As part of its weekly most interactive and educative SOCIAL MEDIA MONK session, The Readers Hub-Gh is pleased to bring to you another informative, insightful and intellectually engaging interaction with one of our ardent readers, Dr Matthew Mabefam.
He is a critical Development Studies scholar, teacher and researcher. He completed his PhD in Anthropology and Development Studies, and currently a sessional Academic at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, Australia.
He has also worked and conducted different studies in witch camps in Ghana. His PhD thesis titled “Witch Camps in Northern Ghana: Contesting Gender, Development and Culture” aimed at contributing to a better understanding of witchcraft beliefs and practices and how these intersect with development as it is conceptualised and experienced in Ghanaian society. He is currently consulting for Jesuit Social Services on a research project entitled “The Men’s Project: Engaging African-Australian Men in Australia.”
The questions that arise include: how can Ghana curtail the upsurge in witchcraft accusations and violence to safeguard the human rights of accused witches without resorting to enactment and enforcement of austere regulatory regimes? Why has the government of Ghana failed/refused and or neglected to close down the witch-camps and ban witchcraft exorcism in public? If witchcraft is not real, why has it survived all civilizations and modernizations and still gaining more currency in the 21st Century and beyond? In our quest to obtain sound answers for these questions and more, the Readers Hub is honoured to host Dr Matthew Mabefam on the Social Media Monk
The encounter was moderated by our regular host Dr Abdul Hakeem Tahiru Balubie (Dr Tilapia). The thematic concern of the discourse was dubbed: Witchcraft and Witch Camps in Ghana: underscoring the social, psychological and economic implications of witchcraft accusations
An anthropological enquiry into the history of witchcraft reveals that witchcraft is a universal belief. Despite the enduring belief in witchcraft in the world, spanning several centuries till date, there is still no tangible proof that witchcraft is a reality, and there is no proof to the contrary. Witchcraft remains an enigma in the cultures and traditions of different societies across the world. That belief that some human beings have supernatural spiritual powers, by which they can unleash harm on others, is not peculiar to Ghana and Africa but transcends the entire world. Europe and Africa present the most horrifying beliefs in the historical narratives of witchcraft.
It is puzzling to note that both Africa and Europe concur in how witchcraft and witches are visualized. Both regions visualize witches as people (usually women) who are believed to possess invisible extra-human night-flying, cannibalistic, and vindictive powers or spirits by which they seek to inflict mayhem and calamities on their enemies.
Fear, insecurity, and mistrust are some the psychic emotions that are associated with the aura of witches and people who live with alleged witches, treat them with disdain, suspicion and revulsion. Universally, witchcraft is associated with destruction and harm.
In very few African cultures, it is believed that some types of witchcraft are harmless and deployed for protecting close friends and relatives from bewitchment by harmful witches
As of the 17th Century, witchcraft had peaked in the entire Europe and archives on European cultural anthropology reveals well-chronicled testimonies of witchcraft “accusation and witch-hunting” in virtually all European countries. However, modernization has demystified the mysteries of witchcraft in Europe and America to the extent that modern Europeans and Americans now believe in science and technology and treat witchcraft as though it is an African cultural invention.
Some scholars of witchcraft anthropology have distinguished between witchcraft and sorcery. Witchcraft is described as an invisible spiritual force which resides in the body of a person deemed to a witch or wizard. It is believed that this invisible force has the capabilities to fly at night and cause harm to others with or without the knowledge of the witch/wizard. Sorcery involves the deliberate acquisition of magical powers that embedded in talismans, charms, spells, rituals, etc. by which the sorcerer is fortified with the magical powers to cause harm to others intentionally.
In the case of witchcraft, the person alleged to be a witch or wizard is said to be possessed by evil spirits whilst a sorcerer is believed to have absolute control over who is harm by their magical powers. The origin of the term ‘witchcraft’ is traceable to colonial Christian missionaries in Africa who used the term to describe “African cultural practices” because the missionaries realized that African cultures were highly spiritualized and harmful in nature.
Chronicles on the anthropology of primal African traditions reveal that witchcraft was an intrinsic and recognized facet of social mobilization in African societies. In some African cultures, it is still believed that some types of witchcraft are harmless and deployed for protecting lives and property of ordinary and vulnerable relatives and friends from harmful witchcraft. However, in modern Africa, witchcraft is generally considered as evil and mainly deployed for evil purposes. The alarming rate of witchcraft accusations in contemporary Africa is attributable to a paradigm shift in the value systems of Africans.
The socio-cultural values of antiquate Africa were communal and familial, whilst the socio-cultural values of modern Africa are deemed to be imbued with capitalism, materialism, individualism, and unhealthy competition. This paradigmatic shift has created the tendencies for witchcraft to be used by as a means to acquire quick wealth, power and fame or use the same to thwart the progress of others. Witchcraft is known to be deployed for fomenting the African “pull him down” (African PHD) syndrome.
Most communities in Ghana and Nigeria, are among many others communities in sub-Saharan Africa, which still hold the strong belief that witches and wizards have extraordinary powers to inflict the lives of their enemies with miseries, misfortunes, and calamities such as barrenness, impotence, motor accidents, disasters, diseases and poverty, among others. People who are labeled as witches and wizards are often stigmatized, vilified, rebuked, and tortured. In extreme cases, alleged witches and wizards are either banished from their communities or lynched. These dehumanizing treatments of alleged witches and wizards are often justified as revenge, and on the grounds that the victim themselves confessed. It is believed that the confession is wither induced by pressure from the vengeful ghost of a dead person/ancestor – whose death has been attributed them – or compelled by the gods/witchdoctor of the land.
Witches and wizards are purported to have the magical abilities to transmogrify from humans into various non-human creatures at night in order to cause havoc to their target persons. Witches and wizards are deemed to possess the capacity to metamorphose into vipers and flying creatures such as vultures. In African, witchcraft practice is believed to be similar to how spacecraft operates. It is believed that witches and wizards, like pilots and paragliders, can fly at night from the community to community and from their country of residence to foreign countries to embark on trade, to attend international conference or engage in warfare. This imagery of witchcraft depicts international cyber-warfare, since, in both instances, it is believed that invisible fighting and exchange take place in space and innocent people are targeted, victimized and injured.
There is a site, located between Kasongo and Kindu in the Maniema province of DR Congo, known to the local communities as “international airport for witches”. This site is believed to be a hub for international trade in witchcraft charms and techniques and also serves as the converging point for witch-traders and the battlefield for witch-warriors of European/American witchcraft and African witchcraft.
It is believed that despite the landing and take-off of witch-planes and the witchery commerce that take places in this airport is not visible to the majority of ordinary inhabitants of Maniema, the existence of the airport is not in dispute. Acute poverty and superlative witchcraft are the two enigmatic traits that are associated with the people of Maniema who live in the area where this invisible and mysterious airport is located. It is further believed that witches are agents of destruction and enemies of progress and the precarious state of poverty in the area is believed to be masterminded by the most powerful senior witches and wizards.
In Ghana, and in most African countries, a person is accused of being a witch or wizard when their attitude and demeanour of a personality who is overly vindictive, extremely jealous of the progress of family members and friends, who is seen to be visibly happy when a calamity befalls their relatives and neighbours; who are exceptionally antisocial; who is overly selfish, individualistic, and materialistic; and who is very secretive, ungodly, and engages in some form of occult ritual performances.
The metaphysical imagery people hold of witches and wizards reflect a person who has a virtual persona that survives on the blood and flesh of humans, causes the early death or misfortunes to the lives of children of the enemies, who show great potentials and signs of great success in future. Vulnerable people like children and very old women are often the main targets of witchcraft accusations. In most Ghanaian community, it is culturally believed that old folks must die first and pave the way for their successors – younger folks.
Deaths of young families are largely considered as unnatural and would normally warrant spiritual investigations. Most of such spiritual investigations arrive at the common conclusion that the pathetic, helpless, childless, widowed old woman who is suspected of having caused the death of either their children or husband and thereby noted for or perceived to have mischievous behaviour. Such accusations therefore normally stem from longstanding suspicion against old folks who lost close relatives or kept losing relatives but show no visible sign of bereavement. Children who are considered to be naughty and showing gross disrespect towards elders Care often accused of being witches/wizards.
Children whose parent(s) is/are accused of witchcraft are usually suspected of possessing witchcraft through automatic biological transfer from their parent(s). Children who are exceptionally brilliant in school, preterm and bridged babies during child-delivery and homeless orphans and abandoned children who lurk in the streets at night are often accused of being witches. Psychologically, and emotionally distressed old women who vent their frustrations by swearing or cursing their condescending grandchildren, are often accused of witches and liaisons for witches.
In Ghana, witchcraft accusations are still everywhere in the air. It is not uncommon to watch videos on national TV and electronic media, of some pastors publicly exorcising or casting out witchcraft or “evil spirits” from some of their congregants in church and/or praying over alleged witchcraft victims of delivering them from machinations, and inflictions of witches/wizards in their families or workplaces.
Some unscrupulous mallams, as well as fetish witchdoctors, are also engaged in private witchcraft accusations, exorcisms and deliverance. Some witchcraft exorcism and spiritual healing crusades by religious leaders have reinforced the belief in witchcraft in Ghana rather eradicate it since most Ghanaians believe that pastors, mallams and witchdoctors wield more powerful divine anti-witchcraft powers.Samson Ijaola (2020) aptly asserted that in Africa “witchcraft is present in churches, schools, and sometimes even in the courthouse”.
Witchcraft beliefs have permeated every echelon of the belief systems and every sphere of the endeavour of Ghanaian societies. For instance, in Ghanaian politics, “witch-hunting” has become a lexicon. Thus, between the NDC party and the NPP party, when there is a change of government, the political party which is emerging from government into opposition begin to feel apprehensive towards the party moving into government from opposition. The party that assumes the functions of governance is accused of ‘witch-hunting’ the ‘witches’ of the party that just moved in opposition. Even though witch-hunting is used in the Ghanaian political landscape in the metaphorical sense, its usage, instead of other obvious terms such as political harassment or blackmailing, mirrors the presence of deep-seated witchcraft believes in the Ghanaian political and social culture.
The fact that witchcraft accusations are infractions to human rights and social justices cannot be gainsaid. So many innocent souls, particularly women, have been subjected to gruesome murders from “mob justice” by paranoid and disgruntled youth who feel their lives and progress are in imminent danger whilst the alleged witches are still alive. On 23rd July 2020, a viral video on social media carried footage which reveals how a 90-old woman at Kafaba in East Gonja Municipality of the Savanna Region of Ghana, was accused of bewitchment and flogged to slow and dreadful death by irate youth. There are several instances in Ghanaian communities when women have been accused of bewitching members of their families and depending on the gravity of the witchery claims, they are either lynched through mob justice, banished from their families or quarantine in witch-camps.
In Tanzania, Albinos live in fear of witchcraft-related ritual murders; and in Uganda and South Africa, women accused of witchcraft are mutilated; in India, alleged witches are lynched; and the most disturbing punishment for alleged witches in Papua New Guinea where they are burned alive.
Although witchcraft accusations have caused the death of many innocent and vulnerable people through suicide, homicide and youth vigilantism in Ghana, the Government of Ghana, with its legislative and law enforcement apparatuses, has remained adamant in criminalizing and prosecuting perpetrators of such vile, gory and dehumanizing witchcraft treatments. Law flies on the wings of hard and justiciable evidence, but witchcraft are deemed to be an extra-legal and invisible psychic phenomenon that is believed to be unleashed spiritually.
~Dr Abdul Hakeem Tahiru Balubie (Dr Tilapia) ~
Dr Hakeem Tahiru (Dr Tilapia): My name is Hakeem A. Tahiru and I thank Readers Hub for the privilege to moderate our discussion tonight. I humbly welcome all Readers to actively participate in our discussion as I welcome our resource person, Dr Matthew; to our Social Media Monk session tonight.
Dr Matthew: Thank you, Hakeem for the warm welcome and for extending an invitation to me to share my thoughts on witchcraft in Ghana. I’m most grateful!
Dr Hakeem Tahiru (Dr Tilapia): our pleasure to have you, sir. For a start, may you please help us with the answer to the fundamental question: what is witchcraft and do witches and wizards really exist?
Dr Matthew: To start off with, witchcraft beliefs and practices are an important aspect of social and spiritual life in Ghana, as they are in many other societies. Although the terms are varied in different societies, as are the practices and articulations of what belief in witchcraft entails, it is generally understood as referring to a supernatural power possessed by an individual, and used for their benefit to harm others or influence them against their will (see Goody, 1970; Nukunya, 2003; Tembo, 1993). To draw from the local belief systems in Ghana, witchcraft exist and so are the witches and wizards.
Dr Hakeem Tahiru (Dr Tilapia): How, when, and where did the ideation of putting alleged witches and wizards in camps originate?
Dr Matthew: It may appear as if witch camps are a relatively new phenomenon. But in reality, witch camps have been with us for a long time. Although there is no accurate record of when witch camps began, there is some evidence that they have existed in the northern Ghana for about two-and-a-half centuries. Stromberg (2011), for instance, points to witch camps being present since the nineteenth century. Bekoe argues that they have been present much longer, saying that,
…the Gambaga witch camp in the Northern Region of Ghana is believed to have been established in the 18th century in an attempt to provide shelter for women who were accused of being witches. It is said to have been a place that witches would go to have their powers neutralized by the local gods (2016, p. 7)
Truxler provides a far more specific date of when witch camps began: ‘… the ·witch camps of northern Ghana were established in 1870 when a Muslim Imam of Mamprugu sent a woman suspected of witchcraft to Gambaga where she allegedly lived as a ‘refugee’ (2006, pp. 49-50).
The reasons for the establishment of these witch camps in the past appear to be varied, but I suspect that in keeping with this discussion, and the contemporary context, community fears around witchcraft, the closing of doors and hearts to those accused that leads to banishment or ostracism continue to play a role in the formation of alternative spaces to accommodate individuals beyond the extremes of putting such people to death.
Dr Hakeem Tahiru (Dr Tilapia): Dr Matthew, do we still have witch camps in Ghana, and why is it that we don’t hear about the existence of wizard camps?
Dr Matthew: Thank you for the question. Yes, we still have witch camps in Ghana. There are currently five of them. I guess the reasons we don’t hear about wizards camps is because less men are found in such camps, and witchcraft has been feminized.
In northern Ghana, even though both men and women can be accused of possessing and practicing witchcraft, it is predominantly women who are forced out of their communities. In the five witch camps across the northern Ghana, the only one to house some male residents is the Gnani camp (ActionAid, 2008b, 2008a, 2014; Baba, 2013).
Nonetheless, it has been particularly argued that in the case of witch camps in Ghana that the accused are female and victims of male dominance (see Akurugu, 2019). And, in the debates relating to the closure of camps, for instance, it is often argued that there is an endorsement of gender-based violence against women by allowing witch camps to be established and to continue (Badoe, 2005; Federici, 2008; Palmer, 2010).
Yes, in most societies across the world more women are accused or self-identify as witches than men. There are few societies where more men are. For example, among the Zande of Sudan, where Evans-Pritchard’s research focused, accusations were more about men and not women.
Dr Hakeem Tahiru (Dr Tilapia): Is witchcraft an exclusive Ghanaian and African legacy or it is a universal phenomenon?
Dr Matthew: My simple answer is no! The perceptions of witchcraft exist in almost everywhere, be it in Europe, America, Asia, Australia or Africa. In fact, it can easily be recalled how witchcraft craze in Europe, and America led to the killing of thousands of women in the 17th century. Although there is no apparent attack on such victims at the moment, witchcraft and its perceptions are still alive and well articulated in these societies.
At one of the field trips in Melbourne, a shop attendant who self-identified as a witch asked my students a question: do you believe in witchcraft? They said no. She asked them why? And they responded because we can’t proof it, we can’t see it! She smiled and asked them whether they believed in love? They all said yes! She said but you can’t see it either. Witchcraft cannot be seen but we who are witches can feel it, she said.
But of course, context matters and articulations of witchcraft and witches in Melbourne, London, New York etc. is very different from what we articulate in Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, or South Africa, and many more and that is what we have to always pay attention to. Even in African societies, articulations of witchcraft, and treatment of people accused of witchcraft are different. Not even just the belief in witchcraft, there are also a varied form of witch camps in Australia here, elsewhere. A colleague of mine did her PhD research in one of them as well.
Dr Hakeem Tahiru (Dr Tilapia): Dr, why is it that most of the alleged witchcraft incidents usually occur in very deprived rural communities in Ghana, but we hardly hear about witchcraft in major cities such as Accra, and Kumasi? Is there a causal relationship between poverty/deprivation and witchcraft?
Dr Matthew: Yes, I take my students to field trips in witch shops in Melbourne. It is one exciting time almost every student looks up to. All the sales reps in the shops self-identify as witches. And there annual camps for people who self-identify as witches here. But I will have to put emphasis on context. It is not the same as we have it in Ghana
In actual fact discourses of witchcraft accusations and rumours about witchcraft are equally present in both rural and urban Ghana alike and I will hesitate to put weight on one more than the other. The difference though is that because of the nature of social relationships, and settlement patterns, there seems to be more witchcraft in rural communities than in urban areas. Witchcraft is much alive among people who are related more than those who are not.
In rural communities, people are more likely to be settled among their kinship members and hence, tensions are more likely to arise and thus leading to more witchcraft accusations than in urban areas where there is a conglomeration of people from different parts of Ghana. Those in urban centres, if they live in the same areas with the kinship, discourses about witchcraft are almost the same as in rural areas.
Having said the above, I’m not unaware of the poverty-witchcraft relationship you alluded to. As a critical development anthropologist, who has been critical about the anthropological and missionary construction of witchcraft in Africa as backward, and archaic practice, and a sign of lack of development, which I refuse to align myself with, I equally, refuse to agree with the logic that it is more in the rural areas because of poverty.
However, witchcraft discourses in the rural areas especially in the north as we often hear in media landscape are caught in the web of advancement and lack of advancement, suggesting that rural communities are lacking behind and hence primitive. That is unfortunate construction of the other.
The extent of the embeddedness of witchcraft beliefs and practices is also evident in the enormous attention that witchcraft receives in the media. In a survey of several Ghanaian newspapers, I found that discussions of witchcraft issues to be prevalent across different media, including in reputable national daily newspapers such as the Daily Graphic and the Daily Guide. To give an example, on 6 August 2016, an item by Ohene reads, ‘Witches Are Falling from the Sky in Ghana’ (see Darko, 2016). Ohene’s article reports that the witch fell off because she was being shocked by electricity wires while flying at night (Ohene, 2016).
This was reported to have happened in a suburb of Kumasi (Akyeremadi), the second largest city in Ghana. Earlier in the same week, another incident of a ‘flying witch’ was reported in Tema, an industrial city in southern Ghana (Heerde, 2016; Searburn, 2016; Smith, 2010). Incidence of witches falling off from the sky has been reported in Kasoa and Madina, which Adinkrah, a renowned sociologist has written about.
In both rural and urban sites alike, the landscape is scattered with anti-witchcraft shrines (Adu-Gyamfi & Owusu-Ansah, 2014; Lentz, 2000; Martin, 2014; Parish, 2003). Further, alongside anti-witchcraft shrines, Christian prayer camps are also present across Ghana, purporting to ward off witchcraft and save people who are believed to be bewitched (see Onyinah, 2002).
Dr Hakeem Tahiru (Dr Tilapia): In criminal law, the rule of the thumb is that a person who is accused/alleged to have committed a crime remains innocent until proven guilty and the burden of proof of guilt is placed on the accuser but not the accused. Does this rule reflect criteria by which people are recruited into witches’ camps in Northern Ghana?
Dr Matthew: First and foremost, the criminal law with its formulation is quite challenging to apply to the case of witchcraft accusation in northern Ghana. The local jurisprudence and the way it seeks its evidence and trials are totally different from criminal law which has its roots in Western culture.
For instance, the factual evidence which will be sought by criminal law cannot be applied to witchcraft as it is a spiritual issue, and the evidence provided needs to be spiritual as well, although sometimes with physical ramification. Having said this, an accused is merely an accused and not guilty as yet until gone through the customary trial system. The burden is on both the accuser and the accused to prove that the allegation is true or not. This goes through multiple layers-starting from the family, community chiefs, and the shrine priest, witch doctors, soothsayers, and religious persons such as pastors or imams. At any of these levels, the accuser is asked to make or lay down their claims and the accused is asked to respond as well. If there is no agreement, at the family and community chiefs, then the spiritualists are called in to intervene. They employ a different framework, especially as they are perceived to be able to see in the spiritual realm.
They make their final judgment as to whether the accused is guilty or not. At some of the camps that I stayed, I witnessed accused being exonerated and proven that they were not witches and allowed to go back home. So, it is not that once one is accused, the person is automatically condemned as a witch. In their logic, there is fair hearing and justice served at the end of the day. But of course, this is the ideal. Some people may also take the law, both the customary and the state into their hands and commit acts of violence such as the one we saw recently in Ghana.
Dr Hakeem Tahiru (Dr Tilapia): In West Africa, particularly Ghana and Nigeria, it is not uncommon to see some religious preachers on television praying openly and profusely to exorcize/cast out “evil spirits” from some of their congregants or overtly attributing the barrenness or misfortunes of their congregants to fomentations and inflictions by witches and wizards in their families or place of work. Do you think it is about time the Government of Ghana started placing a ban or institutionalizing regulations to control these unethical “healing crusades”?
Dr Matthew: Indeed, this is a popular practice and I have seen it in the aforementioned countries. Religion in Africa is at another level. In a study conducted by a colleague and I about prosperity gospel in Africa, we found that the African is “incurably religious” due the perverse and seemingly eternal entrenchment of religion in every aspect of African social, economic and political life (Bonsu & Belk, 2010).
There are very few people in the two countries noted above who doubt that religious deities and spirits do influence physical and material outcomes, even if it is a struggling national economy or a global health epidemic, or barrenness, or witchcraft. Religion dominates the local imagination of many Africans—regardless of their socio-economic status (Appiah, 1993; Meyer, 2012).
In Africa, religious agents, like pastors, are held in high veneration as experts of religious and spiritual matters, which can influence lived experience (Appiah, 1993; Ozanne & Appau, 2019). Religious practices also feature prominently in national celebrations and holidays in various African countries (Gifford, 2004; Meyer, 2012). The numbers factually punctuate Africa’s religiosity; no less than 90% of people in Africa are religious (Pew Research Centre, 2017).
A simple answer to the question is that it is near impossible to regulate religiosity and religious beliefs in sub-Saharan Africa because almost everyone—including state officials and regulators—in the sub-region is religious. It must be within this framework that we must think about regulating religion, and that is quite challenging.
Indeed, and even though Ghana is claimed to be a secular state, the lines are really blur. We find state officials enmeshed in religious activities such as the building of the national cathedral and Hajj village around airport. We also see the role of religion in national events, just to give a few examples. Far too common and every Ghanaian at least would have heard of this discussion
Dr Hakeem Tahiru (Dr Tilapia): Articles 14(1) of the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Ghana stipulates that no person shall be unlawfully denied or deprived of their personal liberty and 14(5) prohibit anyone from unlawful arrest or detention of another person. Article 15(1) stipulates that no one shall be subjected unlawful “torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. Besides, Article 17(2) proscribes discrimination against anyone “on the grounds of gender, …, social or economic status”. There several parts of the Constitution that seeks to protect human rights of citizens. Do you think the unsubstantiated manner by which old women are accused of witchcraft and subjected to harassment, gruesome emotional and psychological torture, assaulted physically, stigmatized, demonized, victimized and eventual banishment from their families or killed in Ghana, violate any, some or all of their constitutionally enshrined human rights outlined above? If yes, has the Government of Ghana ever ordered the closure of the witch camps and/or pursued the necessary actions to restore the dignity and personal liberties of the victims?
Dr Matthew: From the state legal perspective I will say yes, but there is more nuanced to it, which I will provide. There are different frameworks at play here. The local community members do not operate from the same framework as the state and for that matter it makes matters more complicated. These frameworks do clash with each other at sometimes. The irony however is that the Ghanaian state recognize the rulership of the chiefs and other community members and they are those who preside over such matters as well. Having said this, violence and inhumane treatment should not be condoned by anyone. Let me turn the gaze now to the Ghanaian state and why it has not been able to close the supposed witch camps even though it has been on its agenda for decades.
There are some similarities amongst the various actors in that the main lens through which the Ghanaian government and NGOs intervene in witch camps is through a human right approach (ActionAid, 2008a, 2008b, 2014; Government of Ghana, 1998; Issah, 2017; NCCE, 2010). It is often argued that the witchcraft accusations and witch camps are an abuse of human rights, threatening the dignities of the people living there (ActionAid, 2008a, 2008b, 2014; NCCE, 2010).
Unlike in the case of Benin or Cameroon, where the state were implicated in the imprisonment of people accused of witchcraft, in the case of Ghana the state and other actors’ campaigns revolved around the abolishment of locally constituted camps that were accused of ‘imprisoning’ people. The human right approaches to intervening in witch camps, I would argue, have merits. But this approach presents only one side of the story and sometimes has the potential to endanger the lives of the very people it seeks to protect (see Mutaru, 2018, 2019; Riedel, 2017). For example, in 2010, National Commission on Civic Education (NCCE) strongly recommended the closure of witch camps across northern Ghana even though 89.6% of people accused of witchcraft in them said that they did not want the camps abolished (2010, p. 99).
NCCE argues that the camps ignore their human rights and the constitution of Ghana which guarantees everyone the right to live with their families (2010, p. 99). The preoccupation with the human rights of the people from this perspective needs to be contextualized with local realities. The fact of the matter is that it is normally family problems, and community tensions that lead to accusations, and ejection.
That is, attempts to reintegrate people back into their families and communities come with their own risks, and the resulting rejections may also constitute abuse-which might even lead to death as we have recently seen. This is especially true within a society that is likely to disengage, discriminate and even commit violent acts towards people accused of witchcraft (see Igwe, 2016; Riedel, 2017).
What is even more telling is that similar actions by the government in the past have failed miserably in managing the complex and sensitive issues surrounding witchcraft accusations. According to Naboo (2017, p. 99), in 1998, two government delegations, one by CHRAJ, and the other a caucus of Parliament, visited Gambaga and ordered the chief to release the people accused of witchcraft. In the aftermath of the CHRAJ Commissioner`s visit in 1998 to the Gambaga Witch Camp and his subsequent order that the alleged witches be released to go back home, the response from alleged witches was rather surprising because of their refusal to go home.
Even when the Gambarana gave them permission to leave, they refused to do so. Similarly, in 1998, after the Women Parliamentary Caucus had visited the Gambaga Witch Camp, and presented cloths, food items and utensils, the fervent pleas from the alleged witches to the female parliamentarians was for the government to allow them to live in the Camp for the rest of their lives, since they would die or be killed as soon as they return to their communities (see Naboo, 2017). They argued that the stigma attached to them, makes it impossible to return to live in the society that has traumatized, and banished them to the witch camps, and the state is not present to protect them.
Indeed, the theme of flying witches is so common in Ghana. A paper by Adinkrah titled Crash-landings of flying witches in Ghana: Grand mystical feats or diagnosable psychiatric illnesses; delves deeper into some of these themes
Dr Hakeem Tahiru (Dr Tilapia): This is the issue witch-camp closure is indeed, extra-legal and far complicated than approaching and treating it on the face of human rights violations. Apparently, the alleged witches and wizards feel safer in witch camps. By staying in witch-camps, they are asserting their right to life, which is more important than matters of stigma etc.
Dr Matthew: You are absolutely right, and that is why some of us thread carefully about the closure of such communities. It is a sensitive, sensational and emotive issue, and sometimes, closure of them on the basis on human rights and to make Ghana appear good globally, is limiting. I have lived there for a year and talking from insider perspectives.
Dr Hakeem Tahiru (Dr Tilapia): What roles have civil society organizations, traditional authorities, NGOs, religious bodies, and human rights advocates played towards encouraging or abolishing this dehumanizing, fictitious, barbaric, and nefarious customary practice – witchcraft accusations?
Dr Matthew: Yes, insofar as the state is not present in every community to provide them with security, staying in the camps gives them the chance to have a second life, without which they would have been lynched or killed. So, we need to rethink where the focus should be on this matter and what to deal with first.
Traditional authorities-In contrast to the approach by the government to close witch camps, the roles of traditional authorities in witch camps in northern Ghana is quite different. Different actors from the local communities such as to Bibɔrib (chiefs) Biwadam (fetish priests) Bitindam (landowners), argue that the resettlement of people within their communities is a social welfare mechanism and protection of people who would otherwise been killed or abuse in their original communities as I gathered from the field (see also Igwe, 2016a; Riedel, 2017).
For example, based on the outcome of various local experts’ assessments, people accused of witchcraft may never return to the original home communities or may return temporarily but when tensions arise, they will be back in the witch camp communities-witch camps become the last resort for people seeking safety and fleeing persecution.
Civil societies and human right organizations, and media campaigns-The position of these actors are not different from the government as I discussed earlier. They all approach the issue of witchcraft from a human right framework, and focus more on witch camps as centres of abuse of the rights of individuals encamped.
This misses the whole point, and hence the reasons witch camps have not been closed. Indeed, there might be significant welfare gaps in the camps. But as asserted above, from the local perspectives, without such camps where would the ejected persons go? The point I’m making is that the camps are only a physical ramification of the real issues in society, and the thus, society is where the issue lie and not in the camps.
Religious institutions- There exists a body of scholarship that explores the relationship between witchcraft and religion or Christian churches (see Adu-Gyamfi, 2016; Meyer, 1998; Onyinah, 2002). Religion arguably contributes to the deepening of witchcraft beliefs. Over the decades, various religions have believed in the existence of witches and their malevolent intentions.
Belief in the existence of witchcraft, with support from the Bible and Quran, as well as traditional oral histories, has placed people accused of witchcraft in a vulnerable position where their lives are constantly at risk. However, Adu-Gyamfi (2016) studied witchcraft among the Ashanti Christians in Ghana and argues that the understanding of witchcraft from the Christian point of view is a misinterpretation of the term, and hence has been inappropriately applied to witchcraft in Ghana.
The role of religion in relations to witchcraft and witch camps is multiple. While the various religious organizations contribute to the belief in witchcraft and have put in place some mechanisms to pacify those accused of it, contributed to the creation of witch camps as a safe space for displaced people on the basis of witchcraft accusation, they have also been implicated in the controversial closure and re-integration discussions in Ghana (Baba, 2013; Government of Ghana, 1998; Palmer, 2010).
Dr Hakeem Tahiru (Dr Tilapia): Another point, excellently articulated! Dr Matthew, I think the kernel of the issue is capture in this statement from your answer above: _”The point I’m making is that the camps are only a physical ramification of the real issues in society, and thus, society is where the issue lie and not in the camps”.
QUESTIONS TIME WITH OUR READERS FROM (THE READERS HUB-GH)
Bigstan: Please I want to find out if there are witch camps in the southern half of the country, if no, why are the camps centered only in Northern Ghana; Because I believe witchcraft is not only a Northern phenomenon.
Dr Matthew: Thank you for this important question, and gives me an opportunity to explain some nuances of witchcraft discussion in Ghana. The term witch camp is a politically charged and contested term. Communities that accept to host people accused of witchcraft are not referred to as witch camps by the locals. Referring to such communities as witch camps is problematic as not everyone there is an accused or confirmed witch.
It also continues to apply the stigma to people accused of witchcraft, already vulnerable, who seeks to step beyond the categories and their victimization in their old communities and build lives and a sense of belonging as people with dignity. In addition, these communities existed before the integration of people accused of witchcraft. They were not created ‘just’ for the sake of people accused as witches and seeking refuge.
In the Kukuo community, there is no distinction in terms of space between people who are accused as witches and non-witches. They are settled in a mixed manner, where someone from the outside community cannot tell which house an accused witch may live in.
In short, in development practice, professionals continuously create labels that exoticise people, and the African continent more broadly, and the terms ‘witch camps’ and ‘feeder communities’ are key examples. Within Ghanaian society, this practice of politicism, inherent in development thinking, has exposed development subjects to further risks of exclusion and avoidance.
To return to your question, there is not yet communities which are branded as witch camps as yet. However, the same shrines that exist in those communities in the north, where people go for purification and protection are common in the South as well. Jane Parish, an anthropologist has documented many of such in the Brong Ahafo region around the Dorma Ahenkro. Equally, in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, there is equally five of such shrines; and people who are accused in the south do also sometimes migrate from where they were accused. It just has not received the same attention and branding as in the north.
In short, witchcraft is not a northern phenomenon. It is about politics of power and security and such issues exist in every society.
Bagura Shamuddeen: Will it be feasible for Ghana or most African states to include a spiritual aspect to our constitution that is to be able to judge cases of witchcraft or spiritual nature? This is in one way to accept our African problem and provide an African solution. For example, if the Gambarana is given legal education so that cases of witchcraft he presides over are conducted from a constitutional standpoint or the constitution is expanded to include spiritual cases.
Dr Matthew: Indeed! That is a grey area to explore, and I might not be that futuristic to know what will happen if that were to be the case. But we have to first return to the formation of the nation-state and its basic tenets. At the era of nation-state formation, attention in Europe had shifted to rationalist mode of reasoning and the separation of religion from the state.
The state became secular. It was this same logic that influenced the formation of African states in 1884-85 in Berlin. To bring back religion into the equation will be an interesting area to explore, and would also mean changing or altering of the nation state tenets. But of course, there is going to be a tradeoff. And the question is whether we are prepared as a state or states to do so? In addition, countries that have attempted this, it has not worked. Cameroon, South Africa, Benin, etc. have tried a semblance of what you spoke about, but the outcome is not any different.
ANTHONY. G: Do we have young girls in our camps as witches or all the witches are old women. If they are old women alone, where was the witchcraft when they were young?
Dr Matthew: Great question, Anthony, and thanks for asking. We do have young girls and boys in the witch camps. But they are not there as witches but as a support network for their aging parents or grandparents. Having said this, there are ideations of child witches in Ghana, and much has been written about them. Such children have not just been sent to the camps!
Yahaya: Is there any positive aspect with regards to witchcraft? And if there is, is it possible to harness their potentials for the socioeconomic development?
Dr Matthew: Thanks for the question, Yahaya. I examined how witchcraft is perceived as both good and bad. In this sense, I complicated witchcraft discourse by drawing from different views from my research participants to make the point that there are inconsistencies in the understanding of witchcraft. It is therefore a complex belief system about witchcraft that can be used by different people to advance an agenda based on their positions in society (Adinkrah, 2015, pp. 58, 103–104). To this effect, life stories and voices from the field suggest that while some people employ witchcraft to destroy others by killing, bringing about illnesses, the destruction of property and wealth, others employ it to achieve economic development; wealth and success (also see Adinkrah, 2015).
Regarding those who employ witchcraft to do good, it emerged that they use it to boost their businesses by attracting customers, to improve their farm yield, to attain power and control over people at both local and national levels. The main issue is that people who are already in positions of power and are relatively wealthy are treated differently when they are accused of employing witchcraft in comparison to those who poorer and lack prestige and privilege.
This implies that different treatments are meted out to different people accused of witchcraft depending on their status in society. Those who are poor, vulnerable, especially women are accused and banished from their communities.
The complexities of witchcraft seen as both good and bad as well as analyzed along the lines of the powerful and the powerless leads Geschiere to argue that ‘witchcraft is a minefield of ambiguities and shifting of meanings’ (see Geschiere, 2005, p. 94).
In short, there are rumours of individuals who use witchcraft to advance their personal development. As for collective community development, I’m unsure and might not be able to venture into it as I have not examined that in my studies.
Witches or people accused of witchcraft do not think negative from their point of view. In fact, they are one of the most loving and generous people I have ever seen and lived with. It is society that accuses them of negativity. So, the burden should not be on the to change their mode of reasoning, but society. But of course, as I have continuously hinted it is about threat of power, and those who are coming closer to grabbing it are in trouble.
The neoliberal market economy has empowered and disempowered people, and thus changing people’s status in society. Some women who are getting closer to this power through their economic activities are feared by those who already have that power or even thinking that those who are powerless will become jealous of them and bewitch them. There have been many skills training for people accused of witchcraft and living in the camps. Finally, in broader terms, those who traditionally treat people can also be categorized as witches and thus, are already suing their craft to treat ailments that biomedical medicine cat treat.
Dr. Siddique _Abdul-Samad: Doctor, this is a well-researched presentation. I like your style and the coherent of facts by citations. Now a little submission and or question on the subject. What is the role of religion in witchcraft perception in Africa and for that matter Ghana? For instance, in the Islamic religion, there is no debate about the existence of witches. Is it the case in other religions?( https://www.pewforum.org/2012/08/09/the-worlds-muslims-unity-and-diversity-4-other-beliefs-and-practices/)
Dr Matthew: Thank you for your question. Religion plays a dual role when it comes to witchcraft in Africa and in Ghana. It deepens perceptions of witchcraft existence and evil nature of the witch. It leads to more stringent and hatred towards people who are perceived as witches. In Christian churches, most prayer points are against witches who are trying to thwart their success in whatever endeavor. I’m quite unsure what you mean when you say in Islam and its debate about the existence of witchcraft. Is it taken for granted that it exist or not?
Dr Hakeem Tahiru (Dr Tilapia): Have government of Ghana transformed or has plans to transform the witch camps into tourist sites? If no, would you suggest the government order their closure and rehabilitate and integrate the victims or do you think it prudent for the Government to transform them into tourist sites?
Dr Matthew: I have yet to have a conversation with government on this. But I will say no on personal grounds. I don’t however know what people from the communities will want. But the reason for saying so is that, it exposes already vulnerable group of people to trauma to recount their ordeals to tourists, which will have the effect of leading to mental health issues. I have lived in these camps for a year and have a fair idea of what it is like to be recounting those stories.
Although debate about the closure of witch camps is not new, the incessant call to close them is problematic. The government and its partners could further expose people accused of witchcraft to danger by seeking to close the camps (see Igwe, 2016a; Mutaru, 2019; Riedel, 2017).
In fact, research has revealed that inhabitants of Bonyase camp which was closed in 2014 relocated to Gnani camp for safety of their lives (see Igwe, 2016a; Mutaru, 2019; Riedel, 2017). For example, Igwe (2016) reported that within the first week of the forced closure of the Bonyase witch camp community, two of the people accused of witchcraft had relocated to Gnani. They were not accepted back home.
One thing that becomes clear is that the decision by the governments and its partners to close down witch camps has not worked. It is a top-down approach that has the potential of ignoring local realities and the voices of the very people that it seeks to protect, and hence a dangerous move if government continue on that tangent.
To some extent, the allegation that the issue of the closure of witch camp is a top down approach rather than community generated is augmented through the findings of NCCE in 2010. NCCE, a state institution asked people accused of witchcraft if they wanted the camps shut and be reintegrated. The findings of the report by NCCE indicated that 89.6% of the people did not want the camps closed. The concerns of people residing in such camps bothered on safety, abuse, discrimination and violence which could not be guaranteed if they went back home. When I asked the question ‘will you want to go back home if you got the opportunity?’ 90% people in Gnani said that they wouldn’t.
I’m unsure as I have not conducted any research as yet, but I want to believe that if Bonyase camp were still able to accommodate people, the 90-year-old woman recently lynched would not have. At least, she would have been ejected and could have found a home there. Because it is the camp that was in her region! Closure of such communities must be rethought! Igwe (2016) argued that witch camps are not the problem in northern Ghana but witchcraft accusation, which is prevalent in society.
Most people living in these shelters did not just take up residency there without any reason. People in these camps are accused persons, who were convicted at shrines or banished by families and would have been killed if they had stayed back in their communities and not taken refuge at these shelters.
So why shut them down? Why disband these sanctuaries? Why destroy the safety nets when death and danger still loom for alleged witches in Ghana? How does shutting down witch camps erase the stain of witchcraft accusation?
Dr Hakeem Tahiru (Dr Tilapia): In most communities in Ghana, no young person’s death is natural, and old women who are expected to die, lives on whilst younger people die, are often accused of bewitching and masterminding such deaths. Why very old, very poor and very wealthy women are mostly tagged as witches in Ghana?
Dr Matthew: The relationship between old age and witchcraft is a growing concern among Ghanaians. The high incidence of witchcraft accusations among the elderly appears to be a paradox. The elderly are perceived as a repository of knowledge and wisdom and yet are vulnerable to witchcraft accusations (see Crampton, 2013; van der Geest, 2002).
According to Crampton although the elderly are considered the repository of knowledge, such knowledge could be both good and bad. For example, the elderly have knowledge of how to curse other family members, especially those who may be seen as deviating from social norms, either being greedy or selfish (2013, p.204). Some authors have also interrogated the fact that the elderly are mostly accused of witchcraft due to intergenerational conflict, especially between the youth and the elderly, as seen in Zambia (see Auslander, 1993).
In the case of Ghana, I also found that some youth perceived the elderly, especially women, as people are envious of them and hence keen to thwart their efforts (also see Parish, 2010). For example, during my research, a university student who could not pass his semester examination made an accusation against an elderly woman in his family
Dr Hakeem Tahiru (Dr Tilapia): In most communities in Ghana, no young person’s death is natural, and old women who are expected to die, lives on whilst younger people die, are often accused of bewitching and masterminding such deaths. Why very old, very poor and very wealthy women are mostly tagged as witches in Ghana
Dr Matthew: In our research, we found that such contestations of power are also manifest in what we observed as trends of the youth in the community accusing the elderly of witchcraft and displacing them physically from their homes and symbolically from their abodes of power. We found that although accusers could be anyone in the community, the youth were main actors, often denoted as ‘they’ by the accused witches in interviews.
We often hear statements such as these from the accused witches: ‘the child was sick, and they said I was the cause of it’, ‘someone died, and they said it was me’, among others. On the one hand, the use of they here in reference to the youth mob that carry out accusation and eviction reveals the necessary collectivization of individuals that motivates and legitimizes a successful contestation of power.
On the other hand, it also reveals the successful de-identification and de-personalization of agency that is intended and results from collective mob actions of usurpation and subversion (Thompson, 1971; see also de Certeau, 1984). Here, there is everyone and no one.
Dr Hakeem Tahiru (Dr Tilapia): Among the following three persons: a prisoner, a person who is tested positive for COVID-19 and an alleged witch or wizard, which of them is likely to feel more psychologically traumatized, and socially excluded and stigmatized and why?
Dr Matthew: The most important thing here is that the lived experiences of each of these people are different. I do not have any of such experiences and hence might not be in a position to pass a judgment on who’s more affected. All of them experience some form of trauma, stigma, and feel a sense of being socially excluded, and we must strive to make their lives better, or leave them so, if we cannot. Our actions should not add to their burden and woes!!
Dr Hakeem Tahiru (Dr Tilapia): Dr Matthew Mabefam, can we have your closing remarks please?
Dr Matthew: Thank you everyone who followed this discussion and asked questions. And thanks to our moderator for inviting me to share my thoughts with you on this topic. I hope it was useful. And do not hesitate to send your questions, if you still have some.
Admittedly, the discourse on witchcraft and its effect on the wellbeing of the elderly are indeed a wicked problem; that is, it is a problem difficult to contain and manage. But the reward for addressing it is happiness and a better quality of life, a universal human right, for the elderly—and for us all, because we will all get old. And for this, we must try whatever it takes to do our best in protecting them. It starts with you from you community and your family!
Dr Hakeem Tahiru (Dr Tilapia): We have heard from our intellectual genius and Anthropology and Development Studies scholar, Dr Matthew Mabefam, on witchcraft and social, legal, and cultural ramifications of witchcraft accusations in Ghana. We hope Readers have found the discussion to be educative, and intellectually engaging. Thank you, Readers, for granting us audience.
On behalf of the Readers Hub, I hereby convey to you, Dr Matthew Mabefam, our profound thanks for honouring our invitation by sharing such valuable knowledge with us. May God, Almighty Allah, bless you with more knowledge Dr Matthew has the intention to convert his thesis “Witch Camps in Northern Ghana: Contesting Gender, Development and Culture” into a booklet that we can all access to learn more about this topical issue. We are grateful, sir, for the excellent and well-researched presentation.
Dr Matthew: Thank you!
Dr Hakeem Tahiru (Dr Tilapia): Thanks to Readers for the active participation and for spotting the blind spots by asking very brilliant questions.
Good night everyone!………………………………………….. (Exeunt)
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Hub Editor: Bassing. A.M.A. Kamal.
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