Who is a witch?

Who is a witch?

Thursday, September 8, 2016 7:40 am

Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi

Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi

By Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi

Last week, there were reports and bizarre photographs from Delta State, Nigeria, concerning an alleged witch. The ‘witch’ looked very ill, and was either pregnant or had a massive tumour in her stomach which could indicate any number of serious ailments. She was lynched by a local mob for ‘stealing someone’s pregnancy’.

We all grew up hearing about ‘witches’. Even though no one around us had ever seen one for sure, we were all fed tales about how witches are dangerous, female creatures who afflict people with incurable ailments, offer up their own children to be eaten, strike down successful young people and make women barren. These witches could be anybody. They could be the cantankerous old woman selling provisions near your house who always snarls at you when you go to make a purchase.

She could be a family member who always laughs, smiles and prays for you but wishes you evil. She could also be a co-wife who is the readymade suspect should any calamity befall other wives in the household. From the way we understood it, witches could be young or old, male or female (but predominantly female), with the powers to leave their bodies at night to attend meetings, or inhabit animals such as birds or cats to carry out their nefarious activities.

Belief in witchcraft is as old as civilization itself, featuring in all cultures around the world. During the years of the Catholic inquisition which swept Europe for up to four centuries, thousands of women were burned at the stake on accusations of witchcraft. The persecution of witches seemed to end with the emergence of industrialization and respect for science. In many African communities, a firm belief in witchcraft is still in place, with the themes virtually the same – witches are responsible for all evil in the community, they prey on the young and innocent and they block people’s fortunes.

I have argued over the years, that beliefs in witchcraft in many African communities are linked to the need to control women’s agency. Due to the significant role women played in the economic, political, social and cultural lives of their communities, they obviously rubbed patriarchal structures the wrong way, and accusations of witchcraft were a good way to silence or delegitimize them.

With these beliefs about so-called witches comes a clear persecution agenda. Anyone who is suspected of being a witch or who ‘confesses’ to being one faces the harshest of punishments, ranging from beatings and torture, to banishment and even death. These sanctions are often overseen or sanctioned by religious and traditional rulers. As a result the lives of thousands of women are put at risk across Africa every day. Majority of witches are old, poor women, or widows, some mentally ill, with either no one to speak up for them or offspring who have been brainwashed into believing their guilt. Recently, there was the report of a young man in Nigeria who killed his mother by throwing her into a well. He claimed that she was responsible for all his misfortunes.

In Ghana, the practice of banishing poor, old women or widows suspected to be witches led to the establishment of witch camps in communities across Northern Ghana. One of the oldest, the Gambaga Witches Camp, was established in the 18th century, as a safe haven for witches fleeing persecution. In return for shelter, they worked on the Chiefs’ farms. These camps still exist, and the Gambaga Witches Camp is one of the projects we supported at the African Women’s Development Fund.

We also supported an interesting documentary on this phenomenon called The Witches of Gambaga, produced by Yaba Badoe, a Ghanaian-British filmmaker. The Ghanaian government has tried to shut down these camps, running sensitisation programs in communities to try and wean them off their belief in witchcraft but their efforts have not been successful. The reverse has been the case – the camps keep filling up either because more women are being chased out of their communities or simply because being poor and alone, there is nowhere else for them to go.

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Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at [email protected]

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