Witch hunts in Black communities

Sun, 17 Aug 2014 Source: Igwe, Leo

Witch hunts, Misogyny and the Imperative of Enlightenment in Black Communities

If one hates a woman and wants to get rid of her; if a person dislikes particularly an elderly female member of the family and wants to destroy her socially, one of the most effective ways of getting rid of her is accusing her of witchcraft. This is the case in Northern Ghana as in other parts of the African continent.

Among the Dagombas in Northern Ghana, the name for a witch is Sonya, a wizard is Bukpaha. But in local discourse, there is often no reference to Bukpaha. Sonya is more commonly used to refer to a person male or female-who engages in malevolent magic. Another Dagomba term for Sonya is Pakurugu which means an old woman or as the English speaking Dagomba say an 'old lady'. Among the Dagomba, the notion of witchcraft has a female face, though men are involved. Men are often perceived more as 'doctors', as those with the cure or remedy for witchcraft.

The feminine face of witchcraft is evident in the way the witch camps are described in the local language. The witch camps are described in Dagbani language as Paghakpamba Fong which means old women's section or area. But the witch camps are not exclusive for ''old ladies'' The witch camp in Gnani is also called Paghakpamba Fong, but it has at least 80 men who fled their communities. These men were banished after being accused of witchcraft.

So, witchcraft accusation is a potent way of turning the society against an ''unwanted woman'', a woman who has become a burden and a liability to the communities- a woman who has outlived her 'usefulness'.

You may not actually hate a woman before accusing her of witchcraft. You may be looking for a scapegoat for the problems you face or for the misfortunes you suffer. Witchcraft narratives are evoked to manage misfortunes-deaths, diseases and accidents. Hence the report that belief in witchcraft was hampering the treatment of Ebola in West Africa should not come as a surprise to anyone. Witchcraft is a epidemiological narrative that is evoked to make sense of a situation where people are plagued by strange, uncanny illness as in the case of Ebola. The epidemiological narrative of witchcraft is not strictly an African formation. It has both christian and islamic dimensions.

Generally, people can easily make scapegoats of anybody, rich or poor, young or old, male or female, literate or illiterates. Members of a community can entertain suspicion or insinuate occult harm or hideous schemes to injure or kill.

Very often many accusations end up at the level of improper applications due to the inability of the accusers to effectively sanction the accused.

Accusations remain at the level of suspicions and insinuations- rumors, hearsay, finger pointing, frowning, covert implied references as in the expressions like o dighi eshi(it is of no effect) or back-to-sender and other similar declarations which perceived victims of witchcraft use in processing, neutralizing or countering any purportedly occult scheme against them. Improper application of witchcraft label leaves both the accuser and accused in a state of mutual suspicion and fear of attack or destruction. But in some cases witchcraft insinuations are not enough. The label is properly and successfully applied. The witch is named and shamed, attacked beaten, banished or murdered in cold blood. The witch is tried and forced to confess.

Proper scapegoating is factor of power and support base. Weak and vulnerable people are often those who are successfully scapegoated. It is to these vulnerable members of the population that the label of witchcraft is successfully applied because of their inability to contest the accusations.

In patriachal societies, women often are found at the lower ranks of the society. Hence they have the label of witchcraft applied to them. This explains why women are often the victims of accusation. But it is not all women who are accused. It is mainly elderly women- widows, childless women who are often targeted. Here are a few cases from Northern Ghana to illustrate my point.

Melatu(60) was accused by the daughter of being responsible for her illness. She was taken to a local shrine where she was confirmed a witch. The daughter later died. She was attacked, beaten and banished from her community. Melatu is currently living in a witch camp in Ghana.

In 2012, I met another woman at the Kukuo witch camp. She was banished from her community for engaging in witchcraft. 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.

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 to return to the community 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.

Vulnerable members of the population are not necessarily female. They can be male, young or old, poor or 'rich' people. It is not all elderly women or men, not all boys or girls that a branded witches. Witches are those with weak social political base; those unable to successfully contest accusations made against them. The tragedy is that witchcraft remains a powerful narrative in diagnosing social problems and challenges that people face in black communities.

Why is this the case?

Education system in black communities has failed to provide the cognitive dissonance needed for the eradication of witchcraft related abuse. It has failed to challenge the fallacious claims of witchcraft narratives. For instance there is a belief among the Dagombas that a person who is seen in a dream particularly by a sick person is a witch and is responsible for the sickness. Many Dagombas regard this as an incontrovertible evidence for witchcraft.

The Dagombas believe that death can be spiritually caused by some people. That evil persons can kill others using the sand from their foot prints, a piece of cloth, their hairs etc through forms of imitative or contagious or incantative. The educational system instead reinforces witchcraft related intuitions and insinuations.

By education here I do not mean only the formal instruction that takes place in schools and colleges but also the informal instruction in our homes, religious centers, public meetings, social gatherings etc. Incidentally the educational system in black communities valorizes witchcraft narratives. It does not allow for a critical examination of witchcraft claims.

Also there is a trend, a very disturbing trend in contemporary social criticism. There is a reluctance by scholars, intellectuals or politicians to criticize other cultures and religions- African cultural issues for instance- applying the same standards used in socio-cultural analysis in Europe or America. Of course the reason is obvious. Many scholars do not want to be accused of racism or islamophobia or be charged of being neocolonialists or imperialists ( or any of such accusations that could tarnished the academic reputation or cost them their job). I think scholars have become too sensitive to other cultures to the point that compromises facts and objectivity. Some have deviced this means of framing cultural phenomena that cannot be categorized as modern or civilized in Europe as part of African appropriation of modernity. This is obviously hampering efforts to freely, openly and critically address the threatening social reality of witchcraft.

What can we do?

Campaign to stop witch hunting

We need to engage in self-criticism and examination of these beliefs that are used to abuse our children, torture and kill the elderly and victimise vulnerable members of the black community. We should not shy away from condemning harmful superstitious traditional practices. We should not shy away from calling witch burning by its name- gruesome, horrendous, barbaric practices. We should object to this idea of being tagged western when we question religion, dogma or superstition, when we make a case for reason, science or critical thinking in black communities. It is human to question whether you from the east or from the west, whether you are white or black.

Cases of witchcraft related abuse in black communities in the UK outraged many people across the world. They point to beliefs and practices with deep roots in religious and cultural beliefs of people in the black communities. Many people think think that these beliefs are handed down to us and should not be revised or discarded.

These beliefs have gone unchallenged because skeptics, freethinkers and atheists in black communities have refused to speak out. Now is the time to break the silence on superstitious beliefs that darken and destroy our society. And London Black Atheists this country looks up to you to help make witch hunting history in black communities. London Black Atheists the world looks up to you to ignite the flame of 21st century enlightenment

Campaign to stop witch hunters

We need to name and shame witch hunters including witch hunting pastors, imams or traditionalists. Occult enterpreneurs are recharging the witch narratives and marketing them to guillible and credulous folks. Some of the witch hunters are waxing strong and are going global in their hunt for witches and mermaids. Over the decades, witchcraft narratives have morphed and merged with evangelical christianity. This fusion has reinvented and rebranded this traditional belief turning many christian Pentecostal pastors into modern day witch hunters. We need to stop them

One of the notorious hunters in Africa brought her 'gospel' to London in April this year. Thanks to a cleaner at the venue, this exercise in medieval christianity could not hold as planned. The information leaked to the press and then to the whole world and this evangelical throwback was hounded out of the UK. Another witch hunter David Oyedepo is expected to minister at the European Winners Convention in August. Oyedepo slapped a young girl whom he accused of witchcraft during a deliverance session. A 9 year old girl collapsed and died during exorcism at a branch of Oyedepo's Winners Chapel in Cameroon. Oyedepo and other witch hunters are extending their violent christianity to Europe.We must let them know that their violent brand of christianity is not welcome in this country.

Support Victims of witch hunts

Black atheists need to reach out and support victims of witchcraft accusation in and outside the witch camps. Supporting victims can help move the hearts, minds and consciences of their accusers. It can help stimulate a new thinking, a new realization that can beat back the tide of this dark age belief and practice. Atheists, agnostics and freethinkers cannot shy away from this responsibility. If those who subscribe to an outlook that is free of superstition do not step forward and deliver the good of rational compassion to victims of witch hunting in the black communities, who will?

Columnist: Igwe, Leo