Witchcraft Accusations and Freethought in Ghana

Wed, 7 Aug 2013 Source: Igwe, Leo

Witchcraft came about in the course of attempts by human beings to make sense of the world, to give meaning to their lives, and provide explanations of events and happenings in the world. Witchcraft is our creation and invention. Witchcraft is our idea. Witchcraft is actually our –human-craft, not the witch’s craft. But human creations can be misinformed and mistaken, human inventions can be misused and turned into weapons to tyrannize over the lives of people, or be used as tools of oppression, abuse and exploitation of vulnerable members of the population. So it iswith witchcraft.

In early modern Europe, and in Salem America, there were witchcraft related abuses. Thousands of people were accused of malevolent magic and subsequently tortured, imprisoned, burnt at stake or publicly executed. Butfreethinkersand skeptics in Europedid not sit and allow the fire of witch hunting to consume them and their society. They responded at enormous risk to their lives. They marshaled their thoughts, challenged witchcraft claims and made witch hunting history and witchcraft accusation a piece of joke.

But in Africa, this is not yet the case. Witchcraft is still a serious issue. The term witchcraft still evokes fear, panic, suspicion and mistrust in the hearts and minds of the people. Witchcraft accusation is still socially disabling and a form of stigma. The structures of witch hunting is still very active and functional. Witchcraft accusation is still a form of death sentence, a reason to kill, torture, murder, lynch, abandon and exile children and elderly persons from their homes. I will illustrate this using some of my research casesfrom Northern Ghana. This region of Ghana is enchanted with witchcraft and other magical beliefs. More importantly this region has what they call the ‘witch camps’.For me the term,‘witch camp’ is an incorrect way of describing this traditional structure. These places are not camps for witches, because there are no witches.They are make-shift shelters for those displaced due to witchcraft accusation. They are mechanisms to contain and manage accusations. These places are rather refuge spacesorsafety nets where those accused of witchcraft flee to and can be rehabilitated.

These safety nets exist in Kukuo, Bonyase, Gnani, Gushegu, Nabule, Kpatinga and Gambaga. In the small village of Sang, a local child orphanage takes care of mostly disabled children abandoned due to witchcraft. Men and women accused of having malevolent magic come to these camps to settle and to spend the rest of their lives. Actually, poverty, struggle for limited resources, hatred and jealousy , ignorance, religious fanaticism, superstition, lack of rule of law and respect for human rights are some of the remote and manifest reasons for accusations. But the situation is further complicated by three other factors: 1)unchallenged local narratives that attribute most incidents of death, diseases and misfortune to malevolent magical schemes of enemies within the family or the neighbourhood; 2) traditional notion of the world that the physical is controlled by the spiritual, by supernatural agents. 3) the dogmatic attitudes of local population to the divination, revelations and declarations of soothsayers, and traditional priests and the local witch hunters known as the Jinwara(Zinwara).

This is evident in the cases of witchcraft accusation in the region. One of the cases is that of Memuatu, a 70 year old woman. In December, she was accused by the daughter of being responsible for her illness. The daughter was sick for a long period. She was taken to several clinics, hospitals including traditional health practitioners but her health situation worsened. The sick lady died in January, but before her death she claimed to have seen the mother in her dream and shouted ‘Mummy let me rest’, ‘Mummy let me rest’. In Northern Ghana people take their dreams seriously. They give ‘spiritual’ interpretation to their dreams particularly if the person is ill. They believe dreams are ways which the gods or spirits convey messages to them. Anyone seen in a dream by a sick person is indisputably taken to be the one responsible for the illness. The matter was reported to the local chief who referred it to a local shrine for confirmation. At the shrine she and other accused persons including a man were tested and confirmed to be responsible for the illness. She was threatened and attacked by youths in the community. The family took her to Gnani witch camp where she is currently staying.

Another case is that Mahama who is a rich farmer. He was accused by the cousin of killing 3 people in their family and of appearing in people’s dreams holding a gun or a machete. Mahama’s cousin said he went and consulted traditionally and confirmed Mahama’s malevolent magic. Mahama was sacked from the community and is now living in a witch camp. Northern Ghana is a region of gods, of dogmatic belief in gods. Apart from the gods of christianity and islam, there are innumerable other so called local or smaller gods. Some local priests and soothsayers ‘consult’ these gods. They are actually the mouthpiece of these gods. These local priests and soothsayers often under the influence of a local gin called Akpateshi or Pito, communicate god’s messages to the people including pointing out who is responsible for death and diseases in families and communities.

They use cowries, pieces of rock, kola nuts and a gong to consult the gods. The priests set up shrines for the gods in their family houses. These shrines are places where accusations of witchcraft are confirmed through rituals performed with brooms or fowls.

In one ritual the local priest holds two brooms across the neck of the accused person, and then drags the person. If the two brooms stick together holding the neck of the accused then it means the gods have confirmed the person guilty but if the brooms separate and couldn't hold the neck, it means the person is innocent.

And in another ritual, the accused takes an oath and the priest slaughters the chicken, if the chicken falls facing the sky, it means the accused is innocent but if it falls facing the ground it means that it is guilty. Through these rituals, people believe the gods speak and expose the person who is a witch or wizard.

People in Northern region believe strongly and dogmatically in the alleged revelations from the gods through the soothsayers and the local priests even when they are literally untrue, absurd or are in conflict with reason, science and common sense. Some people acknowledge that some of the soothsayers and priests are fake, that many of them are into the business of soothsaying or ritual sacrifice for financial reasons. But they claim there are some who truly receive revelations from the gods. The genuine ones they said are mostly in the villages or in the rural areas. I visited some soothsayers and priests in the rural areas and in the cities. The only difference I noticed was that those who operate in the urban areas charge higher fees and have more magical products which they use to extort money from gullible folks, while those in the rural areas charge very little fee-kolanut fee- for consultation. In Northern Ghana, the gods are ‘actively’ involved in the accusation thanks to the fakery of priests, soothsayers and other godmen and women. In fact the gods, not human beings, are the main accusers. The gods ‘confirm’ and ‘ratify’ the accusations and suspicions.

I am deeply persuaded that, until the people in Ghana and Africa begin to cast doubt or disbelieve in the existence of their numerous gods;until they begin to question and freely examine the so called divine revelations and pronouncements through and by their soothsayers and priests who front and play god, until freethinkers begin to speak out and challenge local cultural narratives and other entrenched dogmatic and paranormal notions of the world, we are not seeing an end yet to witchcraft accusation in the region.

Columnist: Igwe, Leo