Life in the Gambaga: The witch camp

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Fri, 24 Jun 2016 Source: Eric Ziem Bibibome

Exactly seven years ago, I had an encounter with some renowned “witches” in Ghana and this altered my whole perception of the meaning of the inscription ‘Freedom and Justice’ boldly engraved on our national coat of arms. The entire encounter was initiated by a single decision which then transformed into a huge mission.

The desire and passion to tell the story of these witches whose plight was very dear to my heart sent me packing to Gambaga in the Northern part of Ghana.

I remember vividly the stares and surprises in the faces of my friends and family when they got to know of my journey. I could clearly tell that a lot of them were not in support of my mission but they could not muster the courage to tell me in the face. All I had from them was “You be careful out there”.

Looking back, I now understand better why my journey generated the sort of reactions it did. Presently in Ghana, at the mere mention of the word “witch” all of people’s senses become very alert. Witches in Ghana have assumed a powerful role in the minds of people such that they dictate and determine the actions of many Ghanaians.

Medals for best churches are won by persons who can best cast out the most powerful witches in our society. Our fascination with witchcraft has led simple minds to become prey to Bishop Obinim and a host of others who display their powers in casting out lesser powers leaving the human being abused and miserable.

Even more seriously, every calamity that befalls a person out of ignorance, negligence, or accident is attributed to a witch somewhere. When leaders become steeped in corruption, creating jobless and hopeless youth who don’t take any initiative in life, witches in Ghana are given all the credit for it.

Clearly, by our actions and inactions, a lot of us have proven that witches are our greatest enemies in life and the best way to ensure our safety, security and successes is to flush them out through fair or foul means. In some communities in Ghana, the creation of witch camps is one way of dealing with the witch problem.

The story of witch camps in Gambaga is very simple yet complicated. Anytime something bad or unpleasant happens to an individual or the community, the blame is usually put on the door steps of an old woman.

The woman is attacked with her home and belongings demolished and burnt to ashes. If she is lucky, she escapes and runs for her life with the smoke from her burnt property wishing her a safe journey wherever she is going.

Trust me, no matter how fast or far this accused woman runs, her next stop is the witch camp. If she still wants to prove her innocence, she is given a trial in the chief’s palace of her new community.

A fowl, which is provided by the accused woman, is slaughtered and thrown to the ground. If the dying fowl lies face up, it means the accused woman is guilty and is officially declared a witch. The camp becomes her home where she undergoes other rituals for purification.

Life in the Gambaga camp is not one I would prescribe to my enemy even at gun point. Apart from the mud houses which the women call shelter, access to basic utilities like water and electricity is non-existence. Ironically, most of the women consider the camp a safe haven and are totally against its closure. There are recorded cases of some suspected witches being released from the camps only for them to later return.

Am I surprised at their action? My answer is a categorical no because until I am able to answer the question on the lips of most of the suspected witches, I will continue to side with the women that the camp is a safe haven. Their question is, “Where would we go if the camp is closed? Our people are not ready to take us back and we have lost all our belongings”. Truly, they have nowhere to go because the people they call family and friends are not prepared to take them back once they have been tagged as witches.

Why does an entire community decide to abandon their sisters, mothers, aunties and grandmothers and still walk proudly without the slightest hint of guilt? That is where the real story is. Where is justice, you ask? The laws of Ghana are clueless as to how to restore the dignity and loss of these women. I wanted to know: why was the witch camp made up of mostly women and particularly, older women? Where were all the male “witches” (wizards) in Gambaga? Was witchcraft only a female thing?

Well, in the midst of my wining and dining with these suspected witches in search for some answers to these pertinent questions, I was told by both women and men through interviews I had in the Gambaga community that men practiced witchcraft but the male “witches” were not camped because they, unlike the women, do not use their witchcraft for destruction: they use it to protect their families. Revealing as this was, I was still not satisfied. I wanted more answers, especially from a wizard. Fortunately, I managed to get the Chief Priest of the camp who proudly described himself as a super wizard. He lived outside the camp and the journey to his home in the middle of the night is a story reserved for another day. The Chief Priest actually confirmed the existence of wizards but he also insisted that they use their sorcery positively. He also revealed how he flies when everyone was asleep at night just to make sure that the suspected witches do not use their witch craft negatively.

Seven years later, I dare to say that nothing has changed. On March 7, 2016, I was watching the midday news and lo and behold My Own Gambaga was making the news again. Three more fresh witches speaking of how they had been chased from their village. Behind them, old inmates starring at them with the wisdom of years of suffering probably thinking: “We were once like you. Welcome to our world”. Who were these women before they were declared witches? They were well to-do, rubbing shoulders with the men and daring to speak their minds and question authority, acts solely reserved for the man. Maybe these women should have just shut up and accepted being the tail instead of trying to be the head in their communities. I just thought aloud.

About the Author, Eric Ziem

Eric Ziem Bibiebome is a graduate from the University of Ghana, Legon. He has spent the greater part of his life in the Academia and enjoys doing Advocacy for Youth Development. He believes in the saying that ‘The Mind is a terrible thing to waste’ which to a larger extent shows that if we set up our minds to achieving something, the sky is really the limit. He is passionate about writing, more especially, what he calls ‘Experiential feature articles.’ which entails profiling of prominent or unique individuals of interest to the community, writing on the background for certain events or traditions, and also delving into the past or presenting some historical pieces.

Well, do not be surprise if you see him around you with his pen and paper writing a very beautiful story about you.

Columnist: Eric Ziem Bibibome