performing the rituals and claiming they died as martyrs just like the animals called HAMAS and other extremist dunces are doing in parts of the Middle East into Africa south of the Sahara. Worse still, that thinking is akin to ignoring the woes and plight of vulnerable citizens and pretending to love them, while we sleep over the relevant and vibrant policies that would be relieving them from the pressures that push them to sell family property and decide to go through silly risks to South America, Italy, Spain or Haiti.

I am glad Christians here in Ghana or Togo or Nigeria do not make noise over forced trips to Bethlehem or Galilee. In terms of sheer numbers, that would be mouthful for the politician. Thank God, we know that beyond the rituals in religion, there is a deep yearning of the heart and soul and spirit that overshadows the Alleluia and Allah Akbar. That day cannot be a crowd thing. It is an individual search.

by Abena Baawuah