In Ghana, witches are real. At least, enough people believe they are for accusations of sorcery to be a serious thing. The lucky ones wind up in one of the country’s six “witch camps,” where village chieftains offer them safety from persecution, but even those (which hold around 800 women) are hardly idyllic sanctuaries. Here’s what happens when women are branded witches:
A woman is generally accused of witchcraft by her family or neighbors after someone contracts a disease, suffers a tragic death, or, sometimes, just has a bad dream. Awabu, a woman in the Gambaga camp, told us her daughter-in-law called her a witch after she dreamed Awabu was chasing her with a knife. A 2012 survey from the nonprofit ActionAid reported that more than 70 percent of the women in one camp were widows.
Accused witches have no way to prove their innocence, so they are beaten, tortured, banned from their villages, and sometimes lynched or even burned to death.
If they are banished or flee, like Awabu, the women find a way to the camps, some of which were established over 100 years ago. (One, in the village of Gnani, also accommodates male witches, a.k.a. wizards.) Once at the camp, a priest will perform a ceremony to determine a witch’s guilt or innocence by throwing a sacrificed chicken at her feet.
If the chicken lands faceup, the woman is not a witch. If it lands facedown, however, the woman must undergo more rituals, like drinking chicken blood, to exorcise the witchcraft from her body. Either way, she needs to stay in the camp indefinitely under the protection of a village priest.
The huts in many camps are rudimentary and have no running water or electricity. The women strong enough to farm often work on their priest’s land, giving him a portion of the crops they harvest. If they aren’t well enough to work—many suffer from what the Western world would call mental illnesses—they have to survive by begging.
Once they arrive, the vast majority of witches spend the rest of their lives in the camps. In Gambaga, some who had attempted to go back to their former homes returned missing an ear or other valued body part. They are technically free to leave, but in reality are trapped by custom and superstition. The Ghanaian government has sporadically demanded that these camps be shut down, but nothing has come of that rhetoric.
When women in the Gambaga camp die, their families often refuse to take their bodies, so they’re buried in the local cemetery by the Presbyterian church.
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