Banishing "Witches" in Northern Ghana

Tue, 29 Apr 2014 Source: Igwe, Leo

By Leo Igwe

'The woman has been banished', Hamid, my research assistant called to inform me a few days ago. 'Which woman?' I asked. 'The woman I told you about yesterday', he said in a tone that sounded prophetic. Hamid is a teacher in a local school in Yendi, the traditional capital of the Dagbon state, as the Dagomba is politically described. He confirms that the belief in witches is very strong among the people of Dagbon despite the widespread profession and practice of Islam.

Hamid knows a lot about local witch trials. As a child he joined in throwing stones at convicted ‘witches’. He understands the risks involved in dealing with such allegations. Hamid built a room apartment for an aunt who was accused of witchcraft.

'The belief here is that if you try to defend a witch, the witch will kill you', Hamid said as we made our way to a remote village to meet an accuser in his farm. According to him, the idea is that any person who is defending a witch is demoting her while the accuser is promoting the witch. The witch kills the person demoting her in order to prove her powers. This is main reason, he says, why no one dares defend a witch when she is publicly attacked, beaten or tortured. I can recall that a taxi driver at the Yendi station once told me in Dagbani 'Sounya tio kua nyini' meaning Witches will kill you' when the colleagues informed him that I was looking for witches

But there is more to the reason why people do not usually defend witches when they are publicly attacked than Hamid would make us understand. A witch is seen as a wicked person who kills or harms others through occult means. So anyone who tries defending her could easily be labelled a witch and killed.

Hamid and I just returned from Kpanjamba where we went to interview some accusers. A 50-year old woman was accused and subsequently banished from this village. I met the woman at the 'witch camp' in Gnani some weeks ago. She said a family member was electrocuted in Accra. He died as a result of this accident. But some people in the community said she turned into some electric current and killed the deceased. Or as they say locally, “she gave the family member to electricity”!. Shortly after the funeral, some people accused her of being responsible. She was later banished from the village. The woman denies the accusation. She told me that until recently, she did not know what was electricity and could not have turned into some electric current when she did not know what it was. But her accusers refused to tell us their own side of the story despite persuasion and assurances from Hamid. People in around the palace of the chief thought we were police officials sent to arrest them and so could not respond to our queries. At a point the chief who is over a hundred years addressed us. He simply said that if the woman returned to the community other members would pack and leave. We left Kpanjamba apparently frustrated. We were reflecting on our encounter with people when Hamid told me that another woman in a village called Maljeri could be banished at any moment. As in the case of the woman from Kpanjamba, a family member died. Medical sources said he died of a liver related disease. But the community members would take none of that. They said the death was not normal. Some people accused a woman in the family of being responsible. The accusers mobilized other members of the village against her and she was given few minutes to leave the community. The husband sent for some members of her matrilineal family who accompanied her to the witch camp in Kpatinga where she is currently staying. The woman is one of the three wives of a local Imam and left behind 4 children. She is likely to spend the rest of her life at the witch camp in Kpatinga if no effort is made to reinstate or reintegrate her. But this can be a difficult process.

Traditionally, the wages of witchcraft is banishment. People accused of malevolent magic are banished to any of the witch camps. The person can also relocate to an 'unknown' village. An accused person can be banished by a chief after the accusation has been confirmed in a local shrine. Some chiefs banish accused persons without a confirmation from a shrine. Sometimes accused persons leave the community when they are threatened by the accusers. But if the ‘witch’ refuses to leave the village, she may be killed by a mob. Accused persons who have strong family support, sometimes, contest their banishment. They do not leave the community particularly if the banishment was not approved by the chief.

Such persons take their matters to the chief’s palace for resolution. They can also report the matter to the police or to the state human rights commission. But in the cases cited above, the chief of the respective villages approved the banishment. The women can only be reinstated through a court order. And to get a court injunction, the accused needs to hire a lawyer or get the human rights commission to take up the matter on their behalf. In most cases people who are accused of witchcraft and are subsequently banished are illiterates who do not know that there is an institution like the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice(CHRAJ). They are sometimes from poor families and cannot afford to hire a lawyer or attend court sittings. At the end of the day those who get banished are those who cannot afford to contest or squash their banishment. They are the 'witches' that populate the camps in Northern Ghana. The government of Ghana should do something about this.

Columnist: Igwe, Leo