When the Witches of Gambaga Came to Town

| April 19, 2012

“Men use their witchcraft to protect their homes; Women use theirs to destroy.”

Amina Wumba’s brother struck her. She gathered herself and then struck him back. That was the end of that spat. Oh so she thought. That night, her brother died in his sleep and Amina was accused of being responsible for his death. She had killed him using witchcraft. Amina was taken across the river, beaten, and then left there. What would happen to her after that – no one cared. She had become one of several women condemned as a witch, tortured, and expelled from the only home they had ever known. Her story is one of several retold in the documentary “Witches of Gambaga,” by Yaba Badoe, a Ghanaian film director.

Witches of Gambaga will make you angry, make you cry, make you angry, make you shake your head in disbelief; disbelief at the level of ignorance in some belief systems. Witches of Gambaga will make you angry, make you cry…it’s a rollercoaster of emotions stemming from a story told of the lives of women destroyed in a society where “witchcraft is so strongly believed to such an extent that the misfortune of being born a woman is to be born under a cloud of suspicion.”

GhanaProNet (Ghana Global Professional Network), a professional network of dynamic Ghanaians whose mission is to transform dialog into initiatives, screened the documentary in partnership with the Women’s Information Network (W.I.N.), as part of its networking and launch campaign. The screening was held at Lounge 201 in Washington, DC on Saturday, April 7, 2012.

In a room packed with men and women – many from Africa (and Ghana in particular) – the lights dim and the chatter dies down as the director’s voice begins to narrate the stories of what could best be described as horrible. We saw a story being told of a practice many of us would love to deny exists, except that it’s very true and oh so real. This is not a story told with a twist to solicit sympathy. This is one told in all rawness, so it draws raw emotions. You hear from the women, you hear their pain, their confusion, their yearning to return home to the life they once knew that made sense.

In the northern part of Ghana lies a small village called Gambaga. In the throes of this underdeveloped community lies a place reserved for witches. It is called a refuge in the documentary, although the use of the word “refuge” tends to be subjective based on how you view the facts. The Gambaga witch camp is headed by a male chief who is said to rule with absolute authority over the women. The women are not allowed to leave the camp without his permission, and must pay him for their upkeep. If they arrive at the camp with nothing or little to nothing, then they must pay with manual labor by working on the chief’s farm.

The women in the camp are brought from the various surrounding towns. Many of them are said to be self-confessed witches, but according to Asana, a resident of the camp, a confession was beaten out of her by her own brother who threatened to kill her if she refused to tell the truth about her powers.

Samata was brought to the camp after the daughter of her rival in a polygamous marriage took ill and died. Her witchcraft was determined by the manner in which a chicken died.

Azara, an eight-year resident of the camp, was accused of being a witch when a water-borne disease broke out in her town. She was accused of poisoning the town’s water after the town’s priest said it was revealed to him in a dream. Once a successful trader, Azara now sits in the witch’s camp, stripped of her home, her belongings and her dignity, wondering why God would allow something like this to happen to her.

Life is surely a far-cry from the lives these women once knew, however, for some, they see it as a better deal than having to go back home. And why would they, especially when the odds of being accepted at home are not even something to be bargained. Those who do decide to return home after they have served their time at the camp (after it has been determined that they are somewhat free of their witchcraft spirits) must undergo a final ritual of passage before being released to their towns. Once at home, they must undergo even more rituals and live by strict guidelines. One of the rituals performed at the camp involves slaughtering a chicken. If the chicken dies with its wings upturned then a woman is free to leave and return home. But not before she drinks the special portion believed to prevent her from dabbling in witchcraft again.

The women are treated with anything but humanity when they return home. They are ostracized and forbidden to hang around children, and prevented from going to the market and other public gatherings.

What makes the story of the “Witches of Gambaga” even more revolting is the fact that very little is being done to prevent this wrong and even less is being done to outlaw it. This could be due to the fact that the belief in women and witchcraft is not exclusive to small villages and towns like Gambaga. Witchcraft is a nationally held belief. It is evident in our movies, plays, and everyday conversations. It is preached in churches and explored in the media.

As woman after woman told her story about the accusations, the beatings, and the final trip that would lead her to Gambaga and the beginning of her new life as an indentured slave, it was difficult to hold back the tears and not be so angry. Under what kind of belief system and/or governing system does such an atrocity go unnoticed and unchecked? Why is it that these women have been unable to seek any recourse under the laws and protection of their own state? It reveals the dangers that lurk in the shadows of ignorance and illiteracy.

Not too long ago, the story surfaced of a 72 year-old woman who was burned to death at Tema in Ghana. The burning was the result of an exorcism ritual to rid the woman of witchcraft by a self-proclaimed pastor and his followers. The outrage was not strong enough! Perhaps because the reality that someone would actually still believe so strongly in witchcraft and the power it holds to such an extent to burn a helpless old woman alive was too unbelievable to be true. At a time when the world is so technologically advanced that even witches no longer consider broomsticks their primary mode of transportation, it seems unreal that a camp like Gambaga even exists.

In the discussion that followed the filming, the audience voiced their concerns. Several condemned what they had just seen and many others suggested solutions. However, one was left to ponder, how many of those present, now sickened to their stomachs as they watched the documentary, had themselves once blamed the ache in their stomach on a poor relative minding their own business in a village in Africa?

The number of Africans who believe in the existence and perversity of witchcraft is overwhelming. We were raised to think that any misfortune (even the ones suffered out of our own foolishness and inactions) that befalls us is the work of a higher power – and that those powers can sometimes be our own mothers; yes, the very women who cradled us while we were sick and went without food so we could have a decent meal.

While this documentary pointed to a hidden injustice now brought to light, it also revealed the general level of ignorance many suffer in the Ghanaian society. Change will only come when thought patterns are reformed and education and awareness become the new way of life. A country that is not outraged by such an injustice in its own backyard must examine a lot of things, including how it can produce people who think: “Men use their witchcraft to protect their homes; Women use theirs to destroy.”

I held off writing about this event because I was too angry. I was hoping to be calm by now. Obviously, time can never take away the helplessness I feel as a Ghanaian woman seeing what my fellow women are going through. It begs the question: what can I do? Where do I start? Can I even make a difference? The answers escape me now, but I believe it starts by being aware, then being outraged at this newfound awareness and never letting go of that rage until justice has been served. I can only hope that many who came and saw the documentary also feel the same way. For only then can we band together in one voice and call for action that will be heard and followed through.

Special thanks to Yaba Badoe and her fantastic team for braving the odds and standing up for these women. (View copyrighted pictures of real women living at the Gambaga camp)

“A woman is the mother of a nation. To accuse our women of witchcraft is to spit in the face of all that is motherly, tender, kind and self-sacrificing. When women are victimized, a whole nation is victimized. We are seeing the result in the level of our progress as individual nations and as a continent. What are we going to do about it?” N. Amma Twum-Baah.

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  1. Ghana Voice » When the Witches of Gambaga came to town | October 3, 2013
  1. EKwawu says:

    The United States and Parts of Europe went through some of the same issues in the early part of the century. Its something we have to stop by spreading the word and holding folks accountable. As members of the diaspora, we are able to petition and push for changes. It will not be easy but something we have to do. My take as a male watching the documentary is that the chief gains his wealth by the payments the women’s families make to him monthly and in doing the labor he is unwilling to pay others to do. I felt the same outrage you did. Great Article.

  2. AG Magazine N. Amma says:

    Thanks for your thoughts EKwawu,

    You’re right, the witches of Salem is a good example. However, that was in 1692. It has lost its relevance today.

    I agree with you when you say that as members of the diaspora, we are able to petition and push for change. I just hope that organizations such as GhanaProNet will not become just another living/social organization, but that its members will be seriously united in their efforts to effect positive change back home. I look forward to being a part of this wonderful initiative (GPN)going forward.

    I’m glad you share my outrage. This needs to end!

  3. Yaba Badoe says:

    Great article. I’m so pleased that the film moved you to write it and to start thinking of ways of challenging the terrible injustice of women condemned to live as witches in Ghana. All power to your pen!

  4. AG Magazine N. Amma says:

    Thanks so much for stopping by to read the review, Yaba. Thank you for such an informative documentary on something I had no idea existed. The least I can do is share the horror and hope that people are spurred to action by it.

  5. Laurencia says:

    This is an excellent review and commentary about the documentary. It’s a shame that this is happening at all. This is largely a human rights as well as a mental health issue. There are deeply ingrained negative cultural values that have to be changed. Advocacy would give them a second chance at life.

    • AG Magazine AG Magazine says:

      Thanks Laurencia! Yes indeed, it is a shame and the mentality will do well to change. I can’t believe people think this way.

  6. NanaAma Asare says:

    N. Amma,

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and review of our film screening in this well written article…excellent piece!

    Together, we can create the much needed awareness to combat this ill against women.

    • AG Magazine AG Magazine says:

      Yes we can NanaAma Asare. Thanks for reading and for your positive feedback. It is greatly appreciated.