Ghanaian leaders and civil society groups met in the nation’s capital, Accra earlier this week to develop a plan to abolish the witches’ camps in the northern region, where over a thousand women and children who have been accused of sorcery are currently living in exile.
Deputy Minister for Women and Children’s Affairs Hajia Hawawu Boya Gariba said the ministry would be doing everything that it could to ensure the practice of families and neighbors banishing women from communities whom they suspected of being witches is abolished by developing legislation that would make it illegal to accuse someone of being a witch and gradually closing down camps and reintegrating women back into their communities.
“This practice has become an indictment on the conscience of our society,” Ms. Gariba said at the conference called Towards Banning “Witches” Camps. “The labeling of some of our kinsmen and women as witches and wizards and banishing them into camps where they live in inhuman and deplorable conditions is a violation of their fundamental human rights.”
Supreme Court Justice Rose Owusu also said that the practice violated numerous clauses in section 5 of Ghana’s 1992 Constitution. That section protects human rights and outlaws cultural practices which "dehumanize or are injurious to the physical and mental well-being of a person." Ms. Owusu also called for the development of new legislation to outlaw the camps and the practice.
The witch camps of Ghana's north
There are currently around 1,000 women and 700 children living in 6 of the witches’ camps in Ghana’s northern region.
Many of them are elderly women who have been accused of inflicting death, misfortune, and calamity on their neighbors and villages through sorcery, witchcraft, or "juju," a term used throughout West Africa.
The women enjoy a certain degree of protection within these camps, located some distance from their communities in which they could be tortured, beaten to death, or lynched, but the conditions of the camps are often poor. The "accused witches," as they are sometimes referred to, live in tiny thatched mud huts, and have limited access to food and must fetch water from nearby streams and creeks.
Forced to flee
An elderly woman named Bikamila Bagberi who has lived in Nabule witch camp in Gushegu a district in the Northern Region for the past 13 years, told the story of how she was forced to leave her village. Dressed in a headscarf, faded T-shirt, and cotton skirt, Ms. Bagberi spoke softly with her head bowed as a district assemblyman translated for the conference delegates.
Bagberi’s nephew, her brother-in-law’s son, had died unexpectedly and after the village soothsayer said she caused the death of the child her family tried make her confess to murdering him through sorcery. She said that when she refused she was beaten with an old bicycle chain, and later her nephew’s family members rubbed Ghanaian pepper sauce into her eyes and open wounds.
When asked whether she could return back to her village she said the family couldn’t bring her back into the community because of the fear that she will harm others. Bagberi said she expected to spend the rest of her life in the camp.
Catalyst for action
Human rights groups have been campaigning for the closure of the witches’ camps since the 1990s, but have had little success in abolishing the practice of sending women suspected of witchcraft into exile, in part because of lack of political will and the pervasiveness of the belief in witchcraft throughout Ghana. But the brutal murder of 72-year-old Ama Hemmah in the city of Tema in Novermber of last year, allegedly by six people, among them a Pentecostal pastor and his neighbors who are accused of dousing her with kerosene and setting her alight, caused public outrage and made headlines across the world. Since Hemmah’s death, opinion pieces and articles about the issue have featured in Ghana’s major newspapers, along with feature stores on local news programs.
Emmanuel Anukun-Dabson from Christian Outreach Fellowship, a group working with the accused witches at the Nabule camp and one of the organizers of the conference, suggested that a broader cultural shift needed to take place if the camps were to be abolished.
“In Ghana, we know that when a calamity happens or something befalls a family or a community the question is not what caused it, but rather who caused it?” Anukun-Dabson said. “We are a people who do not take responsibility for our actions; rather we find scapegoats and women are the targets.”
Chief Psychiatrist of Ghana’s Health Services Dr. Akwesi Osei, who spearheaded the conference, argued that a public awareness campaign on psychological disorders, dementia, and the mental and behavioral changes associated with menopause might help the public understand behaviors and perceived eccentricities that are often associated with witchcraft.
Belief in witchcraft and supernatural powers is common throughout Ghana, and Africa countries and is often encouraged by pastors who preach in the nation’s many charismatic churches. Supernatural themes and sorcery also feature strongly in Ghanaian and West African films and television programs.
Deputy Minister Gariba has called for another meeting to develop a more concrete road map and said that the National Disaster Management Organisation would be providing the witches’ camps with water tanks and additional food supplies.
Joojo Eenstua, another organizer of the camp who works with Christian Outreach Fellowship at Nabule, said the conference marked a new era in activism on the issue and believed that significant changes and improvements to the livelihoods of the women and children living in these witches camps would follow.
“There is more public awareness than before and there is more political will and momentum around this issue,” Ms. Eenstua says.