Witchcraft suspicion is ubiquitous in Ghana, a deeply pervasive social reality simmering under the social surface. An unexpected death, sudden disease or misfortune trigger suspicions. Suspicion murmurs into accusation. Accusations can justify exile or death at the hands of a mob.
Suspicion of witchcraft can touch men as well as women, the very old and even children can be branded witches. Witchcraft accusation and resulting execution occurs in rural and urban areas, on the streets, in the market places, on farms and in offices. Schools and colleges are not immune, teachers and students accuse and are accused.
No one is above suspicion of practicing malevolent magic. But witchcraft accusation has dreadful consequences. It is a stigma that socially discredits the accused. A witch is a criminal, a destroyer of life and property, a bloodthirsty murderer who kills others through mysterious spiritual means. A witch is seen as conniving and dangerous.
Witchcraft "Spoils your name." Witchcraft shames and disgraces the accused and even the family of the accused. Accusation stains the reputation of all it touches. The accused are forced to flee their homes, forced into witch camps or killed. The whisper of accusation strikes fear of ruin and death.
In 2012, a 17 year old girl was forced to leave school and then was banished to a witch camp in Gambaga following an accusation The girl was intelligent excelling in her tests and examinations, but she was accused of "Stealing other students’ brains" with witchcraft and spells. It took the intervention of the Ghanaian Deputy Minister for Women and Children Affairs for the girl to be released from the witch camp and returned to her family.
The future of another teenage girl, Roda, in Nalerigu, in the Northern Region of Ghana is hanging in the balance at this writing. She is accused of bewitching the school prefect and preventing him from taking this year’s Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE). She is in junior high school and was to graduate in the coming year.
Last December the school prefect, a senior, punished Roda and out of anger she told the boy that he would not write this year’s BECE. Seven months later, a few weeks before the examination, the school prefect took ill. He could not see properly and could not sit for the BECE. The school prefect was rushed to a nearby hospital, the Baptist Medical Centre, where he received some treatment.
Roda was branded a witch. She was accused of being responsible for the illness, of making the boy blind through witchcraft. The matter was reported to the headmaster of the school who urged Roda to ‘forgive’ the school prefect and to undo whatever witchcraft she used on him. But Roda was crying and repeatedly said that she did not know anything about the sickness; that she never did anything to the prefect apart from the threat she issued. But nobody believed her.
The matter was taken to the chief of Nalerigu where the school was located but the chief referred the matter to the chief of Gambaga, known as the Gambarana. The Gambarana is not only the traditional political head of Gambaga but also the spiritual head. He performs rituals to confirm or cleanse accused persons of witchcraft. He is the custodian of the Gambaga ‘witch’ camp.
According to Roda, after listening to their stories the Gambarana decided, Roda may be a witch and she may have used witchcraft. But instead of performing a ritual to confirm if Roda was actually a witch. He had her returned to the chief of Nalerigu to resolve the matter.
The community was now sure that Roda was a witch, and that she made the school prefect blind. Many people suspected that she got the ‘witchcraft’ she used on the school prefect from her father. But her father denied knowing anything about the sickness or giving any ‘juju’ to his daughter.
I visited the prefect at the hospital and noticed that he was not blind as had been rumored but was not seeing properly either. He could see and identify human beings but could not properly see or read words and sentences typed or written on a book or paper. According medical officials at the hospital, the school prefect had a heart problem; the boy's heart was failing. And due to the heart condition, the body organs including the eyes were not functioning properly. They said there was nothing wrong with the eyes. If the heart condition were rectified, the vision would be restored.
This medical center has limited facilities to diagnose and treat heart related problems so there are plans to refer him to hospitals with better equipment and specialists in Kumasi or Accra for a second opinion. The family of the boy is poor and needs financial assistance to carry out further medical examination.
Meanwhile Roda has dropped out of school. She is currently staying with her parents in the village. They are worried that she might be harmed due to the witchcraft accusation. It took a lot of negotiation for the parents and the elders in the community to allow me to see and interview her. I was questioned about my mission and cleared by chiefs in two different communities before I was able to meet with her. Finally I was allowed to visit Roda in her village.
Roda said she stopped attending school because she could no longer move and interact freely in the community. In the school and on the streets, people jeered at her calling her a witch. And in the school, students made caricatures of her. Some were afraid of coming close to her. Others attributed any slight scratch or bruise on their body to her ‘witch chopping’ scheme. She said she felt miserable and unsafe because the family and friends of the school prefect were angry with her. They believed she made him ‘blind’ and prevented him from taking the BECE. She and her parents have moved to another village where she is currently staying. But the witchcraft allegation has followed her.
Roda’s parents said following the accusation, they decided to withdraw her from the school so that she could marry, a plan I vehemently opposed. But they worried that it would be difficult to find her another school within the area because of the stigma of witchcraft accusation. Only after persistent persuasion did the parents pledge to send her to the regional capital, Tamale, so that she could continue her education there. I had pressured them into making this promise. In the future I will have to monitor the situation to see if they have fulfilled this pledge.
If efforts are not made to support her, the girl will lose her education to an accusation of witchcraft. She is one of many.
Leo Igwe is a skeptical activist in Nigeria and a former representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. 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.