Interfaith Lessons Learned from a Witch Camp

Kukuo, in northern Ghana, is home to a camp for alleged witches.  Women who have been accused of witchcraft come there looking for safety.  They come looking because if they stay home they are in danger of beatings, torture, and even death.  Often the women who arrive at Kukuo have already suffered at the hands of their neighbors, friends, and family. They come seeking safety and they find it.

The safety comes from the local belief in the special nature of the land.  Kukuo is built on land connected to small gods that makes Kukuo a peaceful place.  This was explained to us by the chief of the village during our first meeting in Kukuo.  It was elaborated on when we met with the fetish priest who facilitates cleansing rituals for the alleged witches that neutralize their power.  One alleged witch told us she came to Kukuo—as opposed to the another camp for alleged witches—because Kukuo is a peaceful place.

We were told that Kukuo is 80% Muslim and 20% traditional religion.  But belief in witchcraft crosses the spectrum.  All the women we talked to believed in the validity of witchcraft even as they professed their innocence of practicing it.  Many of them also easily talked about God—with Islamic language.

Kuluo's fetish priest.
Kuluo’s fetish priest.

The fetish priest equally had no problem with the beliefs of his Islamic neighbors. They are quite compatible with his.  As he explained his beliefs, there are small gods and oracles.  The small gods are like aspects of Almighty God and the oracles are like messengers of the small gods.  The small gods are connected to the place.  We had learned earlier from the chief that an important power, maybe the most important power, in respect to the alleged witches, is that the small gods will not allow malice in the hearts of anyone who comes to the camp.  The chief told us that if he had had bad thoughts about us as we walked in he would not have survived our meeting.  He would have died—if not physically, spiritually.  And the same was true for us, if we had bad thoughts about anyone in the camp.  This is part of why the women are safe there.  The other residents literally cannot have bad intentions toward the alleged witches.

The residents of Kukuo cannot harbor ill will toward the alleged witches once they step foot on the land.  Once the alleged witches undergo a cleansing ritual at the local shrine they become full members of the community.  The ritual begins with slaughtering a chicken—if it dies face up she is innocent, face down she is guilty.  But no one but the priest and the alleged witch—and occasionally her family—know the outcome.  The priest told us he cannot tell.  No one can tell.  If you tell, you die.  Just like if you have malicious thoughts.  Every woman, whether she is guilty or innocent, takes a concoction.  If she was a witch the concoction strips her of her powers.  She is “born again.”  But she must confess.  If she is witch and does not admit it the concoction will cause her diarrhea and she will die within three months.  If she was innocent it harmlessly cleanses her.

Kukuo's Mosque with an alleged witch's hut in the foreground.
Kukuo’s Mosque with an alleged witch’s hut in the foreground.

The priest told us that only 20% of his community are of his traditional religion.  Yet, everyone believes in the purification ritual.  This is not true, however. The local mullah was clear—witchcraft beliefs are not compatible with Islam.  The mullah told us that he has nothing to do with the alleged witches before they complete the purification ritual.  Only the chief and the fetish priest do.  The mullah told us he does not believe in it.  Not in the ritual, not in witchcraft, not in power coming from anyone or anything other than God.  Belief in witchcraft is simply not compatible with Islam.  The priest told us that traditional religion and Islam are compatible because Almighty God and Allah are really the same.  Islam and traditional religion just have different ways of relating to God.  The mullah disagreed.  He said that all power comes from God.  Witches can’t use that power.  Witches don’t exist.  A true Muslim does not believe in witchcraft and a true Muslim would not willingly submit to a purification ritual.

At the beginning of our visit, it seemed we had found a place where two belief systems had actually managed to live together in peace.  But leaving our meeting with the mullah it became clear that it is not so simple.  The mullah’s point of view is strongly opposed to the ease with with others conflate Islamic and and witchcraft beliefs.  The priest happily folds Islamic belief into his world view.  The alleged witches, most of whom are Islamic, still believe in the validity of witchcraft, despite the mullah’s adamant stance that no good Muslim can.

The mullah is fundamentally at odds with the priest and the chief where beliefs are concerned.  He does not support their cleansing ritual nor any reinforcement of beliefs in witchcraft.  Their beliefs are at odds, but as members of the Kukuo community they are not at odds with each other.  Their actions are perfectly in line.  The mullah said much the same thing that the chief had told us.  If your faith is strong then you won’t think bad things about others.  The mullah counsels forgiveness.  He welcomes alleged witches to his congregation.  He helps the women acquire appropriate clothing for prayers and helps facilitate the building of their huts in Kukuo.  He worries about their food and water supply, even as he can do little to relieve these burdens.  He works toward reconciliation between the women and their home communities.

The mullah actively works to better the lives of these women.  He helps make Kukuo a place safe from violence and fear.  He helps them set up new lives there.  And he tries, if possible, to get them safely home.  So do the chief and the priest.  We were told time and time again that it does not matter if these women ever had the power or not—it does not even matter if one believes witchcraft is real—they are victims of human rights abuses.  The priest and mullah’s beliefs might be at odds, but they can live together in peace because their problems, goals, and actions are not.

Photos courtesy of the author.

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6 thoughts on “Interfaith Lessons Learned from a Witch Camp

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Wendy. You’ve offered us a great example of collaboration that requires putting aside different believes for the sake of a common (and worthy) goal. It’s interesting to hear that the priests believe they are experiencing a compatible melding of faith traditions while the mullah sees it so differently, but the fact that they are able to work together despite their different beliefs towards God and towards one another is inspiring.

  2. Thank you Wendy for sharing this experience. I am saddened to read another account of people threatening to, or inflicting violence against women on the basis of “witchcraft”. What constitutes witchcraft? More importantly, what does this word mean to the people of Northern Ghana who live near Kukuo? Is it positive, negative or neutral? I have come to recognize more often than not, the negative connotation of the word “witchcraft” has been historically used against women across cultures who stood up for themselves and/or rejected the religious beliefs of an oppressor. A woman who claimed her own spiritual power and exercised it was often feared. A moving story illustrating this point is Maryse Conde’s novel, “I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem”.

    Like Esther, I celebrate the mullah and priest working together to keep women safe by maintaining a peaceful place for them in spite of their religious differences. But if a woman is fleeing for her life I doubt she would refuse to go through a cleansing purification ritual whether she was “guilty” or not. Survival would be her most salient concern and need. Someday I hope the priest, mullah and others can come together to address the issue that is causing the women to flee for their safety in the first place.

  3. To begin with, what constitutes witchcraft in Ghana is rather fluid. Pretty much any hardship can be blamed on a witch. Most common is death or illness. The leaders of Kukuo told us that the number of women arriving in their community always goes up during malaria season. Malaria is particularly common because the fever can cause vivid dreams and a common way of identifying a witch is that she (or he, but most commonly she) appears in a sick person´s dream. Witchcraft is certainly negative. But there are aspects of the “powers” that are not negative. For example, the power that allows some men to neutralize the witches so they are safe.

    It is clear to me that the witchcraft accusations are a way of taking the power from women who are fitting into the male dominated power structure. Every woman we talked to was a widow who was actually doing well for herself. They have money and power but they don´t have any man to stand up for them. Often people who owe these women money accuse them rather than pay their debt. (I have not read Conde´s novel, but I will. Thanks.)

    Finally, you are absolutely right that the women are coerced into going through the ritual. The priest told us that all women, even if the trial ritual determines that they are innocent take the potion. It won´t harm them if they are innocent so they have to take it anyway. All the women we talked to said they were innocent, though they believed in witchcraft, and they all went through the ritual.

    I absolutely agree that the root cause of their oppression needs to be addressed. But that is a long term goal and I think the Kukuo leadership is doing a lot to address the immediate human rights abuses.

  4. Hi Wendy,

    Thanks for providing more insight into the Kukuo community. I am initiated into an African spiritual path from Nigeria and know several people who walk Indigenous paths originating in Ghana. I’m looking forward to sharing your article with them and reading more of your experiences. Continued safe travels & peace filled journeys!

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