Accused of witchcraft, women banished far from home
Blamed for fever, drought, accidents
In Ghana, 1,000 live in colonies
Gambaga, GHANA?In the uppermost reaches of Ghana, where the dry savannah bleeds into the sandy Sahel, the appearance of witches isn't confined to one dark, fall night filled with tricks and treats.
It may be Halloween in Canada, but in a cluster of round, medieval-looking mud huts in Gambaga, some overgrown with pumpkin vines, hundreds of women accused of witchcraft do penance for their past.
Some freely admit they used the dark arts to settle old scores, rendering wandering husbands impotent or eviscerating the crops of enemies. But most say they were blamed for suspicious boils and bites, deadly car accidents, devastating droughts, feverish malaria-fuelled dreams, and epidemics and outbreaks beyond their control.
Twelve years ago, Hawa Mahama's nephew woke one morning convinced his aunt had tried to kill him in his dream.
The boy's father, Mahama's eldest brother, swiftly accused her of witchcraft. Although she vehemently denied the charge, the family sent her from their home in Kparigu to Gambaga, a dusty village near the Burkina Faso border, where the chief agreed to settle the dispute using a traditional shrine ceremony.
To determine whether Mahama was a witch, the enigmatic Gambarana, or chief, slaughtered a charmed fowl. If it died with its beak in the air, Mahama was telling the truth and was not practising witchcraft.
But the fowl flopped forward as it died, landing on its breast and convicting Mahama of being a witch. It was a verdict she says she was forced to accept.
The 80-year-old woman was banished from her home and has been living at the witch camp in Gambaga ever since.
The camp has no cauldrons, no potion books, no cackling old covens. Instead, it's like a perverse retirement community, where emaciated old women rely on their neighbours for food, clothing and shelter.
Nkugosiba Gazari has lived at the Gambaga camp for 35 years, arriving from a tiny northern village. "At first it was not happy for her, but as time went on she got used to it," interpreter Alhassan Mohammed said, translating Gazari's words from her native Mamprusi dialect.
Now in her 80s, Gazari's days are spent shelling groundnuts, drying beans and working in farmers' fields in exchange for a meagre portion of the harvest. Every day she carries her own water from a nearby pump, on a foot that was partially amputated after suffering an infection.
Although witchcraft is a centuries-old concept, born of a widespread belief in animalistic rituals and totems, and sometimes belittled by a population that increasingly sees itself as Christian or Muslim, the number of women accused of engaging in sorcery is actually on the rise.
In 1997, Ghana's Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice estimated that more than 700 women were living at the country's four northern witch camps. Last year, it put that number at more than 1,000. There are similar camps in Tanzania, and women flock from neighbouring Togo and Burkina Faso to Ghana's protective witch colonies.
Gambaga's chief, the Gambarana Yahaya Wuni, claims he can cure the women of witchcraft. From inside the dark mud hut that is his palace, Wuni ? who wraps himself in sumptuous fabrics, carries a dark decorated walking stick and watches a 26-inch Sanyo television ? won't talk about his powers, which sound strangely like sorcery. It's also taboo.
But interviews with other community members show the accused witches are made to drink a cleansing concoction and to participate in elaborate, secretive ceremonies that involve pouring libations of alcohol made from fermented Guinea corn millet and asking the chief's ancestors to help him rid the woman of witchcraft.
Although men accused of sorcery are cleansed by the chief and immediately return to their villages, few women return home, fearing they will be intimidated, discriminated against or worse.
Human-rights reports are littered with examples of women who were lynched or beaten by community members after being accused of witchcraft.
One of those women, known as Ayieshtu, returned to the Gambaga camp missing an ear after elders slashed it with a cutlass, warning her she would lose the other ear if she dared return.
"They are afraid they will kill them," Mohammed, the interpreter, said. "They are afraid of being killed."