“They pointed a gun at me and said the bullet that will kill you is in this gun,” says Mariama Iddrisu, describing the day she was accused of witchcraft by her neighbours.
“Someone pulled a cutlass across my cheek and told me they were going to finish me off. Many villagers were there and many were drunk. I had no doubt they were out to kill me. I was scared out of my mind.”
Mariama is describing events as if they were yesterday. But they didn’t happen yesterday. They happened almost 30 years ago. And she has been banished from her home and family ever since.
The Witch Camp
Mariama lives in Kukuo 'witch camp', one of six camps across northern Ghana collectively home to about 700 women. The numbers involved show how deep-rooted the belief in witchcraft still is in this country, and these are figures only for those who make it as far as the camps.
It’s common knowledge that women are still being murdered for the ‘crime’ of being a witch.
According to local beliefs, the camps are 'safe places' where witchcraft cannot be carried out, some because they lie on sacred land, others because of the cleansing rituals new arrivals have to go through.
They are crammed with women who tell their own version of the same story – mob justice after accusations of suppressing someone’s breath, appearing in malevolent dreams, bewitching neighbours until they die. And the resulting years of hardship and insecurity lived on the margins of society, fearing for their lives if ever they try to return home.
Poor and powerless women
“These women are accused because they are poor and they are powerless,” says Adam Lamnatu, women’s rights officer at Songtaba, a network of organisations ActionAid helped set up to support the women in the camps.
Many, like Issahaku Awaba, below, are over 45, have reached the menopause and are unlikely to have children. “Not only is that considered a bad omen in our society, it leaves women vulnerable because they have no one to protect them,” says Lamnatu.
The state offers little in the way of protection either, preferring for the most part to let the women take care of themselves. Although there are laws that should allow them to bring their cases to the authorities – such as the recently passed domestic violence bill – few make it as far as the courts.
“Our culture dictates that women are not assertive, they cannot speak out about their rights,” says Lamnatu. “For most people it is the family that is expected to sort out problems, so to go to the police is to cut yourself off from your own family.”
Although the government has made statements condemning the practices, there is still no specific legislation outlawing violence against women accused of witchcraft.
Proof of guilt
Possessionless, scared and sometimes physically wounded, the ordeal is not over once a woman arrives at the camp. She must now take part in a ritual performed by a local spiritual chief, like Alhassan Shei, pictured below, which will prove her guilt or innocence. Her accuser is brought forward with her to a shrine, where two chickens are slaughtered and thrown in the air. The way they land — face up or face down — seals her fate.
A 'cleansing' concoction made of – among other things, earth, water and blood – is then given to the guilty to drink, to supposedly neutralise their powers. Those declared innocent also frequently drink the mixture, so terrified are they of being associated with guilt. Some become so ill after drinking it that they die.
The irony is that, if the woman survives, the outcome of the ritual is almost irrelevant. How the chickens fall; whether she drinks the concoction, objectively they mean nothing. The woman has already been tainted by the word ‘witch’ and, even if found innocent, can never safely return to her community because the whisperings, the accusations and the threats will continue until she is permanently banished, or worse.
To look at the camps as an outsider, with their circles of thatched mud huts and waving shea nut trees, there is nothing much to mark them as different to other villages. But looks can be deceiving.
Innocent or guilty, some camps demand a payment to the spiritual chief before you can leave – a sheep and a chicken – that no-one can afford. You are shunned so no one will buy your goods in the markets – you can’t earn a living and you can’t save up to pay for your freedom. Even if you could, your family may have already rejected you, fearful of the bad luck you will bring. These camps don’t need physical bars around them to be prisons.
“People don’t care about alleged witches,” says Sana Kojo, pictured below, who has been living in Kukuo camp since 1981, when she was accused of pressing her cousin’s chest until he died. “Once you are here you are forgotten. If you throw a frog over a wall, no one cares if it falls on its back or on its front.”
The prevalence of superstition, juju and black magic might sit uneasily in a country where Christianity and Islam are also practised, but regardless of imams and priests actively preaching against witchcraft, people here seem able to easily reconcile the two.
On the path to the Mosque can be found spiritual talismans and charms, and just around the corner faith healers and witch doctors ply their trade for those without the money or inclination for the state-sanctioned version.
It’s no coincidence that spiritual beliefs are strongest in the poorest areas, where the majority of people have little or no access to education, healthcare or the power to have any sort of control over their own lives.
Take away the smokescreen of witchcraft and you are left with basic human emotions and desires: power, jealousy and revenge, visited on those too vulnerable to resist.
Mariama, who was accused of killing a neighbour who died in childbirth, has no doubts why she was singled out all those years ago. “It was out of envy,” she says. “If someone does not like you they will do bad things to you.”
Indeed they will.
Help from ActionAid
Ninety miles away in Gambaga camp, about 50 women cram into their newly built community centre to welcome us with song and dance, crowding round to shake hands and say hello. Until recently an alleged witch would never offer her hand to another, for fear of being accused of 'transmitting' her witchcraft.
But ActionAid has been busy in all the camps, encouraging the women to form networks and make demands of a previously unresponsive government. A march on the local authorities resulted in hundreds of women receiving health insurance cards so they can now access treatment at the same clinics that previously shunned them. And with 75 hectares of land to their name, they can now grow their own food and stop relying on handouts.
New water systems have been set up and a re-roofing programme is in progress, pushed forward by the women themselves. But the most distinctive change has been in the women’s attitudes towards themselves – and each other. No longer prisoners behind invisible bars, they have formed a network both within and between the camps, and are going out into the community to demand acceptance.
“Being in a group is very helpful for us all,” says Sulk Lari, 49, who was accused of killing her own son through witchcraft. “Before I couldn't eat well, I couldn’t sleep. But now it’s lovely, when I wake up there is laughter, there is dancing everywhere. If we want to do something such as go for firewood, we go together.”
Some of the women are even earning a living again, selling toiletries in local markets after being given soap-making equipment and taking part in ActionAid-led discussions aimed at sensitising local communities
“By coming together we care for each other more than we used to,” says Mariama. “We have agreed to go round and check on how healthy everyone is, which we would never have done before. We are stronger, more able to make demands for ourselves.”
It is heartening to see that such actions can make a difference to what can seem like a depressingly intractable problem. But the big question remains, will women ever be able to live in Ghana without fear of being branded a witch?
Watching 40-year-old Ayishetu Bujri laughing as she grinds shea butter with her neighbours, it’s tempting to answer with a tentative 'yes'.
Ayishetu was outcast from her village after a neighbour’s daughter fell ill, and ended up in Gambaga camp, separated from her family for almost three years. It’s thanks to the ActionAid-supported Go Home project that she is once again able to live a normal life.
“It wouldn’t have been possible for me to come home without the project,” says Ayishetu. “Accusations of witchcraft don’t just go away, but Go Home helped persuade my community that the way they acted towards me was wrong.”
It was, admittedly, a slow process, with months of meetings between Ayishetu and members of her former community. Support among local chiefs and village elders is crucial to getting the whole community on board, and in recognition of this Ayishetu was symbolically handed back to her chief when it was agreed she could return.
Being handed over in this way may seem wrong to us, but for Ayishetu it was vital. “That gave me the respect I needed from others,” she says. And it is testament to the patience and peace-making skills of the workers involved that it worked.
“We have so far managed to reintegrate about 250 women,” says Gladys Lariba Mahama, home attendant for the project, pictured below. “If a woman has been accused of something ‘simple’ such as coming to someone in a dream, it can be relatively straightforward to persuade people to accept her back,” she says. “But if she has been accused of killing someone, it can take anything up to five years.”
In Ayishetu’s case it took almost three years before she could return home, and that wasn’t the end of the process. Once she was back in her own home she was given a flock of guinea fowl to help her earn an income, and a health insurance card to grant her access to medical care.
The resulting rise in her status was enough to fully convince her neighbours she was no longer a threat. “Attitudes towards me have changed,” she says. “I go to farm with my neighbours now and we work together. I see the people who accused me every day and there is no problem. They respect me.”
Ultimately it is this respect, this change in status from poor woman to independent, self-sufficient woman, that will protect Ayishetu in the future. There are centuries of tradition that need to be addressed to fully break free from this practice. But by working with a long-term vision, side-by-side with women who have had no voice for all of this time, change can – and does – happen.