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Helping 'witches' who live in exile

In Ghana, isolating widows branded as witches is a custom in this superstitious region. A few groups are trying to help, but progress is slow.

By Sherry AmatensteinContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 22, 2006



YENDI, GHANA

A year ago, Fatimata Chimsi was living happily with her son, his wife, and the couple's six children in Karaga, a tiny village in northern Ghana. That is, until the longtime widow was accused of being a witch in late 2004. Furious neighbors insisted that Ms. Chimsi had "killed" an elderly man. Afraid that she might be lynched, she fled in the middle of the night, riding on the back of her son's motorbike. Today, Chimsi resides at the Kpatinga "witches" camp.

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Mournfully rocking back and forth on a bamboo mat in her clay hut, she cries, "If my family wasn't allowed to visit me, I would die from loneliness."

More than 1,000 women live in exile among six camps in this impoverished region. Isolating widows or older women as witches is a deep-rooted custom in this part of the world. Indeed, accusations of witchcraft may be seen as a way to keep women subservient in African society.

But various organizations are trying to help. Some are using education to fight superstitions, while others are offering loans to these women to help them develop skills and earn income.

Empowering young women by giving them a voice and positions of authority can help, says Allison Berg, who spotlighted the problem in her award-winning 2005 documentary "Witches in Exile" (www.witchesinexile.com).

Not all of the accused are killed or banished. In South Africa, for instance, those believed to be witches are simply shunned, according to Janet Mohammed, director of advocacy and programs of the Christian Council of Ghana, which promotes unity among the country's Protestant churches. But in parts of this West African country, where medical facilities are scarce and the literacy rate is 10 percent, superstition runs rampant. According to the BBC World Service, more than 90 percent of Ghana's 21 million citizens fear falling victim to a sorcerer's spell. Even university graduates who have spent time in the United States talk of old women suddenly turning people into fireballs or pulling snakes from people's stomachs.

Women lack value if they are perceived as too old to remarry, Ms. Mohammed says. Often, accusations of witchcraft are made after family or neighbors misinterpret menopausal mood swings to mean a woman is possessed by demons, says Angela Mason, a special advocate for women and children in crisis for World Vision, an international Christian relief organization. Some victims are stoned or lynched. The "lucky" ones are sent, or escape, to "witches" camps.

Like Ms. Chimsi, Hawa Iddrissu arrived at the Kpatinga camp in the middle of the night after a frantic seven-hour journey from her home in Zori. Ms. Iddrissu, exiled eight years ago, was accused of causing her husband's younger brother to suffer convulsions for three days. She denied the charge. "I expected my husband of 15 years to fight for me. All I did was care for the sick boy – I prepared food, cooked, did everything," says Iddrissu, her close-cropped hair covered by an orange and black head scarf.

The boy recovered. But Iddrissu's husband, who had three other wives, did not strenuously object when his wife was exiled from the village by town leaders. Her husband's brother "threatened to burn down our house if I didn't leave," Iddrissu says. She now believes that she was somehow responsible for the younger brother's illness, that she must be demonic.

She also says she feels guilty that her young granddaughter, Adijah, lives at the camp. Adijah helps with tasks that her septuagenarian relative can no longer manage, such as collecting firewood and water from the well five times a day.

Fifteen of the 45 women at Kpatinga have a granddaughter at the camp to help. None of the children attend school. Returning home after their grandmothers die can be dangerous. Their proximity to "evil" causes villagers to be fearful. The girls often are branded as witches by association, and if they return home, they likely will be shunned or banished in turn.

In all six camps in the region, food and shelter for the 1,000 or so women is paid for either by the woman's family or a local charity. A one-time fee of 100,000 cedis (about $11) is paid to the chief at the camp. The chief also receives gifts such as dried fish and alcohol.

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