Inside West Africa’s Witch Camps

A journalist explores the plight of forgotten Ghanaian women labeled as witches.

Some women at the witch camp tend to lose track of time, having been there for decades.

The Halloween season abounds with witches and goblins and ghosts. While many children and adults put on costumes and pretend to be witches, a new book reminds readers that there are still people living in a world haunted by witchcraft.

In “Spellbound: Inside West Africa’s Witch Camps,” Karen Palmer explores the destiny of women accused of committing supernatural crimes. She also examines the paradox of why people there rely on witchcraft, even as they fear it. Gambaga, in northern Ghana, is a small, remote village where one of the country’s six witch camps is located.

Witch camps

More than 3,000 accused witches, mostly women, live in Ghana’s six witch camps in unenviable conditions. They are not prisoners, exactly, but they can’t leave. Palmer, a journalist, first learned about these witches in exile from a 2004 human rights report. Three years ago, curiosity prompted her to investigate one of the camps in northern Ghana.

“We went up to this witch camp, which is an 18, 20-hour drive from the capital Accra,” she said. “I was really quite surprised. I had all these visions in my head of Macbeth kind of witches, the Disney kind of witches. And in fact, what we found was a very small and remote village, made mostly of mud huts and a collection of about 200 women who were left to live there on their own.”

For the next two years, Palmer interviewed dozens of the women to learn how they ended up there. Camp chief Gambarana is believed to be a powerful wizard capable of discerning whether or not a woman is a witch.

“A lot of women said, ‘I don’t know why I’m here,’” she says. “One of the women I spoke to when I was there, she was probably in her 80s. She kind of lost track of how long she had been there, but perhaps for 40 years. And what had happened to her was that one morning her nephew had woken up and basically said he had seen her in his dream and she was trying to strangle him. It was enough for her brother to accuse her of witch craft. Typically, something happens – it could be anything from a dream to a bad harvest, to a car accident, to an illness in the family – and the evidence just sort of piles up. People sort of start seeing links between the arrival of someone and the arrival of these bad actions or events.”

In many cases, a diviner or camp chief decides whether or not someone is guilty of practicing witchcraft.

“Both the accuser and the woman who is being accused would come before him, each of them holding a chicken,” she says. “The accuser would make her accusation that she felt that this woman was trying to attack her and they would slit the throat of the chicken and throw it up in the air. And depending on how it landed, that either confirmed the accuser story or denied it. They would do the same with the woman who was defending herself. She would basically say ‘If I am not guilty, let my chicken die with its beak in the sky. If I am guilty, let it die with its beak in the ground.’ And that would sort of decide it.”

In ‘Spellbound: Inside West Africa’s Witch Camps,’ author Karen Palmer explores the destiny of women accused of committing supernatural crimes.

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