travelblog.org, Nicole Huck, 11 March 2008
We fear what we don’t understand. A child falls sick and dies without reason. Who do we blame? Is it God’s will, or is there some other force at work? Most people feel better having something or someone to blame for life’s misfortunes – and in Northern Ghana that blame often falls on elderly women believed to be witches.
There are six witch camps scattered around Northern Ghana. Ad Hoc communities of those cast out of society, chased away by accusations, threats, and violence. The elderly women live in varying degrees of discomfort. Some do not have access to potable water and are forced to walk miles in the blistering heat of dry season to fetch water; others perform manual labour in the fields of nearby villagers in exchange for a bowl of corn. Some of the ‘lucky’ women have families that care for them and occasionally send food. Others are shunned by their families and left to fend on their own or rely on the kindness of neighbours.
These girls are from the Gnani Witch Camp — most of the young people don’t go to school because they can’t afford the fees and they are discriminated against. These girls spend their days working for the family. little more than a collection of tiny huts scattered haphazardly at the outskirts of a dusty village. There are no trees to provide relief from the scorching sun of dry season and the huts are not constructed to stand up to the violent downpours of rainy season. Yet this is where Mama Mlamden has spent the last eight years.
When someone in her village fell ill and died the chief accused her of using witchcraft to cause the death. She was a widow and had no one to defend her because her children all depend on the chief for the land they live and farm on. To anger the chief would be to risk being thrown off the land with no place to go and no way to earn a living.
When Mama Mlamden was accused she was dragged to the chief’s house. She denied causing the illness but because she had no one willing to defend her she was sent to the chief of Naboli camp. The village medicine man gave her a concoction to drink to suspend her powers. The village elders slaughtered a fowl – according to tradition if the bird falls backwards she is considered innocent, but if it falls face down she is guilty and exiled to the camp. The fowl landed face down and sealed her fate. There is no appeal process – the ancestors have passed judgement.
Earning a living
These piles of wood at the Gambaga Outcast Home have been collected by the women in the camp. They go out everyday in search of wood and they bring it to town to sell. It’s a common sight to see and old woman walking for kilometres with a huge bundle of sticks on her head.
Mama Mlamden was left with no options. She arrived at the camp without anything and no way to earn an income. She now earns a small amount of money by selling corn she picks up from the ground after market days. She never has enough money to buy food or medicine – but despite the hardships she says she would not want to go back home to her village.
Enoch Cudjoe works for Songtaba, a human rights coalition based in Ghana’s northern region. He says despite some deplorable conditions many of the accused witches describe the camps as their ‘heaven’.
“If the women say they are comfortable it’s because the alternative is much worse. If return to their communities they will be ostracized and face further accusations or even worse, they may be beaten to death. At least in the camps they have a ‘family’ who understands.”
The belief in witchcraft is widespread in Ghana, as it is throughout much of Africa. You have to look no further than the front page of a newspaper to see a story about someone accused of witchcraft or practicing ‘juju’. Cudjoe says the belief in witchcraft is not the problem – rather how that belief translates in a patriarchal society.
This women earns a small amount of money by making homemade brooms to sell. The problem some of the women face is that people in town are afraid to buy products that come from witches (especially food). is throughout much of Africa. You have to look no further than the front page of a newspaper to see a story about someone accused of witchcraft or practicing ‘juju’. Cudjoe says the belief in witchcraft is not the problem – rather how that belief translates in a patriarchal society.
“The men have power and they want to keep the power, so if you are a woman and you are struggling up a little then you are a witch. Men are sometimes accused of practicing witchcraft or being a wizard but they can often find a place to go – whereas women have no place to go.”
This uneven power balance is something organizations like Songtaba are trying to change. They are currently working with more than 500 widows – women considered to be the poorest of the poor, and most at risk of being accused of practicing witchcraft. Economic empowerment is the goal of capacity building training for income generating projects and small scale business loans.
Other groups are going into the communities where the accused witches are banished from and trying to change the attitudes that drove the women away in the first place.
This woman is showing off the grain she was given by a NGO operating in the area. It’s difficult for her to find enough food to live on — so the donations, no matter how small, help her feed herself for another week.
Simon Ngota is the Project Supervisor of the Presby Outcast Home based in Gambaga. He says the church has been educating opinion leaders and chiefs about women’s rights and advising the communities to accept their relatives back.
He says in the 14 years since he started working with the project he has seen a dramatic change in attitude. There are now fewer accused women living in Gambaga Camp and the harassment and maltreatment by nearby communities has been reduced.
Unfortunately not all of the witch camps are enjoying the same success. Unlike Gambaga where all the accused witches’ children or dependants are in school – children in other camps have been all but forgotten. In Ngani witch camp there are 273 witches and wizards – many of whom have children or grandchildren living with them. Even though there is a school within walking distance of the camp, the majority of children spend their days working for their parents, farming or fishing. Discrimination from educators and classmates and lack of money for basic school supplies such as a uniform is what is preventing these children from accessing education.
According to Mr. Cudjoe, even though people’s attitudes towards accused witches is changing – much more work needs to be done.
“It’s difficult for people to let go of something that has been inherited. It’s a belief system – it’s not easy working with people and saying look what you are doing is wrong; this is the new way so let’s go that way, but slowly attitudes are changing.”