The hundreds of women and few men who populate the camps sprinkled throughout Ghana’s Northern region have been branded witches by their communities and chased out, sometimes beaten viciously. The finger-pointing often starts in their own home. Most of them do not speak English but only local dialects, and come from the most impoverished, forgotten corners of Ghana. They are often blamed for the kind of unfair and tragic events that occur in every human’s life: the breakout of disease, the death of a child.
Over the years the camps have received negative media attention on a local and international scale, and after a recent visit to the largest camp in Gnani from the Deputy Minister of Women and Children, it is becoming clear the Ghanaian government would like to be seen to be doing something to stop the practice.
But what can be done? Many argue that band-aid solutions like reintegrating the women into their communities or extreme solutions like abolishing the camps do not erode the belief system or stop the problem at its source.
I didn’t realize how deeply engrained the belief in witchcraft was until I made my first of several trips to the camps with Hafiz, an intern from Diamond FM. While sitting on the long, bumpy bus ride I turned to him and suggested we prepare for the interviews. “What are you going to ask them?” I said.
“Well,” he said, “I’m going to ask them how they acquired their witchcraft.”
I tried not to look shocked and said “ok.” I had naively assumed Hafiz wanted to pursue this story because like me he wanted to show the world that these women were in fact innocent old ladies who were being unjustly banished from their homes.
Hafiz believes what Ghanaians across every sector of society do – that witches exist, they walk among us, and can cause great misfortune in the lives of others – so watch your back.
However, when we got there, things took a turn. While Hafiz did ask whether or not they were witches, when he heard “no” every time, I prodded him to begin asking deeper questions. Why do you think you are here? What do you think the government should do for you?
Overall, these old women from poor rural villages did not have many demands. They did not see the Ghanaian government as a major actor in their lives. They just wanted food to eat and to go home.
We later interviewed Seidu Al Hassan, in charge of investigations and public education at the Northern Regional Office of the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), a government body.
“Nationwide people believe in witchcraft. If you monitor your airwaves, if you monitor your TV stations , they are entrenching this belief. They claim to have the powers to exorcize women accused of witchcraft….we try to help, discourage this, and others are entrenching this belief system, thereby justifying the violence that is meted out to the so-called witches,” he said.
However, people can believe whatever they want, he said.
“That is their cup of tea, that is their right. The position of the commission is it is not our duty to know whether witchcraft exists or not. But whatever belief you have, make sure your belief doesn’t infringe on other people’s rights.”