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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.

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Do the chiefs consider their charges to be possessed? "It is their neighbors who accuse them, not me," says Musah Fuseisi, Kpatinga's chief. "The women are to be pitied."

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When an accused witch first arrives at a camp, she is subjected to rituals. "Fetish priests" greet new arrivals with a calabash filled with chicken blood, monkey skulls, and other things. This exorcism cocktail supposedly purges the women of demons. It often causes them to become ill.

A ritual used by a chief at Gambaga camp, which has sheltered outcasts since the 1700s, involves slaughtering a guinea fowl. If it flops forward as it dies, the woman is a sorceress. If it falls backward, the woman is innocent and may return to her community.

There are exceptions, though. The dying fowl fell backward in the case of Adisah Andrews, charged with causing the illness of a relative. The chief declared her innocent, yet she remained suspect. "I returned home to Bindi, but the daughter kept saying I was responsible. The community believed her," she says, dressed in a purple print and chewing a kola nut. But the exile finds some comfort in her new life. "The chief loves me. He will not let me go back unless I am safe."

She echoes the sentiments of most women in the camps – despite the rigorous farm work the chiefs often expect their frail residents to perform. And worse, chiefs sometimes physically or sexually abuse the outcasts, reports Mason of World Vision.

There are a few rays of light, however. For instance, Timaretama, a local nongovernmental group, offers small loans to women in the Gambaga camp so they can start entrepreneurial ventures, such as producing shea butter, which is then exported to companies like The Body Shop. The idea is to help exiles save money and develop skills so they can make a fresh start somewhere else.

Mariama Alidu, one of 20 "witches" exiled four years ago after an outbreak of disease in her village, smiles as she shows off four blue bankbooks filled with deposits and withdrawals. This money allows Ms. Alidu to pay others to do her chores. She misses her family terribly. Yet, she says: "Here, I am a somebody."

Other ventures include a World Vision's program in Kpatinga that oversaw the building of a new well so that the women have uncontaminated water. And the Go Home Project at Gambaga, created by Ghana's Presbyterian Church, has helped 75 women reintegrate into their villages.

By forming women's groups within communities to welcome an outcast, the women receive acceptance and economic opportunities. Without ongoing educational efforts in villages, however, returning an outcast can have sad consequences. "The next time a tragedy occurs the 'witch' can again be blamed," warns Mohammed of the Christian Council of Ghana.

There are no easy answers. Filmmaker Ms. Berg says the place to begin is not so much by combating superstitious beliefs, which exist throughout Africa, "as it is about combating the accusations and violence against women."

A start, says J.B. Danquah Adu, deputy minister of the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, would be passage of a domestic violence bill, which would grant women more protection. "We need to stop denying women basic human rights," she says.

According to Berg, activists and government officials are increasingly holding education conferences with chiefs from villages in the Northern Region.

"The idea is to educate those in powerful positions regarding how to handle witchcraft accusations, so when a dispute arises, the chief can come up with a different way to resolve it other than crying "witch," she says. Educational efforts also need to be directed at local policemen, who frequently share the same beliefs as those who kill or banish the women.

These efforts are promising, but for now, it is still dangerous for exiles to return home. And women still fear being exiled.

Fati Bila lives in a village near one of the camps and visits regularly. She worries that one day she may be accused of being a witch. With arms outstretched toward the sky, the mother of a 5-year-old says, "I will teach my son to be kind to old ladies. I shall tell him, 'One day I will grow old. Do you want me to be called a witch?' "

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