Aftrica's Modern Day Witch Hunt

Denis Dailleux / Agence VU for Newsweek

It was Pakpema Bleg's own family who first accused her of practicing witchcraft.

Her nephew had accidentally pricked his finger on a needle, and the finger swelled up with infection. Bleg hadn't been there. But the next morning, she says, her brother-in-law arrived outside her house. "Witch!" he allegedly bellowed for all her neighbors to hear. "Witch!" Then, her nephew's older brother began beating her, she says, and soon others in the village joined in.

A soothsayer was asked to conduct the ritual test that determines the guilt or innocence of the accused. Slitting the throat of a fowl over a shrine, he threw the dying bird into the air. If the fowl were to fall on its back, it would indicate her innocence; were it to fall on its front, it would prove that Bleg was a witch.

The bird fell on its front.

"I ran," Bleg recalls. "I knew if I didn't, they would kill me."

Bleg fled to Gnani, one of northern Ghana's "witch" camps, where many of the more than 900 accused people tell a similar tale. Like Bleg, they've been tried, Salem style, their fates sealed by testimony offered by neighbors and relatives, their guilt or innocence determined by a priest.

In parts of Africa, belief in witchcraft still prevails. In Ghana, especially on the vast flat savanna of the country's northern region near the border with Togo, it is endemic. Ailments, insanity, misfortune, or death can be blamed on black magic. Witches supposedly do their dark deeds at night, using their supernatural powers, or "juju," sometimes taking the form of animals as they possess souls, inflict illnesses, or curse innocent children. Locals believe witches can glow like fireflies and walk upside down.

In some places, witch hunts are rampant. "Sometimes they beat the person to the extent of lynching—it's barbaric," says Abass Yakubu, who runs the government's Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice in the regional capital of Yendi. "The accused cannot take the risk of staying on in their homes. They will never lose the stigma." In one village, persecution of suspected witches is particularly bad, he adds. "There, even a strange stare can elicit a charge of witchcraft."

Since such accusations can quickly translate into violence, many victims flee as soon as the charges are leveled. Every week, someone flees a violent mob and seeks refuge at Gnani, the largest of five camps in the region, according to Yakubu. The camp, which also houses family members and advocates of the accused, has become a community of exiles or inmates of sorts. Banished from their communities, the accused are left to fend for themselves. Most of them are women; some arrive by bus or car, or are dropped off by family members, keen to remove them from village vitriol; others have walked long miles on foot with cooking pots on their heads. "There are many women in the camps who have had terrible violence inflicted on them, using stones and machetes," says Spalidu Mahamah, a project officer for the Southern Sector Youth and Women's Empowerment Network, an NGO that works with residents in the camps. (Mahamah's father is also the chief of the village.) "They've had to run in order to save themselves. Sometimes they have broken arms, broken legs, and punctured eyes."

The camp, though, is no secular, state-run refuge. Rather, its origins are drawn from the same superstitions that fuel the persecutions. A soothsayer runs the camp, presiding over residents from a shrine perched on a dusty incline. The campground itself is thought to be purified land, a place where witches lose their powers. Every new arrival must pay the priest, Nwini Binamba, up to 60 Ghanaian cedi, about €29, and go through (another) hen-slaughtering ritual to find out whether she is guilty as charged. Finally, she will drink a secret concoction prepared with the blood of the dead fowl to disable her powers. "Some come to me and say, 'I am a witch. Please purify me.' Others deny it," says 75-year-old Binamba, who describes his power as an inheritance from his forefathers, and the ritual itself as "a miracle." Seated on his chief's chair under a giant baobab tree, he wears a white lamb's-wool blazer and turquoise hat as his 19-year-old son, Joseph, translates. "It's a tradition that these sisters should live here," he says. "Their powers can do no harm on this land. My only hope is that I can provide for them."

But even a casual survey of the camp reveals a place of hardship. Gnani has no sanitation, no electricity, and no functioning wells. Even elderly women have to walk miles to the nearest stream to collect water.

The accused is allowed a small thatched hut—usually built with help from families or the priest and his sons—and the conditions are sparse, cramped, and destitute. Women survive by rearing chickens, collecting and selling firewood, or working nearby farmland in exchange for maize, cassava, and yams. Aid agencies have helped the community plant maize stock around their huts, and, on a recent visit, green shoots of sprouts dotted the land. During the height of summer, though, the place is unforgiving—temperatures reach up to 48 degrees Celsius. "I am strong, so I can gather wood and sell it," says Bleg. But "for some, it is very hard to survive."

Dressed in colorful wax-cloth dresses, dozens of residents gather under the canopy of an old mango tree in the center of the village to tell their stories. There are elderly grandmothers who can't remember how long they've been here, and mothers who fled with children in tow. Boys as young as 8 work the land—there is no school for them at the camp—and even the youngest are touched by the stigma of witchcraft, according to Mahamah, the project officer. "According to the local beliefs, the grandmother can easily pass the powers to the child." Zenabu Sakibu, a director with the same NGO as Mahamah, says the social trauma endured by the women can't be underestimated. "Some of them have lost the will to live. They are broken."

An accusation of witchcraft often has little to do with sorcery—rather, it's a way of settling scores. Many of the women in the camp tell stories of neighbors' envy over sudden success. "I was doing well," says Barkisu Adam, a 45-year-old mother of four, who managed to collect so much charcoal she had to hire a truck to transport it. Doing well apparently triggered the jealousy of another woman, who allegedly accused Adam of causing the death of a neighbor's child. "She burned my firewood to ashes before I could sell it," Adam recalls. "They hated my success and wanted to drive me away from my husband."

In other cases, financial gains have been attributed to the use of black magic. "We had a case where a woman had four children who all died, and the whole community believed that she had bewitched her children," says Sakibu. "They said she had sacrificed their souls so she could make money."

Fractures within a polygamous marriage can also trigger accusations of witchcraft. One woman says she was accused by one of her husband's other wives of inflicting lalaga on her daughter. "Lalaga is a disease; it's when you can't balance pots on your head," she explains. "Her daughter blamed me and said I had bewitched her. It was why she couldn't carry water. How was this my fault?"

She believes the accusations were motivated by envy. Her husband favored her, she says, and until her rival's challenge, she earned good money frying yams by the roadside. "It was not the whole village that came to banish me," she recalls, "it was her alone. But still I had to leave. My brother brought me here by car. The moment I left, she took up the very same spot in the village, frying yams. I heard she's not doing so well," she says, adding: "I am innocent. I am not a witch. I am a Muslim."?Not everyone, however, protests their innocence. Some actually believe that they are witches.

"I inherited my powers from my grandfather," says Uposagn, a man accused of wizardry after the death of a child in his community. The local soothsayer, he says, led a procession carrying the open casket door to door as they looked for a culprit. "They arrived at my hut at dusk," says Uposagn, who didn't give his last name. "By nightfall, I was running, pursued by a mob with machetes. They hit me with clubs and tried to kill me," he adds, showing scars and a concave groove in his head. Yet, he doesn't know if he was indeed to blame for the death. "I don't know if I killed that child. I don't know if my juju goes out at night killing people. What can I do? I know I am safer here in Gnani. My powers don't work here. We are all safe."

Yendi's divisional police commander, George Kumah, is all too familiar with the violence wrought by accusations of witchcraft. "We have a man in custody who killed his mother for being a witch," he says. "A soothsayer had told him all his problems in life had stemmed from her. He went and attacked her with his bare hands, and she died shortly after."

Kumah's men arrested the soothsayer who spurred on the son. The accusation of witchcraft constitutes character defamation, says Kumah. While the government has made official statements to condemn the persecution of people accused of witchcraft, legislation is still less than clear. "We do not believe in witchcraft here," says Kumah.

At the Human Rights bureau in Yendi, Yakubu is adamant that educational programs have improved knowledge of the problem. He himself has helped 10 women reintegrate into society during the past year. "I bring together the accusers and the accused and try to resolve the problems here in this office," he says. "We remind them that the Constitution is for all ... that the rule of law is important and that these unfortunate women have rights."

But there are those who insist the problem is difficult to uproot. "These beliefs are very powerful in Ghana—and not just in the northern region," says Sakibu, the NGO worker. While there may not be camps in the south, there are Christian churches that "exorcize women of witchcraft. They take them to prayer camps. You find the women chained to beds, being starved, or forced to fast and repent to exorcize them of their supposed witchcraft. Only last year, a woman was burnt to death near Accra after a mob set upon her."

Life may not be easy in Gnani, but at least the camp's residents have escaped alive. Bleg, for one, says she is never going back to her village, which is just eight kilometers away. "If anyone gets sick, I will be to blame. They will kill me. I feel safe here. When someone dies, we sing and dance. We don't accuse, point fingers, or blame the black spirits."