WITCHCRAFT BELIEFS AND HUMAN RIGHT ISSUES IN MODERN AND TRADITIONAL GHANAIAN SOCIETIES
By Albert K.Awedoba
(Professor at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana)
It is remarkable how prevalent the belief in witches and witchcraft is in our modern societies. Contrary to the belief that the witchcraft mentality is a manifestation of an illogical mind, vestige of traditional mode of thought and an indication of lack of scientific education, witchcraft remains with us in this third millennium. The fear of witchcraft is not restricted to rural communities or to illustrate; it is found all over .It is as much a modern issue as it is traditional .Even committed Christians and urbanities hold firmly to these beliefs and it shows in their attitudes and behaviors. BBC reports about the torture of a 10-year-old Angolan child in London by her guardians who consider her as witch .A report leaked to the BBC Radio 4’s programme (June16th2005) shows children in London being beaten and some even murdered after pastors had labeled them as ‘witches’. The Ghanaian media in particular is so full of accounts relating to witch we just cannot ignore the issue.
A guardian weekly comment on infant witches in some Upper Eastern communities remarks;’…children who were born with disabilities or deformities were believed to be harbouring spirits. The way to determine whether they would bring bad luck to the village was to make them drink a fatally poisonous herbal mixture that, if it killed them, would show that they are possessed’
(http://www.guardianweekly. Co .uk)
The Daily GRAPHIC ISSUE OF January 4th 2007 reports that a 45 year old woman at KWADASO, Kumasi, set fire to a room in which she and three others- her mother, her 14 year old son and a four year old boy, slept. All four perished .She had wished to get even with her mother whom she accused of inflicting illness on her .The culprit was reportedly suffering from several ailments including asthma, diabetes, hypetention and stomach ulcers which she had blamed on her mother.myjoyonline(2008)report a as follows: The mother of Zoyan Teiya ,a resident of Zanerigu in the Talensi- Nabdam district , was accused of being a witch when she was in primary four .The stigmatization and discrimination by her classmates compelled her to move from school to school …she continued to suffer discrimination …until she dropped out of school at the basic school level. At 22, Zoyan was impregnated by a man who later abandoned her when told that she was a witch h (ttp: //www.mtjoyonline. com/news /200804/14926.asp)
The Daily Graphic (February, 3, 2007) reports that Kojo Amoa, a deportee from Spain, killed his wife of 14 years standing because he suspected her to be behind his deportation .I must remark that in this presentation, I am not interested in the question of whether witches exist, and whether they are capable of the feats attributed to them.
What is significant is that many people believe in witches and these beliefs have implications for individuals and communities. Though witches are often seen as culprits who violate the crucial human right to life itself, since they kill and maim, nevertheless, it is the “witch” who is the victim.
Witchcraft beliefs have considerable implications for human rights, which they undermine in most cases. They impinge on a series of rights such as:
· The right of the individual to live fully his/her God given years;
· The right to live in dignity as a bona fide member of the community, as one who does not feel maligned and ashamed to show his face for no reasonable cause;
· The right to be different;
· The right to be different;
· The right to reside where the individual wished;
· The right to work where he/she wishes;
· The right to associate with whoever he or she chooses to associate with;
· The right to treatment and care when sick; and
· The right to have subsistence needs met – food and – nourishment when in need.
These human rights and others like them are affected by the fact that in our societies it is believed that some people are special: they see invisible forces; they fly at night and can commune with animals, etc. These are in short, the witches. There are variations in the cultural perceptions of the witch and witchcraft, but there are also common cultural characteristics. Some witches may be seen as benign and even helpful, such as witchdoctors, but most are perceived to dangerous, especially to their relatives: they are the enemy within. Witches are believed to be perverted – doing outrageous things like practicing cannibalism, and engaging in a host of anti-social behaviors.
· They are said to enjoy killing and causing injury to their dear ones;
· They are seen as the source of misfortune – ill-luck in personal endeavors;
· Societal calamites and epidemics may even be pinned on witches.
The outcome of these perceptions is that the persons accused or suspected to be witches are hated and feared and such people are treated as pariahs. While families seek to increase their numerical strength, paradoxically families feel they are better off without those members who are witches.
But there are also cases where the beliefs in witchcraft contribute to the well-being of vulnerable individuals. That perhaps is the nature of witchcraft – its paradoxes.
Who is Likely to be seen as a Witch? In theory anyone may be suspected to be a witch, but certain categories are more liable than others, for example, old and childless widows; people with unusual appearance and anti-social inclinations. Also included are orphaned children and the downtrodden, the socially vulnerable and excluded. The logic here seems to be that those who have not done well in life must have reason to be envious and to bear grudges and therefore are more likely to wish harm to their more fortunate neighbors.
Expanding Failure by belittling the achievements of others: In egalitarian societies extraordinary achievements is problematic, and this is dealt with by casting aspersions on such achievements by attributing it to sorcery and witchcraft malpractice. There are many instances of this.
People who have succeeded way beyond their neighbors or exhibited features that are deemed extraordinary may come in for suspicion; in some respect it is calumny, but the accused usually has no way of extricating himself .
He cannot prove that he/she is not a witch or that he is innocent of the crime attributed to him /her: only witches know witches and to prove that you are not a witch is to confirm that you are in fact a witch. The accused is caught in a vicious trap .Paradoxically, under duress or voluntarily some people confess to being witches.
Because the extraordinary invites suspicion, talent cannot be freely exhibited; innovation can be checked .Wealth creation is discouraged and the wealthy have to conceal their wealth.
Thus, the right to be what you are, can be wish to be is denied the individual.
The treatment of the witch :In communities ,witches are badly treated and many human rights violations result .People are forced to drink lethal concoctions to prove that they are not witches and those who fail to test may be banished or even killed .A witch is better dead than alive ,but even after death the community cannot be at peace as the soul of the dead can still harm the living ,and this shows how fundamental the fear of witchcraft is.
Killing the witch: There is no more fundamental right than the right to live ;but it is doubtful if witches are accorded that right .To many people getting rid of witches ,the enemy of society ,is justified :a life for a life .The killing of witches in pre -colonial times has been widely documented.
Even today the killing of witches has not stopped; but it is an issue that people would rather not discuss openly,perhaps because the law s of the modern state do not spare murderers; people also dread being dragged before law courts to give evidence .Like armed robbers ,witches may be, or lynched beaten and physically maltreated thus endangering their health and leading to premature death .The suspected persons may be compelled to go through ritual ordeals to prove their innocence. The portions that are administered as part of the ordeal may be lethal.
Infanticide: a twist to the concept of witch killing is the killing of infants born with certain congenial deformities or exhibiting unusual behaviors; these including twins, may be labeled as wild spirit beings masquerading in human guises. They, like witches are credited with supernatural powers and if diagnosed to be evil are killed.
Denial of Proper Burial and Funeral Rites: In communities where dead witches are believed to be capable of resurrecting in some form and posing danger to the living, people known to be witches are not accorded normal burial rites, but their bodies may be mutilated to prevent resurrection. In parts of the Upper East, there is a belief in zombies, dead witches that return to live briefly under the protection of close skin. it is believed that zombies are invisible to the ordinary eye. The zombie is said to ‘touch’ its victim and thereafter the person grows pale and loses weight before dying a lingering death. The resultant condition exhibits symptoms akin to HIV-AIDS.
The alleged expulsion of the witch from society: Next to killing the witch, some societies banish the witch. This has been reported for a number of communities including the Mamprusi, Dagomba and Gonja. The accused is taken to a place where others of her kind are confined. This policy means that the accused is denied a right to reside where she chooses and must live away from her immediate kin. As it is usually the aged who are so suspected and treated, the aged are thus denied kin support. It also implies denial access to their property – house, land and chattels. The concept of a witches ‘village or camp is conceived as a mechanism where by the witch is protected from society while at the same time she gets help from ritual experts equipped with the means to treat her and neutralize her effect.
In some cases it is held that once the witch is cured he or she is free to return to the community. The question however, is whether a reformed witch returning home will be allowed to live in dignity as a bona fide member of the community, as one who does not feel maligned and disgraced. It is questionable whether such a person will receive the full cooperation of his community. Once the accusation has stuck, it cannot be expunged, as it is supposed that the witch will never mend completely or redeem himself/herself. Such a person is liable to be accused in future when misfortunes strike.
The Right to Community Support and Care: In the context of the rural community, each member’s needs are every body’s concern, up to a limit of course. People show concern for a member’s ill-health, they defend a member when attacked by outsiders, and the person who is in need of assistance on the farm will be assisted if he is a good person. Although modernity has tampered with the communal spirit, it has not obliterated it completely. In parts of the North, even today, it is possible to mobilize the community to assist in cultivating a member’s farms. The community’s support however is very much dependent on the community’s perceptions of the person. In the case of the witch who is considered a person non grata, community support cannot be expected. The family and society loss of sympathy for the person who has earned the label ‘witch’ is reflected in the following statement pregnant with the implications of the types of treatment a witch may earn from kin.
“…. Nobody likes witch craft in his or her family; it divides the family. If you have such a person in your family, you will not be able to take him or her for granted; you cannot ignore or outwit that person because he or she has a double spirit. Before you plan anything he or she has already had a wind of it. Your family will not rest until natural death takes him or her out of the family” [my emphasis].
The aged person who is believed to be responsible for deaths is often denied material support from kin.
There ambivalence in the belief system, though. While people are careful not to give a witch the necessary pretext to bewitch them, which means the witch’s demands are seen to, even if under protest, there is nevertheless the tendency to withdraw resources from the suspect when the opportunity presents itself, and it feels safe to do so. A distinction is made between refusal and willful oversight. Refusal furnishes a witch with the raison d’être to attack a person but oversight does not or should not.
Denial of Medical Treatment and Care to the Suspected Person: Confirmed witches are denied health care. Care of the sick can be costly in time, money and In the physical and emotional exertion required in the diagnoses of the illness, the search for a cure, the acquisition of treatment and the management of the patient. The sick person who is confirmed witch cannot expect the full unadulterated commitment of family resources to the provision of care. The sick witch may suffer neglect in the management of his or her illness, especially if immediate kin is not around. There is often deficit in care; after all the death of a witch is perceived to rid the community of a malignant tumour. It is sometimes suspected that the sick witch has contributed in some way or the other to his/her illness. There is suspicion that a witch’s illness may be either self-inflicted or due to misadventure on a nocturnal escapade.
The Non-Treatment of Mental Cases: In some cultures, certain ailments are readily attributed to witchcraft. Among this is mental illness. In those societies the gods punish witches by inflicting madness on them. There is also the belief that when witches consume a victim with a vindictive spirit the dead person gets even by inflicting madness on the culpable witches – causing them to rave and proclaim their guilt to the world. A respondent marks as follows:
‘If you are a witch and have been killing people and…. Kill someone who is a ‘bitter person’ it will compel you to confess all the witchcraft crimes… you have committed in the past. You will never know peace until you confess all of them and you will continue to behave like a mad person’. [Informant from Paga, Upper East. Interviewed in Accra].
For the public, incontrovertible evidence about a person’s status as a witch comes from self confession; in a number of cases apparently sane people have, subsequent to the death close to a relative, confessed to having a been spiritually implicated in the death. For a public that believes in witchcraft, there is no better proof of the working of witches. The culpable witch in this case may not have had a history for mental instability. But the certainty that a madness case is due to spiritual malpractice also to spiritual also means that no serious efforts will be made to seek treatment for the mental patient. Spiritual illnesses are deemed not to respond to biomedical treatment. In any case, the witch patient is seen to have earned his/ her just reward.
The issue has wider complications: The cultural knowledge that madness could be punishment for spiritual misdeeds fuels a suspicion that spiritual malpractice cannot be ruled out in cases of mental instability. This means that many cases of mental ill-health go untreated within communities.
Generally, when illnesses are attributed to spiritual causes they do not receive much medical attention, since it is deemed useless. Rather, the concern is on seeking out the culpable witch in the hope that the bewitchment can be stopped by getting the witch to recant and withdraw his or her witchcraft. Whiles the family’s attention is thus diverted, the illness worsens and death may occur. The acuteness of certain illnesses and suddenness of death stemming from cardiovascular diseases, cerebro-spinal meningitis (CSM), choleras and others can implicate witchcraft in some societies. Where this is so, these types of illnesses are unlikely to received medical treatment.
Marriage and Witchcraft: In some societies a witchcraft accusation is taken to be one of the acceptable grounds for divorce. In exogamous patrilineal societies a wife is an outsider and if she is accused of witchcraft practice she may be divorced. This adds gender dimensions to witchcraft. While a young wife is rarely accused, the same cannot be said about older women. Thus it is the woman approaching old age who may suffer accusation. Should she be divorced she would find it difficult to remarry, yet her own paternal home does not readily admit her. The divorcee who returns to her brothers is often seen as a meddlesome old maid by her sisters-in-law, and on the least provocation she is told off. Her lot is not a happy one.
Witchcraft Accusation, Ageing and Neglect: In those patrilineal societies where residence is defined by clan affiliation and marriage is exogamous and virilocal, a woman can count on the support of her husband and of course on her own adult children. Her children will rush to her defence if she is accused of being a witch, as they stand jointly accused. Through them she has access to resources vested in the lineage such as farmland. It goes without saying a woman is exposed if she does not have people to defend her. If she is accused of being a chief and of engaging in witchcraft practice she lacks core lineage support. This is the plight of the childless widow or the widow who has no sons.
The plight of the childless widow is proverbial. She is prone to accusation for witchcraft, since it is presumed that this type of person would envy others and not wish them well. In some Ghanaian communities the childlessness of an old woman is attributed to having ‘eaten’ her own children. It is almost as though the death of such a person is wished for, even if it cannot be physically contrived. It seems that in the times of hardship, old widows who have no children who have no children to care for them are prone to accusation; and if the accusation sticks, the material needs of such childless old widows can be neglected without seeming to counter to kinship expectation and prescriptions. Unfortunately, it is not only in times of hardships that the old witch suffers want; even in normal times , bearing the witch label sets a person up for abusive treatment. And while children should obey their elders, they do not respect old people who are ‘witches’. Little children call them names and even throw stones at these helpless hapless folk.
The Possible Consequences of Seeking the Culpable Witch: because of the dread of witches society endeavours to discover the witch so that she or he can be dealt with to prevent harm to the community. In the search of the witch human rights are again violated. People are subjected to physical and mental torture and ritual ordeals. All kin stand potentially guilty until proven innocent. This raises a number of concerns.
· If close kin cannot be trusted, because they could be bewitching the sick person, then their efforts at providing care and attention might also be rejected or questioned, thus compounding the problem of care for the sick. I have read accounts of how in some Ghanaian communities, it is the sister rather than the wife who must come over to care for a sick husband.
· The period leading to determination of the source of the witchcraft attack is fraught with tension, feelings of anxiety, uncertainty and self doubt within the family.
It is as if the sick person’s kin are also emotionally unwell.
· The diagnostic procedures may require applications that are injurious to health, such as the consumption of potentially poisonous potions to prove guilt or innocence.
The search for the witch can take place during the illness or after the death of the bewitched person. If it is inter-vivos, then the objective is to identify the witch and force the culpable witch to ‘release’ the sick man. Where death has occurred, the aim of identifying the culpable witch is to shame and expose that person. However the effect of the process can lead to undesirable results as the following eye-witness account shows.
It was the custom of the place to do a public inquest into deaths to know what caused the death, if death happened in the manner in which my sister died. The corpse of the dead person is asked to reveal the cause of death. Actually, it is the mat on which the person dies that is used for the ritual. If indeed there is a spiritual component to the death, it will be revealed through this rite. As the public are assembled, the mat is carried about and it should send its bearers to the witch involved in the death. The bundle is queried thus: if your death is due to natural causes, reveal this, but if it is the doings of anyone point him out. The mat bundle pointed to a certain old woman as it took the bearers to where she was standing. Then the woman began to confess her role in my sister’s death. You can imagine how this unfortunate old woman will fare in the community after this confession. The question is, did she actually cause any death?
Witchcraft Beliefs and Migration: Witchcraft affects individuals and communities in yet another way viz, by separating and distancing kin. It leads to avoidance – putting yourself at a safe distance from those who can and are likely to bewitch you, if you give them the pretext. This has meant:
· Social withdrawal: reduced participation in the rough and tumble of life.
· Departure – leaving home or the community for some other location perhaps your mother’s village, where you are safe from the agnatic witches, or from accusation:
· Migrating to the urban area.
Of course, migration responds to several causes and push factors, but the fear of harm from local witches cannot be discounted. Paradoxically, it is not just the witch that is ostracized; witchcraft ostracises youth, the potential victims. It is a rights issue if you cannot reside where you like to live, namely, your home, just because you might be killed, if you remain with your kin.
Since the colonial era, responding to the fear of witches parents have themselves persuaded their adult children to leave for the safety of the urban area – ‘Kumasi’ in the idiom of Northern people. As Grindal (2003) confirms, Sisala youth have tended to migrate to southern Ghana to escape from the local witches. Migration of course has both negative and positive consequences; while it frees the illiterate youth from the control of the elderly, it at the same time exposes them to the hardships and the frustrations of urban life and it undermines the rural economy and further impoverishes the elderly and denies them essential care at a stage in life when they no longer can fend for themselves.
Of course the emigration of youth is not in all cases a protest move.
Some Positives about Witchcraft: The ambivalence of witchcraft means that there are also cases where the beliefs can be said to have positive implications for society. Witchcraft beliefs encourage sharing: it is believed that witches like to set traps for their victims; they ask for minor favours and when these are not acceded to, they attack. In this respect the beliefs support the generosities that are associated with kinship. Just as people dread the harmful effects of an old person’s curse, they tremble at the possibility that if the old one’s needs are not addressed he or she might bewitch them. Those who do not wish to be accused of being witches make sure they abide by the norms of the society, they avoid anti-social behaviours. Witches are presented as greedy, quarrelsome, envious and unreasonable. Therefore individuals who wish to avoid such accusation try to live morally good lives and to be on good terms with their neighbours.
The Witchdoctor – Friend or Foe? Witchdoctors can be seen as healers treating a variety of ailments regarded as spiritual in origin. By claiming the power to neutralize witches, it can be argued that the witchdoctor is sometimes the salvation of the person found to be a witch. The problem, however, is that the activities of the witchdoctor fuel the belief in witches and more people are perceived to be culpable. Witchdoctors are not themselves above authorizing the brutalization of people who fail to confess.
The Case of the Witches’ Village: What are described as witches’ villages or camps have been reported for a number of places in Mamprusiland and Dagbon. It seems in the case of the Gonja, the witches are sent to the chief’s palace. The inmates are mostly older women. As Drucker-Brown has remarked, being confined to the witches’ camp in Gambags smacks of imprisonment. The convicts are subjected to herbal treatment to make them harmless to others. They are poor and they may have to do menial jobs in the market to be able to sustain themselves. Some denied that they were witches, but some too were resigned to their fate. What Drucker-Brown found however, was that the residents felt safer in the camp then at home.
Ghana Culture Magazine Issue No. 3/2010