Do not close down 'Witch Camps' in Northern Ghana

W Itch File photo of victims living in the camp

Mon, 22 Aug 2016 Source: Igwe, Leo

I want to reiterate my opposition to the call and campaign to close down witch camps in the North of Ghana. I am appealing to all state and non-state actors who are behind this program to rethink their position and review this project.

I am registering my opposition to this project once again following the recent call by the British High Commissioner to Ghana, Mr. Jon Benjamin, that these places be shut down.

The Commissioner has, while receiving Ghana Domestic Research Report, argued that the notion of a witch has no place in the 21st century and thus there should be nothing like a witch camp. The British High Commissioner described the practice of witch branding as a form of human rights abuse.

Personally I agree with the British diplomat that accusation of witchcraft, which gets people to flee their homes, is a form of human rights violation. But does that warrant the closure of witch camps?

Is witch camp really the problem? I have had the opportunity of visiting all the so-called witch camps in the Northern region. During my visit, I interacted with alleged witches and managers of these places. I cannot imagine how anybody in his or her wildest dream would want to close down places where some alleged witches told me they found 'some peace'.

The problem is that those who are campaigning for the closure of the witch camps are confusing so many things and this confusion, if not promptly addressed, will further put at risk the lives of the vulnerable women and men at these places.

The confusion is likely to lead to more human rights abuses. To avoid creating more problems, I suggest that campaigners and their partners try and ensure that thoughtfulness and proper understanding of the situation on the ground inform the process. Hence I would like to draw their attention to two critical points.

First of all, the witch camps are not places where 'witches' are camped and tortured, as some people seem to think. The local Dagbani name for these 'witch camps' is Tindan, which roughly translates as shrines. So, 'witch camps' are shrines.

The Dagomba call the 'witch camp' in Gnani, 'Gnani Tindan', that is Gnani shrine. But the 'witch camp' shrines are not like any other shrine. They are special shrines that provide protection to alleged witches who were banished from their communities or those of them who fled to avoid being killed by their accusers. The witch camps are places of refuge.

They serve as safety nets for alleged witches. They provide alternative homes for victims of witchcraft accusations. Many of the people living there would have been dead by now, if they were not provided with some shelter at these facilities. Meanwhile, the government has no state owned shelters where these persons could go. So these 'witch camps' are serving an important purpose.

So why should anybody ever want to close down such a facility? Calling for the closure of witch camp is like campaigning to shut down a refugee camp when the war is still going on. Who does that? Is such a move not against human rights and humanitarian law? I think campaigners are making this mistake because of another form of confusion.

Campaigners are confusing and conflating the idea of witch camp and the phenomenon of witchcraft accusation. Both issues are not the same and need to be decoupled if we must put this problem in the North of Ghana into proper perspective. 'Witch camp' is actually the consequence, not the cause of witchcraft accusation.

Witchcraft accusation is the real problem that should be addressed. Accusations take place in the villages and communities. These are the places where any efforts to address this problem should focus, not the witch camps. Witch camps are only the symptoms, not the disease.

Should we not focus our energy on tackling the disease and not the symptom? When the campaigners close down the witch camps without combating witchcraft accusations, are they not doubly victimizing the alleged witches? Where do they expects victims of alleged witches who have been banished from their communities to go?

All those who are concerned about the existence of 'witch camps' in Northern Ghana should rather campaign to stop witchcraft accusations, and not to close down the witch camps.

All resources should be channeled into stopping allegations of witchcraft and witch hunting. We need to get the people in Northern Ghana to abandon the practice of branding people witches. If the practice of witchcraft accusation stops, the witch camps will simply disappear.

Columnist: Igwe, Leo