Saturday Sun reporter’s account of his visit to the sanctuary city of Gambaga in Northern Ghana
It is a place of heat and dust. On a November noon, natives went about their businesses with superb nonchalance, seemingly untouched by the scorching heat.
Welcome to Gambaga, capital of the East Mamprusi District in the Northern Region of Ghana. Gambaga resonates in Ghana as the legendary refuge for retired, reformed or rescued witches.
Coastal cities of the former Gold Coast country are dotted with castles and forts that are the vestige of the slavery past. The northern part of the country is dotted with a pocket of witches camps where those accused of witchcraft seek refuge from the wrath of the society.
At the camp
My first encounter was with 75-year-old Madam Tachira Muktaru. She had hardly begun her story when pandemonium broke out outside, inside the compound of five mud huts with thatched roof. A woman was wailing uncontrollably. She was the latest arrival at the popular witches camp.
Thick and tall Muktaru clocked eight years in the camp in December 2014. As Magajia (Hausa word for ‘overseer’) she was the caretaker of fellow alleged witches. This day, Muktaru, who had been Magajia for four years, had the onerous task of making the wailing woman see a positive meaning in life. Like every other alleged witch in the camp did, this newcomer would weep for many days and nights, brooding over the loss of her integrity as well as her inability to return to her family members and loved ones. The effort of the
Magajia, coupled with counselling by people like the resident minister of the local Presbyterian Church and the manager of the church’s Go Home Project, would eventually make her feel at home.
Some newcomers go on hunger strike for days. Such was the behaviour of Tiek Nkeba when he arrived at the camp on November 1, 2014, from Yunyoo in the Bunkpurugu Yunyoo District, together with one of his wives.
Though he did not reveal his exact age, he readily confessed that he had had two wives and eight children. But before he could continue, he broke down; his voice sank, and tears welled in his weary eyes. “I am very disturbed,” he said through an interpreter, furrows of fear etched across his forehead. “I don’t know how to think. I don’t want to talk.”
He owned large farms of yams and beans and was immensely prosperous to the point that those envious of him began to falsely accuse him of wizardry. As a result, Nkeba would live in the camp for a number of years facing an uncertain future.
He had not a premonition of the danger till the moment his accusers pounced on him and one of his wives. Having survived the attack, they made their way to Gambaga.
Nkeba vehemently denied being a wizard before his captors, he however, failed the acid test, the ritual usually administered on suspected witches and wizards.
“I ran here because I would have killed myself before those people killed me,” he said.
At the last count, the camp was hosting 128 inmates – 83 adults and 45 children – from 64 communities in five districts, according to Samson Kangben Laar, manager of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana’s Go Home Project.
Following rampant torture and lynching of alleged witches in the 1980s, the church established the project in 1996 with the aim of reintegrating the rescued witches into their hometowns peacefully.
“Sometimes,” Laar, who had been in charge of the Go Home Project since 2010, continued, “they will beat someone so severely and it becomes our duty to send the person to the hospital to save his life.”
“When they are accused, they run; if they don’t, they will be killed. Two weeks ago, they accused one man and the wife––referring to Nkeba––of being witches. They beat them. Now, the woman says she is not well and I am going to send her to the hospital.
“Some victims had died as a result of the beatings. There was a woman at Bunkpurugu Yunyoo District who was beaten so badly that before we could get there, she was dead.”
In some cases, social workers fall victim of the attacks. “It is a very risky job,” Laar confessed. “If you are not careful when you go to the field, you can even be beaten to death because people who are furious about witchcraft accuse you of pampering witches.”
Back to the witches. A chapter of life that Magajia Adam Tachira Muktaru would not want to reminisce was the ridicule of eight years ago. “We were accused and mocked every day, but in this camp, there is nothing like that. We don’t hear of anything. We are free. I am happy to be here. We are happy because we no longer get problems.”
Zinabu Sugri, in her 80s, was one of the few who escaped physical abuse prior to arriving in the camp.
She was accused of being responsible for illnesses and death in her community on more than three occasions.
“Anytime someone was sick in the village,” Sugri recalled, “they kept on saying I was the one. It haunted me. It was a nightmare for me. ”
The day she got a chance to join a vehicle to Nalerigu, about 20-minute drive from Gambaga, she ‘grabbed’ the opportunity with both hands, “I decided that it was better to come to Gambaga than be in a community that visited you with so much hatred, a community where people kept calling me a witch. I feared that one day something would happen to me.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Sugri believed she took a wise decision. “I’m very happy,” she said, “and I’m free here because I don’t hear those rumours again.”
Zinabu Boige who arrived in the camp more than 30 years ago, was not so fortunate. She escaped death by the whiskers. “They beat me till I ran here,” she recounted. Having lost three of her four children under mysterious circumstances, she was accused of killing another person’s child.
Life in the camp was not a bed of roses. Inmates agreed the first few weeks and months can be depressing, especially when they brood over what they left back home.
“I have left behind my children and my farms which are ready for harvesting,” Nkeba lamented.
For Mma Kpagurigu, a 30-year inmate, loneliness was a second nature.
Napoa Dimongso, was dumped in Gambaga by her husband in 2004.
“We were three women married to one man,” she began. “One day, a rival’s child died and I was accused of bewitching the child. My husband carried me to Gambaga and left me with Gambarana (The Chief of Gambaga).”
Being childless, Dimongso had trained herself to get used to loneliness. Unlike her, other women had children and grandchildren who followed them to the camp.
Dimongso’s immediate neighbour, Sugri, sat on a kitchen stool proudly removing the pod of groundnuts in a basket. The nuts were payment her three grandchildren brought home after working on someone’s farm.
Having lived in the camp for 10 years, Sugri acknowledged the importance of the company of her grandchildren. “My children brought me my grandchildren because they want to show them affection,” she said.
Her story highlighted how the camp offered respite for some relatives of the accused too. In Sugri’s case, some of her children were no longer in marriage and their children were stranded. Leaving the grandchildren with her lessened the burden on the divorcees. “I am taking care of them,” she said, revealing that all the grandchildren were in school, courtesy of the Go Home Project, and they work on people’s farms outside school hours.
Boige has had the company of Nlani, her only surviving child, for about six years. Nlani, 18, has multiple disabilities with pronounced speech and physical deformity.
Some witches dream of going back to their home sometime in the future, not so Boige who swore that wild horses cannot drag her back to her old home. The ordeal of 30 years ago discouraged her from ever returning home. Now she wished someone would build a home for her and Nlani and perhaps offer her micro-credit that will enable her to engage in an income-generating activity.
Usually, alleged witches do challenge their accusers and such cases are brought before the Gambarana, because he is believed to possess powers that can strip someone of witchcraft. At the chief’s palace, a fowl has the final say, according to Laar, who had witnessed several traditional trials of alleged witches.
Once a suspected witch or wizard is brought before the Gambarana, the chief would slaughter a fowl and leave it to writhe. The fowl’s position in death determines whether the suspect is convicted or exonerated of the charge of witchcraft.
Laar declared, “If the dead fowl lies on its stomach, it confirms you are a witch. But if it lies on its back, you are not. I have seen several and it is wonderful. Sometimes, the Gambarana will tell you, you are not a witch but if your accusers argue and the fowl is slaughtered, it will actually lie on its back.”
Laar had seen cases where both the Gambarana and the fowl adjudicated that an accused was innocent but the accusers – sometimes family members – refused to go back home with the accused anyway. “We normally negotiate for them to go back home,” he said. “But if that is not possible, then, they stay in the camp.”
The long wait
Presently, the camp has 89 rooms designed in the form of traditional round mud hut roofed with thatch. Each compound consisted of four or five houses.
With inmates numbering 83 adults and 45 children, many of them shared rooms, without electricity. During the day, a hall provided by the Go Home Project mostly served as an entertainment centre where inmates––young and old––gathered to watch television.
Nevertheless, a majority of the inmates continued to wait for the day they would return home from ‘exile’ and embrace relatives and friends once again.
Dimongso said: “I want to go but if only they (accusers) come and say they want me back.”
Old age is catching up with some of the inmates and death is knocking naturally. The fear is that even in death, there may not be dignity for a lot of them.
“They have been dying,” Laar informed. “When they die, we bury them, whether relatives hold funeral for them or not, we don’t really know.”
A good number of the inmates had been fortunate to return home alive.
“I took over in 2010,” Laar continued. “By 2014, we have sent 51 of them home. The problem is that despite the efforts we are making, many more are also coming in. That is not helping matters at all. That is why we are encouraging community education.”