Ghana’s “witches” refuse to go home

New Zealand Dispatch, July 17, 1998

Gambaga (Inter Press Service) — More than 100 women, branded as “witches” by their communities, were recently set free from a camp where many have lived for most of their adult lives.

However, instead of stepping out and enjoying their new freedom, the women, ranging in age between 30 and 75, have refused to go home.


“We will not go anywhere. We are safe here,” said Assana, who is more than 70 and is the leader of the women. She has been at the “witches” village in Gambaga for over 30 years after being chased out of her home village “for being responsible for the death of a child.”


Assana came to Gambaga, because the Rana (chief) is reported to have powers to cleanse anybody with “such evil powers.” “You can see I am not preventing any of them from leaving. I did not go for them. They came to seek refuge under my powers and I welcomed them,” said Chief Gambagarana Wuni.


Gambaga has for over 100 years been a refuge for women declared witches by their communities in the northern regions of Ghana and in parts of neighboring Burkina Faso.


These women are accused of causing death, the impotence of their husbands, and some have even been blamed for outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, meningitis, measles, and tuberculosis.


To escape from being beaten to death by their communities — a traditional form of punishment often meted out to women who are declared “witches” — the women came to Gambaga on their own, or they are brought there by relatives.


During the Cerebral-Spinal Meningitis (CSM) outbreak two years ago, for example, five elderly women were beaten to death by youth who accused them of using witchcraft to cause the disease. This incident prompted President Jerry Rawlings to warn of dire consequences for perpetrators of “such barbaric acts.”


Ghana’s Deputy Minister of Employment and Social Welfare, Ama Benyiwa-Doe, has said that although the government can stop the practice of women being labelled as witches by law, “we want to use education and persuasion to end the practice.”


Such traditional practices as only accusing women of witchcraft, she added, are an abuse of women’s human rights.


Rights groups, like the International Federation of Women Lawyers, have also called for an end to the practice.


While the Ghanaian media has portrayed Gambagarana as a “super witch catcher who has the women under his spell and working in his fields”, he has denied the accusations, and claims that he only “dewitches” the women. “I inherited this power from my father, who got it from his own father, who were all chiefs,” Gambagarana Wuni said.


Chief Von Salifu, regional head of the Commission on Arts and Culture said there are many “witches” homes in northern Ghana.


Gambaga and Bimbilla, near the eastern border with Togo, are the two largest ones.


He adds that the women in Gambaga are not held against their will. “They sought refuge with him (the Chief) from all over the north, including Burkina Faso. That has been the tradition before Chief Wuni was born.”


But he also said that Ghanaians “must guard against maltreating the weakest in society by declaring them witches or wizards.”


Ghana’s Presbyterian Church has worked for years with the women in the ” witches” communes, teaching them income-generating activities like cotton spinning, soap and bead making. Many of them also sell firewood. Other churches, Anglican and Apostolic, among others, also provide clothing and food for the women.


According to members of the Presbyterian Church who work in the area, the women are free to move in Gambaga town and some of the younger women have even married men from the area. A church official, who declined to be named, said that the women are afraid to return to their communities, because people still hold grudges against them.


One woman, Aiyeshetu, who returned home from Gambaga, came back with one of her ears cut off. “She was told it was a warning.


“Next time she returns, the other ear will go off,” said a church official.


“Because of this, the women are afraid … We have to educate the people, increase the number of people in school, evangelize among them, so that they will know that diseases are not caused by witchcraft.”


“The situation needs some kind of shuttle diplomacy. The people in the villages where the women came from must be convinced they are harmless, and the women must feel safe to return,” said the church official. “We cannot use force or legislation and with God on our side, we shall get many of the women home safely.”


Ghana’s northern region has a literacy rate of only 10 percent, and officials admit publicly that the majority of the people still follow traditional practices and have little awareness of health and other issues.


Some of the women say they miss their families and would like to go back home, but the church official says, for now, this “is a delicate matter. You need a lot of patience and education on both sides. But the example of Aiyeshetu, is a big setback”.


Emmanuel Arongo, the Anglican Bishop of Tamale (in the North), says the whole practice is “wrong, unjust and unfair” to women and must be stopped. But the Gambagarana say, “when they stop coming, I will stop giving them refuge.”


[Copyright 1998, Inter Press Service]


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