In Ghana, like much of Africa, belief in witchcraft is quite common. So are witchcraft accusations. The vast majority of accusations are levied at old women. Who can no longer produce children. Often they are widows without a male relative who can or will protect them from the accusation.
Most of the women we meet were accused by those indebted to them. In the polygamous society of northern Ghana, women are commonly accused by younger, rival wives. These accusations can come from anyone and at any time. The foundation of an accusation is usually unexplained sickness or death. An appearance in a victim’s dream can be sufficient evidence.
Ghana’s camps for accused witches, more commonly called witch camps, are a depressing place. Here women who have been banished from their home communities, and often beaten and tortured on the way out, find a safe place. They are safe because they are purified in a cleansing ritual performed by a traditional priest at the camp shrine. If they had powers before, now they are gone. Here they are safe from violence and further accusation that would likely come from their neighbors or their own family. But in the camps they struggle to live.
At the camp we visited, Kukuo, women must walk miles for water each day. In the wet season the walk is farther and steeper. At Kukuo, the women cannot afford to rethatch their roofs, which needs to be done at least every three years, so many cannot find a dry place to lay their head. Until the rain stops, they have to sit up or risk pneumonia. When they left their homes their possessions were taken or destroyed. They are forbidden to take anything with them. So at Kukuo they do not have the capital to start a new business or farm. Simply acquiring food is a sometimes insurmountable obstacle. Often a granddaughter lives at the camp with an accused witch helping her to survive. Without a helper, for these accused witches, some of whom are in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, the task of survival becomes exponentially higher. But, merely being at the camp, for the granddaughter, increases the likelihood of an accusation of her own. Guilt by association—or inheritance. Kukuo is a safe place, not a carefree place.
Which is why the experience of husking corn with these women was so enchanting. Action Aid Songtoba, which advocates for the rights of the accused witches, had donated three acres of corn to the accused witches. For some of the women, all their food comes through these kinds of donations. The corn was delivered and left in a large pile in one of the larger, non-witch huts in the community. (One of the unique things about Kukuo is that the accused witches are not segregated into their own area. In Kukuo they live among, and as part of, the larger community.) To get the dried kernels from the husks the women begin by beating the corn with sticks. They work rhythmically together singing to keep time. Our guide and translator told us the songs were thanks to the Kukuo community for not abandoning them and for recognizing their humanity.
The beating does not rid the husks of all the kernels, so behind the beaters is a second line of women manually removing the holdouts. Some do it with their hands. Others rub the cobs together. A couple had pieces of metal that looked like large cheese graters that did most of the work for them. I sat with these women to remove my share of kernels. The old woman on my left was laughing, smiling, and singing. She gave me some smiles that I returned and she tried to talk to me. Unfortunately, I don’t speak her language.
Fortunately, we got over our language barrier to communicate when Conor took a turn beating the cobs. She loved it. She giggled and slapped my knee and shook my shoulder indicating that I should take in this sight. Her giddiness probably had something to do with the color of his skin, but I think it mostly had to do with his gender, which was conspicuous in the room full of old, accused witches. When he finished he had half a dozen kernels stuck in his beard.
When there was a lull in the action—when we were waiting for a fresh supply of cobs—I would run my hands though the kernels looking for buried cobs. The old lady next to me was doing this too, but she also threw kernels at me. At first, a few at a time, but she quickly started throwing handfuls. Laughing I threw some back at her. During another lull she buried my feet in the kernels. It was wonderful to interact with an alleged witch in this way. So many of our other meetings with them were about their tragedy—how they came to be at the camp and their conditions now that they are there. This meeting was playful and joyful. This interaction was so at odds with the rest of our visit. I am so glad I met this woman. Without this woman our visit to Kukuo would have been full of only tears and frustrations. But if she can laugh and sing and play inside a camp for alleged witches, I can leave with a little hope.
Our first night in Ghana we stayed at a hostel just across the street from the beach—not too shabby. Naturally, almost immediately after dropping our bags, we were at the beach. We split up and the first thing I did was go and stand in the surf. I have this thing about saying I touched this or that body of water—Pacific from the west, Pacific from the east, Red Sea, Dead Sea, Ganges, Loch Ness, Atlantic from the east, and, now, Atlantic from the west. I only stood there a couple of minutes before a man approached me and started a conversation with me. I don’t remember what we said, but it was pretty banal—and over after just a few back and forths. I didn’t realize it yet, but this fellow was the first of many men who would approach me at the beach that day.
I moved back from the surf and sat down to read. I hadn't finished a page before another man approached me. He sat down next to me. Right next to me. I could feel the heat radiating from his skin. He asked me some questions. Did I live around here? What was I doing in Ghana? How long had I been in Ghana? Was I alone at the beach? This last question was the most frequent question asked of me on that beach. It came to feel threatening. Because of the sheer number of times it was asked. Because of the relative lack of women on the beach. I was one of a handful of women on the beach. I counted six, including me and Michelle, to the dozens and dozens of men I could see. It was asked with the friendliest of tones—but still felt threatening. This man asked me to join him and his friends down the beach at a house, party, or bar. It wasn’t exactly clear to me where. Not that that mattered—I wasn’t going. His friends joined him and stood around me. They did not exactly make the invitation more inviting, from my point of view.
They finally left me, but they did not leave me in peace. Soon yet another man sat in front of me. I had my knees bent and my feet flat on the ground making a triangle. This man slid one of his legs right under mine. At first his leg was just there, not actually touching mine. But through the conversation it inched closer and closer eventually resting on my ankle—for a second before I pulled away. The conversation was just like the last. Where are you from? Are you alone? Come with me.
After he left I had some time. I read a little. I watched the waves—much like flames, waves mesmerize me. I said hi a dozen times to a dozen people who greeted me as they walked past. Then two men sprinted toward me from the water. When it became clear that the two men were not going to run past me, but were running right for me, my flight instinct kicked in. I had a vision of these two, rather large, men lifting me up and taking me with them without even missing a stride. I had a vision of them grabbing my arms and pulling me into the water with them. The Kindle in my hand was the least of my concerns in this scenario. I had myself up on hands ready to bolt, but I didn’t. I stayed seated. They didn’t kidnap me. They sat down next to me. On either side. Both within an inch of my skin. From there the conversation mirrored the previous ones. Was I at the beach with my husband or boyfriend? Where is the exact location of your hotel? Do you want to swim with us (and our 15 male friends already in the water)? The two men eventually returned to the water, though the more talkative of the two returned—twice.
I made sure to be home before the sun set.
This was the first day of our time in Ghana and it was particularly bad, but it is not an anomaly. At a tro tro depot we frequent, we (Michelle and I) are grabbed at as we walk through the crowd. It’s worse when I am alone. A man on the street near where we live shouted to me to come home with him to have a good time. When I didn’t answer he added that he’d make me feel good. When we walk down the street we (Michelle and I) are told me are beautiful and have gotten marriage proposals from complete strangers. (Full disclosure: Conor has gotten a marriage proposal from a perfect stranger too—one.) On one tro tro ride the man sitting next to me, after a few cursory questions, asked me to be his “one lover.” He insisted for a minute or two after I said no, but the conversation eventually ended. We were, however, stuck together in the tro tro for about ten minutes our thighs touching and his eyes never left me. Not just watching me out of the corner of his eye either. He had his whole upper body turned toward me to stare.
The second weekend we were here we went to another beach. This one was much more organized—tables and chairs, a cordoned off area to swim, a lifeguard. The four of us swam together and a handful of men still asked to help me swim. From what I can tell, because all but one of the other women in the water were doing this, helping to swim means standing in the water with a man with his arms wrapped around you so that he can sometimes grope you when the wave hits. Don’t get me wrong. If that’s what you want to do, do it. I’m just not interested in doing it myself—with any of the men who didn’t bother to ask me my name first.
I don’t want to give the impression that every Ghanian man is like this. That same day at the beach I had a wonderful conversation with a man. We talked about religion and African history. We talked about the tough balance between making money and getting an education and how reaching that balance differs in Ghana from the US. We talked about the myriad differences between the New Mexican desert and the Ghanian coast. He said he was glad we were friends. And then he left. No marriage proposals. No offers to help me swim. No invasion of my personal space. Yet the whole time I was waiting for it. When he left I was surprised it hadn’t come.
These kinds of encounters—the invasion of space/marriage proposal kind—are a large part of the experience of being a non-Ghanian woman in Ghana. Unfortunately, because so many of my interactions with men here are of this nature, it makes me distrustful of all interactions with men. So the few interactions that are not of this nature are tainted by those that are.