Imagine being a woman, by birth and by genetics. Not any fault of your own of course, for fate’s cards decided to cause you to fall on that side of the gender partition. Imagine having dreams of a perfect life, making it through school, meeting the man of your dreams, falling in love and settling down with your 2.5 children, enjoying the fruits of your labour. Imagine unfortunately taking hits from the storms of life, falling victim to its unfortunate twists and turns which leave you battered, bruised, beaten, flailing in despair as you scramble for help and hope.
Then imagine. Instead of being offered a helping hand or an ear of understanding, you are being held to account as the source of your problems, and the causative factor to the hell which has encompassed your life. Imagine, being called a witch. Imagine, having to flee your home, the remnants of your family, your life, and living in exile in a witches’ camp, like a leper – rendered poor, demeaned, a stigmatised outcast. In 2014.
Many centuries ago, in the 17th century, a set of trials in colonial Massachusetts USA lead to many women being killed following various accusations of witchcraft – these women had been blamed for communal misfortunes such as infant death and crop failure, falling victim to mass hysteria, false accusation and the imbalanced perception of women in the community. Fast forward to 21st century Ghana, and similar trends can be found in pockets across the country.
However the end doesn’t have to be as barbaric as what manifested in Salem centuries ago. Instead, there are a few ‘witches’ camps’ dispersed across the country where accused women can come to settle in exile, seeking refuge from potential physical and verbal abuse, torture and lynching. These camps began to spring up in what was previously the British Gold Coast, more than 200 years ago. Unfortunately, such camps persist in today’s forward-thinking Ghana.
What puts women at risk of being accused of witchcraft? Some have postulated that being particularly outspoken in a culture which celebrates humility and submissiveness can cause people to see you as a deviant to the expectations of society, and thus operating conversely to the spiritual norms of the community.
Accusations may also stem from greed and jealousy, and be a means of bullying in order to gain benefit – a study of one particular camp found that most of its inhabitants were elderly women, with 70% having been accused and banished following the deaths of their husbands and thus may have fallen victim to people who wanted to get rid of them in order to take control of the dead husband’s property! “The camps are a dramatic manifestation of the status of women in Ghana,” says Professor Dzodzi Tsikata of the University of Ghana. “Older women become a target because they are no longer useful to society.”
Eccentric behaviour can also be interpreted as evidence of possession of a woman by an evil spirit, a result of the lack of education in mental health which I have intimated before in various articles for MFG in the past. “In traditional communities there is no real understanding of depression or dementia,” says Dr Akwesi Osei, chief psychiatrist at the Ghana health service, who has noted that a majority of the women in these witches’ camps have an element of mental illness.
The powers that be in Ghana see the camps as a dark stain on the reputation of a nation which is frequently held up as an example of one of the most progressive democratic and economically vibrant nations in Africa, and has previously shown intention to disband them. Nothing has come of this sporadic rhetoric. However, sending the women back to their home villages carelessly would be an action fraught with danger.
The Go Home project, supported by ActionAid, has facilitated discussion between accused women and members of their former communities in an attempt to dispel mistruths and facilitate the safe return of these women to their homes. However, it is a sad truth that for many who may eventually be proved innocent as a result of these discussions or the performance of rituals to determine their innocence, the beliefs which have condemned them to a life of exile can be so deeply entrenched that many may never be able to return home.
Unlike the dreams that many of these women may have had at the start of their lives, for a lot of them there will be no happy ending.
Dr Jermaine Bamfo (@Dr_Jabz27)