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Sentenced to Witch Camp

  • Faiza Elmasry

Some women at the witch camp tend to lose track of time, having been there for decades.

Some women at the witch camp tend to lose track of time, having been there for decades.

A journalist explores the plight of forgotten Ghanaian women labeled as witches

The Halloween season abounds with witches and goblins and ghosts. While many children and adults put on costumes and pretend to be witches, a new book reminds readers that there are still people living in a world haunted by witchcraft.

In "Spellbound: Inside West Africa's Witch Camps," Karen Palmer explores the destiny of women accused of committing supernatural crimes. She also examines the paradox of why people there rely on witchcraft, even as they fear it. Gambaga, in northern Ghana, is a small, remote village where one of the country's six witch camps is located.

Gambaga, in northern Ghana, is a small, remote village where one of the country's six witch camps is located.

Witch camps

More than 3,000 accused witches, mostly women, live in Ghana's six witch camps in unenviable conditions. They are not prisoners, exactly, but they can't leave. Palmer, a journalist, first learned about these witches in exile from a 2004 human rights report. Three years ago, curiosity prompted her to investigate one of the camps in northern Ghana.

"We went up to this witch camp, which is an 18, 20-hour drive from the capital Accra," she said. "I was really quite surprised. I had all these visions in my head of Macbeth kind of witches, the Disney kind of witches. And in fact, what we found was a very small and remote village, made mostly of mud huts and a collection of about 200 women who were left to live there on their own."

For the next two years, Palmer interviewed dozens of the women to learn how they ended up there. Camp chief Gambarana is believed to be a powerful wizard capable of discerning whether or not a woman is a witch.

Camp chief Gambarana is believed to be a powerful wizard capable of discerning whether or not a woman is a witch.

"A lot of women said, 'I don't know why I'm here,'" she says. "One of the women I spoke to when I was there, she was probably in her 80s. She kind of lost track of how long she had been there, but perhaps for 40 years. And what had happened to her was that one morning her nephew had woken up and basically said he had seen her in his dream and she was trying to strangle him. It was enough for her brother to accuse her of witch craft. Typically, something happens - it could be anything from a dream to a bad harvest, to a car accident, to an illness in the family - and the evidence just sort of piles up. People sort of start seeing links between the arrival of someone and the arrival of these bad actions or events."

In many cases, a diviner or camp chief decides whether or not someone is guilty of practicing witchcraft.

"Both the accuser and the woman who is being accused would come before him, each of them holding a chicken," she says. "The accuser would make her accusation that she felt that this woman was trying to attack her and they would slit the throat of the chicken and throw it up in the air. And depending on how it landed, that either confirmed the accuser story or denied it. They would do the same with the woman who was defending herself. She would basically say 'If I am not guilty, let my chicken die with its beak in the sky. If I am guilty, let it die with its beak in the ground.' And that would sort of decide it." In 'Spellbound: Inside West Africa's Witch Camps,' author Karen Palmer explores the destiny of women accused of committing supernatural crimes.

In 'Spellbound: Inside West Africa's Witch Camps,' author Karen Palmer explores the destiny of women accused of committing supernatural crimes.

In Spellbound, Palmer describes conditions inside the witch camp and details how the women there are exploited. She says it looks like a dumping ground for difficult women who live in poverty under the watchful eye of the local chief.

"He is called the Gambarana," she says. "He was seen as a very powerful wizard. He can decide whether the woman was a witch or not. The longer I stayed there, the more I realized that he very rarely ever finds that a woman is innocent. In fact, he charges them to stay in his village. He kind of looks out for them. So if they need anything, they go to him. He uses them almost like a labor force. He can rent them out to plant and to weed and to harvest. That's sort of how they pay the rent to him. When the family comes to retrieve them, to actually take them back home, he charges the family. The rates vary depending on how much the family could pay."

Practicing black magic

While the majority of the accused witches Palmer interviewed said they were innocent, some admitted practicing black magic to hurt or protect others. Women in witch camp are often rented out by the chief to do menial or field labor.

Women in witch camp are often rented out by the chief to do menial or field labor.

"I interviewed a woman who said, 'Yes, I did exactly what they accused me of. I was trying to kill that girl,' she says. "After I interviewed her, I met a woman who said she was desperate to get rid of her witchcraft. Then I met a woman who told me that, in fact, she was really afraid for her children and her own family. Her husband had a drinking problem and she felt he had been bewitched. So she went out and collected up a sheep, some clothes and some money and went to a witchdoctor and bought witchcraft."

Palmer notes that although people in West Africa fear witches and severely punish women who they believe practice witchcraft, superstitions remain among the prime movers of daily life, especially in rural areas. In the book, she writes of Simon, a social worker, and his wife, who wanted to have another child. They decided to invite a witch doctor to perform a ceremony to clear whatever blockage was preventing them from conceiving.

Relying on witchcraft

"This man arrived with what he called his 'spiritual AK47,'" she says. "It was a gun he used to capture witches. It looked like a goose, it was all covered in feathers and ringed with red and had a silver plug at the end. He came in and they slaughtered about six chickens and depending on how they landed was depending on whether the ancestors could support getting rid of this spiritual block. And there was a lot of mention of God actually in the ceremony. At the end of it all they slaughtered one final chick and they poured blood on a sheep. Evelyn, who was Simon's wife, was told to drink this particular concoction for three months and then she would have a baby girl. After this ceremony was all over, they went to church."

Simon's wife did not get pregnant. She got sick instead. But such incidents, Palmer says, don't sway other villagers from a deep belief in witchcraft. She found it gives them comfort in times of distress, a way of explaining a crippling drought or the loss of a child.

"I initially went into this project thinking that what would really help here is if people see witchcraft less in their life," she says. "So if they have fewer reasons to believe someone is out to hurt them - fewer illnesses, better access to medicine, better understanding of why dirty water can't be drunk, access to certain medical services - that would help them live easier lives."

Palmer believes improved services would enhance life in these villages, helping to erase people's deep belief in - and fear of - witchcraft. When that happens, she says, there will be no need to accuse innocent women and send them away to witch camps.

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