Power & Authority in the Witch Camps of Northern Ghana

By Alhassan Baako
Humanist Service Corps Volunteer

Two Simultaneous Systems of Government: Constitutional and Chieftaincy

The women who have been accused of witchcraft in northern Ghana are all but powerless. They find themselves at the bottom of a traditional hierarchical government in which they have little to no say. This system runs alongside the national democratic government that has little to no say in the affairs of the chiefs. In this piece I am going to illustrate the political and religious systems these women exist within and the power and authority these women are up against.

Ghana is a democratic nation that is governed with the rule of law concept. There are three main arms of government that facilitate the governance of the country which are the executive, judiciary, and legislature per the constitution. Despite the constitutional rule, the interior parts of the Northern Region still take their traditional system of governance, which was their major central system of rule in the pre-colonial era.  The traditional governance is an institutional way of controlling the people in the villages of the region. Devoid of the constitutional amendments, traditional powers are vested into the hands of the key locals to rule people in their jurisdiction.

Climatically, religiously, linguistically, and culturally, the Northern Region differs greatly from the politically and economically dominating regions of central and southern Ghana. The region is made up of clans and tribes who are settled across the northern landscape. Depending on the location of the settlements many of these communities can be described as slums. The highest traditional governing bodies are the various paramount chiefs at the highest level down to divisional chiefs at the middle level down to sub divisional chiefs at the village level. Before a person gets an opportunity to rule a village the fellow has to be a legal blood family member of the ruling gates, family members of people who are eligible to becoming chiefs through inheritance, of the village. An authority is given to a qualified person to rule a village by higher chiefs of that particular tribe in question. When they become chiefs they are en-skinned in the region because after they are sworn in they sit on the skin of a cow or sheep.

The Village Chief’s Power

Kukuo witch camp is governed by a sub-chief, whose eligibility is by inheritance or appointment. If the qualified person is from the family of the late chief in case of vacancy, he has to send some kola nuts as form of bidding for the position to the chief of Bimbilla to be en-skinned as the chief. Otherwise if the person is not a blood family member of the land, he has to contact to several council of elders who will further recommend him to be the chief.  The inherited or appointed chief of Kukuo is the executive of administration of all affairs of the land. He is assisted by minor judicial council of elders.

No one goes to Kukuo community for a purpose without going through a paperless bureaucracy of visiting the chief and other prominent elders of the land as a form of community entering. Traditionally, any person who goes to meet a chief in the land must go with a kola nut. The kola nut is given to the linguist, the spokesperson for the chief, who then hands it to the chief and in return the chief also gives out kola to the visitors as customs demands. Whatever information the chief gives in his speech will be repeated by the spokesperson even if it has been translated.

The Shrine Priest’s Power

The shrine serves as the gateway to finding final settlement for each and every fled alleged witch. A priest and priestess are responsible for running errands for the gods. The shrine priest is, in other settings, referred to as the chief priest and by orders from the gods runs the daily spiritual activities of the shrine and the entire village. Although the village is administered by the chief, the chief priest serves as an immediate commander in charge of “fighting spiritually” to prevent anger, plague, famine, and any form of danger to the natives of the land. The main duty of the priestess is to carry water and other materials like schnapps to the shrine.

shrinepriest

The current shrine priest at Kukuo. (Photo credit: Wendy Webber)

The shrine priest is not chosen by a method of local election, but rather is nominated by the gods of the village. When there is a vacant position, the chief of the land visits the shrine with his council of elders. This is to perform rituals with the gods to appoint a person to run the shrine’s affairs. Animals are slaughtered with the blood sprinkled on the large stones that are supposed to house the gods, an alcoholic concoction is poured on them as well and lot of incantations are said to pacify the gods to make a decision. A potential chief priest wakes up in the morning to find a talisman lying beside him. This talisman is made up of a bag containing unrevealed items. The talisman is popularly referred to as baga koligu in Dagbanli. It is a belief by the people that the gods take the talisman to the person who is qualified to be the next chief priest.

It is believed that, alleged witches are spiritually versed with supernatural powers that are harmful to ordinary people. Alleged witches do not have the liberty to live like others in the witch camp. An alleged witch’s freedom of movement ceases when she moves into the witch camp. The chief priest grants the mobility of the alleged witches in and out of the community. An alleged witch is only able to visit a place out of the witch camp after some spiritual consultations are made to the gods to know whether it would be a good or bad move. If it is a bad move she is banned from that particular trip.

Alleged Witches Taking Power for Themselves

Decades ago alleged witches who were found to be breaking the traditional norms or values were punished by death—they were considered to be stricken dead by the gods. Their corpse was chained and drug on the floor around the community because the villagers were ordered not to touch their corpse with their bare hands. Their corpse was then thrown into a trench dug by the community members.

Due to education on fundamental human rights and freedoms by human rights organizations there has been a tremendously change of the concept. Women are no longer subjected to this treatment. An accusation still sometimes comes with violence, but making it to a camp sets the inmates free from threats and maltreatments.

With help from HSC’s partner organization, Songtaba, the alleged witches in the camps—in Kukuo and the others—have formed an association and chosen leaders among themselves. These leaders include a chairperson, known as Magazia in Dagbanli; an organizer; and a treasurer. According to the leaders they had a problem of handling themselves in meetings. The organization reached out to them with a proposal on the formation of the association which they decided to choose leaders for three positions above. There was a great exhibition of role play by position holders within the alleged witches association when some of the team members of the Humanist Service Corps met them to gather information on their livelihood support in the camp.

The witch camp is a sanctuary made up of the jungle system of governance where human rights and freedoms are barely condoned. The women who are forced to live there do not have a voice in the government systems as they exist now. They have the right to vote in national elections, but their freedom of movement is restricted by the whim of the shrine priest. The chief and shrine priest have extreme power over these women’s lives and, though they both do work to help them as they see fit, these men are not elected. The women don’t have many options if the don’t agree with the way the chief and shrine priest are trying to help. They do have a voice in their association. With this association they have found some power. As alleged witches are also citizens of the country the need to have a share of power and authority in the communities they live.

Alhassan Baako
Baako-AlhassanAlhassan Baako is a Northern Ghanaian activist for women’s rights and science-based medicine. After graduating from the University for Development Studies in Tamale, Baako taught Business and Technology at the School of Management Studies. In 2013, Baako began assisting Leo Igwe with translation, data collection, and historical/cultural guidance for Igwe’s doctoral research into Ghanaian witch-hunting. Since then, Baako has become a staunch advocate for victims of witchcraft accusations. He continues to help Leo Igwe as Igwe’s doctoral research draws to a close, but Baako became interested in the Humanist Service Corps as a way to directly restore dignity to banished women and stop witchcraft accusations altogether.

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