Monday, December 12, 2005

The Witches of Ghana

Asara Azindow used to have a life of independence and relative comfort. She owned her own home and her own business, a restaurant. When a meningitis epidemic broke out in her village, she was accused of causing the epidemic through witchcraft. Her business and home were looted and destroyed and the only safe haven for Asara was a witch camp. Asara is convinced that the real reason she was run out of her village in fear of her life was because she was a successful and independent woman.

Awabu Tamara is also an inhabitant of one of the witch camps. When the son of a relative became ill, Awabu’s witchery was blamed. When she refused to “admit” to being a witch, she was tied to a log and tortured for three months with beatings and whippings. A witch camp was the only place that could provide her with safety.

There are about a thousand women in northern Ghana inhabiting camps whose sole occupants are deemed to be witches. Many, if not most, of the women are elderly.

How has this come about? Two reasons; religious and economic.

Ghana is a religiously diverse and reasonably tolerant country. It numbers amongst is inhabitants Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and many others, including adherents to traditionally indigenous religions. Within the indigenous religions are the beliefs in multiple gods, reincarnation, and witchcraft. When tragedy or hardship hits a family or village, it is often considered to be the result of sorcery.

“In African traditional religions, there must be a reason why something happens to you, especially when it is bad. People see human beings as channels through which these unfavourable things can be introduced into the community”.

A few years back an outbreak of cerebral-spinal-meningitis resulted in five elderly women being beaten to death when villagers accused them of causing the disease. Anyone accused of witchery knows that her only hope of survival is to leave her village immediately. Banishment is forever.

The second reason, that of economics, is increasingly common. Ghana is a poor country where almost half of the population survives on less than $ 1 U.S. per day and annual inflation averages over 20%. The average lifespan is 58 years. When a Ghanaian woman becomes a widow, she is in danger of having one of her relatives, particularly a male relative, denounce her as a witch. If the relative does not want to be burdened with taking economic care of the old woman, or if the widowed woman has a home or possessions, all that needs to be done is to declare that the old woman was the cause a family woe. A man says his mother-in-law caused a relative’s illness, the mother-in-law is run out of the village, and her son-in-law promptly takes possession of her home and belongings.

Surveys done within the witch camps indicate that the older a woman becomes, the more likely she is to be declared a witch. Instead of being able to live out their old age with a level of dignity and some comfort, these women are forced into camps where they eke out a meager living by gathering firewood for sale and by tending small plots of land for food. Once she is in a witch camp, a woman is there forever. Recently, 100 women were released from their witch camp and were told they were free to return to their communities. Even though many of them had lived in the camp for the majority of their adult lives, every one of the women refused to leave the camp. They had no confidence that they would be safe anywhere else.

Within each camp is usually a tribal priest who exorcises each women upon arrival to dispel the evil spirits. But this doesn’t seem to carry much weight with the people of her village. There are laws in Ghana that forbid banishment and rituals that violate human rights, but no one has even been known to be been charged, let alone convicted, of accusing a woman of witchcraft. The women and anyone sympathetic to the women are reluctant to report these matters to the authorities for fear of being punished by their gods. Human rights organizations, women’s groups, the Ghana government, are all trying to battle the practice of banishment but they have met with little success. It’s a no-win situation for the women.

Since there seems to be little hope of things changing in the near future, charitable organizations are trying to do what they can to alleviate the hardships of camp life and make the lives of the women in the witch camps more economically independent. Funds are being raised to buy farming equipment and livestock and to provide loans to start small commercial businesses.

International aid groups such as the United Nations are in agreement that the key to Africa’s economic success is the women of Africa. They are the farmers, the traders, the keepers of the home. Without the contribution of African women, there is no chance of Africa developing and expanding its economy.

Human rights abuses at the hands of family and clan are no less destructive than those committed by governments. Without change, Ghana will continue to slip deeper into poverty and oblivion and any hope for future generations of Ghanaian women will be lost forever.

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