Traditional Beliefs Cost Women Their Freedom
by Franz Vanderpuye
Ghana's Commissioner for Human Rights, Justice Emile Short, is on the warpath again after putting an end to "trokosi," the practice of confining girls and women in shrines to pay for sins committed by their male relatives.
This time Short's attention, and that of other state officials and concerned observers, is focused on northern Ghana, where people branded as "witches" are held captive in special villages for the rest of their lives. Between 200 and 400 girls and women ranging from the ages of eight to 80 live in such settlements outside the town of Gambaga in northern Ghana's Mamprusi East District.
They were found to be witches after being tried by local chiefs on charges such as making their polygamous husbands impotent or causing their co-wives to be barren. Women may also be accused of witchcraft if children contract measles, or when people die from cerebro-spinal meningitis, malaria, yellow fever, epilepsy, or cholera.
Hajia Barichisu Adam, a journalist who hails from the area, explains how the cases are tried: "The chief recites some incantations and ritual songs, strangles a fowl and then throws it into the air. If it falls on its back, the accused is free. If it falls on its face, the accused is indeed a witch."
"In most cases, the accused is guilty," says Adam. She says that she believes the chiefs have ways of throwing the fowls to free or condemn an accused. Those found guilty are confined to a settlement for life, barring the odd exception. One angry soldier recently traveled home from Accra to free his mother from a "soba fonfu" or "kukuo" (home of witches) as these penal colonies are called.
The "kukuo" around Gambaga belongs to the chief, Gambaga-Rana Wuni Yahaya, who calls himself a super wizard and says he has supernatural powers over all witches. "I render them powerless and harmless in my presence," he says. "And I give them a place of refuge to stay until they die." He claims he inherited his powers from his ancestors, who in the 19th century began the practice of confining the women for life.
Communities sometimes go further than imprisonment. During an outbreak of cerebro-spinal meningitis in Ghana in the early part of 1997, two elderly women in the northern district of Kumbugu were beaten to death by the people who accused them of causing the disease.
Justice Short aims to eradicate these abuses. "Witchcraft is not a crime known to our law and no person has the right to take punitive action against anyone suspected of being a witch," he says. The human rights commissioner has asked people to report to the police anyone who beats or imprisons another person because she is alleged to be a witch. He is supported by the other state officials such as Ama Benyiwa-Doe, Deputy Minister of Employment and Social Welfare, who notes that the practice is discriminatory because it is only women who are declared witches.
"It is bad, obnoxious, and a violation of the rights of the women," Benyiwa-Doe said. After a recent visit to one of the villages, she said that the women there looked hungry, sick, and lean. This observation is supported by Hajia Barichisu who says the inmates of the "kukuo" around Gambaga are ill-treated, malnourished, and live in over-crowded compounds. "They are made to work long hours on the chief's farm without payment," she explains.
The general theory making the rounds now is that these "witches" are too old and their upkeep is a problem for their families. Moreover, some believe that the men want an opportunity to get rid of them for younger women. Both theories, however, leave much room for attack. First, it is generally true that one of the fallouts of Ghana's present economic hardship is the erosion of the age-old compact, extended family system that ensures that the aged are cared for by the younger members of the family. This seemingly harsh economic factor has not, however, completely obliterated traditional respect for old age.
Second, with the high illiteracy rate, especially in the rural settings, ignorance of scientific causes of certain ailments and disasters, or even deliberate distortion of facts and situations by certain people for personal ends, makes it possible for certain people in the communities to be picked on and blamed for various calamities, and consequently to be subjected to all forms of maltreatment, intimidation, cruelty, and so forth. This is especially so with women, the aged, and children, who are most vulnerable.
Writing under the heading "Emile Short and the 200 witches" in Ghana's leading daily newspaper, one Santuah Niagah typified the Ghanaian mentality on superstition when he wrote ". . . Justice Short may be a wizard when it comes to law, but if he engages the Gambag in witch warfare, he is certain to escape badly bruised, that is if he escapes at all" (emphasis mine).
This assertion by the writer, purporting to instill fear in the Commissioner for Human Rights and Administrative Justice - and the writer's whole conception of witchcraft and of God - was quite appalling indeed, and creates the impression that the writer believes in witchcraft and actually suffers from its "phobic tendencies." This fear of the "unknown" has actually crippled the minds of Africans, causing them to suffer from an "inferiority complex" and "mental slavery," which causes people to fail to realize their potential, and to attribute all their failures in life to the designs and machinations of witchcraft.
Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, a former Nigerian statesman, once wrote about witchcraft: "Fear causes the African to become superstitious, to believe in ghosts, in witches, in wizards, in palmistry, in horoscopy, in mesmerism, in physiognomy, in fact, in all the 'unknowables' which have chained mankind to mental slavery for ages."
The incidence of witchcraft in Ghana is therefore more of a socio-cultural nature and goes beyond the Gambaga camp, cutting across the entire length and breadth of Ghana. The "Gambaga witch camp" is not an isolated case. For all we know, there may be countless other women (and even men) and children living in various parts of the country under the same or similar circumstances, whose rights have also been violated contrary to Articles 14 and 16 of Ghana's 1992 Constitution. Article 14 says: "Every person has a right to personal liberty." And article 16 says: "No person shall be held in slavery or servitude or be required to perform forced labour."
Freedom of conscience is enshrined in the constitution, therefore no one will have any qualms about whether anyone believes in witchcraft. On the other hand, it is disgusting to allow someone to suffer because another person thinks he or she is a witch or wizard.
Well-meaning people in the society have been adding their voices to call for the practice to be abolished by law. But if freed, the women could still face trouble should their communities be affected once again by an epidemic, unless the beliefs that led to their imprisonment are eradicated.
Franz Vanderpuye is a journalist and humanist activist in Ghana.