The Guardian, 6 December 2005, Jeevan Vasagar
When crops fail or children die of mysterious illnesses, the villagers of northern Ghana usually suspect that a witch is to blame.
The accusation is most likely to come from within a family – the same feeling that binds a village together in adversity can be turned ruthlessly against a scapegoat, and it takes little more than suspicion for a witch to face death at the hands of a lynch mob.
Fearing for their lives, hundreds of elderly women in northern Ghana have banded together for protection in sanctuaries known as “witch camps”. They live in clusters of sun-baked huts, where lizards scuttle under the eaves and pumpkin vines grow over the thatched roofs.
Sanatu Iddrisu, a wizened old woman wearing a blue headscarf and floral-print blouse, fled her village after she was accused of cursing a teenage boy whose death was likely to have been caused by malaria.
“It was my nephew who accused me,” she said. “He threatened to burn my house down. I came here for my own safety. There is no other community that would accept me because of the stigma of witchcraft.”
The “witch camps” have the tranquil air of retirement homes, with residents sitting outside their doorways chewing kola nuts and chatting with neighbours. Corn is spread out to dry in the sunshine, and firewood is piled up in spiky bundles by the mud walls of the huts.
The women are not completely shunned by their families – children and grandchildren come to visit – but their relatives have shed the financial burden of caring for them. Instead, the women eke out a meagre existence, gathering firewood to sell and tending tiny plots of maize and spinach.
The charity Action Aid, which has researched the phenomenon, estimates that there are almost 400 accused witches in six camps in northern Ghana. Women have even fled from neighbouring Burkina Faso and Togo to find sanctuary.
Economic motives fuel claims of witchcraft. Sanatu’s neighbour in the camp, a woman named Shetu Bukari, refused to move out of her husband’s house and go back to her own family when she was widowed.
However, she had to give up the valuable property and run away to a camp when her brother-in-law accused her of casting a spell on his pregnant wife.
Some of the women in the camp deny being witches, but others proudly claim magical powers, although they insist they confine them to benign charms to safeguard their children.
“I was born with the power of witchcraft,” Asana Mahamma, sitting in a dark hut piled with cooking pans, said. “But I only used it to protect my household. Others said I was a witch because I have seven children and they are all still alive.”
The accused women are protected from would-be persecutors by a traditional priest – known as the Tindaana – who performs exorcisms on newcomers seeking to join the Gnani village camp.
“This village is like a bowl that everyone drinks from,” one of the priest’s relatives said. “It is against our custom to banish people. We accept anyone who has been banished.”
Bimbah Nkombe, a widowed mother of four, fled to the camp after her cousin blamed her for a child’s death. “The father of the child has threatened me,” she said. “If I go back, they will kill me.”
The morning after she arrived, the priest’s apprentice performed an exorcism ceremony, slashing the throat of a cockerel and then tossing it to the ground to witness its death throes.
The bird’s wings rattled and its legs clawed wildly at nothing before it flopped forwards onto its beak. Nkombe looked relieved. According to traditional belief, the position in which the bird died meant she was innocent of the child’s death.
Then she drank some of the cockerel’s warm blood in a ritual cleansing ceremony, making a vow not to practise black magic while she stayed in Gnani.
Northern Ghana lags behind the more fertile and affluent south of the country in development terms. In isolated villages surrounded by tangles of bush, literacy levels are low and elderly widows are a convenient scapegoat for life’s tragedies.
There are fresh influxes of alleged witches whenever there is an unexplained phenomenon – anything from outbreaks of meningitis to blighted crops.
In the village of Galgu, a sprawl of huts reached by a winding dirt track, one of the women’s accusers explained how suspicion had fallen on her.
As lightning flickered outside his hut, Mahami Wumbei said he had always been friendly with his aunt, Sanatu Iddrisu, until the death of his teenage son from a sudden illness.
“My son was very sick,” he said, weeping at the memory. “We were taking him to hospital, coming and going, but he did not survive. Before he died, he named this woman as the one making him sick.
“We told her this, and she did not deny it. No-one wanted to come near her – even the young ones she called grandchildren ran away out of fear.”
Fleeing the village probably saved her life, but it has made her an outcast. “She has gone to a shameful place,” Mahami said.