(Tamale) – None of them remember their age, they all know how long they’ve been here. Or at least, they answer the question without delay. According to a perception of time that appears different between a before and an after. The first was a life of free women, the latter is a life of women banished from society.
They are witches, they say. They used their supernatural powers to harm, cause drought, divide families, kill, they say. That “they say” is enough to make them outcasts, to chase them away, to beat them and even lynch them. It has happened many times. A collective madness, which when it transpires, it has to discharge its energy before stopping. The belief in witchcraft remains strongly rooted in Northern Ghana.
A belief linked to ignorance, prejudices, jealousy, even envy, and which – not surprisingly in a patriarchal society – is accompanied (or dictated) by misogyny and sexism. The accusations of witchcraft concern, in fact, above all women (men only in a very small percentage). And they are mostly elderly, often widows. A scapegoat for those who – out of ignorance and through a rooted culture – explain illnesses or “misfortunes” as someone’s malevolent action.
In this part of the country it is a belief consolidated over the centuries, difficult to eradicate and also difficult to interpret, so many are the factors that make it up. It doesn’t take much to be accused and expelled from one’s community, someone’s dream who then tells it to others: “she is a witch, she threatens my family”; the death of someone, especially a child or young person; the belief of a “rival“, as the husband’s other wife, obviously younger, is usually called. Polygamy and paganism are very widespread, be it people of the Muslim religion or adherents to the traditional religion, in fact.
Elderly women, we were saying, who often therefore are nothing more than a burden for families, they can no longer have children, find it difficult to work or begin to behave “in a strange way“. A strange way that elsewhere would perhaps be identified as senile dementia, but which here can become a sentence. A sentence to social isolation, as far away as possible from the home community.
To welcome these women banished from society are witch camps, a sort of refuge according to some, an open-air prison according to others. There are six scattered throughout Northen Ghana, two of which have only recently been closed thanks to repatriation projects. Repatriations are not always easy and require a series of meetings and dialogues with community members so that they are in agreement and ready to readmit “the witch“. And men decide.
These are places “administered” by a chief who has a sort of moral duty of assistance. In some there is also the shrine, the temple where the women who come undergo rituals and ceremonies that on the one hand have the task of ascertaining the “guilt” of the woman, and on the other of eliminating all her powers. A kind of traditional exorcism. In fact, there is no doubt that almost everyone believes in the existence of witchcraft and in the magical powers of these women, supernatural potentials that can also be handed down to their children. It is a stigma that, once attached to a person, is difficult to remove.
The NGOs themselves and various organizations that deal locally with these camps, when organizing awareness-raising activities within the communities, avoid using the term superstition precisely in order not to stand in opposition to local beliefs and traditions. “It is not fair to beat elderly women” this is the main message when organizing confrontations within the communities of origin of these women. “We have to go step by step, we can’t do otherwise“, says Daniel Ngota of the Witch Hunt Victims Empowerment Project.
And so the superstition remains unaltered hoping to pass the message that will at least prevent physical violence on these women. The psychological violence, the pain and the abandonment remain. “This is a real violation of human rights“, explains Lamnatu Adam, director of the NGO Songtaba which in dagomba language means let’s help each other.
Many of these women are unable to overcome the humiliation they have endured, they cannot forget how they were treated and in addition to the material loss of a slightly more comfortable life, they are affected by the distance from their children and grandchildren.
These are psychologically distressed women and without any adequate support to overcome the trauma to which they have been subjected.
The Ghana Health Service believes that it is under no obligation to have a psychological approach, counselings or treatments. And there is no effort in this regard. After all, this is considered a spiritual issue, not a social concern.
continues the director of the NGO “Not very few women manifest suicidal thoughts. Many tell us: I wish I wasn’t born, I wish I could just end my life. We shouldn’t underestimate these words. They are suffering people”.
But the prostration of these women is also caused by the extreme poverty in which they are forced to live. The lucky ones receive a visit from one of their children from time to time (and therefore a little money, food, soap). Others survive with what is given to them by the chief or organizations that have programs within the camps. Some are part of LEAP, a government program to combat poverty. Others work in the fields in the nearest villages or other small businesses. But they are old, often ill, and for many it is impossible to work.
Skipping meals is normal, meals consisting almost exclusively of corn, no protein. To worsen the condition of these women also the absence of those volunteers, for example doctors, who periodically came to these camps to screen, provide medicines or bring small reliefs.
The pandemic has consequences here too. Today fewer than a thousand women are housed in the various camps, about 220 have been repatriated in ten years, but others – although it would seem to a lesser extent than in the past – keep coming. Most of them are destined to die and be buried here, far from home. “When we have the contact details of the children, we notify them, but not everyone is willing to come and take their mother to bury her at home”, says Lamnatu Adam.
Yet in these places a strong feeling of solidarity remains. Being together, “sharing the same fate” as some of them told us, helps to build a community. In the same camp there are women who come from different villages and ethnic groups, who speak different languages, yet they manage to understand each other, to find reasons to laugh, to ease their morale.
The saddest element of these places (albeit of great help and comfort for these women) is the presence of children or very young people (more often girls). They are the children of the women accused of witchcraft or grandchildren sent by the family to look after them. Some go to school, many don’t. A generation on which falls the stigma of the mother, of the aunt, of the grandmother. A stigma from which it is difficult to break free – even when the gods, at the end of the ritual ceremonies, say that you no longer have powers, that you can no longer harm anyone.
In reality, at stake are the social and power structures, which put women, elderly women, women without economic means, on the lowest rung of a highly hierarchical social ladder. A hierarchy made up of men, men who own the land, men who decide the life of women. And of chiefs who, as much as they take charge of the life of the “witches” and protect it, continue to find it normal that there are women accused of invisible crimes. But, we were saying, it is a complex phenomenon, where any judgment risks neglecting a part of reality. Or being able to see it only through your own lens.
[In the photo gallery below we give voice to the women we met in the four camps we visited with the NGO Songtaba and the Witch Hunt Victims Empowerment Project. In parentheses, the years of stay in the camp declared by the women interviewed. All photos are by the author of the report.]
Abina (Gnani Camp, Yendi Municipality, 15 years) - I've been here a long time, I've gotten used to this place. Sure, I'd love to go home, but I don't want to risk being beaten or killed. There are women who went back to their village but then came back here. When I'm very old and feel like I'm going to die, I'll ask my kids to come get me, but if they leave me here, that's fine. Here after all we are all together, we share the same destiny.
Biniti (Gnani Camp, 7 years) - I have three children, sometimes someone comes to see me but not so often. One day I came home from the market, some people surrounded me and said: you're a witch, you have to leave. What could I do? Here I survive working the land of someone from the nearby village. At the end of the day they always give me something and at least I get to eat.
Nwaajo (Gnani Camp, 4 years) - It was the members of my community who accused me. They told me I was guilty of the death of a child. And that's how I came here, to save myself. I don't know if it was me, I don't know if what they're accusing me of is true, I don't even know if I'm a witch. I'm sick.
Ponaa (Gnani Camp, over 20 years) - My daughter comes to visit me and stays with me a few days. She cooks, and does what's there to do. I'm too old to be alone. I have a lot of grandchildren, but they're busy. If I'd like to go home? And where? If I were to return to my community, I wouldn't have peace.
Adamu (Kukuo Camp, Nanumba South District, 6 years) - I have six children and when one of them died - we had gone to the herbalist but there was nothing we could do - they accused me of being responsible for it. One night they set my house on fire. They said: if you stay here, we'll set you on fire too. I asked to come to the priest and see if I was a witch or not. I drank the preparation (here they call it "concoction" [ed]) and the priest told me that I was not a witch. But my image is damaged, I can't go back to my community. One of my sons built me this hut, but he comes once a year. Am I your mother, why are you leaving me alone like this?
Fusheina (Kukuo Camp, 5 years) – My mother has also been here, in this same field. I lived by cultivating a piece of land and so was life. One day a neighbor's daughter got sick and I was told: if she dies, you're going to die too. The parents of this little girl (who then recovered) assaulted me and beat me up. Some people intervened but I had to run here, not even my brother who is a very well-known person could do anything. Now I'm here and no one can accuse me, the gods wouldn't let that happen. Here in the camp there is no discrimination, no stigma, we share the same story. But I miss cultivating land, now I don't even have a seed to plant ... However we try to support each other, if another woman sees you sad or alone, she asks you what's wrong and if she has something to eat she shares it.
Fusheina and her young niece, 11, who was entrusted to her to help her (Kukuo Camp, 7 years) – They accused me of being responsible for the illness of my brother's daughter. Both my father and husband were already dead, so no one would take my defense. So, I didn't wait for them to send me away. I knew it was best to come here. But I'm not guilty, yes witchcraft exists, but it wasn't me. I have given birth before, how could I think of hurting someone else's child? the child of a brother? It would be like hurting a child of mine. No, I wouldn't go back to my community, even if I could, I'd be an enemy to them. I'm safer here.
Ashia (Kukuo Camp, 2 years) – I did my job, early in the morning I cooked and then sold food on the street. One morning, as I was starting to prepare, my husband told me: today do not cook, someone died in the village and they are holding you responsible for it. My older brother brought me here to prove my innocence or guilt. I drank the potion that the priest gave me and he told me I was free. But my brother told me: I can't take you back. He was right, no one would buy my food anymore. If you want to live in peace, stay here, he repeated. And so I did. My husband never came to see me. I have 6 children, they come from time to time ...
Kasua (Kukuo Camp, 27 years) – I remember it well when I came here, it was during the Guinea fowl war [the Konkomba-Nanumba conflict [ed]). There were so many women when I first came, now there are fewer. Here I got old, but one of my children came to live with me with his family, so I'm no longer alone. They said I killed my brother's son. How could I oppose it? My husband was already dead, all I could do was to come here. I have nothing to give you to thank you - she tells me as I greet her - but I will pray for you ...
Damba Tialana (Kukuo Camp) – In Kukuo, which is located in Nanumba South district, there is the shrine, a sort of small traditional temple where purification rituals are performed. Damba Tialana is the "religious" (pagan) authority in this camp, and he performs such rituals for every woman who comes here. "In the shrine justice is brought, it is the gods who give us the answer and seperate the lie from the truth". When I ask him what the point is, since even the "judged" women not guilty remain in the camp, he smiles. "They prefer to stay so as not to suffer the stigma that has already affected them". But there's more: "as long as they stay here they lose power, but they'd get it back if they left". He adds: "I have saved many people, both their lives and spiritually. And I also saved the lives of those who could be killed by them. Now they are powerless, they don't have powers anymore, and I brought justice to this community". One of the rituals consists in making the accused drink simple water, if she vomits or has diarrhea then that's the proof of her guilt ...
Bariba (Gushegu Camp, Gushegu District, 7 years) – They said I ate children, but I don't know. I just know that my mother gave me life, then nothing more ... There was a sick person, they started accusing me, this person said I had nothing to do with it before their death, but their family didn't believe them. They went to some of my relatives who pushed me to leave. I'm getting old, but I'm fine here, I cook for myself, some help comes in from time to time. No, I wouldn't go back to my community, even if I could, I know they'd kill me. So many women were killed, it would have been better for them to come here. If they took over my things when I left? And over what? I used to work a piece of land, but here women only have the land in use, they don't own it. I had nothing. I was born a Muslim, but I go to church here. All the others go, so I go with them.
Wanduayab (Gushegu Camp, 40 years) – In my community a woman had fallen ill (no, she didn't die) and they accused me. I don't know why, I know I had no choice. They also put around the rumor that I eat human flesh. But that's not true. There are people who appropriate your identity to commit crimes, and so you get wrongly accused. Anyway, when they accused me, they even mercilessly beat me. Here the chief gave me a warm welcome and a place to stay.
Salamatu (Gushegu Camp, 6 years) – A woman went crazy in my village, and there was no solution to her madness, they said it was my fault, and here I am. But before I was insulted and beaten, how could I stay in my community? I feel comfortable here. With me there is my daughter, she is six years old, she goes to school – of course it's far away, but not too much – at least she will be able to study, I hope, and so she will be more open-minded. There are other children in this camp and they all go to school. We get some support from time to time, very little. I get by working for someone who, in the end, always gives me something to eat. Or when there is a market in the village near at the end of the day, I go to collect the corn and millet left on the ground. I'm not sure I want to go back to my community. It happened once, it would happen again.
Wuni (Gushegu Camp, 8 years) – This happened: I witnessed an accident involving two guys I knew, one broke his leg. The next day I went to visit him to see how he was doing, but he started screaming and saying that I had tried to kill him but that I had not succeeded. I had to come here to find protection. I had three children, one drowned. I live with what I get and by reselling the firewood I collect in the bush.
Mercy (Gushegu Camp, 4 months) – My "rival", my husband's youngest wife, fell ill and said it was my fault, that I wanted her dead. But I don't know anything about witchcraft. I'm sad, I'd like to go home, but if I did, they'd send me back here. I don't know why she did this to me. I have three children, they came to see me. My husband came too and told me I have to stay in this place.
Chief Wuni Yahiya (Gambaga Camp, East Mamprusi Municipality) – He has been head of the village for 28 years and is responsible for this camp that houses 78 women and 29 children. Beyond the NGOs and volunteers – whose activity since last year due to Covid has practically stopped – it is he, but above all his eldest son (due to the age of the chief) who manages the methods of intervention and the possible distribution of food.
Wuni (Gambaga Camp, 15 years) – I was asleep, suddenly my husband woke me up, informed me that my "rival" was sick and that it was my fault. I went to my brother's. I thought, since my husband's doing this to me, that means he doesn't want me anymore. There wouldn't have been anyone to protect me. I came here alone, on foot, just with what I was wearing. If witchcraft exists? Yes, it does, it's like the wind, it's in the air, you can't do anything but accept what happens to you. Here I'm fine, with other women we make bead necklaces and I work cotton. My children were young then, now they've grown up, they got married and I have grandchildren.
Sabiratu (Gambaga Camp, 7 and a half years) with her 17-year-old daughter Waramatu. Waramatu attended only 3 days of primary school and can neither read nor write, as well as the other women in the camp – One fine day they accused me of being a witch. Whether it was true or not, I don't know. But I fought. I went on my own initiative to a shrine and gave the priest 400 Ghanaian cedi for the ceremony and the chicken to sacrifice. I wasted my money because I had to come here anyway. My life would become impossible in my community.
Tanjong (Gambaga Camp, 30 years) – You ask me why I'm here? I'm confused, but I'll tell you, my "rival's" son dreamed that I wanted to use witchcraft against her. The next day they destroyed my roof, they wanted to tell me I had to leave. I tried to kill myself, the rope I had tightened at the branch and around my neck broke. It wasn't a good rope. I fell and fainted, I don't know how long I stayed there. I think two days. No, no one rescued me, they knew I was a witch. My rival's son told me it would be better for me to come here. I'm poor and out of strength, but that's fine. What can I do?
Laale (Gambaga Camp, 10 years) – When my son died they said it was me. If I'm a witch? I say no, but if others say otherwise I can't oppose it, I have to stay here, even though I'm sick, even though I'm devastated. I don't want to die here. I gave birth, I have so many grandchildren, why can't I be with them?
Konjit (Gambaga Camp, 15 years) – I had 5 children, now they are all dead, two during childbirth. They said I was the cause, I was a witch, I killed my children. They threatened me with a knife to my throat, that's why I ran here. Today I ate only kenkey (a sort of corn-based polenta [ed]). If I ate yesterday? I don't remember. Whether or not I'm happy to be here, what does it matter, what can I do about it? After all, isn't it better to live than die?