A woman sits next to a clay hut in a witch camp peeling fruits

Anthropology: Witchcraft and Social Control in Ghana. Is it Magic or Mastery?

Witchcraft has always been a secretive practice, but when we uncover it, what do we see?

Close your eyes and visualise a witch. What comes to mind? Perhaps a cloaked figure perched on a magically hovering broomstick? Or a mysterious body slumped over a dirty cauldron? This is a common representation of witchcraft in fantasy worlds. But the witches of today are not the same.

Construction of the Witch: Extremes of Character and the Supernatural

According to Anthropologist, Evans-Pritchard (1937), witchcraft is defined as ‘the use of innate, inherited supernatural powers to control people or events or cause misfortune or death’.

Without any visual evidence of these so-called ‘supernatural powers’, how does one become defined as a witch? The answer lies in the parallels between ‘supernatural’ and ‘extreme’ personal qualities. For example, people who are unusually beautiful, exceptionally old or physically deformed, are likely to have the witch identity ascribed to them. Beyond physical appearance, those who are seen as excessively successful or powerful – particularly women – can also be accused. These beings are positioned at the extreme ends of natural . . . they are ‘supernatural’.

A portrait shot of an old African woman with a deformed eye wearing a red head scarf
A Ghanian woman with a deformed face. Image Source: Jane Hahn (ActionAid)

In Western societies, saying you are old translates to ‘I have grown’. But In Ghana, to be old is to have more wisdom for witchcraft knowledge.

Another way of identifying a witch can be seen in the divide between sleep and consciousness. Dreams are denoted as a spiritual world where witches conduct their nocturnal deeds. Therefore, people who fall into a deep ‘super sleep’ are also suspected of being witches.

Witchcraft in Ghana

Despite popular perceptions of it being outdated, witchcraft, and the violence attached to it, continues its presence in many contemporary African communities. In Ghana, a country in Western Africa, widespread witchcraft perceptions are a dangerous force. Most unexplainable calamities (from divorces to snake bites) deposit a supernatural explanation onto vulnerable women and children.

According to the International NGO Council of Violence Against Children (2012), an alarmingly large portion of mistreatment and violence against children and older women in Africa is due to these superstitious beliefs.

A small child in a red T-shirt sits next to an older woman on a dusty concrete floor
A blind inmate and her grandson in the Tindaanzee witch camp, Kpatinga. Image Source: Wikimedia Creative Commons

What is Witchcraft-Related Violence?

Primarily, witchcraft-related violence is the verbal or physical attack against people who have been suspected of witchcraft.

Witchcraft-related violence is also perceived as the act of causing harm to another person through supernatural powers.

In her study on Witchcraft and Violence in Ghana, Shelagh Roxburgh (2016) interviewed some Ghanaian locals. Many of these respondents saw violence as relevant only between human beings. Witches were not perceived to be human beings. This means that a range of violent practices, from ritual murder to exorcisms, are not deemed witchcraft-related violence.

The variation in these definitions shows the importance of analysing communities from within, as was done by Roxburgh.

The Ghanaian Mass Media

The mass media ensures that witchcraft ideologies have a powerful presence in Ghanaian society. Television soap operas and Newspapers regularly present witchcraft themes and alleged witch confessions. Locals are socialised to understand witchcraft as an integral aspect of their lives.

The use of mass media to disseminate witchcraft ideology has not been all negative. Internet sources such as Ghanatoday.com and Ghanareview.com have been used as channels to highlight the abuse of alleged witches, bringing it into an area of international public concern.

The Melodies of Witchcraft

Witchcraft beliefs and ideas are tightly laced into all aspects of social life, including music. The lyrics of many songs in the popular Ghanaian music genre ‘highlife’ are constructed around the destructive role of witches.

On the contrary, music has also been deployed by banished witches themselves. One woman who fled her home due to escape accusations and violence wrote a song called ‘I’ve forgotten now who I used to be’. The words of similar symphonies constructed by the thousands of women who now occupy exiled spaces in witch camps have become mantras. Women echo the phrases on a repetitive cycle like some sort of prayer. A stable hope in a dismal life with no solid bounds of identity or home.

A woman stands in the centre of a ring of people with her left arm in the air speaking to those around her
A witch camp. Image Source: Jane Hahn (ActionAid)

Witch Camps in Northern Ghana

In the Northern Region of Ghana, there are six confirmed witch camps in Bonyasi, Gnani, Kpatinga, Kukuo, Nabuli and Gambaga.

It is common for women to flee to these ‘witch villages’ and seek refuge after being persecuted and abused by their communities. Accused witches become isolated and structurally displaced. Being stripped of their citizenship, their identity withers away with a futile hope of a normal life.

There has been a tendency to equate these Ghanaian witch camps to Agamben’s ‘state of exception’. In this context, accused witches are reduced to a ‘homo sacer’, a person who is socially banned and can be killed by anybody. The human body is therefore understood outside the law, an exception to the rights that ‘ordinary’ people are entitled to.

Significance in Anthropology

Why Hasn’t the Belief in Witchcraft Vanished in Modern Times?

The Ghanaian government discourage the recognition of witch camps in order to portray the image of a modern nation-state. However, this overlooks the fact that witchcraft is not simply a primitive belief system. Rather, it is an innovative and adaptive social practice. Witchcraft has an ongoing salience in the context of economic and social competition, particularly competition between women. Witchcraft is not an indicator of being left out of modernity. Rather, it is embedded in the relationships that emerge within modernity, individualisation and competition. In other words, it is not about how witchcraft looks to a country, but how it functions within it.

In this way, witchcraft is not a product of lack of development but is an outcome of uneven development within the country.

Parallels Between Neoliberalism and Witchcraft Ideologies

Coupled with modernity and witchcraft is the issue of neoliberalism. This is a concept that celebrates individual wealth and success. But not everyone in the community can be wealthy, so it detects people who are different or ‘extreme’ and questions why? How did they get there?

As long as the Ghanaian government wishes to project a national image of the modern state, the ideals that lie behind neoliberalism will perpetuate witchcraft accusations.

Witchcraft as Social Mastery and Control

An anthropological view of witchcraft has often explained it as a way of regulating society. Accusations and beliefs are seen as methods to control ‘dangerous’ individuals who threaten the social order by contradicting the social norm.

Control Within the Community: Gendered Victimisation

Binary perceptions of masculinity and femininity in Ghana have implications for witchcraft accusations. Like many societies, most Ghanaian ethnic groups believe that there are fundamental physical and social differences between men and women. Even the slightest deviation from these norms engenders suspicion and condemnation.

For example, it is believed that the presence of a deep voice in women is suggestive of witchcraft. Similarly, since men are expected to be physically stronger than women, females who are strong transcend this gender norm and are deemed worthy of the witch label. Beyond physical characteristics, personality attributes are also neatly tucked into this two-part gender binary. Where men are perceived as aggressive and decisive, women are expected to remain passive and indecisive. As such, successful women, wealthy women, or unmarried women are often seen as ‘rogue’.

A row of seated African women in colourful dresses
Witches at Gambaga witch camp in Northern Ghana. Image Source: Wikimedia Creative Commons

By subjecting those who deviate these gendered social norms to violence and isolation, witchcraft ideologies act as a form of social control. It keeps people, especially women, in check. Those who are marked a suspect must either modify their behaviour to escape accusation or flee their community. Both ways, the rigid social structure is maintained by expelling extreme qualities.

What is the Role of the Law and the Ghanaian State in Witchcraft?

As aforementioned, the Ghanaian state is committed to discouraging the recognition of witch camps in order to portray the image of a modern nation-state. This approach sees witchcraft as a primitive belief system and neglects any understanding of the underlying social mechanisms that perpetuate violence and abuse towards alleged witches.

A lack of recognition for witch camps creates a structural void for many vulnerable individuals and groups found in the witch camps. Women and children who have found homes in these camps become invisible, invalidated by their communities and the places they seek refuge.

An inmate and her children in the Tindaanzee witch camp – Kpatinga in the Northern region of Ghana. Image Source: Wikimedia Creative Commons

Why does the government’s approach remain so surface-level? And why is it so difficult to address witchcraft violence? The legal frameworks within which we operate does not acknowledge or recognize witchcraft. Within a legal structure, if you say something exists, then you should be able to prove it beyond reasonable doubts. In the case of witchcraft, the evidence needs to be factual and convincing, not based on rumors or speculations. Therefore, without any tangibility, witchcraft becomes a difficult topic to address in practice.

The law alone cannot transform the belief systems which have tied individuals to society for hundreds of years

However, altering legislation may be valuable if it enables the emergence of new types of witchcraft discourse that officially condemn violence.

Are Witch Camps Really ‘Prisons?’: NGOs and Witch Camps in Ghana

Reports of media organizations and NGOs often depict the conditions in witch camps as degrading to those that live there. Acting in good faith, NGOs draw public attention to the camps by curating a prison-like image of hostility and dangerousness.

According to ActionAid, “The witch camps are effectively women’s prisons where inmates have been given no trial, have no right of appeal but have received a life sentence.”

However, Ghanaian locals have contrasting views. They do not see these spaces as prisons, but rather, as landscapes of refuge. We cannot deny that there is suffering in the camps. But we must recognise that they are places of both suffering and protection.

Witch Camp v Prison

There are significant differences between witch camps and prisons.

Contrasting to the lack of agency provided to prison inmates, accused witches in Ghana have the freedom to choose the economic activity they want to participate in and the times in which they do it. A camp resident may even desire not to work at all if they can meet their basic needs from other sources.

Yellow and white grains are formed in a large circle on a sandy floor with a woman sitting by a hut in the background
An inmate in the Tindaanzee witch camp processing her farm products. Image Source: Wikimedia Creative Commons

Unlike the incompatible relationship between inmate and staff in prisons, witch camp inhabitants tend to have good relationships with any custodians. In his study on Ghanaian witch camps, Saibu Mutaru (2018) notes that in the Kukuo camp, there is an earth shrine that prohibits the custodian from being disrespectful or hostile towards any accused witches.

Furthermore, the traditional prison has a pervasive surveillance model. People living in witch camps, however, are not bound by any supervision or monitoring from a higher authority.

A man in a bright blue shirt sits with his arms on his knees at the stumpy roots of a large tree
This earth priest is the overseer of the Tindanʒee witch camp in Kpatinga, located in the Northern Region of Ghana. Image Source: Wikimedia Creative Commons

Addressing Witchcraft

The Role of Traditional Authorities

As educated individuals and healers, it is said that chiefs should reject notions of witchcraft in Ghana. However, this stands in conflict with their role in society as representatives of deities and ancestors. With their power residing in the ‘invisible world’ of the supernatural, it forces leaders to produce a reality that recognises witchcraft.

A Ghanaian man in an orange patterned robe kneels down holding a twisted golden stick
A Tribal Chief in Ghana. Image Source: USAID Africa Bureau via Wikimedia Creative Commons

The Role of the Media

Current representations of witchcraft in Ghanaian mass media exclude the complex power dynamics and socioeconomic frameworks in which allegations arise. Presented in this way, the problem lacks a basis for interpretation and critical analysis. This is where anthropologists have sought to fill the gaps by unravelling surface-level images of witchcraft to reveal the socio-political processes that lie beneath them.

Indeed, discussion of witchcraft in mass media can generate awareness and bring attention to the existence of such practices. However, to move beyond simply identifying witchcraft, media outlets should consider the ways they construct the witch. How does a news article about an accused witch banished to a harsh camp advance the discussion around actually addressing witchcraft? Does it merely describe? Or does it create a discourse that encourages critical thinking into the fundamental social processes of Ghana?

The Role of NGOs

The primary aims of NGOs in relation to witchcraft are to end the mistreatment of alleged witches and create awareness of human rights abuse.

ActionAid, a woman’s rights organisation, partners local women’s organisations from around the world to support them in actions for gender equality and justice. In the context of Ghana, ActionAid aims to protect the vulnerable and generate understanding about gender inequality.

A red speech bubble with white text that reads 'Changing the word with women and girls act!onaid'
Image Source: https://www.actionaid.org.uk/blog

National Policy Facilitator, Eunice Agbenyadzi, highlighted gender inequality in human rights: ‘why we haven’t called the camps wizard camps but witch camps.’

Here, a discussion of witchcraft bypasses the simple and descriptive accounts that are often presented in the media. With gender equality as a central theme, ActionAid contributes to a deeper conversation about witchcraft as a tool of social control rather than merely a primitive belief system.

A group of Ghanaian Women stand together with raised fists and smiles on their faces
Image Source: https://ghana.actionaid.org/

Moving Forward

Rather than focusing on witchcraft accusations in general, we should give thought to the social context in which they occur. For example, we might question why accusations fall disproportionally on women to reveal underlying social issues that perpetuate this sort of discriminatory violence.

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