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Feature Article of Saturday, 24 May 2014

Columnist: Igwe, Leo

Witch hunting, not Witch Camps, is the National Tragedy

Witch hunting, not Witch Camps, is the National Tragedy in Ghana

By Leo Igwe

My attention was drawn to a statement credited to the First Lady of Ghana, Mrs Lordina Mahama, that the 'witch camp is a national tragedy'. Mrs Mahama made this declaration during her recent visit to Gambaga in the Northern region of Ghana. The First Lady was in Gambaga to inspect a project which she inaugurated last year to provide accommodation and educational facilities to victims of witchcraft accusation at the witch camp. I still cannot understand why government officials in Ghana are condemning the existence of witch camps.

Last year, the Minister for Gender, Children and Social Protection, Nana Oye Lithur announced plans by the government of Ghana to close down the camps and reintegrate victims with their families, as part of the program for the eradication of witchcraft belief in the country. In 2011, the Deputy Minister for Women and Children Affairs, Hajia Hawawu Boya Gariba described the witch camps as 'an indictment on the conscience of the society'. I think there is a misperception of the witch camp by the government of Ghana. And this misrepresentation has to be corrected.

Indeed people in these camps are living under deplorable conditions. Many of the inmates lack basic amenities- food, water, shelter and clothing. But this is not a reason to describe the camps as a national tragedy. There is something 'more' tragic about witchcraft manifestation in Ghana.

Anyone who understands the social reality of witchcraft in Ghana would agree that what is really tragic is not the witch camp but the rampant cases of witchcraft accusation in the region.

Witch camp is the consequence of a problem, not the cause of it. In fact witch camps are mechanisms for containing the problem of witchcraft accusation. Without these 'sanctuaries', the women would be dead by now. Witchcraft is traditionally a capital offence in Ghana. Before the introduction of the camps, those accused of witchcraft in Northern Ghana are taken to the evil forest and killed. But since the creation of the camps, things have changed. Persons accused or 'convicted' of witchcraft are banished from the communities. Alleged witches could be killed if they refuse to leave the community. So many of them find their way to any of the camps, sometimes trekking long distances. Others are brought to these camps by family members.

What constitute an open sore of the country is not these safe spaces but the strong belief that men or women have magical powers which they use to appear in dreams, cause sickness, accidents and deaths.

The real indictment on the conscience of the people of Ghana is that the structures of witch hunting are still very active. And nothing is being done to dismantle them. The soothsayers ply their trade openly and publicly. They indulge in finding out the witches or wizards in families without fear or restrain.

Soothsaying is part of the funeral ceremony among the Konkomba and other ethnic communities in Northern Ghana. The Jinwara cult is active and visible in Dagomba, Gonja, and Nanumba communities. The Jinwaraba are still consulted and invited, with the full knowledge of the chiefs, to come and fish out those causing abnormal deaths in the villages. Chiefs refer cases of accusation to shrines where accused persons are made to undergo trial by ordeal. Buiglana and Tindana openly subject those suspected of witchcraft to broom or cowrie ritual tests to confirm their guilt or innocence. They forced them to drink concoctions, a mixture of the blood of a fowl and 'shrine water', to cleanse them of witchcraft contaminations.

Meanwhile, witch trial as practised by the Buiglana and the Tindana is a form of trial by ordeal. And trial by ordeal is a criminal offence under the law of Ghana. Some chiefs abuse the rights accused persons. They banish them with impunity sometimes due to pressure from local mobs. 'Youths' attack accused persons. They beat them, stone them or whipped them with Barazim to get them to confess to being witches or wizards. Witch hunting causes many people to flee their communities and take refuge in these witch camps. The government of Ghana is doing very little to reorient the minds of the people and combat the criminal activities of witch hunters.

This is the real national tragedy, not the witch camps.

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