Dan Lawton : Journalist

Withcraft Allegations Tough to Counter

This story was published in the Accra Daily Mail in Accra, Ghana, in August 2009 

Gambaga is a small village in the Northern Region, just 50 kilometers south of Bolgatanga. It’s flat and narrow with one main road dotted by a bank, a Western Union and a handful of canteens and restaurants. On its outskirts, lie a number of tiny farmhouses, flush with donkeys, chickens, cows and sweeping green fields of maze. It has a lethargic feeling, especially during midday, when the heat surrounds it like a warm glove. It is an unspectacular place, or at least it feels like it, until you move beyond its façade.

A stone’s throw south of the main road, behind a line of dusty storefronts, sits a separate settlement, where approximately eighty residents live in small, cylinder­shaped huts. The houses are crudely built with dirt floors and poorly thatched roofs. Their occupants are primarily older women—tired looking and destitute—who subsist by farming nuts and selling firewood. Each day they walk to nearby fields to work, and then return in the evening to chat and eat what little food they have.

The women are refugees, a fact that is most evident in their body language. The sit slumped, either on the ground or on tiny footstools, constantly fighting two diametric forces. One is the survival impulse that drives them to continue to push on; the other the overwhelming psychic pain of their plight. They have not fled from war, famine or any sort of natural or man made catastrophe, but from allegations of witchcraft, which have caused them to be banished­­under the threat of violence and even death­­ from their friends, families and homes.

One of seven witch camps that exist in Northern Ghana, Gambaga was formed around 1900 by an Imam named Baba. The Imam intended the camp to be a respite for those accused of sorcery, many of whom were previously subjected to violence and sometimes even lynched. It has served that purpose for the last hundred years, during which it has been ruled by the chief of Gambaga, the Gambarrana, who is believed to subdue the powers of witches under his watch.

However, over time the living conditions in Gambaga have varied greatly. The camp previously received aid from The Presbyterian Church, which provided money for a full­ time manager, housing supplies, food, national health insurance and other expenditures.  But when its funding dried up two years ago, the women at the camp began to suffer from a lack of basic services.  Currently, Gambaga, along with the six other camps, is assisted by Songtaba, a NGO dedicated to reducing violence against women. In the midst of this effort, the women have begun to advocate for themselves as well, and recently in Tamale over 60 representatives from the different camps in the Northern Region met to discuss how to improve living conditions.

Yet the biggest menace facing the alleged witches appears to not be a lack of socialservices, but the fact that rural communities continue to embrace the tradition of accusing women of witchcraft. Those living in Gambaga proclaim their innocence with near unanimity and their stories are eerily similar: almost all portray allegations of witchcraft as barbarous slanders motivated by jealousy and spite.  Many of the women at the Gambaga camp were accused of being witches by a hostile rival, sometimes a family member or a co­wife in a polygamous marriage. Frequently, a dispute occurred previous to the allegation, while others were driven by malice or envy.  The allegations mostly involve an inexplicable illness or death in the family, although they are sometimes the result of the purported “visions” of an accuser.

Konndug Dute is a victim of such visions. She arrived in Gambaga from her village ten years ago after she was accused of bewitching a child who had died. The accusation was made by her rival’s son and Dute was unable to defend herself. She was chased from her village amidst threats of violence and now lives in Gambaga and works selling firewood.  “I have been disgraced and separated from my family, yet I have done nothing,” she said.

Many women accused of witchcraft were active businesswomen and some suggest that it is due to their success that they were targeted with such allegations. Azara Sulemani had a successful porridge­selling enterprise before she was accused of witchcraft. The accuser, her brother’s daughter, perished before the allegations could be either confirmed or denied by a trial. However, after the allegation her business was ruined and she was forced to move to Gambaga.

The ingrained belief in the existence of witchcraft is so powerful that it has made the relief work done by organizations such as Songtaba difficult. Enoch Cudjou, the coordinator of Songtaba, said that it would be virtually impossible for his organization to approach rural communities and attempt to persuade them that allegations of witchcraft are myth. In fact, he said that such an effort would likely undermine the credibility of this organization. For this reason, he doesn’t focus on the veracity of allegations of witchcraft, but on assisting those who live in witch camps. “It’s not up to me to decide who’s a witch and who isn’t,” said Cudjou. “Instead, I prefer to work on changing attitudes toward the accused women by enhancing integration.” Cudjou said that Songtaba has a number of innovative strategies that promote interaction between the accused witches and members of the community that surround them. One such strategy is installing a well near the homes of the accused witches that the local community would also use.

However, it’s unclear how effective such strategies can be if the root of the problem­­ the allegations of witchcraft­­aren’t tackled. Most of the women in Gambaga were grateful for the support the Gambarrana provided, but still said that they often lacked adequate food. The termination of funding from the Presbyterian Church cut the salary of camp manager Simon Ngote, who had been supervising the day­to­day activities of the women there for fifteen years. “My concern is to help them live happy lives and reintegrate peacefully into the community, said Ngote” who still continues to work without salary on behalf of the accused witches.

Like Mr. Cudjou, Mr. Ngote said that he doesn’t spend much effort deciphering whether or not the women are guilty of sorcery. He adds that he’s skeptical that many of the women are witches, but thinks that a few of the allegations of witchcraft may be genuine­ an opinion that puts him in the minority in the community.

Almost all the residents of Gambaga believe the women in the camp are witches and that it is only through the spiritual power of the Gambarrana that they are held in check The belief in black magic is so ingrained that even the “accused witches,” who proclaim their own innocence, don’t deny that sorcery exists. As one of them aptly put it, “I know I’m not guilty. As for the others, that’s between them and God.”