The government of Ghana has announced plans to close down the ‘witch’ camps in the northern part of the country. The Minister for Gender, Children and Social Protection, Nana Oye Lithur stated this recently while inaugurating a committee with a mandate to eradicate witchcraft in the northern region. The minister pledged to support victims of witchcraft accusation through the Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP) and get them to register with the state health insurance scheme. The Minister stated that the support and empowerment scheme would enable victims to “flee(sic) their minds from the act.”. Nana Oye Lithur did not really explain what she meant by “the act”.
This is not the first time the government of Ghana has proposed closing the witch camps as a measure to eradicate witchcraft-related abuse in the country. In 2011, the Deputy Minister for Women and Children’s Affairs Hajia Hawawu Boya Gariba announced plans to close down the camps and reintegrate the victims with their families. She described the existence and operation of a witch camp as ‘an indictment on the conscience of the society’. These declarations are not unconnected with pressures on state authorities.
The government of Ghana has recently been under local and international pressure from human rights groups and development agencies to take action against witch hunting. There have been reports on the inhumane and degrading conditions in these camps, including cases of abuse and exploitation of the victims by camp managers, local chiefs and priests. Apparently the government of Ghana is acting under pressure to redeem its image and its human rights record. It wants to be seen doing something to address this embarrassing situation. But is closing down the ‘witch’ camps the way to react to the pressures? Is shutting down these ‘refuge centers’ an effective way of tackling this vicious phenomenon? Is eradicating witch camps tantamount to eradicating witchcraft? I do not think so. And these are my reasons:
Witch camps are not the cause of witch hunting but the consequence. Witch camps are actually at the tail end of an abusive process that starts with the families and communities and are then processed by soothsayers, chiefs and priests. They are mechanisms for containing and taming the terror of witch attack and persecution in a society where witchcraft is popularly believed to be a real crime punishable by death. Witch camps are refuge spaces and safety nets for these victims. Without these camps, most victims of these accusations would have been lynched or murdered by their accusers; most of the people in these camps would be dead by now. Closing down these ‘safety nets’ and sending the victims back to their families is literally handing them over to their accusers to be killed. Eradicating witch-hunts in Ghana by closing down the witch camps is clearly a step in the wrong direction. It is a clear sign that the government is out of touch with the reality of this situation. In fact, state authorities will actually be adding to the problem if it goes ahead with this plan. If the government is serious about combating witch hunting in the country, it should first of all focus on addressing the cause, not the ‘container’ of the disease. It should put in place public education and enlightenment programs in communities that can effect a mental and cultural paradigm shift. Witch camps came into existence as a consequence of the witchcraft mentality in the region. The government should give priority to changing the mentality of the people over shutting down the refuge space for victims.
Ghanaians need to abandon mistaken notions and irrational beliefs associated witchcraft and magical interpretation of evil and misfortune. They need to re-think the idea that people in witch camps actually engage in the ‘act’ of witchcraft as the minister implied in her statement. Particularly, Ghanaians need to abandon this notion that people can kill others spiritually and begin to come to terms with the fact that death is a natural occurrence. Part of this program should be devoted to getting Ghanaians to abandon this notion that dreams are ways the gods reveal the witches in the family or community. The government should consider organizing skill acquisition schemes for soothsayers and local priests. These occult entrepreneurs are mainly responsible for charging and recharging beliefs in witchcraft and magic in northern Ghana. Abolishing the witch camps is not the solution. It is the witchcraft mentality that brought the witch camps into existence. So, if the government of Ghana is really committed to abolishing the witch camps, it should first of all tackle the witchcraft mentality. If Ghanaians abandon the witchcraft mentality, the witch camps will simply fade away.
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.