A Week in A ‘Witch’ Camp in Ghana
I just concluded a week long stay in Gnani ‘witch’ camp as part of my field work in the region. Gnani Tindan, as it is locally known, is one of those safe spaces where alleged witches and wizards fleeing persecution or execution can find refuge. Other ‘witch’camps exist in Kukuo, Gushegu, Nabule, Kpatinga and Gambaga. Witch camp is a traditional mechanism for containing and resolving witchcraft related crises in the region. In local communities, expelling an alleged witch or wizard is still currently observed as a traditional law and practice, as a measure to maintain social peace and order. One special feature of Gnani Tindan is that it has male refugees. Yes, it is a ‘witch’ camp with alleged wizards. Most of the men are there with their wives and children. They have literally turned the Gnani camp into a home.
I arrived at Gnani by a bus traveling from Yendi to Tatali, a border town. My local contact arranged a room where I stayed for the week. There are no guest houses in Gnani, so getting a place to stay for a short period was really a challenge. Visitors who come to the village mainly because of the ‘witch’ camp lodge either in Tamale or in Yendi. During the week, I met with the local administrator called the ‘Assembly man’ and some of his committee members. I watched as they ‘judged’ cases and resolved local disputes.
I interviewed and interacted with some of the alleged witches and wizards and listened to their stories. I visited two local soothsayers and observed how they divine, consult and pass on ‘revelations from the gods’ to people who come with their problems. These ‘revelations’ are often behind most cases of witchcraft accusation in the region. Ironically some locals address their soothsayers as ‘wise men’. Personally I never saw any wisdom in the way soothsayers cold read and make vague and wild guesses about people’s lives or pretend to be consulting and getting revelations from gods and spirits while staring at some coweries, pieces of dry kolanut and some other objects covered with layers of blood of sacrificed animals .
One day we saw an egg, a piece of red cloth, kolanut, some pieces of calabash and charcoal at a junction inside the witch camp in Gnani. My contact person said that a soothsayer must have told somebody to do that as a form a sacrifice in order to ward off misfortune.
Any initiative to combat the phenomenon of witchcraft accusation in Northern Ghana must address the tradition of soothsaying and divination by charlatans mistaken to be wise men.
Incidentally I met in Gnani Tindan a man who was accused of witchcraft by the brother and then driven out of his community. This man was a soothsayer. He still operates as a soothsayer in Gnani Tindan!
I also attended a Kokomba funeral ceremony in the village of Kpanjanba, near Gnani. The Kokombas are one of the major ethnic groups in the Northern Region of Ghana. Funerals are important cultural events among the Kokombas. Funerals are led by soothsayers who are locally known as Ubua. And their major assignment is to find out from the ancestors the cause of the death or those who are responsible for the death. One of the alleged wizards in Gnani Tindan was identified at a funeral to be responsible for the death of a family member, and was subsequently exiled from his community.
In Gnani, most people live in huts. There is power only in some parts of the village. Unfortunately there is still no electricity in the area where the alleged witches are living. Several appeals to local authorities to extend electricity to the area have fallen on deaf ears. There is one toilet facility for the whole Gnani Tindan. Many people, I guess, go to toilet when they get to the farm in the morning or they use, at night or before dawn, the bush which surrounds most huts.
There is an acute problem of water in Gnani. I saw two water harvesting tanks in the local school and clinic. They were constructed by a christian charity from Canada. There are two boreholes in Gnani Tindan but one has broken down. The other one, I was told, pumps water to a limited section of the community only on Fridays. So, most people depend on the nearby Oti River for water.
Oti River is around two kilometers from Gnani Tindan.
Accessing water is difficult for alleged witches and wizards particularly those of them who are living alone. Many are old and weak, and cannot climb down the hill to fetch water. Some still do so because they have no other choice and have to go to the river even if it means going there with a walking stick.
I visited the Oti River and on my way back I met one of the alleged witches, Matta, coming from the river. She went to fetch just a bucket of water. Matta is over 70 years and now moves with a walking stick. She was using her walking stick to know where to step her foot as she climbed out of the river when I spotted her. I helped Matta carry her bucket of water to her hut. On getting to the hut, we spent sometime together and she told me her story. Matta came to the camp several years ago. She could not recall the exact year. She only told me that those who were born when she came to the camp had become adults. The uncle alleged that he saw Matta in his dream. That Matta was carrying his child and climbing a tree. Such stories of dream are common among witchcraft believers in Ghana.
Generally, people in Northern Region take their dreams seriously. They believe that dreams are means of conveying important messages to human beings. Dreams are ways of revealing to people the evil schemes of witches and other practitioners of malevolent magic. So anyone who is seen in a dream is often taken to be a witch. So, Matta was branded a witch and driven out of her community. Matta has a daughter who visits her occasionally. Unlike some of her female colleagues, she does not have any of her grand children staying with her. She lives alone in her hut. Matta has problem fetching water and firewood, but also getting and preparing food to eat, getting clothes to wear, reroofing her hut and attending to her other basic needs.
She may have to keep doing whatever she can to help herself till the day she drops dead.
Like many of the accused persons in the camp, Matta faces a bleak and uncertain future unless local authorities and international organisations come forward to assist. I am therefore appealing to all international NGOs for help in building the capacity of the seven witch camps in the region.
Some NGOs are already providing some support. But the support is grossly inadequate. Very little of the resources trickles down and reaches people who are urgently in need like Matta.
So I urge groups around the world to consider adopting a witch camp in Ghana.