Children are among those who populate the witch camps in Northern Ghana. These children are not at the sanctuaries because they were accused of witchcraft, they are there because their mothers or grandmothers were accused. But from my observations, many of these children end up suffering as a result of the label of witchcraft applied to their mothers or grandmothers. The belief in child witches exist among the Dagomba and other ethnic communities in the Northern region, but it takes on a different dimension.

In 2012, I visited an orphanage in Sang, near Yendi. This orphanage provides shelter for children accused of witchcraft. Child witchcraft is perceived differently among the Dagomba. Child witches are not considered ‘little gods’ of the Bangwa, performing extraordinary things, but rather as the incarnation of evil and an ominous sign for their family. Children who are born with disabilities or children whose mothers died after delivery are believed to be vectors of evil magic and are branded witches. I was informed that some family members kill or abandon such babies on an anthill or in a forest. Some of the children at the orphanage in Sang are those abandoned child witches, rescued and brought to the shelter by some well meaning individuals.

The circumstances of the children at the witchcraft sanctuaries are entirely a different, as children are staying in these sanctuaries because of their relationship with accused persons. Concerns about the rights and welfare of these children have been debated by different stakeholders mulling over how to improve living conditions in the sanctuaries.

Alleged witches and their children at Kukuo in Northern Ghana. Photo: Jane Hahn
Alleged witches and their children at Kukuo in Northern Ghana. Photo: Jane Hahn

Some of the children in the sanctuaries are living with their parents. Some were born at the camp. I met, during my field work, a woman at Gushiegu Sanctuary who was nursing a baby. She became pregnant and gave birth to the baby while at the witch camp. The number of children in these sanctuaries varies from sanctuary to sanctuary. Gnani Witch Sanctuary has the highest number of children, because in Gnani there are more accused persons living with their families, including men, than in any other sanctuary.

There are accused women at the sanctuaries who are living alone because they have no children or grandchildren. Some women have children and grandchildren but none staying with them, because no one has been sent to help look after them. I noticed that whether one lives with one’s children or grandchildren often depends on the position family members take on the accusation and whether one’s family members support the accusation or not. Children who support the accusation and banishment of their mothers do not visit their mothers, nor do they send their daughters to live with them. Often that is because they fear that their children could be infected with witchcraft or be killed by their witch mother or grandmother. Also they fear that the children could be accused of harmful magic when they later return back to their communities.

The Dagomba believe that witchcraft powers can be inherited or transferred. Parents, often female parents and grandparents, can pass powers on to their children and grandchildren. The Dagomba banish people convicted of witchcraft to prevent them from using the powers against other members of the family or community and also to prevent them from transferring their powers to others. Some children who are sent to look after their grandmothers end up staying at the witch camps because of this concern. At the witch sanctuary in Kukuo, I met elderly women in their 90s who came to look after their grandmothers and stayed on after the grandmother died.

An anti-witchcraft poster from Ghana. Image: Monica Tetzlaff
An anti-witchcraft poster from Ghana. Image: Monica Tetzlaff

Some children are living at the sanctuary because their fathers were accused. This is the case in Gnani camp, the only sanctuary that accommodates accused males. Some men who are accused of witchcraft and then banished from their communities relocate to the witch camp with their entire family, including wives and children. I observed that not all accused male parents were living with their families at the sanctuary. The accused male persons who relocate with their entire family are those who children are still very young, and still need parental care and support.

Accused fathers whose children are adults at the time of accusation and banishment do not usually relocate with their families and children. Male parents who are not living with their families are either those who do not have the means to accommodate or cater for them or those who intend to return back to their communities after some time. The children I saw living with their accused fathers at Gnani Tingdang were either born there or were babies when their fathers relocated to Gnani. Children have become part of the phenomenon of witch sanctuaries in Ghana. The government of Ghana announced last year that it would abolish the witch camps, and it is important that the government factor into the process the rights and welfare of these children of witches who are now perceived as child witches.