Fetish Priest

The fetish priest cleanses the accused witches of their powers

The fetish priest cleanses the accused witches of their powers


Right after arriving

He is one of the first people to receive news about an alleged witch arriving. It is his job to accept her in good faith.

The first thing he does is tell the accused witch to find two chickens of any type and bring him money.

The amount of money varies depending on the type of case. Those who run away from their community voluntarily can pay any amount of money. Those who are sacked from their community because of a mysterious death or sickness must bring 40 cedi (around $20) because they must wash their deaths down in their stomach.

The ceremony

The day of the cleansing ceremony the alleged witch wakes up at 4 in the morning, doesn’t take breakfast, and enters the shrine.

The priest says incantations and oracles, and then slaughters the two chickens. The chickens will testify as to whether she was accused falsely. The results of this test aren’t shared with anyone; the alleged witch and the priest will be the only people who ever know the results. The accused then drinks a special concoction composed of water and a special stone, and neutralizes their powers. The second chicken is slaughtered to ask for permission to stay or leave the community.

The accused then confess that they have witchcraft and drink a concoction. The special concoction was prepared by the priest’s great-grandfather and is in the form of a stone. The stone is soaked in water. If the accused is not lying, she will take the concoction peacefully. If she denies having witchcraft, the concoction will give her diarrhea and she will die in 3 months.

But the chicken doesn’t tell the whole story, which is why the chickens are wrong sometimes.

Priests

The fetish priest says that his powers come from God to do the purification ceremony. The chicken has the ability to do the interpretation.

When the Priest dies, the title is passed on to someone else. The day that the priest dies, the chief consults the oracles. The next day the talisman and the staff will appear at the new priest’s house.

Prior to becoming the priest, his father was the priest and he observed his father performing all the ceremonies.

The village revolves around oracles. The oracles were brought by a nigerian man who founded the community hundreds of years ago. The priest interprets the oracles based on the way the wind blows through the camp. The priest can also ask the oracles for favors.

For example the oracles used to not allow electricity in the camp. Each time electricity poles were put up, the storm would strike the posts. The villagers asked the priest to consult the oracles to let them have electricity. After a sacrifice of a ram, cow, and chicken at the shrine to pacify the gods, they were able to install electricity successfully.

The oracles are different than the gods. The oracles are simply the gods’ messengers.

We asked how these oracles and smaller gods work together with the almighty god since many of the villagers were muslim. He said that these smaller gods that they worship get their powers from the almighty god. They then worship the almighty through the smaller gods.

There are many oracles. When he leaves the village, 1 or 2 oracles travel with the priest and the majority stay at the camp, this way he is signaled if something bad happens.

Problems

He says that the biggest problem in the camp is feeding – many of the women don’t have any supporters.

He also says that the women should be allowed contact with her family. After the purification ceremony she is born again and can’t harm others.

Shenka Kwame

Shenka Kwame was part of a group of 10 people who were accused of witchcraft in her community. There were 9 women and 1 man who were all publicly accused and immediately taken to the camps for alleged witches. To this day, the women are all living in the camps, but the man has returned and lives with his family while she is here alone and suffering. (her words, not mine.)

She was born around 1937 (she knows this because she had her first child when she was 20 in 1957). When we came she had just arrived from cutting firewood; she doesn’t have anyone to take care of her.

She had 3 kids with her first husband: 2 sons and 1 daughter.

Her trouble started when her husband married a second woman. The other wife kept harassing her until her husband told her to look for a new husband.

In this second marriage she had 2 girls, and then her second husband passed away.

There was a local dance and all the chief and elders were in attendance. Someone publically announcced that there were many witches in the community who were disturbing the peace. Shenka remembers hearing 7 names called and being relieved that her name hadn’t been called yet — but her name was last on the list.

She was going through menopause, which is why she was accused of being a witch. Unfortunately she had no one to support her so she had to accept the allegation.

The accused lined up in front of the chief and were each given a chicken. The belief is that a chicken can detect witchcraft. If you are innocent, the chicken will scream and testify that you are innocent as it is being killed. If you are guilty, the chicken will fall without screaming.

Shenka was the first to hand over her chicken. It screamed and she presumed it meant that the community would believe her innocence. The process was repeated with the other 9 who were accused. The chicken didn’t scream for 8 of them. She was one of the two innocent people. She returned home.

But the community didn’t accept the chicken’s testimony and didn’t believe that she was innocent. Shenka had to flee because her community wouldn’t accept her.


She has no one to take care of her, and she asks one of the community members to check on her regularly. Without his visits, no one would know if she had died.

During the wet season, she can walk the mile to the nearest water source. During the dry season she isn’t strong enough to make it over the hills to the river, so she has to sell some firewood to buy water.

She’s been here for 11 years and if she was asked to return to her community, she won’t go. Where would she go? She’s accepted at Kukuo.

She doesn’t forgive those who accused her and she wants god to shorten her life so her suffering ends. She doesn’t have a future and wants her future to end today. (her words)

Shenka believes communities do this out of hatred towards those who are hard-working, especially women. They must think “if we allow this woman, then she will grow. We should stop her progress” (these are her words that were translated to me). She believes that god will one day pay them back.

She doesn’t understand the accusations; why would you think bad against a colleague?

Shenka believes that witchcraft exists, but she’s innocent. After all, the chickens said that 8 of the 10 people that were accused along with her had witchcraft.

No one has paid her a visit here. She didn’t do anything wrong, but now her family rejects her. When she is gone, she doesn’t even care if she gets a funeral.

Her hut leaks everywhere and so she wanted me to put out an appeal to help her get a new roof. A bundle of thatch is 5 cedi, and she needs 8-10 bundles for a roof.

Senetu Kojo

Before coming to Kukuo 3 years ago, Senetu Kojo was living happily.
She had 2 kids with her first husband before he passed away, and then had 5 kids with her second husband. It was a good situation. The more she sacrificed, the more her husband loved her.

Then her second husband died and she was forced to leave the house. She decided to live with her brothers and she lived peacefully until the accusations started.

Someone in her family and another man in the community were fighting for the same girl. The girl and the other man got sick and their sickness was blamed on her.

She said that she noticed that when she left the house, people were outside gossiping.

One day someone told her that her mom (who was already in Kukuo) was sick. She rushed to go check on her mom, but when she arrived her mom was fine.

It was all part of a plan to sack her from the community. People were saying that she was planning on murdering the man.

Luckily she had an uncle who was in the military. She told him about the situation and returned to the community with her uncle.

A few days after her uncle left the man died and she was attacked. People were threatening her with guns and beating her with sticks. They took her to the palace and wanted to kill her. The chief told them to let her go.

Then her brother and the man who accused her died. She had to leave for good this time. There was no one left to defend her to challenge the accusations. The crowd was overpowering.

She fled to Kukuo.


Feeding is a problem for her. Her daughter stays with her and obtains food by looking for leftovers in farms. She showed us the half dozen bits of yam she was saving for lunch and dinner. Others know of her situation; as we were sitting there, someone came in and gave her a papaya.

She’s also not strong enough to get water anymore, and her house leaks. She showed us how she sits up and waits for the rain to end so that she can mop up all the water and finally get to sleep.

When we arrived, she had a yellow powder on her face. She explained that she had a few health problems but the local pharmacy in Kukuo didn’t have the necessary medication. She didn’t have the strength to walk to Bimbilla, the closest major town that had the medication.

She slowly unwrapped the bag that contained her National Health Insurance Scheme card and medicine she took for her cough. Unfortunately the medication made her face swell, and she was using herbs to keep the swelling down.

She’s had chest pain ever since she was beaten, and now that pain has spread to her face.

According to her, god has a plan and she doesn’t blame anybody for her situation; this was just part of the plan god had for her. She believes that witchcraft actually does exist because without it she wouldn’t be here, but she was wrongly accused. Witches won’t tell you about their powers, but she can only tell you that she does not have powers.

Before his death, her husband predicted that she would likely suffer without him there. He was right; after his death is when all of the accusations started coming. She says that she was still strong when her husband was alive, and she believes that if her husband hadn’t died she would still be living a happy life.

She gave us some advice as we left. She said we should always be hardworking and to not think evil against our fellow human beings. She explained that those behind us shouldn’t have to live this type of life.

Youth Leader

When an accused witch arrives at camp she is taken care of by the chief and the priest. After that she is the responsibility of the youth.

The youth provide her with counseling and make her feel as if she is part of the community. According to the youth leader, many of the other camps for accused witches keep the accused segregated. They also provide a new arrival with healthcare, clothing, food, housing, and funeral services. The accused witches get to choose land for a house and can request some land for farming. (The men have to pay for land).

The youth group then builds the accused witch a small house. The girls gather water and the boys gather the soil. The older women cook and the older men make the bricks.

If the accused witch is strong enough to marry, she usually marries within the community. Unfortunately most of the accused witches (~90%) lost their husband and don’t think of remarrying.

The accused witches are usually elderly and bring their daughters along. According to the youth leader, these daughters usually have one fate: they settle in with their mom and stay in Kukuo. The daughters can’t go back to the community because others believe that witchcraft is inherited.

The community accepts the accused witches because they provide them with girls and they bring peace – without them the community wouldn’t have children or wives.

The youth leader believes that witchcraft exists. He’s heard of witches turning human beings into insects. But regardless of whether or not she is a witch, she’s a human being and had her rights. Those rights must be respected. The youth group goes around and educates other communities to not harm those who are accused.

Aminetu Iddrissu

Aminetu Iddrissu just arrived to Kukuo and doesn’t understand the language there. Fortunately her daughter came with her and can translate. We were using two interpreters to hear her story.

Aminetu Iddrissu with her daughter and grandson

Aminetu Iddrissu with her daughter and grandson

Aminetu is about 70 years old. Prior to the witchcraft accusations, her life was normal and she was living peacefully. She had 5 boys and 3 girls.
Then her husband died.

She had to make a living, so she began selling 2nd hand clothing. (Ghana receives second hand clothing from western countries and many people buy gigantic bundles and re-sell the clothing inside.) She was very successful and rich. In fact many people would ask her to loan them money; She was even able to support another woman.

Then the woman she was supporting bled out as she was delivering a baby. The death was blamed on Aminetu.

At this time, her 5 sons had already left the community. So she had no one to support her.

Aminetu went to the shrine and was purified. She decided to return to another community where a young couple took her in. The woman was about to deliver and Aminetu helped around the house.

But then the woman bled out as she was delivering.

Aminetu was forced to move. People believed she still had witchcraft powers even though she had already been purified. But there was no where she could stay so she was brought to Kukuo. The priest didn’t even purify her this time, she was already clear of any powers.

Aminetu said that when people see that their colleagues are progressing, they try to bring them down. Her accusation was their way of bringing her down.

Aminetu’s mom lived in Kukuo earlier, and Aminetu frequently made visits to the camp. People attributed these two deaths to Aminetu because they believe she had inherited the powers.

Aminetu is sick and can’t carry anything so one of her daughters takes care of her. Her daughter’s life has been destroyed because of the allegation too; as soon as the daughter’s husband heard of the allegations he broke off the marriage.

Aminetu doesn’t have money, which is a huge difference from just a few years ago when her business was prospering. She showed us this small collection of spices outside and said that she would like to be able to make and sell more of these, but she doesn’t have equipment. Her daughter can sew, and that’s how they earn money to survive.

The daughter is concerned that she will be accused of witchcraft. Many people believe that witchcraft powers are inherited. She believes that witchcraft exists, but that her case is different.

If she were to relocate, she wouldn’t return to her old community – she would go to where her kids are living.

She explained to us that when a man has witchcraft, it is seen as wisdom or power and the men are then made to be chiefs. But when a woman has it, it is witchcraft. She also said that when a woman picks a fight or challenges a man, she ends up here [at the camps for alleged witches] or beaten.

Fuseina Naetogmah

Fuseina recently arrived at Camp Kukuo

Fuseina recently arrived at Camp Kukuo

Fuseina had 7 kids in her first marriage; two died and she was left with 3 daughters and 2 sons. She had 2 twin girls in her second marriage.

Then her second husband passed away and she was left without support. She began farming and was very successful. People would come to her for extra seeds and to borrow money. People started to notice her progress.

Then her own brother accused her of witchcraft.

On the day she was accused she was selling at the market with her mother. When her son told her about the accusation rumors and she ran home and left everything behind.

A mob formed in her community, and those who were in her debt joined in on the accusations. No one in her community died or was sick – they said they saw her in their dreams. She said that 90% of the people in the mob owed her money.

In order to protect her her son locked her in the house, told everyone she was at the farm, and called the police. When the police arrived, the mob threatened the police. The police realized it was a family issue and brought her to Kukuo to protect her – it was the only place she could go.

When she arrived she wasn’t sent to the shrine because the priest realized that her accusation was false.

She was banished from camp with 9 kids – 7 of those are back in the community and the twins are with her. She couldn’t argue against the accusation because her own brother was accusing her. The mob took everything and invaded her farm. She was left with nothing. She didn’t even have time to take anything with her.

The police charged the mob a small amount of money.

She is mainly concerned about her kids. They’re all students. Who will pay for their education or their books? Who provides food to her elderly mother?

Luckily she is still strong and she helps others on their farms, but she depends on their tokens. On other days she sells firewood or water that she collects. She’s tried farming here, but the land is unsuitable for farming.

It’s been 10 months since she was forced to come to Kukuo and she wants to be relocated. She won’t go back to her original community and wants to settle somewhere else.

She says that she was innocent and that nothing happened. No one died or was sick, but the mob said that she was planning to kill soon. She believes that there are people out there who actually have powers, but she herself doesn’t have them.

Happy 5 year anniversary to me!

A few days ago officially marks the 5 year anniversary of me being an atheist! It’s crazy to think about how much I’ve grown and far far it’s taken me.

We just left Haiti and the Dominican Republic and now we’re in Ecuador.

We spent the past week building more toilets! This time we got to use the machete a lot! Our hands are all covered in blisters

On the 23rd we woke up at 4 am and hiked for an hour and a half to the bus stop. Last time the bus didn’t leave until 7 am, but this time it left much earlier. So we walked an additional hour to a different stop.

A truck passed us and already had a few thousand pounds of oranges and 35 people on the back. They said we could hop on. I spent the hour and a half ride riding on the top of the truck cabin holding on for dear life and dodging low branches. Fun!

We caught a 8 hour bus ride back to Santo Domingo.

The next day we took two flights to Ecuador. Right now we’re in Quito. Quito is AMAZING. Definitely one of the top 3 cities we’ve been to so far. The churches are gorgeous and the food is delicious. Too bad I’m too sick and can’t taste anything.

We’re about to hop on a flight to Guayaquil where we’ll be working for the next month.

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.