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.
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.
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."
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?' "