Safety in Squalor: Ghana’s Camps for Alleged Witches

In October, I wrote an introduction to Pathfinders Project and a summary of our time in Cambodia for the Fourth Quarter 2013 issue of American Atheist Magazine: A Journal of Atheist News and Thought.

I followed that up in January with a piece about Uganda in the First Quarter 2014 issue.

The Second Quarter 2014 issue is now on the stands at your local Barnes and Noble, and looks like this:

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See the last bullet point? That’s for my article. You can also access it online by becoming a subscriber.

 

Safety in Squalor: Northern Ghana’s Camps for Alleged Witches

Aminetu Iddrissu (left) with her daughter and grandson

Aminetu Iddrissu (left) with her daughter and grandson

Belief in witchcraft is widespread in Ghana. A 2009 Gallup poll found that 77 percent of Ghanaians believe witches exist. It’s in the Northern Region that the situation is the worst, with allegations of witchcraft resulting in brutal beatings, exile, and sometimes even execution. For the women who are exiled, it means life in one of six camps for alleged witches, commonly called “witch camps.”

For the government of Ghana and concerned advocacy organizations, the camps pose an ethical dilemma. Without them, more Ghanaian women would be killed by their communities instead of merely being banished. Because the government doesn’t have the resources or manpower to police the rural communities, the only justice system is the lynch mob. Priests are believed to have the power to sense magic in others and can incite communities to violence by pointing a finger at members within their midst. A person need not even be a priest to accuse another of witchcraft, because the appearance of another person in a dream is enough to condemn them and then beat them all the way to the border of one of the camps for alleged witches.

Thus, these camps seem to save the lives of alleged witches, but conditions are squalid. The inadequate food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare constitute numerous human rights violations. Many residents come from families that have no means of support for these women other than to send daughters and granddaughters to live with them. These “helpers,” therefore, are also exiled from their communities and damned to live in these inhumane conditions.

Kukuo is unique, in that it is the only camp  that integrates its residents into the local community. The people there believe that the land is protected by small gods who do not allow a person to think bad thoughts towards someone else. Witches, therefore, are stripped of their powers.

In Kukuo, the huts of the accused are easily identified, but not because the inhabitants are purposefully segregated on account of their alleged crimes. In rural Ghana, custom dictates that men live in rectangular houses and women, if they have their own quarters, live in circular huts. A woman spends most of her life in a rectangular house—first her father’s, then her husband’s, and if her husband dies, she lives with a close male relative if she doesn’t remarry. The circular huts are for women in polygamous marriages. These round huts are attached to the rectangular hut to form a compound.

The hut of an alleged witch

The hut of an alleged witch

The circular, unattached huts in Kukuo are the exception. The women at Kukuo usually have no male relatives at the camp and are too old to marry, so they are left to tend to their own properties and keep their own homes. Ironically, the consequence of these customs is that the accused witches have become some of the only women in the country who own their own homes.

 

Visiting Kukuo

The first order of business when we arrived was to speak with the chief. The outside of his “palace” was indistinguishable from the other men’s huts. The inside was bare except for an elevated throne area with a large leather pillow and animal furs.

When we entered, four male elders were assembled in front of the chief, who welcomed us with a gift of cola nuts. Guests receive cola nuts when they first meet their hosts and they are supposed to reciprocate with their own offering of cola nuts, but the ceremony has evolved to allow visitors to offer cedis, the Ghanaian currency, instead. It may even be preferred, so despite having a bag of cola nuts in our truck, we gave the chief 20 cedis.

Kukuo's elders and chief

Kukuo’s elders and chief

As we received the nuts from the chief and the elders, we responded to their greetings with the word naa, the only reply to a greeting in the Dagbani language. The intonation of naa is interesting. It’s the same tone a person uses to respond to praise—obvious pleasure but a mix of obligatory embarrassment and denial. Several seconds of this monosyllable passed back and forth between the chief, the elders, and our guide as the cola nuts were removed, one by one, from a brass pot.

This interaction, the exchange of cola, heightens one of the more uncomfortable aspects of visiting Kukuo. The plight of the alleged witches fosters, of all things, tourism. The presence of outsiders and the cola or cedis they bring bestow honor upon the chief and the elders. Without the camps, there would be no motivation to travel to this area. However, the chief and one of the elders, a fetish priest, believe that helping these women comes at a cost to them and provides no benefits. As evidence of this, the chief asked us to notice the state of his palace compared to those of other chiefs.

To be fair, he really did seem to be moved by the abuses these women face, and he realizes that without his hospitality, they would be dead. But this does not change the fact that the Kukuo community exists entirely because of the violent expulsion of women from their communities. With the exception of the royal family, Kukuo has no residents other than the alleged witches and their family members.

 

Purification

Because the shrine at Kukuo is only open on Mondays and Fridays, the women stay under the protection of the chief for two or three days after they arrive. In that time, they must find two chickens for the shrine ritual, which costs 40 cedis for a woman already accused, but fewer than 20 for a preemptive purification.

The ritual begins at 4:00 a.m. The priest tells the woman, who has been fasting, what incantations to make to the oracles. He then slaughters the first chicken, which will determine if the woman has been falsely accused. Conveniently, neither the priest nor the woman can reveal the results, or they will be struck dead by the oracles.

She is then given a cup of water, which contains a source of purifying power—a magic stone introduced by the great-grandfather of the current priest. Before she drinks the water, the woman must confess. If she denies her powers, she will contract diarrhea and die in three months. She is then asked if
she wishes to remain in Kukuo. Whether or not she does, the second chicken is slaughtered to secure a blessing from the oracles for the woman’s wish.

When a priest dies, the successor is chosen by two inanimate objects: his talisman and his staff. They magically relocate from the home of the deceased priest to the home of the new priest, who always ends up being the nearest patrilineal descendant. The morning after the talisman and the staff “select” the new priest, the community celebrates. No one questions the fact that the power of the priesthood manages to stay in one family even though they believe the talisman and the staff can select anyone in the community.

Kukuo's fetish priest, or "tindana"

Kukuo’s fetish priest, or “tindana”

Similarly, no one questions the fact that the vast majority of people accused of witchcraft are women who do not conform to gender stereotypes, are not considered a threat in any way other than their alleged witchcraft, or who aren’t seen as useful. In Kukuo, more than 70% of the 136 alleged witches were accused as elderly widows. Others were accused after it became clear they could not bear children. Many were accused after becoming successful in business and helping their neighbors with loans.

Of all the people we met in Ghana, there was only one person who did not believe in the existence of witchcraft, and he was not a Ghanaian. The lone doubter was an agnostic named Samir from the University of Oxford. He was a volunteer with the Alliance for African Women Initiative (AFAWI) at the same time we were. We all worked under Philip Agyei, a co-founder and the coordinator of volunteers for the organization, which promotes equitable access for women to education, health care, and business opportunities. If anyone were in a position to recognize the use of witchcraft accusations to strip women of their rights, it would be Philip.

In almost every way, Philip is a radically progressive Ghanaian. He has spent his entire adult life working to empower women. Despite being deeply religious, he takes a sensible approach to sex education because he has a real understanding of the factors affecting rates of HIV transmission. And in contrast to the residents of the Northern Region, where accusations of witchcraft double during malaria season, Philip goes to the hospital for blood tests when he recognizes the signs of malaria. Indeed, when the symptoms of malaria worsened in my fellow Pathfinder volunteer Ben Blanchard, it was Philip who was most insistent that Ben (who’s doing much better now) see a doctor. And yet, Philip believes in witchcraft. He explained to us that in Ghana, witches appear as flames or balls of light, which he has himself seen above the rooftops of houses.

 

Progress

The extent that Ghanaians are beginning to question the witchcraft accusations is due in large part to the efforts of Leo Igwe, a Nigerian humanist who has brought to light the human rights abuses against women accused of witchcraft throughout West Africa. Leo was our first point of contact with the camps, and it was through him that we connected with Action Aid, an international organization committed to finding sustainable solutions to poverty and injustice in over 40 countries. Action Aid put us in touch with Songtaba, a program that organizes a coalition of representatives of all six camps in the Northern Region, thus giving the residents a purpose beyond mere survival: a growing voice.

Songtaba has been able to register all of these women with the national health care system and has secured what food they can from the national food program. Songtaba empowers the alleged witches to educate the public about the abuses against them through radio campaigns and street marches.

In addition to the coalition of camp representatives, there are executive councils within each camp. The members are elected democratically and their function is to communicate with the chief and elders regarding the needs of the camp residents. When food and supplies are donated to Kukuo, the executive council decides how to distribute them. The executives pay regular home visits to all 136 alleged witches and arrange for assistance for those unable to fetch their own water and firewood.

Although the male members of the royal family are the only ones allowed to have a role in camp governance, they do listen to what the executives say. It probably helps that a nephew of the chief is an Action Aid employee, but there does seem to be genuine compassion for these women. So in addition to being the only women in the country to own and run their own homes, the alleged witches also participate in one of the only effective forms of democracy in rural Ghana.

In 2011, when the government of Ghana proposed shutting down every camp by 2012, both the advocacy organizations and the executive councils objected vociferously. Without these places of refuge, where witches are believed to lose their powers, the women would be beaten and killed. These inhumane ghettos are the only existing safe havens.

The executives in Kukuo told us that our visit was like being asleep and then having a spirit tap you so that you know you have to get up. We were able to show them that their advocacy work was noticed not only in Ghana but in other parts of the world as well. They vowed to redouble their efforts, and now we must focus ours. It is not enough to condemn the superstition behind the accusations of witchcraft in Northern Ghana. The same beliefs exist elsewhere in Ghana, but thanks to increased development and education in those areas, those beliefs are not needed as an explanation for tragedy. Thus, instead of merely condemning the superstition itself, we must also condemn
the conditions that leave room for such superstition to serve as an explanation for tragedy in the first place.

Originally published in the Second Quarter 2014 issue of American Atheist: A Journal of Atheist News and Thought

Posted Friday, April 18th, 2014 under Awareness.

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