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Opinions Thu, 31 Jul 2014

Fighting for the Human Rights of Alleged Witches.

Debate of the Heart: Fighting for the Human Rights of Alleged Witches.

Leo Igwe

For sometime now, humanists have preoccupied themselves with what I call the 'debate of the mind'. Atheists and skeptics have articulated excellent, awakening, enlightening and ground breaking ideas, debating the existence of god, debunking miracles, and questioning dogmas. Humanists have written best selling books. And indeed, some non theists have best selling ideas. But there is a tendency for humanists to focus so much on the debate of the mind or to be contented with the victories they have recorded, forgetting that the debate of the mind is not the entire debate, forgetting that there is another important debate. That is the debate of the heart.

Religion is spreading worldwide not only through the publication of books or through the persuasive nature of their dogmas. Particularly, religion is being propagated through charity or humanitarian schemes, through the provision of aid to people hit by disasters, through supporting victims of wars and conflicts. And this has made a number of people to tie humanitarianism to religion. But very often religious groups use their humanitarian assistance as a tool to convert people to a particular faith or branch of faith. Charity serves as a potent mechanism of evangelisation. Often, faith groups withhold assistance or refuse to support individuals who profess other religions or beliefs. Many faith based charities discriminate in their social and humanitarian projects. Faith groups build schools to get students and young people not necessarily to start thinking but to start believing in their own god or to start attending their own church, mosque or temple. Persons who are persecuted in the name of religion or superstition often do not have organisations that care for them. They are left in the cold. Humanists need to join the gobal debate of the heart by translating their best selling ideas into projects and programs that benefit humanity. Humanists need to let people suffering in different parts of the world to know that they care, that humanists care in creed and indeed. That humanists have a charity scheme to support them in their time of need. That atheists and agnostics are here at last to deliver humanist promises, to translate humanist ethical principles into care programs.

For some time, atheists and freethinkers have preoccupied ourselves with exploring how humanism can work for us- that includes how to protect the rights of humanists; how to get humanists elected into public office, how to secure legal recognition of humanist ceremonies. There is no doubt that these are important campaigns.

But now the time has come for us to explore how humanism can work for them- for all human beings including those who may not be humanists but who yearn for humanist promises. So, how can we make humanism work for the victims of witchcraft accusation particularly those of them in the witch camps in Ghana.

You may have heard that there are plans by the government of Ghana to close down the witch camps. These camps exist in the Northern region of the country. The move to shut down the camps is a reaction by the government of Ghana to reports of the deplorable situation, exploitation and human rights abuses in the these camps. The government is reportedly embarrassed by these reports and now wants to disband these places of refuge. Recently, the United Stated embassy in Ghana announced that it was funding a research program aimed at closing down these camps.

Now let us think about this. What is actually embarrassing in this case? Is it the belief in witchcraft or these refuge centers? What's the real problem here-is it the witch camps or witch beliefs? What the government of Ghana should be preoccupied with- is it disbanding the witch camps or educating and enlightening the people, helping reorient their minds so that they abandon these superstitious beliefs in magic and sorcery?

Actually the situation in these camps is difficult and many of the alleged witches are suffering terribly.The alleged witches live in huts. They have no access to clothing, water or food. Some of them have their family members visit them occasionally to bring them money and food. Others depend on charity and support from NGOs. Others have resorted to begging for survival. But is that a reason why they should be denied a safe space to be? Is that why they should be forced to go back home where they are likely to be murdered by their accusers?

The importance of these camps is evident in the stories of alleged witches residing in these places. For instance, Melatu was accused by the daughter of being responsible for her illness. She was taken to a local shrine where she was confirmed to be a witch. The daughter later died and she was attacked, beaten and banished from her community. Melatu is currently living in a witch camp in Ghana. Right now there are no indications that she would ever return to the community.

In 2012, I met another woman at the Kukuo camp. She could not walk. She crawled to attend to her daily chores but when I returned in February 2014, they said she had died. What happened? She was bitten by an insect one evening, she cried out for help but before they could attend to her she passed away. But another alleged witch, Bibat, could not make it to the camp. In 2010, the step son confirmed from a local diviner that she was bewitching him. And one evening, the step son confronted her in an open field and stabbed her to death.

Not all who are banished because of witchcraft flee to the camps. An 80 year old woman, Sinat was accused of being responsible for the death of a neighbour's wife. She was seen in the dream by another girl in her compound. Sinat was accused of witchcraft and was banished from her community. One of her relatives accommodated her in Tamale where I met with her. Her relations took her case to court with the help of the state human rights agency. While the case was in court, the chief of her village asked her to return to the community. Sinat is now back to her community.

But another woman, Mega, was not as lucky. I met her in February 2014 at the witch camp in Gnani. She was banished after being accused of sorcery. I met the chief and other elders of her village and persuaded them to allow her return without success. But with the grant from Foundation Beyond Belief, she was able to leave the camp and is now trying to start a small business.

But it is a different story for Abel, a-14 year old girl from Cross River State in Southern Nigeria. A local pastor branded her a witch. The family drove her out after physically abusing her. A local NGO rescued and placed her at a child care centre. She was accused again of witchcraft at the Care center and subsequently driven out of the center. But the same NGO rescued her for the second time and managed to place her in another care center but on the condition that the organisation would take care of Annabel's school and living expenses. Thanks to some funding from Foundation Beyond Belief, Annabel is back to school now.

What we have done so far is just a tiny drop in the ocean of victims of accusation who need support and compassion. Alleged witches and wizards who yearn for the dignifying and humanizing promises of reason and freethought are numerous in the region. They are beckoning on humanists to step forward and take their place at the table- the table of the debate of the heart.

Columnist: Igwe, Leo