Witchcraft really does exist in Africa. It is part of everyday life. These quotes from a BBC Forum Board on whether witchcraft is alive, says it all:
“These guys exist and one shouldn't underestimate their capabilities. Most influential people in our society visit witches in darkness or during the wee hours for consultation or treatment. Whether a born again Christian or strong Muslim believer, you can't dismiss witchcraft.”
“Is witchcraft alive in Africa begs for the answer: Is the Pope a Catholic?”
“Witchcraft is very very strong, more than 90%. And with 60% illiteracy and more than 60% unemployment, what hope is there for the future of the northern half of Africa”
“Witchcraft is absolutely vital in African society. It shapes our norms, values and tradition. We should not allow the negative effect of witchcraft and forget the enormous positive ones. This is a tradition of our back ground and no-one should shy away from it because negativity of it has been echoed in London or other parts of the world.”
Not all villages are run as a ‘safe haven’ unfortunately; a couple of them are no more than glorified prison camps. In some of these communities, the women are being sexually and financially abused by the chief, and essentially act as his slave. This practise sadly also extends to any children that may have been banished along with grandmothers as ‘helpers’. There is a stigma attached to being a relative of a witch and these children are being disadvantaged for the rest of their lives. Charity organisations are trying to help, but are being severely hindered by corruption. The surrounding communities are unwilling to accept their neighbours and the authority cannot be seen to provide better services for the witches than the rest of the village. Hence most of the money donated to assist the witches villages, tends to ‘go astray’.
The word fetish is derived from the French fétiche; ("to make"). A fetish (in this context) is (usually) a man-made object believed to have supernatural powers, or power over others. The fetish in Gnani has such strong powers that it can destroy the force in any witches who even just be passing through the village. Blood is considered a particularly powerful ingredient in fetishes.
As is customary everywhere in rural Ghana, you need to greet the chief and gain permission before entering the village. You cannot speak directly to the chief, so during our very interesting question and answer session, we would ask Noah to ask his translator who would ask the chief’s assistant who would ask the chief! Confused? You soon will be. One of the most surreal things about the whole experience what not just the whole witch-scenario, it was the fact that our linguist was a young man from the Catholic Church next door!
Although the Catholic Church and the Witches village co-exist peacefully in Gnani, this is not always the case in other villages. Often the witches challenge the priests, and ministers have been driven out or even killed.
When an alleged witch initially arrives in the village, a ceremony takes place in which a chicken is sacrificed and blood given to the shrine. The bird is thrown towards the ground and the way it lands holds the key to the person’s guilt. Should the hen land on its belly, you are considered guilty of witchcraft. Not that it appears to make a whole lot of difference, as few people who arrive here, ever leave again. They are too afraid to go back to their own village for fear of retributions. This is no fair trial.
560 witches live in Gnani and arrive at the rate of four or five a week. Some come with their families, although most of them are women between the ages of 40 and 70 years. Often the family will return on a regular basis to help feed and care for the witch, other times they totally disown them.
Witchcraft is something that usually happens during a period of your life when you are experiencing problems and you need some extra strength. A few people are born with it, and may not even know that they are possessed by evil spirits. Others are born with the curse through family ‘inheritance’. Then there are the cruel and lazy people who seek out witchcraft because of jealousy or resentment. Witchcraft is described as ‘the use of certain kinds of alleged supernatural or magical powers.’ In Ghana there are two types of witchcraft: The healer who treats diseases, originally described as "one who diagnoses and cures maladies caused by witches". They consult the spiritual world for their solutions; although they can cause both harm and good if they so wish. Secondly is the evil witch who will cause harm in the community by way of supernatural means. They just destroy.
Unfortunately, the age old tradition of witchcraft is being much abused as a way of ‘disposing of’ elderly relative that the family no longer can afford, or wish to, look after. This is especially true of older women who find themselves widowed. Younger members of the family, who find themselves unable or unwilling to look after her, will seek out a ‘legitimate reason’ to accuse the elderly relative of witchcraft. The death of a child in the village is enough. Once condemned, there is no way back. Even if the woman is found ‘not guilty’ by the traditional trial system (see sacrifice tip below), she is unable to return to her village, as the stigma will still stay with her and her safety could not be guaranteed.
Witches can be men or women (and even children), and although I have been led to believe that there are about 200 men at the village, the vast majority of the witches we saw in Gnani were in fact older women. Not forgetting the most powerful of all the witches in the village – the chief! He has the power to purify the newcomers and destroy the witchcraft in them. Hence none of the inhabitants here are considered a danger with their abilities.
The villagers are given some assistance from charity organisations as well as the Church and Father Josef. They keep goats and chickens and grow soya beans and millet – which they keep for future use in these large granary reserves. They are also able to help out other villages if they have surplus.
If you are interested in knowing more about witchcraft in Ghana, or the plight of women in general or witches in particular, check out these links.
Women in Ghana
Ghana's Witches, scratching where it itches
The Modern Day Witch Hunt
Witches appeal for government intervension
A video was made about Ghani village by National geographic – follow this link if you are interested in seeing more about this fascinating place. You may recognise some if the characters from my photos.