Content warning: Graphic depictions of violence
TAMALE, Ghana – The number of people murdered in “witch-hunts” continues to rise in developing nations, drawing the global attention of human rights groups. Some of the increase has been attributed to the pandemic, as TWH recently reported.
The recent murder of 90-year-old, Akua Denteh has drawn international outrage. Dentah was accused of being a “witch” by a local fetish priest or traditional priestess and was subsequently beaten to death in the village of Kafaba near Salaga in northern Ghana. Video of her violent death was posted online.
According to the most recent reports, Dentah was one of 18 women who were identified by self-proclaimed “witch hunter,” Hajia Filipina who had been brought in by some of the villagers to discover who was responsible for the lack of rainfall, which they believed was being caused by “witches.” 17 of women “confessed” to being “witches” after being beaten and tortured in hopes of surviving the abuse. Dentah refused to say she was “witch,” and as a result was beaten until she was dead.
The only thing exceptional about Dentah’s murder is the amount of international attention it has garnered, as these types of killings have been occurring with alarming regularity. Within a few days of her murder The Global Action for Women Empowerment, Women’s Wing of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) in the USA, Hajia Zuwera Ibrahimah, the NDC Parliamentary Candidate for Salaga South Constituency, Collins Owusu Amankwah, a Member of Parliament for Manhyia North, and other Civil Society Organizations have all released statements demanding immediate action be taken to prevent similar deaths.
Ghanaian journalist, Elizabeth Akua Ohene writing for Graphic Online lays out in stark detail how the problem of “witch-hunts” is systemic within the culture of Ghana.
Let us be brutally frank here. It wasn’t just the villages of Kafaba who were acting out the macabre scene. I have seen on the front page of a national newspaper in this country, the photograph of a half-naked, elderly woman who looked disoriented to my eyes, and she was captioned as a witch who had been found in someone’s room and had fallen through a roof!
Nobody complained, nobody lodged a complaint with the National Media Commission (NMC).
Ohene continues to outline the ideology that is embedded within nearly all aspects of the culture that fuel such public murders, and illustrates that no woman, especially those who are poor and elderly, is safe:
In this country, if you are female, poor and old, you are an immediate candidate to be labelled a witch.
It is not only in our villages and very rural parts that we see played out in everyday life this belief in witchcraft and labelling of old women as witches.
Under the cloak of culture and tradition, poor, old women are regularly called witches.
To be an old woman in this country is to be at risk, and there is no hiding place from any part of our society when it comes to those who would see you as a witch.
More than half the class of our brightest young people, medical students, say they believe in witchcraft, and I suspect a fair percentage of the medical doctors are also willing to see a witch in an old woman.
Priests believe in witchcraft, policemen believe in witchcraft, teachers believe in witchcraft, journalists believe in witchcraft, every time anyone is going through a difficult phase, witches are the reason.
Whereas if you had a Black American child you could train him to be extra careful when he is near a white policeman, there is no such identifiable source of danger to warn an old Ghanaian woman to avoid.
Had Dentah survived, she may very well have ended up in one of the four remaining “witch camps” in Ghana. The “witch camps” were designed as places of refuge to protect the women who have been accused by their neighbors of being “witches” or practicing “witchcraft.”
Even women who have families that comprise male relatives will still choose to go to a “witch camp” rather than risk the safety of other family members.
The risk is profound. It is not unusual for an entire homestead to be set ablaze while the family is sleeping. Women will sometimes bring their children with them to the camps since they might also be accused and are even more vulnerable.
Some of the “witch camps” have been in operation for several decades. At one point, there were six known camps: Bonyasi, Gambaga, Gnani, Kpatinga, Kukuo, and Nabuli, with a population of the combined camps around 1,000 people, mostly women.
In 2014, various rights organizations felt the camps were dehumanizing, and the women should be integrated back into normal life and society. In response, the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection began the process to shut down the camps, starting with the Bonyasi camp in the Gonja district in what is now the Savannah region.
The process to shut down all the camps was later halted after concerns were raised by national and international organizations and as well as prominent individuals who asked where these women would go. Most feared returning to their villages would only lead to more abuse and possibly death.
Indeed, many of those who ended up in camps never saw any action taken against their abusers, making it likely they would return to attack the women again.
The Nabuli “witch camp” in the Gushegu municipality in the Northern region was shut down last year. The remaining four “witch camps” continue to receive women and their children seeking shelter and safety from being murdered. The number of women housed within these camps is believed to be around 200, many also have their children and grandchildren with them.
The Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) coordinating with other civil society organizations and religious organizations has been working to see the camps closed. However, there is still the question of what will happen to the women and what kind of safety there will be for them if the State does not take serious steps to see that their attackers are prosecuted, and an even stronger effort to educate citizens to prevent further “witch-hunts.”
Strong public comments from authorities like the former Ghana High Commissioner to India, Sam Pee Yalley, who has demanded all camps be immediately closed and is in favor of such matters of abuse being addressed by the courts.
“Government should close all witch camps now. It is not the time to go there and feed them, no no no. It is time to take a decision. Nobody has any right to open a witch camp in this country. The district assembly must be empowered to make sure all those operating witch camps are brought to book. It is shameful,” Yalley said.
Yalley continued, “If a citizen commits an offence, the best place to seek justice is the court and not taking the law into your own hands. I went to my home town and heard they have banished a whole family from the community. This is a bad practice, a bad practice that this country can no longer tolerate.”
Rev. Dr. Opoku Onyina, the former chairman of the Pentecostal Council believes the camps are the only thing keeping accused women alive. The camps shelter the women from likely murder.
“We have a very wrong perception about the witches’ camp. When I did my research I realized that it is rather this camp that serves as shelter for these old women. Because in the past, killing of these old women was very prevalent in the North. When we destroy this camp we can’t help but experience more of such killings,” Onyina said in an interview.
Angela Dwamena-Aboagye, an attorney and gender rights activist wants to see changes in Ghana’s laws.
“It is time to call on the National House of Chiefs to take up that particular project again because Article 26 (2) says that any cultural practice that harms another person, that affects the welfare of another person is prohibited,” Dwamena-Aboagye said.
Dwamena-Aboagye also believes that it will take incorporating advocacy groups and local communities , as well as governmental institutions all working together is the only effective way to bring about lasting change.
“This is the kind of thing that you can only tackle from a number of sectors and positions.
“You need a very strong combination of research, advocacy, community action, and state action working together and over a long period of time to dismantle these notions within the community. To get people to understand it, it may take 10 to 15 years, that’s okay,” Dwamena-Aboagye stated.