In the North of Ghana, among the Dagomba, the name for a witch is Sonya, and a wizard is Bukpaha. But in local discourse there is often no reference to Bukpaha. Sonya is commonly used to refer to a person, male or female (though largely 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. Men are more often perceived as ‘doctors’ with the cure for witchcraft.
The feminine face of witchcraft is evident in the way the witch camps are described in the local language. They are described as Paghakpamba Fong, which means old women’s section or area, though some men live there. The camp in Gnani, for instance, is also called Paghakpamba Fong, but it has at least 80 men who fled from their communities after being accused of witchcraft.
Witchcraft narratives are usually evoked to make sense of misfortune – deaths, diseases, accidents, etc. Thus the report that belief in witchcraft was hampering the treatment of Ebola in West Africa should not come as a surprise. In times when people are plagued by a strange illness, as in the case of Ebola, witchcraft presents a plausible explanation for events that seem otherworldly.
But in Northern Ghana, to be accused of witchcraft (in effect to be accused of bringing misfortune to one’s neighbours, in-laws, family and friends) has life and death consequences, particularly for women. An accusation of witchcraft is the most potent way of turning the ire of society against an ‘unwanted woman’ or a woman who has outlived her ‘usefulness’. In some cases, after the witch is named and shamed merely on the basis of an accusation, she is likely to beaten, banished or murdered in cold blood.
It is important to note that it is often to the most vulnerable members of the population that the label of witchcraft is successfully applied because of their inability to contest the accusations. This explains why women are often the victims of these accusations. But it is not all women. It is elderly women, widows and childless women who are often targeted. Here are a few cases from Northern Ghana to illustrate my point.
Melatu (60) was accused by her daughter of being responsible for her illness. She was taken to a local shrine where she was confirmed a witch. When 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 had also been banished from her community after being accused of witchcraft. She could hardly walk when I saw her. She crawled to attend to her daily chores but when I returned in February 2014, I was told she was dead. ‘What happened?’ I asked. I was told she was bitten by an insect one evening and cried out for help but she died before anyone could call for help.
Another alleged witch, Bibat, could not make it to the camp. In 2010, her stepson received confirmation from a local diviner that she was bewitching him. The stepson then 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 after she was seen in a dream by another girl living in the compound. (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 of witchcraft.) After she was banished from the community one of her relatives accommodated her in Tamale where we first met. Sinat’s relatives took the matter 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.
Vulnerable members of the population are not necessarily female. Men are also among them. The important thing to note is that those accused of witchcraft are those from a weak socio-political base and are therefore unable to successfully contest the accusations levelled against them.
What can we do to change the situation?
Collectively, we need to engage in self-criticism and examination of these long-held beliefs that are used to abuse our children, torture and kill the elderly and victimise vulnerable members our communities. We should not shy away from condemning harmful traditional practices. We should not shy away from calling witch burning by its name – a gruesome, horrendous and barbaric practice. We should object to being tagged as ‘Western’ when we question religion, dogma and superstition. The tragedy is that witchcraft remains a powerful tool for diagnosing social problems and challenges that people face in black communities and if we don’t challenge it many more will continue to suffer for no reason.