Witchcraft Accusation in Northern Ghana

Mon, 24 Jun 2013 Source: Igwe, Leo

By Leo Igwe

The atmosphere may appear calm and serene, and the people friendly

and hospitable. Life in the regional capital, Tamale may not be much of

the hustle and bustle one finds at the state capital, Accra or in other

capital cities across the region. There is low traffic and the streets

are hardly overcrowded except when a new chief is being installed, a

political campaign is going on or a top politician is visiting the area.

Still all is not well in the northern region of Ghana because beneath this veneer of

calmness and tranquility lurks a vicious, virulent and

violent trend- witchcraft accusation.

Northern Ghana is a region charged and enchanted with allegations of

witchery, spiritual possession and attack. Witchcraft is at the root of a silent

battle,an ongoing war that has torn apart families and

communities, internally displaced many people, turning them into

refugees in their own land. In the past 3 weeks there have been 3 cases

of accusation within the regional capital, Tamale, alone. I guess there

could be other or more cases. But these are the ones that've come to my

notice. Most cases of accusation take place in the rural parts of the

region with no accessible roads, power or telephone service. In these

remote communities, traditional beliefs and institutions are very

strong. Cases of accusation are not reported in the news. They are

rarely taken to the police stations, where such stations exist. Except

on the highways or border posts, there are virtually no police presence

in the rural communities. Most cases of witchcraft accusation are

resolved locally and traditionally. By that I mean the matter is taken

to the local chief and elders who often refer the issue to a local

shrine for confirmation. In some cases they are pressured to banish the

accused without a confirmation by a local priest. Sometimes accused

persons are forced to flee on their own. Accused persons who are

banished are relocated to other communities. But in most cases they are

taken to one of the seven ‘safe spaces’ otherwise known as ‘witch’ camps in the


This report is based on the three cases of accusation I am currently studying in

Tamale metropolis.

In the first case, a middle aged woman, Mateda, was accused of being

responsible for the death of a 20 year old seamstress. The seamstress

sew some wedding clothes for Mateda’s daughter. But shortly after Mateda paid the

seamstress, she took ill and died.The parents of the seamstress said their daughter

took ill after drinking some porridge she bought

with Mateda's money. They claim she gave their daughter spiritual poison through the

money. So they accused Mateda of being behind the death of

their daughter.

They reported the matter to the chief and asked him to banish the

woman immediately from the community. But the chief declined and instead suggested

that the matter be taken to a local shrine for confirmation.

But the family of the deceased and a local mob refused and insisted that Mateda be

banished right away. In protest they marched to the palace of the paramount chief of

Tamale and reported the matter. But he sent them back to the village chief, who

insisted that the case be taken to a


But the angry ‘youths’ started throwing stones at the palace of the

village chief and threatened to burn down the building. They broke a

window of the palace and a ‘sacred’ pot used in keeping some water for

the ancestors to drink when they come visiting at night! The chief

invited the police, but before the police convoy arrived, the mob had

dispersed. The Domestic Violence and Victims Support Unit and the

Criminal Investigation Department are currently questioning the

suspects. As I was trying to meet and interview the accusers, I was told of another

case of accusation that could erupt very soon. An elderly

man has been sick for several months and a woman in the neighbourhood is being

suspected of being responsible. I was told that if the man died,

the ‘youths’ in the area might attack this woman or get her banished

from the community. I am trying to nip this accusation in the bud.

I visited the sick person. He was lying on a small bed. I was told he had lost

sensation on the lower part of the body and could not

defecate. He lacks appetite for food and takes only a bit of the local

porridge. The man was holding the Muslim beads in his hands and

murmuring some prayer verses, when I entered the room. I was told he

used to see the woman in his dream. And in the northern region, this

constitutes ‘hard’ evidence for witchcraft. Anyone seen in a dream by a

sick person is believed to be the person who caused the sickness –or who gave the

person the sickness as they say. The family members are using

local herbs to treat the man. Meanwhile, they could not tell me what the man was

suffering from, in other words what they were actually treating with local herbs.

The family members said they took him to two

hospitals in the city where he spent two weeks and 4 days respectively. I have made

contact with hospital authorities and we are trying to

ascertain whether the man was actually treated at these places, what was the

diagnosis so that we can provide him with urgent medical


I hope to use this means to deflate the rumour of witch cause or

accusation and hopefully persuade the family members to focus on taking

care of the man based on medical diagnosis and stop suspecting the

innocent woman in the neighbourhood.not the woman in the neighbourhood.

But I must say this is a tough and tricky task.

While I was at the police station gathering information on Mateda's

case, a police officer drew my attention to the case of another woman,

Sheta. She was accused of being responsible for the death of a young

man, Badul who died on June 4, 2013. Badul’s family said they took him

to a local hospital but couldnt confirm if he was treated and what he

was suffering from. They strongly believe that, Sheta was behind the

sickness and death. They said, before he died, Badul was seeing her in

his dreams. And also that one of their family members-a woman- whom they claimed was

occasionally possessed by the spirit, once revealed while

under the influence of the spirit, that Sheta was responsible for the

bother's sickness. But a source in the family of the accused woman told

me the woman whom they claim was often possessed by the spirit was

actually a mentally unstable person, that she had a psychiatric problem

but the family had refused to send her for treatment because they

believe her case is spiritual, that she has spiritual powers.

This woman often makes some witchcraft related pronouncements which

the family takes seriously. And on this occasion while the brother was

sick, she pronounced that Sheta was responsible for the illness. And one morning,

the Badul’s father stormed the house of Sheta with a matchete, in search of her,

apparently to kill her but Sheta was not in the


The matter was reported to a the village chief who asked them to go

to a local shrine for confirmation. But before the day they fixed to go

to the shrine, Badul died. The family of the deceased said they would no longer go

to the shrine. Meanwhile the accused woman has been relocated to another community.

And one of the sons reported the matter to the


The police have invited the accusers for questioning. I met briefly

with some of the accusers in their family compound shortly after the

police invitations were delivered to them.

I noticed a mixture of grief, fear and anger mainly because they had been invited

by the police. In fact they thought I was a police

officer. I spent some time to reassure them that my mission had nothing to do with

the police investigation. They all maintained strongly that

Sheta spiritually killed their son and brother. And to add to their

pain, one of the sons went and reported to the police. As a form of

advice, I told them to try and separate the pain of the loss of their

son and brother from their claim of who killed him and by what means.

That the police would want them to provide evidence that Sheta killed

Badul. At that point tempers started running very high and we were

forced to adjourn our meeting. I went back to the police station to know how the

process of investigation was going.

Cases of witchcraft accusation are handled by The Domestic Violence

and Victims’s Support Unit of the Ghana Police Force. I was told that

several cases are reported every year. According to the Inspector in

charge of the Unit, the cases are seasonal. They get more cases during

the time of the year when there is high rate of infection and disease.

The people who are often accused are women who lack social

support-widows, childless women, poor elderly women who are living alone etc. He

blamed the rampant case of accusation on outmoded traditional

beliefs which, he said, the people have refused to abandon. He said that the police

were working with the chiefs and human rights groups to

educate and reorient the minds of the people. I have not noticed any key program to

reorient the mentality in the region apart from few posters

that are distributed by some NGOs urging local population to treat

alleged witches humanely

However any effort or initiative to tackle this problem must include

getting the people in Northern Ghana to begin to doubt or disbelieve:

-That people can kill others using spiritual means. – That a person

allegedly seen in a dream by a sick person is the cause of the sickness. – That

local priests and soothsayers have the power to confirm through

rituals or divination that somebody is a witch or wizard.

Generally in the region, witchcraft evokes fear and blind faith. This mentality has

to change so that witchcraft evokes curiosity and

critical thinking. We need to get the local population to begin to ask

questions, to seek evidence and challenge witchcraft claims and


Definitely, this is not going to be an easy task. It requires -and

will require a lot of efforts, sacrifice and commitment. But as they

say, whatever is difficult is important. The time has come for us to

take up that difficult but crucial task and help bring an end to the

rage of witchcraft accusation in the Northern Region of Ghana.

Columnist: Igwe, Leo