The northern roads of Ghana are dusty and hot. We are in the middle of the dry season, and with every breath I feel like I'm inhaling sandpaper. We are heading towards Gambaga, a small town in the East Mamprusi district, where we are going to visit an infamous camp—one of the six in the area—home to approximately 100 women who have been cast out by their families and communities after being accused of witchcraft.
However, the task isn't as easy as we thought: Nobody is allowed to visit the witches without the permission of the Gambaga Rana, the local chief. We head towards the chief's palace, where we wait and wait.
Finally, a tall man appears and introduces himself as the chief's representative, and explains that he will be escorting us around the village. He assures us that the witches have no powers while they are in the camp. The chief took them all away, and while they live there, they can't hurt people with their magic.
Despite being a mostly Christian and deeply religious country—in 2013, the WIN-Gallup International 'Religion and Atheism Index' has declared Ghana as the most religious country in the world, with 96 percent of its inhabitants declaring themselves as religious—the mixture of beliefs one can come across the country is astonishing. The Northern part gathers an especially colorful mixture of Christians, Muslims and Animists. The spectacle of churches, mosques and sacrificial pagan altars, sometimes all in the same small village, is dizzying.
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What all these have in common, though, is the belief in witchcraft. In Ghana, one can suspect black magic behind every misfortune: death, disease, alcoholism, mental illness (a poorly understood issue), a bad crop, or loss of livestock. Women, from this point of view, are easy targets—especially older ones or widows who are not protected by men anymore, or those who share the same husband.
The witch camp is not as isolated from Gambaga as I expected. It is right in the middle of the town, among the households of the everyday inhabitants of the village. It is not surrounded by a fence, nor is it guarded in any way. It is simply a traditional northern Ghanaian village, a labyrinth of round adobe houses with thatched roofs, the occasional wood hut, guinea fowl, and goats roaming free around the houses.
We are almost immediately spotted by a group of barefoot children, all curious and playful. But aside from them, the village looks empty. It takes a while to start seeing the faces of the famous witches, at first peeking from behind windows and mud fences, then greeting us politely and carrying on with their daily chores. They are shy but agree to be photographed, some of them even offering me a subtle smile. Most of them are older, and some have lived in the witch camp for more than thirty years. They left behind their husbands and brought their children with them. Unlike most women in Africa, they don't have any other males in their lives but the boys they are raising themselves.
The witches' spokesperson, the oldest witch in the village and their leader, meets me with a skeptical look, but agrees to speak to me. From her I learn that in fact they are free to go whenever they like, but that they choose not to (unless their families ask for their return), fearing the reactions of the community: "Our families visit us. And we go home for visits, but we don't remain there. If our people come here, requesting us to come back home, we do. If not, we stay in the camp. Here, we are safe, and we are free."
I want to know more about the ritual through which the chief determines whether a woman is a witch or not. From some other people I have talked to in Gambaga, I know it involves a chicken being thrown up in the air, but nothing more. She avoids the question and tries to change the subject.
But what if, through this mysterious process, it turns out one is not a witch? "Her people will come to the camp and they will beg the chief to let the woman go. And she will be able to go."
I ask her how they make a living there. "The chief feeds us. And people here don't fear us, and so we work for them. We help on the farms, we bring firewood, and we fetch water. The Presbyterian Church also helps. "
Does she consider herself a witch? She hesitates, exchanging glances with our guide, the chief's representative. "If we are here, then we must be witches."
I can't get a straight answer out of her, which is unsurprising, since for the entire time I am in the camp I am not allowed to interact with any of the women without the chief's right hand man being present. And he is in a hurry. He keeps rushing me, limiting my interactions with the women to minutes, even seconds. He shows me the roofs of the huts, and explains that they need to be changed, but that they don't have the necessary funds; then he proudly shows off the camp's entertainment center: a large, empty building, with fans and a TV. "See? They have television!"
Another Gambaga local tries to shine a more pragmatic light on the issue: "Sometimes, a husband takes more wives than he can take care of. Occasionally, the wives don't get along and see the others as obstacles in the way of their children's wellbeing. And so they accuse each other of witchcraft. If somebody in the family or village gets sick, or if someone experiences some type of misfortune, they can accuse their foes of using dark magic, a juju, to cause their bad luck."
There have been several attempts at closing the witch camps in northern Ghana. The latest one took place in December 2014, when the government closed the Bonyasi camp, where more than 50 women were living.
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However, closing down the camps will not eradicate the motivation for sending women there. The women in the labyrinth of mud houses are not prisoners , but hostages tosuperstition, poverty, and lack of education. Despite this, remaining in the witch camp is better than the alternative for many women. As one local tells me: "People are afraid of witches in Ghana, and those accused will no longer be accepted in their villages. They will be hurt if they remain there."