Hundreds of women accused of witchcraft in northern Ghana are being torn away from their homes and families and banished to isolated villages described as witch camps.
This canker has led to the springing up of six so-called witches’ camps in the Northern Region alone, where these ostracized women and their dependents, as well as a few men, live the rest of their lives under deplorable conditions.
These camps are confronted with lack of potable water, absence of decent accommodation, lack of toilet facilities, health posts and schools and filthy surroundings that expose residents to various forms of preventable diseases.
Women accused of witchcraft find themselves caught between deep-rooted beliefs of the society they live in and Ghana’s drive toward modernization.
Over the last couple of decades, pressure has been mounting on government to abolish the camps and reintegrate accused men and women into their communities, but strong traditional beliefs prove difficult to overcome this proposition.
The Northern Region which is regarded the poorest region in Ghana has the largest number of witch camps in Ghana with a little 1,189 inhabitants, according to statistics from Action Aid Ghana (AAG) report of 2011, an international non-governmental organization that supports residents of the camps and seeks to reintegrate them into their communities.
These figures include 675 women, 51 men and 463 children. Most of the children who are not witches but by virtue of the fact their parents have been banished are forced to live with them and do not have access to formal education due to their parents’ inability to afford it, despite the government’s free basic education policy for all children of school-going age in the country.
The inhabitants of the camps with majority mostly women in their old ages, live in these camps under deplorable conditions while oftentimes, their relations look on unconcerned in view of the stigma associated to them by society.
The Kukuo, Kpatinga Bonyese, Gambaga, Nabuli and Gnani witches’ camps are the prominent ones in the Northern Region.
The number of residents continues to swell as more people from various rural communities are accused of witchcraft and banished to camps each time a misfortune befalls a community as a result of either strange ailment or famine.
Ironically, no affluent woman within her community has been accused of being a witch except the poor widows or women who are seen struggling in their respective communities to fend for themselves.
These abandoned women have resorted to various means to earn a living and support their children, such as petty trading, making charcoal and prostitution.
Even so, many of the children are malnourished, along with being deprived of formal education which is their right in the wake of government’s free compulsory basic education policy.
Many women have made attempts to reunite with their families but were chased away, following the accusations that they caused untimely deaths of community members or brought misfortunes to the area.
Chiefs and other opinion leaders often champion the banishment of these women when a misfortune befalls the community, but investigations reveal that personal hatred in some cases may play a part in banishments.
People from all social strata, from university professors to farmers, believe there is witchcraft.
In rural communities in the northern regions, residents often attribute drought, sickness and other problems to the work of the witches and wizards.
When a person is suspected of being a witch or wizard, he or she may be killed, lynched or banished to a camp to live in abject poverty and isolation.
In the late 1990s, human rights organizations and the Ghanaian government began steps to dissolve these camps, but were met with resistance that nearly created distinct problems for the women and their families.
Most camp residents now feel safer staying in the deplorable states of the camps than returning to their families where their safety may not be guaranteed.
Human rights advocates including AAG are appealing to government and human rights groups to formulate legislative instruments to regulate certain traditional beliefs that deprive people, such as these mainly aged women, of their rights.
Visits to three of the six camps in the Northern Region revealed that life is not going on well with them but they have no option but make do with the environment in which they have found themselves.
Seventy-five (75) women accused of witchcraft live in Naabuli, a deprived farming community in the Gushiegu District of the Northern Region, where the chief and people of the community have allowed them to settle.
Many of them say they survive on prostitution.
According to 50-year-old Magazia Nyaajo, women charge 50Gp for a sexual bout, which enables them to buy porridge and other necessities such as tablets of paracetamol when they fall sick.
Ms. Nyaajo ruled out pregnancy and contraction of sexually transmitted diseases, saying they were compelled to resort to this to fend for themselves and believe God protects them.
“We do not even have good accommodation as all our relations have abandoned us here,” she said.
Ms. Nyaajo disclosed that the women’s modus operandi in the prostitution was to meet clients at obscure places in the community, such as uncompleted buildings, where the acts took place.
Though managers of the camp disagree the inmates engage in prostitution, they admit that they are in dire need of support from various benevolent organizations to live on.
Most of the accused women say they escaped being lynched by angry mobs in their communities after being accused of witchcraft by mostly the youth.
The chief fetish priest of the Gnani Camp, Alhassan Shei, who took over from his late father Dunaa Shei decades ago, disclosed that some of the inmates were innocent over the accusations of the witchcraft.
He indicated that rituals performed to establish whether the camp residents possessed powers of witchcraft exonerated some of them, but they feared reintegrating with their families following the stigma and threats by neighbours.
Mr. Alhassan however said after the exercise some of the inhabitants were indeed found to be witches and wizards and a special concoction had to be prepared for them to drink to render them powerless.
He refused to disclose the content of the concoction, which many health experts and human rights groups fear may be poisonous or otherwise harmful.
A section of the residents said they had practiced witchcraft, using their powers to kill people who stood in their way.
An 18-year-old man at the Gnani Witches’ Camp near Yendi said he killed a colleague at the age of 10 with his witchcraft, leading to his being banished by residents of Binchera, a farming community in the Nanumba North District.
He said he was always verbally abused by the girl but each time he tried beating her up, relations came to her defense.
This, he indicated, hurts him so much that he found it difficult to forgive the little girl and used powers allegedly acquired from a relation to end the life of the girl.
He disclosed that relatives of the victim rose to the occasion and made some spiritual consultations and it was later established he had a hand in the girl’s death, leading to his banishment to the camp.
The man said he was rendered powerless after he started living in the camp.
He said he has no option to leave the camp, despite its conditions, because any plans to return to his relations could end his life.
Shei, who conducted this reporter round the camp, said that after the performance of rituals to render alleged witches powerless, the people usually preferred staying in the area for fear of being lynched in their communities.
He said various items used for witchcraft including amulets soaked in human blood were retrieved from most of the suspects after the purification exercise.
Mr. Alhassan said all inmates had been cleansed of witchcraft and were no longer harmful to society as before but he was worried of the increasing numbers at the camp.
The fetish priest bemoaned the poor conditions under which the residents and their dependants were living, particularly the children, and appealed to the authorities to build schools for them in these areas.
He disclosed that inmates were reliant on benevolent organizations such as NGOs for a living, commending AAG for its contributions to the camp.
Women’s Rights Program Officer of the Northern Region Development Program of AAG, in an interaction disclosed that periodic sensitization on human rights is organized for the camp inhabitants.
She also disclosed that the NGO supports the poor women to engage in farming to enable them fend for the dependents.
The program officer disclosed among other things that a literacy program dubbed “Reflect” had also been formed to identify problems in the camps and sources for support from stakeholders to mitigate their plight.
AAG paid the health insurance premiums for more than 500 people, and is making efforts to find decent accommodation for residents of the camps.
The National Commission on Civic Education (NCCE) and Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) embark on periodic sensitization drives to enable the inmates reunite with their families.
This, according to CHRAJ, would help curb the increasing number of inhabitants in the various camps in the region.
The Yendi Municipal Director of CHRAJ, Mr. Yakubu Abass, expressed regrets over the inability of inhabitants to reintegrate into their communities.
A program called Children’s Rights and Empowerment Through Social Transformation has also been instituted by AAG to help analyze problems of the kids in the camps and the community as a whole.
Source: Stephen Zoure Tamale