Category Archives: volunteering

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.

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 Рthe 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.