The Witch Camps Where Hundreds of Elderly Women Are Left to Die

The days of witch trials are often assumed long gone, but that's not the case for many places in the world. Women, primarily in Africa, are still accused of witchcraft today and suffer horrendous punishments as a result.

It's particularly prevalent in Ghana, where belief in witches is deeply ingrained in the culture and stems back hundreds of years.

"The issue is persistent because of local beliefs. Elderly women are the most likely to be accused of witchcraft. It starts with a simple accusation, sometimes from someone close to them," Amnesty International West Africa researcher Michèle Eken told Newsweek.

"It can be because someone died in the village and they are accused of being responsible. Or, tragically, the accusation can come from someone who has a debt to repay and does not want to pay it back or someone who wants their house/goods."

Eken said those accused are "often beaten, some to death."

Witch Camps
The above photo shows villagers living at a witch camp in Ghana. Elderly women are "most likely to be accused of witchcraft," a researcher told Newsweek HUMANIST GLOBAL CHARITY

Witch camps

In Ghana, there are hundreds of "witch camps"—places of refuge for survivors accused of witchcraft.

"The witch camps are camps those who survived are forced to flee to; either they go there after an accusation because they fear for their lives or they are expulsed and rejected by their community after an accusation. There are hundreds of them in witch camps," Eken said.

Leo Igwe, an anti-witchcraft activist at the Humanist Global Charity, who has visited the camps many times, told Newsweek that the conditions the victims suffer are deplorable.

"[There is] no electricity and adequate housing. No welfare program for the aged and non-income earning persons. Many who are there are elderly women; they cannot work. They live alone in huts and makeshift shelters," Igwe said.

"They depend on food items that relatives or charity organizations occasionally send to them. Some relatives bring the victims and abandon them there. They never return. They never visit or come to supply food. These people end up dying of hunger, disease and lack of care."

Charities, such as the Humanist Global Charity, work with those in the witch camps to teach crucial skills like hygiene and basic science. In particular, they are taught about common diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and HIV.

Baako Alhassan, projects coordinator for Humanist Global Charity in the Northern Region of Ghana, has undertaken projects such as this before alongside Igwe.

"Most of the accusations that lead to [the] banishing of these vulnerable women to seek refuge at the witch sanctuary is as result of lack of basic scientific knowledge. The people in the region still consider some human deaths as caused through supernatural powers," Baako told Newsweek. "There is a very strong belief in African traditional religion which has to do with the use or consultation of spirits to the salvages of their problems.

"For instance, when a kid is vaccinated with polio vaccine in this modern times and the side effects react in the body.....they can conclude that it is witchcraft. When a child gets sick mostly in the village they do not go to the nearest clinic...they, first of all, consider the local herbs which are not scientifically proven. The most tragic part is when the child dies, the family members will visit a witch doctor to foretell the cause of the death."

Witchcraft accusations and beliefs in Ghana are "huge and multifaceted," meaning there is no simple solution, according to Igwe.

"It has health, economic, political, social and gender dimensions. First of all, it is a health issue and manifests by showing how many Africans interpret health issues including illness and death," he said. "Faced with illness that is incurable, or one that people cannot afford to cure, witchcraft narratives are used to make sense of this misfortune."

Igwe said that witchcraft provides a causal explanation for such issues.

"And in a region with weak health infrastructure and limited medical experts, who migrate to the west for better pay, witchcraft accusation persists and may continue until there is a significant improvement on the health infrastructure," he said.

"On the economic side, witchcraft accusation is linked to economic distress, struggle over scarce resources such as land, and cash crops, power and leadership...It had a social dimension because often those who are weak sociocultural positions are most affected."

Witch Camps
A picture shows two residents living in a witch camp in Ghana. HUMANIST GLOBAL CHARITY

Exiled

Hardly any of the women living in witch camps ever go back to their communities.

The government has previously tried to shut down the settlements in an effort to dismantle the stigma placed on these women and reintroduce them to their communities. But Igwe said this was a problematic solution, and leaves the women without a refuge.

"Forced reintegration has been problematic and has recorded limited success. Some who were forced to return have reported relocation to other camps or to other places where they could find refuge. They should stop the process of closing down the camps because the camps are not the problem," he said.

"Witchcraft accusation is the problem. The government should focus on tackling and [ending] witchcraft accusations in the communities. They provide health care centers in the communities and affordable and accessible health care programs."

State-sponsored witch hunts

The Ghana witch camps are not the only example of modern-day witchcraft accusations. In other parts of Africa, there have even been state-sponsored witch hunts.

Former Gambia President Yahya Jammeh held a strong belief in supernatural activities and ordered a state-sponsored witch hunt across the country in hopes to purge it of witches. The witch hunt lasted from 2008 to 2009. Victims were abducted from all over the country, most of them elderly citizens.

"People accused of witchcraft were forced to drink a concoction and often got sick or died from it. The people were accused for various reasons; sometimes it aligned with Jammeh's beliefs. For example, [he] encouraged witch hunting after his aunt died because he thought she was killed by witchcraft," Eken told Newsweek.

According to the charity, as many as 1,000 citizens were arrested and tortured during this period. At least two people died. Jammeh left power in 2017, ending the state-sanctioned hunts.

"I cannot guarantee there are no more accusations of witchcraft in Gambia now, we have not worked on the subject recently, but if there is, it is not as prevalent and state-sponsored as it was during Jammeh's time. During that time, Jammeh's government encouraged witch hunting, which is not the case with the current government," Eken said.

Destructive phenomenon

Igwe believes health education is key in tackling the issue globally, but the West needs to take notice.

"Globally, the world is indifferent because, unlike the COVID-19 [pandemic], witchcraft accusation does not affect the western world; the victims are mainly Africans and non-westerners. Hence, globally ending witch persecution in Africa is not a priority," he said.

"The rest of the world should discard the anthropological notion that witchcraft accusation fulfills some useful function in Africa and for Africans," Igwe continued. "This is a wicked position and disposition that has until recently guided the United Nations and other international agencies.

"Witchcraft accusation is a wild and destructive phenomenon. The world needs to approach witch persecution in Africa with the urgency that it deserves. All hands must be on deck to make witch hunting in Africa history by 2030."