The witches of Gambaga (Ghana)

Geographical 1 Aug. 2006, Simon DeTrey-White

“They say I chopped a child”, the old lady said, her tiny figure lit by the soft light of a Ghanaian dawn. Her fine, deeply lined face was tight-lipped and impassive as she lent against the door of her small thatched hut but her eyes burnt with pride, anger and loss. My mind flicked instantly to lurid visions of a swinging axe. “Chopped?” I asked. “Yes,” said my interpreter, “to chop means to eat.”

“She ate a child?” I asked in disbelief and stifled amusement. In my ignorance it seemed faintly ridiculous. “Not literally,” the interpreter explained, “but it’s believed a witch can attack and consume the soul of a victim in the spirit world, causing the death of the body in the physical world.” So began my first interview with one of the inmates of Ghana’s best-known witch camp

Belief in witchcraft is widespread across Africa, thriving in regions inhabited by peoples with little knowledge of modern science and who have few effective methods for dealing with everyday crises such as sickness. Such suffering becomes the result of an ancestor’s spirit or the hatred of a witch – as solid a set of causal theories as those we’re given when we visit a doctor. When an accusation of witchcraft is made, the accused is totally ostracised from her community and often has to flee for her life. Once cast out, she must seek out an earth priest who, through the enactment of a sacrificial rite, will discover whether or not she is a witch.

 

If ‘convicted’, she has her power neutralised with a further ritual that only remains effective close to the shrine where it was performed. Hence the witch is effectively confined to the local area and is forced to live communally in a camp. Gambaga, a small market town in Ghana’s eastern Mamprusi district, has played host to such a camp for more than 200 years. Arriving red with dust from a long and arduous journey, I could see little to confirm that this was once the capital of the ancient Mamprusi kingdom. Instead, Gambaga, with its mixture of thatched and tin-roofed dwellings around the once important market, struck me as just a modest, sleepy town.

 

Accompanied by my local contact, Simon Ngota, who has worked for several years with the Presbyterian Church of Ghana’s GO-HOME project trying to repatriate the witches, I visited the town’s chief, Yahaya Wuni, essential protocol as the camp is on his land.

 

I found him sitting on a raised dais in his compound. Initially severe and unsmiling, he interrogated me closely, fearing bad publicity. I managed to reassure him, and Simon and I left the compound and walked around the back to the camp, a group of extended mud-built homesteads covering around 150 square metres. We were greeted by the kindly chief of the camp, or Magazia, ‘Ma’ Asana Mahama, who gave her blessing for me to talk to the inmates.

 

Accusations and repatriations

During the next week, I spoke with and photographed many of the 70 women living as outcasts in Gambaga. Among the more outspoken was Samatu Sumani, who’d been in the camp for about a year. Her anger at her treatment was still palpable. “A neighbour got sick and accused me of bewitching her,” she told me. “I was very frightened and pleaded with her that it was not true. My daughter also appealed on my behalf, and even donated blood for a transfusion to make her well again, but still she didn’t relent.” The woman died of her illness and Samatu was convicted of witchcraft.

 

Repatriation of outcasts is difficult but not impossible. I spoke to one of the GO-HOME project’s success stories, Salmata Achiri. Simon and I went to visit Salmata in a nearby village to hear her story. We sat in the shade with her son and daughter-in-law, surrounded by a throng of children. “A stepson from my husband’s side became ill. His relatives came to his bedside, and as he got worse, they began to blame me,” she told me. “I don’t know why, as the boy himself never accused me. I felt very sorry for him and angry with them but what could I do? He didn’t die, but I was still sent to Gambaga, where I stayed for eight years. It isn’t a bad place, but I was always hungry and I missed my family. One of my sons managed to get his own place and invited me to join him, so here I am, I’m so happy to be free.”

 

Some of the women in the camp haven’t themselves been accused, but have chosen to be there to look after relatives. “A young woman accused my mother of causing her illness but she had nothing to do with it,” said Ayishetu Isshaku, a large, friendly woman who has been in the camp with her partially sighted mother for five years. “When she was sent here I decided to accompany her as she needed me and I would have been accused next anyway; the woman recovered and now has three children.”

 

The only thing preventing most of the women from leaving the refuge is the lack of anywhere else to go. The majority of the accused are late-middle-aged women who became vulnerable after losing their husbands. Often they’ve had to move back to their father’s compound, where they may be seen as a drain on resources. While children are often sympathetic, it may be years before they can establish their own household and accommodate an outcast relative.

 

Challenging beliefs

There’s no escaping the fact that the segregation of women in Gambaga and other witch camps is a form of imprisonment. The outcasts are forced to leave their homes and families, and although they can work and trade, they are typically poor, demeaned and stigmatised by their situation. Education is key to tackling the situation, both in challenging people’s belief in witchcraft and in changing their attitudes towards traditional gender roles.

 

Mamprusi society is rigidly patriarchal, and women deemed to be subverting the established gender roles can become a target for witchcraft accusations by men seeking to re-establish control. It’s believed that women who achieve success without the help of a man must have done so by resorting to witchcraft. In the camp, I spoke with Asara Azindu, a confident and cheerful woman in her 50s. She had been a successful, independent businesswoman before she was accused following an outbreak of meningitis. Her conspicuously plump figure (compared to others in the camp) attested to her previous affluence. However, her assured manner evaporated when she told me her story. “I was living away from my husband, in Gushiegu, and was accused along with two other women of causing a sickness,” she said. “I had to come to Gambaga for my own safety, but lost my house, possessions and business.”

 

Despite the patriarchal nature of Mamprusi society, women have always been responsible for their own finances, and now there is ever more need for cash to pay for school fees, clothing and medicine. Women are supposed to be submissive and subservient to men, yet their autonomy is increasing as they are forced to farm, travel and trade more in order to provide for their families. This expansion of women’s roles began as a response to the famine crisis of the mid-1980s; indeed, the government actively encouraged it. Traditionally, Mamprusi men were primarily engaged in the raising and trading of livestock. But the famine devastated their herds, and the country has since faced stiffer competition in livestock and other trading markets.

 

The hunting of animals for sale as bush-meat, another male preserve, has also become less reliable due to a decrease in the abundance of game. Women eventually began to outstrip men in the productivity and income stakes, and the social order was unacceptably subverted. The increasing frequency and virulence of witchcraft accusations in recent years can be seen as an attempt to control women and re-establish normality in Mamprusi gender relations.

 

Meanwhile, the Gambaga women caught in the middle endure with cheerful, humbling stoicism. Ma Asana is philosophical: “We make the best of it here and are grateful to have somewhere safe to be under the circumstances, but look forward to the day when we can go home.”

 

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