Taking Humanist Action to End Witchcraft Accusations in Northern Ghana

Sunrise in Northern Ghana (Photo by Michael Behrens on Unsplash)

I grew up in a devout Christian home in Southern Ghana. My entire community was extremely religious and everyone I knew believed in witchcraft.

No one sat me down and taught me what a witch looks like but it became clear after a while that there were certain qualities that would qualify a person as such. A witch, most of the time, is a woman who is old. The older she is the more powerful and deadly she is assumed to be. And she is usually living in extreme poverty. Most of the women who were said to be witches when I was young had outlived most of their family members, so they did not have anyone to stand up for them and they could barely afford to feed themselves—much less defend themselves from their accusers.

When I began to question my faith, I also started to question other aspects of my culture and society that were not fair towards some members of the society. When you are finally able to put into words the things that have bothered you for so long, things that you were never allowed to question or criticize, there is a huge sense of relief. And when you find a group of people who not only feel the same way as you do but are able to further enlighten you on issues you hadn’t even considered, then you feel you have finally found your place in society.

Becoming a humanist opened my eyes and mind in so many ways to a lot of things that I didn’t even realize I was feeling, and it also revealed to me all the things that were wrong with my society that needed to be fixed and addressed. Joining the Humanist Association of Ghana in 2013 and later the Humanist Service Corps (HSC) volunteering program in 2015 did all those things, but I only truly found my purpose when I started working in one of the camps for women accused of witchcraft in Northern Ghana.

In Ghana, when you think about NGOs and humanitarian work, one might think of white people who come down to Africa to help the poor Africans that live here. And that was what I thought, too, until I went up north with HSC and got a firsthand experience working with a Ghanaian nonprofit led by Ghanaians. HSC is a humanist volunteer program that aims to do nonprofit work in an ethical way. That means we were there to support a Ghanaian nonprofit in whatever capacity they deemed fit. It was refreshing to see Ghanaians like me take up the mantle in bringing humanitarian aid to our people. I realized that I wanted to be a part of this change, to be a Ghanaian who cares about doing nonprofit work not because it is a job, but because I actually care about helping people.

HSC supported our local partner nonprofits in their work bringing humanitarian aid to women who had been accused of witchcraft and banished to live the rest of their lives in ”witch camps.”

In the Northern region of Ghana, being accused of witchcraft under any circumstance—as a woman—is very dangerous. Before the existence of witch camps, accused women were put at the mercy of angry mobs which would likely include their neighbors, friends, and even family members. Suspected witches were stoned or burnt alive.

Although the camps are a refuge from violence and death for women who are accused, life in the camps is not easy. Women in the camps live in poor conditions with little access to water and food.

There are currently six witch camps spread out through the region and there are over 1,000 women and about 400 children living in them. These children were sent to live in the camps to serve older accused relatives who are unable to take care of themselves due to old age. These children spend their lives in servitude with little or no access to formal education and they are usually unable to leave the camps due to the stigma that comes from living with accused women.

My job was to interview the women living in the Kukuo witch camp so we could have records of each woman’s story. I heard 113 accounts of misogyny and abuse.  All of the women had been accused of using supernatural powers to harm others in various ways such as causing accidents and even causing plagues and famine.

One woman I spoke to was accused of causing her co-wife to be barren. Another was accused of causing a family member’s poor performance in school. Another was accused of causing the electrocution and death of a young boy when an electric pole fell during a storm. And another was accused of causing the illness of a community member by feeding her food in dreams.

All of these women were forced to confess to their crimes through intimidation and fear of violence.

A majority of the women living in the six camps will live the rest of their lives imprisoned there. They will die in the camps and be buried in the camps. And then another woman will arrive to live in their huts and continue the cycle.

How do we solve such a sensitive issue in an ethical way? As much as I may want to, I cannot simply tell people that witchcraft does not exist. I would not be able to achieve much by telling people what they can or cannot believe in. In fact, doing that would make an already dangerous situation even more dangerous for the women living in these communities. How do we prevent future accusations? How do we stop feeding the camps and protect women from violent attacks?

I asked myself these questions for years and through them, Humanist Action Ghana, a women’s rights nonprofit was born.

Our mission is to end witchcraft accusations and poverty in low income, low education communities in Northern Ghana where cases of witchcraft accusations are common. We do this by economically empowering women who are at high risk of accusation through vocational training programs that teach them skills and provide the tools they need to set up their own businesses.

When these women become financially stable, the chance of them being accused is lowered and they are able to defend themselves against potential accusers. They are able to provide better educational opportunities for their children and family members which will in turn curb other negative social issues such as teenage pregnancies, child marriage, and, eventually, change the way people in these communities view incidents they  would previously have seen as supernatural events.

Our work is not easy and its impacts are long term, but our motivation is still strong because each year that more women are banished to the witch camps, there is a greater need for intervention and a long lasting solution.

We need help from the humanist community to create awareness for our work and to donate towards our program to train more women to become economically stable so that they can grow old in dignity and security.

To learn more about the work of Humanist Action Ghana and to donate, visit humanistactionghana.org.