Right now, at least 1,000 women alleged to be witches and 700 children are living in several "witch" camps in northern Ghana. These women came to live in the camps after fleeing their homes to escape lynch mobs. The plight of these women accused of witchcraft was the focus of a September edition of Newsweek and a documentary, The Witches of Gambaga.
According to this report from Digital Journal, authorities in Ghana are planning to send the exiled "witches" back to resettle in their own communities. Hajia Hawawu Boya Gariba, deputy minister for women's and children's affairs in Ghana, says the existence of the camps has become a source of embarrassment to Ghana's government. She says, "This practice has become an indictment on the conscience of our society...The labeling of some of our kinsmen and women as witches and wizards and banishing them into camps where they live in inhuman and deplorable conditions is a violation of their fundamental human rights.
It is not only in Ghana where those accused of witchcraft are banished or maltreated. In the neighboring state of Burkina Faso, hundreds of elderly women accused of witchcraft (called les mangeuses d'ames, or "soul eaters") are also living in camps in the capital Ougadougou after fleeing their homes. In Congo, children accused of witchcraft are forced to live on the streets. They are tortured and maltreated in the name of exorcism. This is also the case in Nigeria and Angola.
The belief in witchcraft is very strong in Africa. Many Africans accuse their neighbors, family, and community members (in most cases women and children) of causing misfortune by using witchcraft, black magic, and supernatural forces. In Malawi and Nigeria, alleged witches have been convicted and jailed despite existing laws against witchcraft accusations in the statute books.
As the Ghanaian minister rightly noted, there is need for massive public education and enlightenment in Africa to teach Africans that witchcraft is superstition and that people engage in witchcraft accusations out of fear and ignorance. To this end, the JREF has decided to work with me and other activists on the continent to execute a public enlightenment campaign in the region and to lobby both African governments and international institutions such as the UN to take measures to stop witch hunts and witchcraft accusations and to protect victims of witchcraft-related abuse.
Leo Igwe is a skeptical activist in Nigeria and a former representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Currently, he is researching African witchcraft accusations at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. He is partnering with the JREF to respond in a more organized and grassroots way to the growing superstitious beliefs about witchcraft throughout the continent of Africa. More details on this collaboration will be announced in the coming weeks.