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In a Ghanaian 'Witch's' Village, Women Live as Exiles

In many parts of Africa, traditional beliefs include the existence both of powers to heal and powers to do harm. In northern Ghana, some women, accused of hurting others through witchcraft, are exiled and come to live together in so-called witches camps.

Seven years ago, Awa Idrissa's heart was broken.

When the son of her husband's second wife died of convulsions, Idrissa was accused by the second wife of killing him through witchcraft. Their shared husband agreed. Ann Birch, of United States-based aid organization Worldvision, recently met Idriss in northern Ghana. She remembers Idriss's words.

"She says that she loved this man," said Birch. "She'd given her life to him. She'd relied on him to bury her. And, here she finds herself thrown out of the family house."

Idrissa - a woman in her 70's who lost eight of her own 11 children - was forced to walk more than 25 kilometers to the only safe haven around: Tinbanzei - Yili camp, a camp for witches.

Every one of the 35 elderly women living in this camp has been accused of being a witch. It is just one of six such camps in northern Ghana. The others are even larger.

Exiled from their homes and their families, each lives with the help of a single young niece or granddaughter.

As the women and their young helpers boil a meager dinner of beans, in iron cauldrons, Birch says the differences between a witch camp and a normal village are readily apparent.

"There is not that vibrancy of a normal village, where people are coming and going and there [are] horses and carts and donkeys and animals," said Birch. "It is just the small buildings and their small cooking areas, which are outside their houses."

Birch says the women all deny being witches. In Idrissa's case, she says the proof is that people in her village still die, even though she has been sent away.

"She laughs when she says it," she said. "For her, I think it is ridiculous that these people continue to to die and yet there she is."

In many communities in Africa, witchcraft and evil spirits are blamed when something goes wrong, unexpectedly. This includes anything from mental illness to sudden deaths and even not enough rain.

There are many forms of traditional medicine said to protect people from these disastrous outcomes. Healers make amulets for people to wear or prescribe sacrifices that supposedly earn them spiritual goodwill.

But here in northern Ghana, there is not much protection for those accused of being responsible for the evil spells.

Worldvision's Birch says there are methods to devine who is a witch.

"For example, they will kill a chicken and depending on how the chicken moves as it is dying and how it falls that can be interpreted, by the people who have the authority to interpret that, and determine whether a woman or a man is a witch or a wizard," said Ann Birch.

But she says many of the women in the witches camp never had the opportunity to have this traditional trial. They were exiled solely on the accusation of a neighbor or family member.

Birch says there are methods said to remove the supposed evil powers from an accused witch. But she says, even once this has been done, many of the women still feel they can never go home. They say they are afraid that, if anyone died, they would be accused again.

Birch's organization has provided better housing, a new well for clean water and a machine to grind grain.

These tools help the women live more comfortably and even earn some money. Now, people from their home villages come to them for drinking water and to use their grain machine.

Birch says Worldvision hopes that this renewed interaction with their former neighbors may eventually help change attitudes towards the women.

But, in the meantime, the women say they have found peace in their community of exiles.

Here, they say, in this community of accused women, there will be no more accusations.

And, they sing together - outcast women from many often-rival ethnicities. Their song says, everyone lives together in harmony.