BY JAMES WAN
Witchcraft in Ghana is a very real phenomenon. It displaces people from their homes, it breaks up families and it destroys lives. Those believed to be responsible for causing illness and misfortune are often tortured, killed or expelled from their villages.
Yaba Badoe’s powerful and heart-rending documentaryThe Witches of Gambaga, screened in London as part of Film Africa 2011, examines the lives of some of the accused witches who have sought refuge in perhaps Ghana’s oldest and most famous witches’ camp of Gambaga. Filmed over the course of five years and told largely by the women themselves, the documentary highlights the plight of some of the true victims of witchcraft beliefs. Salmata was attacked and run out of her village after she was blamed for her stepson getting ill; Amina was threatened and exiled when her brother died suddenly; Asara, a successful trader, was accused of being a witch after an outbreak of meningitis in her town.
The women of Gambaga, often victims of violence at the hands of their erstwhile neighbours, live under the protective custody of the village chief, the Gambarrana, a stern figure whose role sits somewhat uneasily between exploiter and philanthropist. They exist in often abject living conditions as they work for the Gambarrana to pay their dues, isolated from their families, psychologically if not physically traumatised, and miles from the lives they once knew.
Fly away home
“This practice [of accusing and exiling ‘witches’] has become an indictment on the conscience of our society,” argued Hajia Hawawu Boya Gariba, deputy minister for women and children’s affairs, at a conference held in Accra in September.
“The labelling 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,” she continued. The conference, entitled “Towards Banning 'Witches' Camps”, called for new legislation to outlaw witchcraft accusations, the abolition of witches' camps and the reintegration of current outcasts into their home communities.
As witnessed in The Witches of Gambaga, however, repatriation is far from a simple process. In the film, we see two accused witches returning to their home villages after decades in exile. Despite having previously been educated, prepared and convinced by local activists to allow the return of the elderly women, the town chiefs on the day are reluctant to uphold their agreement. They finally agree to allow the women to stay, but only on the conditions that the women do not go near the market, do not have any interaction with children and keep away from village celebrations and gatherings. Akwasi Osei, chief psychiatrist in Ghana’s national health service, explained: “Right now if you [repatriate accused witches] you can be sure they will be lynched when they go back home.”
In fact, certain activists are calling not for the abolition of sanctuaries but for more of them, improved living conditions within those sanctuaries and assistance for ‘witches’ not in returning home but in learning a trade to provide them with an income while in the camps.
Believe it or not
Both of these viewpoints are, however, notably limited in scope and unambitious in vision. They address certain symptoms of the problem but not its root. Indeed, even identifying a single ‘root’ of the problem is impossible.
Ideas of witchcraft permeate society and are inextricably woven into the social fabric of Ghanaian life. Beliefs in the power of sorcery and juju are deeply infused into the Ghanaian psyche through popular stories and myths, frequent newspaper reports of accusations and confessions, the lyrics of songs, films, plays, fear-mongering commercials and the sermons of charismatic religious leaders.
Convincing people of the spuriousness of superstitions when those superstitions form a fundamental part of the lens through which reality itself is experienced is no mean feat. Beliefs in witchcraft not only fill in the gap left by a lack of education and information but can coexist with and even underpin believers’ informed understandings of issues. During Evans-Pritchard’s seminalethnographic study of the Azande, a grain storage collapsed, killing two people. When Evans-Pritchard pointed out that the tragedy was caused by termites, the Azande people replied “of course, but why were those two sitting under it at that particular moment?” When things seem to fall apart for no reason, some blame straightforward ‘bad luck’, some wonder what their mysterious God is up to and some blame the invisible hand of witchcraft. And when juju spells fail to work or protect, believers do not rethink nature and reality but point to shoddy workmanship or subpar materials.
Even some victims of false accusations come to believe themselves to be guilty – in The Witches of Gambaga, one accused woman insisted “in the same way fire burns, I am a witch”. And some commentators campaigning on behalf of accused witches speak from a humanitarian perspective, but not one which discounts superstitions; rather, they assert the need “to mount a campaign to educate the populace not to maltreat those accused of witchcraft, as they may not necessarily be so” [emphasis added].
Unweaving the social fabric
As social anthropologist Marcel Mauss would put it, witchcraft beliefs form a “total social fact”, a phenomenon that underpins innumerate facets of social and psychological life, myriad practices and diverse institutions. In order to combat the effects of witchcraft beliefs therefore, a multi-faceted policy approach that simultaneously tackles the various manifestations of and broader context within which superstitious attitudes prevail is required.
As Yaba Badoe told Think Africa Press, the challenge is to affect something which is deeply entrenched in the popular consciousness – “it is about belief and the consequences of belief”. It is not enough therefore to simply improve the lot of exiled and abused women, enact legislation, and repatriate accused witches. Equally, although necessary, it is not simply a question of better education provision, a more open democracy and greater economic stability. Indeed, contrary to certain theories of modernisation, superstition does not necessarily fall away with economic development; reports from Uganda in fact suggest the recent rise in child sacrifice rituals has been driven by the country’s emerging business elite.
Instead, multi-pronged policy interventions are required at all levels of society starting with the targeting and education of community leaders and local opinion leaders, a strategy that, as Yaba Badoe points out, “is an important first step that has been shown to work”. If Ghana is to protect its most vulnerable citizens from dire human rights abuses in the short- to mid-term, it must take a proactive stance not just in supporting the victims of accusations but in challenging the very cultures of scapegoating, gender inequality, misinformation and intolerance that inform witchcraft allegations.