Monthly Archives: December 2013

Camps for Alleged Witches

Entering the camp

It all starts with an accusation of witchcraft.

Evidence of witchcraft can be multiple things: death, sickness, missing testicles, seeing someone in your dreams.

According to one of the women we met, certain factors increase the likelihood of a witchcraft allegation: going through menopause, being economically empowered if you are a woman, speaking out, and a community member dying. Hot flashes are seen as a spirit attacking you. Speaking out and being economically empowered is a sign that your spirit has something extra. Mysterious deaths and sicknesses are attributed to witchcraft – during malaria season or cholera outbreaks the number of witchcraft allegations increase.

These alleged witches are then beaten and tortured until they leave the community either by force or out of fear. There usually isn’t a warning or enough time to gather belongings. All they have are the clothes on their back. Most alleged witches never return.

The accused are then sent to one of 6 camps that are well-known for accepting accused witches. We visited Kukuo in Northern Ghana.

I imagined the camp would be small and only contain alleged witches, but the camp is huge. Kukuo alone currently holds 136 witches — that’s not including regular community members and family. Many of the accused women are elderly and cannot care for themselves, so the majority have daughters, granddaughters, or other family members that stay with them. When family members come, they are also banished from their community; many people believe that witchcraft is inherited.

After accused witches arrive at Kukuo, the chief and the priest take care of them until the accused goes through a purification ceremony. It involves drinking a special concoction and killing two chickens. (There will be more on the ceremony in a later blog post.)

The purification ceremony cleanses the alleged witches of their powers and the alleged witches are considered born again. Their supposed powers are no longer there, but their communities still won’t accept them back – unless they’re a man. Men are allowed to return and continue life right where they left off. Women risk death if they return.

Kukuo is there as a safe place for these women and accepts them with open arms. According to the chief, women are not powerful and not recognized in society. These women had their human rights abused and wouldn’t be at Kukuo in any other circumstances. The other communities don’t handle accusations properly, which is why so many end up at Kukuo.

Kukuo’s goal is to socialize these women and integrate them back into their community and make sure they don’t face any discrimination. After all, the alleged witches have been neutralized through the cleansing ceremony and don’t have powers any more.

The chief allows the alleged witch to pick some land, and then the youth build her a small hut for her to live. The community provides her with counseling and some clothes to get started for her new life in Kukuo.

The government is trying to ban these camps from happening because they are considered to be violations of human rights. Kukuo supports the idea of not having camps for the accused witches, but knows it’s not realistic. Unless Kukuo is there, where will these women go?

Reintegration

Action Aid and Songtaba are the two organizations that work most frequently with Kukuo. Their ultimate goal is to get these women reintegrated back into other communities, but it takes a lot of work.

They must assess the woman’s individual case and her accusations. The community needs to be checked to see how accepting they would be of her return. Their family must also be extremely supportive. If all of those conditions are right, the women return to their community for a few days. Then Action Aid watches to see how the community reacts.

Most women are never reintegrated and many don’t ever want to return to their communities. Why go back to a community that almost killed them?

Conditions at Kukuo

The women have to walk miles to the closest source of water. (It’s a female-only chore.) If that well is dried up, which is most of the year, then they must walk many more miles over a few hills to reach the next source of water.

Feeding is difficult. Many of the women talked about going without meals or depending on scraps.

Housing is another universal concern. The huts are covered with thatch which must be replaced every 2 years. Unfortunately many can’t afford new roofs. During the rain it leaks heavily and the inhabitants stay standing until it stops so they can mop out the water and have a dry place to sleep. It’s impossible to sleep.

Clothing is another concern. The accused women literally only have the clothes in their back when they enter. Accused witches aren’t allowed to take anything when they leave their communities.

Kukuo isn’t an ideal place to live, but it’s the only place where many of these women are accepted. Water, food, shelter, and clothing were universal concerns and came up often during interviews.

This past week many of these women shared their stories and voiced their concerns to me. I’m incredibly grateful that they opened up their houses and shared these difficult memories. Their biggest request was that I tell their stories to others so that others know of the terrible discrimination and conditions they face.

I took a lot of notes, and over the next few days I’ll be sharing their stories with you.

Let the race begin!

The Pathfinders are racing! We’re trying to see who can raise $1000 first for our work in Ghana.

In Ghana we have two different projects:

  • Alliance for African Women Initiative – This is where we are now and we’re working on Teen Club, which empowers teens to be prime movers in their community. On days that Teen Club isn’t occurring, Conor and Wendy are working on applying for grants while Ben and I work on their website. It hasn’t been updated in 3 or 4 years.
  • Witch Camps – We’re going to the witch camps in a few weeks. Accused witches go to these camps since they have been excommunicated from their communities. (Seriously. Read the article. It’s unbelievable)

Each of the Pathfinders has devised a list of things we’ll do for money. Here’s my list:

  • $5 I’ll list you on my blog as a supporter
  • $9 I’ll give you a shout out on facebook or twitter ($1 cheaper than Ben and Conor!)
  • $25 I’ll give you exclusive access to the secret blog where I detail all the things I do daily.This really has everything you’ll ever want to know about pathfinders (and then some)! Only my close friends and a few family members have access to this so far. (none of the pathfinders know about this blog either… until now). (includes all the previous rewards.)
  • $50 I’ll send you a postcard from a random country we visit. (includes all the previous rewards)
  • $75 I’ll dedicate my next blog post to you (on my public blog) and I’ll talk about any topic of your choice. The food we’re eating, how it feels to be the only POC on the trip (hint: it mostly sucks), Conor’s glorious beard growth, pictures of the guy who insisted that I take a picture of him to send to my family to see if they approve of me marrying him, what it’s like to be a woman traveler. It can even be non-pathfinders related.  Stories of me making a documentary in Ireland about abortion? What it’s like being the vice president and publicity officer of a Buddhist club while being an atheist? The awesomeness of Breaking Bad? Anything. (includes all the previous rewards)
  • $100 I’ll send you a postcard from every remaining country. (includes all the previous rewards)
  • $150 I’ll send you the link to the dropbox folder that has all the pictures I’ve taken on Pathfinders. Every. Single. One. This includes all the blurry shitty ones too. I update this whenever we have internet. (includes all the previous rewards)
  • $200 I’ll meet you for dinner at FBB Conference and I’ll bring along pictures and tell you of all our adventures. (Conference fees and travel not included. This includes all the previous rewards)
  • $5000 I will shave my head and send you the video. (Includes all the previous rewards)

All of the donations can be made here.

Thank you for your consideration.

Any other suggestions on what I could do? Email me at michelle@pathfindersproject.com!

Keeping History Alive

I’m Yonsei. That means that I’m a 4th generation Japanese American (my great-grandparents were the ones that immigrated to the United States).

Growing up my grandma always talked about internment camps. She would tell us stories of working at the hospital, walking to the shower in the middle of winter, and answering the controversial questionnaire that forced her to answer that she was “disloyal” to the only country she had ever known. She always made sure to bring us to whatever internment camp educational event was going on: museum openings, documentary screenings, and tv special viewings about internment camps were a regular occurrence in my family. I remember my uncle sitting me, my sister, and my cousin down and showing us photos he had taken from inside the camps. He made a pinhole camera using film he had ordered from the Montgomery Ward catalog. My mom always made sure to surround me with books about internment. Tule Lake Revisited was a cornerstone my house.

For me it was just a part of my family’s history and it was a part of my family’s experience in the United States. It was mentioned very casually and very often in my household. My family never shied away from it.

I’ve always been fascinated by this part of my family’s history. When I heard about Tule Lake’s annual pilgrimage, I immediately pushed my family to go.

I was excited about seeing the barracks and seeing the tar-papered covered walls that my grandma described. I would be able to visit the basketball court that my uncle would fill with water so it turned into an ice rink each winter. I might even get to see the barrack that my grandma lived in for all those years.

But when I got there there was nothing.

Well not nothing.There was still Abalone Mountain — the mountain that my uncle could see from within the barbed wire fences and could hike on special occasions when he got special permission to be let outside the fence.

All that stands within Tule Lake is a landmark sign that declares the land as important, the camp prison, and the remnants of one communal toilet.

Nothing else. Not even the graveyard. Someone went through years later, bulldozed it, and then used the dirt (human remains and all) for landfill.

Whenever I talk to people about internment camps, it’s always met with shock and surprise. “What? You know someone who went to camp?”. They’re amazed that I know someone who was imprisoned in them.

My history books in high school had one paragraph about it. That’s it. One. Some people have never even heard of them. Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me.

I didn’t realize how many people didn’t know about the camps, especially since I grew up with it being mentioned so casually and so frequently (a habit I have gladly picked up) that I thought it was normal to talk about it.

I’ve come to this slow realization that that part of my history — the one that changed my grandma’s life so dramatically that she refers to everything as “before camp” and “after camp” — is dying.

My family has kept the story alive for me. I haven’t figured out how, but I intend to keep the story alive for future generations.

 


The JACL has recently advised that the term “incarceration camp” be used to describe Tule Lake and all the other camps that imprisoned the Japanese. I decided to used “internment camp” because that is the term my family uses most often.

This was written for Healing Hawks.

Don’t Touch the Monks

Siem Reap, Cambodia (I wrote this post 3 months ago)

In the all-monk class today we planned to do an exercise that involved working with the students individually. Right before starting the exercise the teacher turned to me and told me not to touch any of the monks.

“Why?”

“Because you are a woman.”

One of the classes we taught in Cambodia

One of the classes we taught in Cambodia

I was taken aback, but I had to teach class so I continued with the lesson. Afterwards I asked the teacher about the no-touching rule.

“It’s illegal for the monks to touch women.”

He explained to me that many years ago there were female monks, and they were allowed to keep their hair unshaven. The story goes that there was one monk in particular who was really beautiful.A lot of monks desired her, and so one day as she was praying they raped her. Afterwards when the male monks stepped into the temple, they were swallowed up by the ground.

After hearing this news, the head monk banned women from becoming monks. Eventually the monks were banned from touching women. The only women allowed to touch the monks now are their mothers.

Menstrual Cycles… oh my

The past few weeks the Pathfinders have been working at the Alliance for African Women Initiative (AFAWI) in Accra, Ghana.

from the inside of AFAWI's office

One of the boards that decorates the inside of AFAWI’s office

Ben and I have spent a lot of time editing the website. It hasn’t been updated in a while and it’s missing a lot of the amazing work AFAWI has done within the past few years. Plus the website missing some essential new programs that were recently added. Apparently many people were (understandably) questioning the validity of these new projects. I think it’s incredibly important for an organization to have a nice website – it lends legitimacy to an organization.

Anyway one of the parts I was in charge of was the research paper part of the website. I spent a lot of time reading AFAWI’s research.

Phillip, the programs co-ordinator and one of the founders of the Alliance for African Women Initiative

Phillip, the programs co-ordinator and one of the founders of the Alliance for African Women Initiative

Did you know that many girls drop out of school because of their menstrual cycles?

The gender gap in education widens as girls get older, and some of that is contributed to menstruation. Oftentimes, the environment at school doesn’t allow a young woman to feel comfortable doing essential things like changing pads.

From what I’ve been told most schools don’t have bathroom stalls that are high enough. This results in a lot of peeking and teasing. Can you imagine trying to change a pad in that when you’re a teenager? Plus 87% of boys admitted to teasing their female teenage peers about menstruation. What a nightmare.

There aren’t any places for young women to dispose of sanitary products at school, and as many people know dogs love to sniff out pads.

Also many girls can’t afford sanitary pads and instead opt for things like grass and toilet paper. And embarrassment led a lot of the girls attempt to dry their reusable cloth indoors – which can lead to a lot of mold and mildew. Yikes.

As a result, many girls opt to stay home during their periods instead of attending school. That means they miss a week out of every month of schooling. Many of these girls then start to fall behind their peers and eventually drop out.

I can’t imagine being unable to obtain an education because of something as natural as menstruation.

AFAWI does a lot to help this situation. They built new stalls for the bathrooms, incinerators for girls to dispose of their pads, gave girls a free supply of pads for a year, and educated everyone (including boys) about menstruation to stop the teasing.

AFAWI gave a years supply of menstrual supplies to students. photo credits to AFAWI

I know, I sound like a walking billboard for them, but I really really like what they do. This is one of like 20 programs that AFAWI has going on.

So this week during teen club (another awesome program that AFAWI does) the officers wanted us to give the club a talk about cleanliness and hygiene – the topic of menstruation fell on me. Crap.

Teen Club meeting

Teen Club meeting

I was hesitant. Talking to teenagers about menstruation, pads, periods and stuff? Queue the giggles and snickering. It’s nerve-wracking enough without the added pressure of knowing that it could potentially change whether or not some of these girls stay in school.

It doesn’t help that I look about 12 years old. (In fact, that was one of the first questions they asked me at the end of my spiel) What would a 12 year old know about menstruation?

The nervousness left when I saw how eager many of the girls were. A lot were taking notes. The boys were interested too. I had to preface my talk with a part about why it’s an issue that concerns all of them – not just women.

During the talk I covered:

  • menstruation is normal
  • the anatomy of menstruation
  • why it’s an education and gender issue
  • menstruation is perfectly natural
  • sanitary products that are available
  • how to use each of these sanitary products safely
  • and that menstruation is absolutely normal (I really emphasized this point. Why should you be embarassed about something so natural?)

And you know what? There wasn’t a lot of giggling and the students paid attention. Huge sigh of relief.

Ben, Conor, and Wendy’s topics went well too. Ben covered HIV/AIDS, Wendy talked about general hygiene (brush your teeth, wash your hands, etc), and Conor discussed mental health.

On the agenda for next week for teen club: a debate on whether kids their age should be in relationships. This should be interesting.

 

(Sorry. There aren’t any pictures of me actually giving the talk. Everyone was busy)

 

If you like what the Pathfinders Project is doing, please donate. All the money is going to support us in our work at AFAWI and at the witch camps in Ghana.

More regular updates coming soon!

Alright so new format for this blog.

I’m going to start doing more regular casual updates on what I’m doing (which means more pictures). I’ll still post longer pieces. There’s so much that the pathfinders do and the longer pieces never really cover any of that.

Plus I learn all sorts of fun tidbits of information that don’t usually make it.

Also Conor has been pressuring me to post some more of my stuff online.

And my family has been nagging me for updates and I’m tired of updating them individually.

And we have consistent internet here, so I don’t have to sneak off to an internet cafe and hope for internet that’ll be fast enough to let me post (yay).

So over the next week or so I’ll be posting up random updates from past locations (although that will probably be happening for the rest of the year too) and random updates from the past few weeks. Just warning you that your e-mail inboxes/RSS readers might be flooded. Stay tuned!

Sacramento Atheist Billboards

Billboard in Sacramento

One of the 55 billboards going up around Sacramento this month.
photo credits to FFRF

So the Sacramento Freedom From Religion Foundation is getting a lot of shit for the billboards they put up around Sacramento. People are saying that it’s “proselytizing,” “evangelical atheism,” and that “atheists are shoving their beliefs down others’ throats.” Many are asking why this campaign is necessary.

It’s necessary for people like me. When I was around 14 or 15 I realized that I just didn’t buy into my religion.

I spent YEARS thinking something was wrong with me for not believing in a higher power/religion. I searched for a religion that fit me – maybe I just hadn’t found the right one yet.

This campaign is out there for people who may be feeling like I did so many years ago. It might have helped me so many years ago. It needs to be out there so that people like me don’t feel so alone. You don’t believe in (a) god(s) and that’s okay. It’s perfectly fine. Here are some others who are like you, and we have a nice community here in Sacramento. (Well, mostly nice. But that’s a different story.)

It’s not an affront to religion. It’s an affirmation that atheism is okay.

This billboard campaign is also to show that atheists are people and to dispel stereotypes. Atheists aren’t baby-eaters, murderers, angry people incapable of love, or angsty teenagers who are mad at god. Atheists are your next door neighbors and we have morals. I’ve been asked why I don’t murder people and I’ve been honestly told that I’m not actually atheist – I’m just mad at god. No. I’m an atheist. It’s a perfectly valid (lack of) belief, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.


I posted this the other day in the Sacramento Freethinkers, Atheists, and Nonbelievers group and it was met with a lot of warm reception and the sharing of very similar stories. It’s really emphasized to me why this is important: there’s a lot of people out there with similar stories.