The Witch Villages of Ghana

cbs5.com, Dana King, 27 May 2010

Hawabu Tarana is serving a life sentence, based solely on an accusation. Through a translator, I ask her, “Are you a witch?” “I denied it, but they didn’t believe me. So I’ve accepted,” is the sad reply.

Accused witches in Ghana are often killed. Tarana bears a scar on her head where hair no longer grows – the result of a machete attack after she was run out of her village nearly eight years ago. She still has blinding pain, and no medicine.

Now she lives in a place called Gambaga, a village for accused witches. More than one hundred women live here, all accused of causing sickness, harming crops, or killing people with lightning. Their only real crime seems to be that they are old, and often widowed, like Abiba Abukari.

“My family members, precisely my brother’s son, said I’m a witch and trying to kill them,” she says.

She adds they beat her and took her home. So we decided to find out for ourselves, traveling two and a half hours from Gambaga to what was Abukari’s home. It’s a huge compound with a tin roof and an interior courtyard. It’s further evidence that when a woman’s husband dies, she is vulnerable.

Abukari’s brother still lives in the home. He says he couldn’t protect her.

“Because of poverty, people envy one another, and they accuse one another falsely,” he says. “When your husband dies, they think you should just get out of this place.”

There are at least six witch villages in Ghana. Another is named Yani Camp, where hundreds of women live in squalid conditions. The camps are run by men who use the women as free labor, farming or shelling peanuts. Some women report being sexually and physically abused.

The system goes back hundreds of years, the rituals surrounding it are as old as time. There’s no real trial, but a witch doctor we spoke to says he can determine guilt or innocence with fresh chicken blood, mixed with gin.

“The blood is to invoke the gods to determine whether a person is a witch or not,” he explains. “And the gods, they’re going to take the alcohol.”

But even women judged innocent can never go home, because the stigma of witchcraft is so pervasive.

“We don’t actually want women in those camps, we want them out of the camps,” says I.P.S. Zachary-Saa of the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs. “But the difficulty is the fact that some of them are not received back into their communities.”

I asked him what percentage of Ghanaians believe it witchcraft.

“In the villages, I would say about ninety percent believe in witchcraft,” he replies.

The Ghanaian government is working with American aid groups to help make the witch villages more livable. We visiting Kpatinga Camp, where the huts have tin roofs, concrete floors, and windows with screens. But even in these better condition, we also found the stain of witchery reaching further, jumping to the next generation.

Hadija is eight years old. After her grandmother was accused of witchcraft, the family sent the little girl to the witch village as well.

“She is my daughter’s daughter,” says the grandmother. “The father decided to bring her to me to give me a helping hand.”

Hadija has lived in the camp for five years. She doesn’t go to school and doesn’t even know how to hold a pencil properly. Instead, she is the strength the old woman lacks – cleaning, carrying wood, bringing water from the well a quarter mile away.

When I asked her what she wants to do with her life, she tells me, “I want to be a lady, an educated lady.”

But superstition runs so deep that change will come slowly, especially when even officials charged with ending the punishment, believe in the crime.

“I believe witches exist, yes,” says Zachary-Saa.

So for Hadija, after her grandmother dies, she will be considered a witch too.

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