YENDI, Ghana — Mariama Bawa is a witch.
At least that’s what her family members say. They believe she caused her 25-year-old son to be struck and killed by lightning, so they have sent her here, to the Ngani witches camp in the northern lands of this West Africa country.
A somber, 60-something widow, jarringly dressed in a festive print as she shades herself under a majestic Balboa tree, Bawa tries to explain.
“I am innocent,” she wails. “I was met with trouble. I had nothing to do with it.”
Bawa, according to international relief workers, has been caught in an intensifying human rights abuse that has gone unnoticed for decades. At least 1,000 women — most older widows — have been labeled witches by superstitious villagers and now live in exile at one of the six camps in this region.
They have been blamed for everything from deaths to bad crops. Some are stoned and lynched; others — you might say the lucky ones — have been able to flee their homes and live out their days in these isolated camps. They all have one other thing in common: a perceived lack of value in their communities because they are too old to remarry.
“These vulnerable old ladies are victims of one of the most appalling and most invisible tragedies in the world,” says Angela Mason, special advocate for women and children in crisis for World Vision, an international Christian relief and development organization. They have been “ejected from the only community they have ever known to run like a wounded animal into some desolate, lonely place (where) they wait in vain for someone to show some kindness, some mercy, some compassion.”
A HISTORY OF ABUSE
Segregating widows as witches is embedded in the culture here, where 90 percent of Ghana’s 21 million residents, even the college graduates who live in bustling urban centers, believe in witchcraft.
In the area around the camps, conditions can be more extreme, says sociologist Gabi Waibel, a gender-issues expert who spent five years in Ghana. For example, the literacy rate in this area is just 10 percent, there are few medical facilities, it’s common for people to believe ordinary objects such as trees are inhabited with supernatural powers, and children are raised to believe old wives’ tales: If a witch catches your soul, you are dead.
Cultural traditions, built over countless generations, also make it difficult for the women.
When a woman marries, she moves into her husband’s home. If her husband dies, she moves back with her father. If she’s deemed too old to remarry, she relies on the charity of her brothers and their wives. Often, women flee to the camps after their families mistake mood changes caused by menopause to mean they have become possessed.
That’s what happened six years ago in the village of Mozio, where Hawabu Tarana was accused of “making someone sick.”
Tarana, then a 58-year-old widow and mother of eight, says she was living with her brother and his family when she was sent to a soothsayer. Tarana says the witch doctor, convinced of her guilt, beat her savagely with a stick on her head, arms and back.
Neighbors, she says, joined in the attack, and her family did not come to her aid. Near death after a 30-mile, weeklong walk, Tarana says she arrived at the Gambaga camp, which has sheltered accused witches since the late 18th century. Chief Ganbaraaba, she says, took her in, had her wounds tended to, and sent for Tarana’s children.
Not one has come.
“This is my destiny,” she says, with the jagged, angry gashes still visible all over her body. “My heart was beaten, too. I have constant palpitations.”
Like the other marginalized women, she is free to leave at any time. But to where? Home means probable beating or death.
HOW THE CAMPS WORK
Most witch camps operate under the same basic principles: The chief offers sanctuary but little else, and the woman’s family or a local charity pays for clothes and shelter. Typically, a one-time fee of approximately 100,000 cedis (about $11) for her “residence” must be paid to the chief, who also receives offerings of kola nuts, dried fish and alcohol.
Many of the women also must labor on the chief’s farm. Often that means spinning cotton and collecting firewood. And Mason, of World Vision, says it is not uncommon for chiefs to physically and/or sexually abuse the women.
Tarana says she isn’t bothered by the hardships.
Her home is a dark and claustrophobic sun-baked clay hut. Inside, piles of burlap bags strain against the mud walls. Bed is a bamboo mat.
“Here,” she says, “I have a sense of peace. The chief is good to me. At Gambaga, I am welcome.”
So do the chiefs believe their “guests” are possessed?
“I can’t say. The women are labeled by their neighbors, not me,” explains Musah Fuseisi, the Kpatinga camp overlord. “I feel sorry for them.”
In fact, all six chiefs allow visitors.
Daughters of refugees occasionally live at the camps for months with their mothers. More often, they send their own daughters to their exiled mothers to perform daily chores such as gathering firewood, fetching water and tending tiny plots of maize and spinach.
While Adijah Iddrissu’s doll-like hands busy themselves shelling groundnuts, her large piercing eyes track her grandmother.
At 7, Adijah already has put in a year at Kpatinga.
When Hawa Iddrissu was exiled here from Zori in 1998 “for causing her husband’s younger brother to suffer convulsions for three days,” she was spry enough to fend for herself. Now 75, she needs Adijah’s sturdy little legs to walk to and from the well five times a day and perform other essential tasks.
The two are inseparable, sleeping on the same mat.
Arms gesticulating so animatedly they nearly dislocate the orange and black head scarf covering her close-cropped hair, Iddrissu explains: “I would love to send Adijah to school, but I really need her to work.”
Fifteen of the 45 outcasts at Kpatinga have a granddaughter with them. Like Adijah, none goes to school. What’s worse, many of the girls cannot slide back into their communities after their grandmothers die. To do so means being stigmatized possibly stoned — as punishment for associating with a witch.
They, too, will live out their lives in exile.
AN IMMEDIATE INITIATION
When a woman enters a camp, she immediately is subjected to several rituals to ascertain her demonic powers.
Chief Ganbaraaba, for example, slaughters a guinea fowl. If it flops forward as it dies, the accused is deemed bewitched. If it falls backward, the woman is innocent and she may return home. However, if the accuser is a well-respected member of the community, no amount of backward-flopping fowls can save the accused.
New outcasts, whether “proven” a bona fide witch or not, usually are greeted at camp by a “fetish priest” who hands them a calabash teeming with a mixture. Women at the camp say it is part chicken blood and part “secret” ingredients, ranging from monkey skulls and fresh python heads, to elephant skins and pig privates.
This exorcism cocktail is meant to purge the sinner of evil spirits.
Fatimata Chimsi, who has been at Kpatinga a little over a year, says she has seen women die after downing the vile mixture. She was relieved to have merely suffered violent illness.
The concoction, she says, was proffered shortly after her breathless middle-of-the-night arrival at camp from Karaga. Chimsi’s departure from the only life she’d ever known was hasty because a crowd was preparing to lynch the widow for “killing” an elderly man.
Chimsi, who has runny eyes, a ripped earlobe and, like most of the exiles, an air of tragic grandeur, recites in a sing song voice: “There was no time to take any belongings. My son, who I’d been living with, tied me to his body with a cloth and drove me here on his motorbike.”
At 86, Chimsi is the oldest woman at Kpatinga.
She says the infrequent visits from her son and grandchildren the last occurred four months ago — are all that keep her going.
“I’m lonely and sad, so sad without my family around me.”
WIZARDS AMONG THE WITCHES
Kofe Ali is not as lonely.
Like most of the 20 men in residence at Ngani, the only one of northern Ghana’s six camps to offer sanctuary to “wizards,” he has uprooted his wife to live here with him.
“My wife loves me,” he explains when asked why five years ago she moved to Ngani after he was deemed responsible for the death of his younger brother’s child.
Ali, like many of the others in the camps, says none of his nine brothers or sisters defended him after an uncle’s children demanded he be attacked. The 80-year-old, garbed in a patched beige jacket and blue jeans that hang on his emaciated frame says, “I was beaten terribly.”
Having a woman at hand to cook, do chores and warm his bamboo mat at night has helped reconcile Ali to his situation. Though when the thatched roof of his hut leaks, he longs for what is lost forever.
“At Bincheraya I had a sturdy tin roof,” Ali says. “It was a good roof, a good life.”
Experts say Ali’s lust for the good life had something to do with the black magic accusation.
Living in overcrowded and dismal sanitary conditions can cause neighbors to covet one another’s possessions. If someone with valued goods lacks sufficient social or financial standing to countermand wagging tongues, they are vulnerable.
“What protects you is your economic power and status,” says Janet Mohammed, director of Advocacy and Programs of the Christian Council of Ghana. “If your sons have status, no one will harm you. If you don’t …”
The good news for the “witches” is that the Ghanaian government is ready to help.
“This abuse is a form of violence,” says J.B. Danquah Adu, a member of Parliament and deputy minister of the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs.
In 2002, a locally initiated but widely ignored Anti Witchcraft Allegation Campaign demanded that human rights abuses be treated as a criminal offense.
The Anti-Witchcraft Coalition comprises 51 local nongovernment organizations and focuses on advocacy — distributing posters and making radio and TV commercials. Another coalition intervention involves educating the priests at the camps who perform the rituals. Similar appeals, the advocates say, need to be made to local policemen who frequently share the same beliefs as villagers who ban the women.
“We need to stop denying women basic human rights,” says the deputy minister, who eventually wants to transform the camps into “senior citizen” homes.
Advocates also say micro-enterprise efforts are needed to empower outcasts with loans to start small businesses. With financial security, they say, come options and perhaps the chance to begin over elsewhere.
Obviously, the perfect solution would be to return the outcasts home.
But without proper preparation in the communities, such a move could be tragic because, as Mohammed warns, “the next time someone dies the ‘witch’ can again be blamed.”
THE SUCCESS STORY
Tipaga Abukari is a joyous 75-year-old jumping bean who has found happiness after nine years at Kpatinga camp. She says she fled to the camp after her younger brother claimed she “visited” him in bed at night and threatened to kill him.
Two years ago, after her brother died, the pint-size woman agreed to return to her family on one condition: her son and his family would move with her to another community.
They did, and she now says “there is happiness having my loved ones around me.”
During her time at Kpatinga, Abukari enjoyed the exalted position as “leader of the women” and recently, under the aegis of World Vision, she agreed to visit her still- exiled friends.
At sight of their former leader, the camp’s residents burst into song and dance. Abukari laughed and beamed during the hour-long visit, jumping up and down, continuously exclaiming, “This is a gift from God!”
Then came time to pay her respects to Fuseisi, the camp’s landlord.
“Are you coming back to us?” he asked.
Fuseisi had found the only words capable of stifling the jumping bean.
Abukari’s coal black face paled and she began to wail.
“How can you say that? I pray it will never happen again.”
Next, her suddenly flaccid body flopped to the ground.
“I would prefer being stoned and dying slowly and agonizingly. Force me to return and it is my death sentence. Everything in life is endurable but the hell that is witches camp.”
For more information on NGO programs dedicated to helping the “witches” of Ghana, visit or e-mail Catholic Relief Services (www.crs.org; firstname.lastname@example.org) or World Vision (www.Worldvision.org; email@example.com).