Unreconcilable Beliefs: Humanism, Witches, and Human Rights

Before I went to Ghana I had no idea there were witches there. For me, witchcraft accusations were of historical interest, not a contemporary concern. How wrong I was.

Witchcraft accusations are very real. And very destructive.

I am not alone in my ignorance. Most of the people I’ve talked to about my experience visiting Kukuo—one of several camps for alleged witches in northern Ghana—reacted just about the same way as I did: “There are still witchcraft accusations? That many? In the 21st century? Accusations that are taken seriously?”

Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes.

In Ghana, these very real witchcraft accusations are founded on, what is to me, very shaky evidence. An accuser need only say they saw the person in a dream and that is enough for an accusation to be taken seriously. Later there might be a test where a chicken is slaughtered and the position the chicken takes when it dies reveals the truth or falsity of the accusations. Such trials are not mandatory and happen infrequently.

Dream evidence is especially problematic because of malaria. Malaria is a huge problem in Ghana, and in northern Ghana it is largely misunderstood. Many residents only know that an illness is occurring, not the cause. The illness is not associated with mosquitoes at all. The illness is often attributed to witchcraft. Witchcraft accusations increase during malaria season. It does not help that a symptom of malaria is vivid dreams.

Women—they are almost always women—are in constant danger of being accused. Especially if they don’t have a man to speak for them. Especially if they cannot produce children, due to age or biology. Especially if they have a little economic power. In other words, if they don’t conform to the gender role Ghanaian society requires they conform to.

For example, if a woman, especially a widow or single woman, runs a successful business, she might choose to help her community by giving loans. I spoke to several alleged witches in Kukuo. Most of their accusers were people who owed them money. For me the interpretation is obvious. This person did not want to pay. It is easier to accuse and have the debt wiped out than find the money to make good on it. This is a personal grudge. But there is also a broader issue.

Wealthy men, even single wealthy men, who lend money to members of their community are rarely, if ever, accused of witchcraft by their debtors. Why? Why are women vulnerable when similarly situated men are not? Because these single, successful women are threats to the system. Not only does the individual accuser benefit when their debt is wiped out, but the community status quo is preserved when the woman is banished and her business redistributed.

An accusation leading to banishment means leaving with only the clothes on one’s back. But it often also means beatings—beatings in the woman’s home community and in every community she encounters on her way to one of the refugee camps for alleged witches. The camps are safe places, but not easy ones. In the camps the women still struggle to acquire basic necessities. From Kukuo, water is several miles away. Many of the women are reliant on what food is donated to them or what they can find in fields after harvest. Their roofs leak when it rains so they cannot sleep. Most of these women are in their 70s or older.

Their existence is not widely known and the fact of their existence is unbelievable to many, but these camps are real. I have seen them. These are difficult places to live, but they are, at least, places to live. Alleged witches are regularly killed in Nigeria and other west African nations that do not have camps.

I encountered these camps as part of a humanist service trip called Pathfinders Project. As humanists, from our perspective, there is no supernatural power at play. For every evidence of witchcraft we encountered we saw a natural, not supernatural, explanation. Malaria, dysentery, common childbirth complications. For every accusation of witchcraft we saw human, not spiritual, motivations. Jealousy, greed, power.

We met many alleged witches in Kukuo. I do not believe I met a single witch.

I do not believe witchcraft is real. I do believe these people do. (I should point out that while every alleged witch we talked to denied her guilt, every one affirmed the existence of witchcraft.) I also believe that witchcraft allegations are often used as a pretext to advance despicable personal agendas.

These women need help. But how can they be helped? Addressing the situation in the camps themselves is easy. Okay, not easy, but easier. Easier than addressing the underlying problem. Clean water is manageable with time, money, and helping hands. So are the food, shelter, and other challenges poor communities around the globe face. But addressing these issues does nothing toward ending the need for these camps, which must be the ultimate goal.

As a devotee of interbelief dialogue and cooperation, I do not believe it is respectful to address this situation by attacking the belief in witchcraft. Not only is it not respectful, it is not practical.

So, how does one address this human rights abuse without attacking the core beliefs that are, if not causing, perpetuating it?

Education would help. Education, about malaria, for example. In the capital, Accra, in southern Ghana, there are very few accusations. Yet, the belief in witchcraft is still widespread. The lack of accusations cannot completely be explained by an understanding of malaria, but I believe it must be part—a large part. Why don’t the residents of Accra levy witchcraft accusations when they fall ill with malaria? It’s not because they don’t believe in witchcraft. It’s because they recognize the symptoms and causes of malaria. There is an alternative explanation that makes more sense. Witchcraft activity is delegated to another realm and Accra’s women are safe, or at least safer.

The hardest interbelief moments are the ones where the beliefs of each side are directly at odds. In this case there is no talking around our differences. There is little common ground to stand on together. Yet, I utterly believe that a Ghanaian alleged witch and an American humanist can work together. And not only on the common ground problems, but on the difficult, belief-influenced problems too. The problems are human problems and humans can work together to solve them.

But in Kukuo it’s not just a humanist and an alleged witch who can work together across divides. The mullah in Kukuo—whose beliefs do not align with the alleged witch or the humanist—is committed to closing the camp by eradicating the need for one. Here is an opportunity for true interbelief cooperation that can make a real difference in the lives of hundreds of women, if not more. I am excited to see it come to fruition.

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8 thoughts on “Unreconcilable Beliefs: Humanism, Witches, and Human Rights

  1. Wendy,
    Thank you so much for your story of how Inter-belief is practically being lived in Ghana. Please keep us updated on the developments happening there. I would be interested in how they go about their education efforts.

    1. Ellie,

      I will certainly be updating the situation in Ghana. I am no longer there, for now, but I will be monitoring this work and hope to return myself soon.

  2. Wendy, thank you for continuing to sit with and work through your experiences in Ghana, even though you are now on the other side of the world. You raise a very difficult point: how does one address human rights abuse without attacking the core beliefs that cause or perpetuate it?

    Education is a great first step, as is showing compassion and care for the women who are living in the camps. I hope you – and your fellow Pathfinders – are able to continue to drum up support and interest in this issue. You are right to say that most people don’t know it happens, and the few who hear about it wouldn’t believe it. We can’t address a problem we don’t see – whether it’s because it’s hidden or because we refuse to see it. This is an issue worth much closer examination, and your continued concern with these women is hopeful.

    1. Esther,

      Thank you. You hit the nail on the head. One of the things I´ve learned, that I guess I knew but hadn´t paid enough attention to, is how invisible so many of the worlds problems are. So much of the work is simply illuminating them. When we asked the women what we could to help them, the first thing almost every one said was, “tell our story.”

  3. You’ve brought to light many provocative issues. First, you have rightfully identified the collusion between economics and patriarchy, which operates insidiously and in many different forms and iterations. Second, you have raised the issue of the ethics of intervention on the international scene. There is an interesting article by Todd M. Vanden Berg called “Culture, Christianity, and Witchcraft in a West African Context” that explores from a phenomenological perspective how Nigerian Christians experience and reappropriate witchcraft as a means of externalizing evil, contra colonialism’s import of evil as stemming from original sin, an internal issue that marks the reprobate. Vanden Berg was able to discern an ambivalence and surplus signification to the issue of witchcraft that some Nigerians were able to reappropriate in a liberative way.

    In this same vein, I’m wondering how women in Ghana actually experience and understand witchcraft. What, if anything, does it do FOR them? I think a key step in terms of how to address this particular form of oppression is to identify how women in Ghana are exercising their agency in light of this issue and to work with these women using their terms to introduce new and helpful ideas that might be cohesive and amenable to some of the ideas and beliefs that they hold. I tend to believe that there is usually an ambivalent nature to the cultural staples that seem oppressive, and if we can identify how women are perhaps exercising their agency to exploit this ambivalence for their benefit, that will be key. Finally, I think too that it is important to emphasize (perhaps through education, as you have insightfully noted) that culture is not fixed but is dynamic – and therefore the people of Ghana can produce new ways of being traditional and embracing their culture and heritage – without on the one hand being patriarchal and oppressive and on the other being indebted or sold out to Western culture.

    Keep the passion and hope for justice!

    1. Haley,

      First of all, thank you for directing me to reading on this issue that I have not yet encountered. I am on my way to find it as soon as I hit send here.

      I share your wonder about how the woman actually experience and understand witchcraft. Unfortunately, in these encounters I was not able to talk directly to the woman as we needed an interpreter to communicate. (In one instance a woman did not speak the same language as our interpreter and he had to speak through her daughter as well.) Because of that and time constraints we were not able to get into those kinds of discussions. Nor was I able to spend enough time in the community at this point to earn trust and or witness these beliefs truly play out. The one thing I can say is that every single woman we talked to professed her innocence, but confirmed the existence of witchcraft.

      I think you are absolutely right that the issue of witchcraft is not so black and white for these women and for the culture at large. After all, in many cases the means to strip the women of their power stems from the same power that is deemed witchcraft in them. But as a cleansing it is a good power. I don´t know this, but I suspect that the belief in witchcraft is in many ways empowering. While the effects of the belief are oppressive, the belief itself is subversive. In a patriarchal, oppressive society, this is an understanding of women as powerful.

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