THE OLD LADIES’ OF GAMBAGA (GAMBAGA WITCHES CAMP)
A woman from the camp recounts: “My brother-in-law’s son got very ill and I was accused. According to the little boy, he saw me giving him “koose”(a popular beans cake usually taken with porridge) in his dream. I was given a week ultimatum to heal the boy or face the consequences thereof. I tried to convince them of my innocence. One midnight after the week had passed; I was dragged into a nearby bush by my brother in law, my husband and a host of other men from our house and asked to show them herbs that can break my spell on the little boy. According to them a local fetish had told them I could show them particular herbs to break the spell. In my confusion I begged, pleaded but they wouldn’t listen. Suddenly they produced canes from nowhere and started beating me with them, my husband inclusive. I passed out and woke up the following day naked in the middle of the bush covered in leaves and “pito”. I had to run away”
This is one of the few horrific stories you hear from the inhabitants of this camp.
Gambaga, previous capital of the northern region is one of the towns in the East Mamprusi district in the northern region of Ghana. It is this camp that hosts the infamous witches’ camp which is monitored by the chief, Yahaya Wuni.
This camp was established about 200 years ago. Currently has a population of 130 women “(witches)”.
The youngest woman is 17 and the eldest is a 90 plus year old woman.
When one is accused of witchcraft wherever they find themselves(particularly in the northern part of Ghana, they seek to come to the chief in charge of the camp, who then proceeds to perform a ritual to ascertain as to whether the accused is guilty or innocent of the charges being brought against her. It is quite interesting to note that there are no male witches/wizards at the camp. Popular explainations ranging from “men use witchcraft for good”, “male wizards do not eat babies”, “men use witchcraft for the art of war/fight”, etc.
For the ritual, the accused buys or brings along a hen. This hen is then slaughtered. But it is the position of the hen at the time of its death that determines the guilt or the innocence of the accused in addition to other incantations.
If the hen lies on its back at the time of its death, breasts facing the sky, feet up in the air, the accused is guilty
However if the opposite occurs, then the accused is innocent. If they are innocent, they are sent back home and friends and family have no choice than to accept them (which is usually not the case).
An important point made was that, after the performance to ascertain innocence or guilt, the witchcraft spirit leaves or becomes powerless in the accused that has been found guilty. A contradictory point to this was the fact that, if the guilty stays in the camp for a while, and a family member, say a grown up child of the guilty wants their mother back home, a ransom payment in the form of at least one sheep plus three hens has to be paid to the chief to perform a ritual to cleanse her (the guilty) before she can be taken back home.
I found out that there are still “innocent” women who still prefer to stay at the camp because they are scared to go home due to threats by family or community or even stigmatization. The leader of these accused women, Magarzia Asana (Tachira Mutaru), is one of such people. She has two children and comes from Dabare, a smaller village under Sakogu, Nalerigu which is also a neighboring town to Gambaga in the east mamprusi district. she later on admitted the she was free to go home as and when she pleased but she mostly prefered to stay at the camp.
One major decision I took upon speaking to the women, was the fact that I was not going to paint their devastation back to them. These women, broken as they were from their individual traumatic experiences pressed on daily with such resilience and beauty, in the face of all the devastation that engulfed them inside out. It was this beauty and strength I wanted to paint back to them. That they will pick up these images of themselves, and would not be reminded of their unfair condemnation, rather, they’d see a part of themselves that would will them on, to fight. That strong beautiful part of being a woman!