In multiple African countries witchcraft is perceived with a negative connotation. Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Angola, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic all have communities which strongly believe in the evils of shamanism, wicca, voodoo, and paganism. Once a woman or girl is believed to be a witch, she is persecuted in an attempt to preserve the safety and purity of the community.

Witches in Exile, a 2013 photographic exhibition by Ann-Christine Woerh, has refocused attention on the conversation on the abuse and exile of women following accusations of witchcraft. Woerh’s exhibition presents captivating portraits of alleged witches, showing everyday women – many of them elderly- who have been dehumanized by their communities.

witches of gambaga

Co-produced by Ghanaian filmmaker/writer Yaba Badoe and Nigerian feminist academic Amina Mama, The Witches of Gambaga is a 2010 documentary film, which tells the painful story of women who live in witch camps located in Northern Ghana. The Witches of Gambaga shares the story of women like Amina Wumbala who fled to Gambaga after being accused of causing her brother’s death following a dispute between his wife and Amina.

Formerly the vibrant capital of Ghana’s Northern Region, and regarded as the national Islamic center, Gambaga has now become one of the poorest parts of Ghana. Yaba Badoe reports that prior to the installment of the first Imam (chief) of Gambaga, it was customary to execute women accused of witchcraft. When the Imam saved the life of a woman who faced execution, the mosque soon became a refuge for other alleged witches. Now managed by the paramount chief, the Gambarrana, women pay to stay and leave the witch camp of Gambaga, which is said to home over 1,000 alleged witches. It is believed that the Chief protects the women and outsiders from the harm of witchcraft.

Women who live in the ‘witch camps’ find refuge from discrimination, threats, and mob justice practiced against witches. Reports of the abuse that alleged witches face are heartbreaking. One woman, a mother of three, was beaten and set afire for causing a child’s illness. Headlines were made in 2010 when a 72-year-old woman was also set on fire and killed.

Accusations of witchcraft are often stimulated by incidences of sickness, natural disasters, disputes, or even superstitious coincidences. Professor Dzodzi Tsikata of the University of Ghana in development sociology explains, “Witchcraft accusations are thought of as mostly to do with traditional and ‘backwards’ beliefs, but they are an integral part of belief in religion. Most religions believe in good and evil. The main issue is how people respond to this belief in witchcraft. It is to do with the way that society copes when misfortune hits – whether it is ill health, an accident, loss of jobs or property. When people do not have a rational explanation for this they tend to use the supernatural to show that someone somewhere is responsible for this misfortune and to find a way of removing this person so they are no longer able to harm them.”

Yaba Badoe further illustrates the cultural significance and gender implications of attitudes towards witchcraft in a reflective article:

“In my investigations on witchcraft in Gambaga, only one woman… was prepared to discuss what she knew about witchcraft beliefs with me… It was as if revealing any knowledge on the subject would suggest that a woman was a practitioner, implicating her in the dark art. A town elder, Alhaji Issaku, regaled me for a full hour on how, when men are witches they use their art for benign, protective purposes while women, because of their nature, always use it to execute evil deeds. It seemed heartbreaking that men are able to describe and articulate ideas about witchcraft, defining who is and is not a witch, while for the most part women are silenced by it.

…Alhaji Issaku … revealed that a witch will never confess to witchcraft and that witchcraft can never be eradicated from a woman, it can only be suppressed; he described how a cantankerous nature, bearing grudges and manifestations of male pride in a woman are all signs that a woman may be a witch… After he’d told me all these things, he mentioned in passing that if I wanted, and if I brought him a bat and a cat, he would gladly turn me into a witch.

I declined his offer.”

The lack of recognition or treatment for mental health issues also plays a role in witchcraft accusations. Interviewed by ActionAid, Dr Akwesi Osei, chief psychiatrist in the Ghana Health Service and medical director at Accra Psychiatric Hospital, explains, “In traditional communities, there isn’t an understanding of depression or schizophrenia. If someone is behaving strangely they may be accused and even confess all kinds of crimes. In the camps you are likely to see a number of women suffering from dementia or depression.”

In 2011, the Ghanaian government announced its plans to eradicate its witch camps by 2012. Residents of the witch camps have been reluctant to support this, unless the government offers a comparative alternative. With prejudices against alleged women remaining, and the camps still offer much-needed haven from the danger of outside communities. To address the challenge of the abuse that alleged witches face, researchers and expert recommend a comprehensive program of reintegration, and a detailed roadmap in consultation for the disbanding of witch camps.

by Sharon Obuobi

What makes a woman a witch? – Yaba Badoe
Review: The Witches of Gambaga, Sokari Ekine
Representing Witches in contemporary Ghana: challenges and reflections on making the ‘Witches of Gambaga’- Yaba Badoe