Thursday 20 September 2012

The Witch Camps of Ghana

An article of mine on the scandal of witch refugee camps in the African country of Ghana has headed the most read list on BrooWaha for the past few days.  It was published there under the title No Country for Old Women.  I feel sure that it will also be of interest to my blog readers. 

Perhaps you’ve visited Salem in Massachusetts. If not, you may have been to Pendle in the English county of Lancashire, another northern community. Salem is well-known, Pendle less so, but both have a common link: they were the location of notorious seventeenth century witch hunts.

Now, of course, it’s all good fun, an opportunity for witch tourism. In Salem one can enjoy the Haunted Happenings; in Lancashire it’s possible to ride every Witch Way. Both places have recreated the trials of the accused for visitors, interesting, educational and diverting.

It’s all past; it’s all innocent fun. There are places, though, where witchcraft is neither new age nor diversion. There are places where accusations of malevolent magic can rise with shocking suddenness, often with fatal consequences. There are places where our past is their present.

In Ghana in West Africa up to a thousand women, most of them elderly, have been banished to remote camps in the north of the country. They include eighty-year-old Zeniebu Sugru, accused of being a witch after her nephew took ill and died. In fear of her life, she was obliged to take refuge in one of the six northern camps. Some of the women who live in these primitive places, without electricity or running water, have been there for thirty years or more.

BBC Radio recently highlighted the problem in a broadcast entitled No Country for Old Women. A number of people were interviewed, Zeniebu among them. Of the accusation against her she said “I knew it wasn’t true. I have never used witchcraft. But when I heard that they were planning to bury me alive in the boy’s grave, I knew I had to escape.” She did, eight years ago, leaving behind her grandchildren and all her possessions. There is little hope that she will ever be able to return to her former home in safety.

Samata Adulai is also in her eighties. She used to live in the village of Bulli in the south of the country, where she cared for her twin grandchildren while her daughter worked in the fields. One day her brother came to visit, telling her that her life was in danger: she had been accused of bewitching her niece after the girl died.

There was no possibility of facing down the charge: no, it was flight or death. “I was confused and filled with fear because I knew I was innocent. But I know that once people call you a witch your life is in danger and so without waiting to pick up any of my belongings, I just fled the village.”

Conditions in the witch camps are deplorable. Those who live in the settlement at Kukuo have to walk three miles each day to the River Oti for water, elderly people carrying heavy pots up and down hills. They survive by collecting firewood, selling bags of peanuts or working in local farms. “What is happening is an abuse of human rights”, said Adowa Kwateng-Kluvitse, the country director of ActionAidGhana. “The camps are effectively women’s prisons where the inmates are given a life sentence.”

These witch camps seem to be unique to Ghana but the accusations of witchcraft are not. And it isn’t just a problem for women; children are targeted too, across large parts of Africa: in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and the Central African Republic. Lynchings are commonplace. The problem has even made it to England. Two years ago in Newham in east London fifteen-year-old Kristy Bamu was tortured and drowned in a bath by his sister and her partner attempting to exorcise ‘demons.’

There are some comparisons with past persecutions in Europe and America. In Ghana most of the women in Kukuo are widows, accused and banished after their husbands had died. The suggestion is that an accusation of witchcraft is an easy way for other members of the family to take control of the property. “The camps are a dramatic manifestation of the status of women in Ghana”, said Professor Dzodi Tsikata of the University of Ghana, “Older women become a target because they are no longer useful to society.”

The government, which sees these places as a blot on the country’s reputation, is anxious to disband the camps. There is one thing preventing this: the safety of the women returning home cannot be guaranteed. One form of insurance is to undergo a ‘cleansing’ ritual. At Kukuo, Samata Adulai obtained the services of one of the local fetish priests, to determine her innocence or guilt. In a special ritual a chicken has its throat cut. As it flutters around people wait to see how it will fall. It lands on its back, beak in the air. Smiles all round: the woman is innocent.

So much depends on the chicken. If it had fallen in any other way the ritual then proceeds to a potentially fatal level. If Samata had been declared guilty she would had to have undergone a cleansing ceremony, drinking a concoction of chicken blood, monkey skulls and soil. The exorcism is only considered effective if the woman does not fall ill within seven days. If she does, and survives, she has to do the whole thing again.

But even after this there is no guarantee that they will be accepted. So great is the fear of witchcraft, or the love of property, that not all communities are prepared to accept the return of the exiles. Once a witch, always a witch, so the view sadly goes.


  1. African retirement community; there are always underlying issues with allegations of witchcraft.

  2. The huge inquiry process after the death of Victoria ClimbiƩ was supposedly so this sort of "exorcism" wouldn't happen again in the UK; then we had, as you say, Kristy Bamu. How many children must be sacrificed in the name of cultural sensitivity?

  3. The world we live in is a complex place. Those of us in the West who have embraced the scientific method and employ the fruits of its child, technology, mostly live in brightly-lit surroundings where fears of the dark have been banished from day to day life.

    Elsewhere, people dwell in darker spaces, ill-lit by smoky fires that cast deep shadows - shadows alive, that dance and flicker at the edge of vision.

    It is not just the physical characteristics of living that vary from place to place. From our shining 21st century palaces, we fly our shining birds across the world to remote places where science is the magic of alien wizards, but reality is still exactly as it was long ago at the dawn of imagination and of reason. There are more people still living in some version of the past than we know. Billions are still in thrall to ancient gods and demons, and even when offered the magic of cell phones and AK47s, they are Stone Age in heart and mind.

    One need not travel to the remote Amazon jungle or New Guinea. Every individual wears his own personal past, and a great many choose the comfort of habits evolved long ago, inherited from ancestors out of deep time. I know many people, superficially modern, who still resort to incantations and ritual gestures without ever truly understanding their original significance. We note them, but mostly fail to recognize that such are a kind time travel - a connection to our own ancient past.

    When we travel far enough, to lands of different climate, different food, different clothes, different language, we note those changes as geographic, but just as often we are traveling as much in time as in space. Sometimes the journey is very far back indeed, to a time of first tools and first communities; sometimes not so far - a few decades or a few centuries.

    The whole story of humanity is available, once you know you are a time traveler. If you are a historian, too, knowing exactly how old ways of living gave way in succession to newer ideas, may make it possible to discretely nudge things in the direction of a better future.

    1. Brilliantly put, Calvin. I travel quite extensively and I understand exactly what it is that you are saying, how pertinent your point is, really about fractures in time and experience. I remember reading a science fiction novel - it was a while ago but I think it was called October the First is Too Late - touching on this very theme, a disruption in time causing widely different periods to be thrust together.

      Our own modernity, our civilization, the comforts and illusions we surround ourselves with, is incredibly shallow. At root lies a fearful and primitive brain, that has hardly changed at all over time. If the curtains fell it's highly possible that we would return to a more atavistic state of being, looking fearfully out into the dark as our ancestors did thousands of years ago.

  4. Ana and Calvin, you're discussing the truth of the philosopher Ernst Bloch’s concept of “Ungleichzeitigkeit”, the existence in a country of social, economic and cultural structures of the past flourishing in the present alongside contemporary modern structures and those early, newly formed structures that are pregnant with the future.

    This co-existence and even flourishing of the products of different eras simultaneously in a society is true within a nation and true across nations--it's one of the most prominent features of our rapidly-evolving national cultures and global culture.

    In so many respects, when we talk to our fellow citizens or to citizens of different nations, we are speaking across centuries--and of course we ourselves are personal palimpsests of many different epochs . . . tradition is by no means a bad thing, as I'm sure the two of you, particularly, would be the first to affirm . . . Best, Chris

    1. Chris, I'm not familiar with the work of Bloch, something else I shall have to make good. Did I ever tell you my Port Moresby story, about tribesmen coming into contact with modern technology? If not, let me know and I will. It's a true one, I assure you. :-)

  5. Hi Ana, I wouldn't bother with Bloch, he's like Walter Benjamin--thought provoking from time to time but a hell of a slog almost all the time!

    I haven't heard your Port Moresby story, but would love to do so--I've had various PNG-related projects over the years, but none of them required me to personally set foot there . . . do tell!

    1. OK, it goes like this. My grandfather was on a business trip to the Far East in the 1960s, which, amongst other places, took him to New Guinea. While there he stayed in a hotel in Port Moresby. I have no idea what the place is like now but then it wasn’t unusual to see tribesmen in the streets, obviously down from the hills, trying to make sense of the modern world. On one particular day he saw a group standing close to the elevator in his hotel. Guests would come, the doors opened, they got in, the doors closing behind them, the group staring intently all the while. The lift would come back, the doors opened. Empty! A great commotion then went up from the group. He later found out that they referred to the lift in their own language as “the box that eats people.” This is true, in every regard.