Article 22 November

Visiting Ghana's notorious village for witches

Author and motorcycle adventurer, Alan Whelan, visits a village where people accused of witchcraft live in exile

Thirty kilometres along the dirt road from Yendi I see a man dozing under a tree.

‘Is this Gnani?’ I holler, using what I believe to be the correct pronunciation, ‘Nanny’.

‘It is Gnani. You are welcome here.’

‘I’m looking for the outcasts’ camp.’

‘Wha’?’

I am loath to use the local name.

‘The outcasts?’

Nothing.

‘The witches’ camp.’

‘Ah, the witches are down there,’ he points further off the road. ‘I will take.’

He gets on a bicycle and leads me 500 metres down a track, then hands me to another who takes me further across country to a collection of rudimentary mud and concrete huts with thatch roofs but no doors. The camp – village – is almost deserted, save for some grazing goats and a few elderly women with faces like masks dejectedly staring into space.

‘Where is everyone?’ I ask my young guide.

‘The younger ones are farming. Millet and rice.’

The guide tells a boy to get the ‘caretaker’. The boy sprints out of the village. There is another man in western clothing who says he is from an NGO and is encouraging the outcasts to sign up for state healthcare. His name is Abdullah Mohammed.

‘Are these the witches?’ I ask.

‘And wizards,’ Abdullah adds. ‘But nobody would come here for any reason. And yet you are here.’

‘I can’t deny it. How many outcasts live here?’ I ask.

‘I have not yet met them all. I arrived yesterday, but I think maybe 100.’

The caretaker arrives and once he sees I am taken care of, he goes into a hut. On the wall someone has written, “Enter inside the house with peace and go out with achievement”, together with what looks like a cellphone number.

An old woman is sitting on a boulder, staring into the distance with a face that has been waiting for 1,000 years. She is barefoot and dressed in good clothes gone to rags: a light top, a green wrap-around skirt and an ancient headdress. I approach, which prompts her to bow her head and hold out her palm, not for alms but as a gesture of submission. I sit on a stone close by and offer my hand, which she receives as though it were a sacrament.

‘Hello, how are you?’ I say.

I get a hint of a smile, followed by a mumble in Dagbani.

I ask Abdullah, ‘What did she say?’

‘She welcomes you to the outcasts’ camp, and wonders from where you have come.’

‘Tell her I’m from England. Ask her what her name is and why she was sent here.’

The translation comes back: ‘Fati Adam is her name. A child was killed – died – in her village, so she is the witch. The villagers cannot explain the child’s death, so they say she practised witchcraft. She is banished here, with all these people.’

‘Do you believe she is a witch?’

‘It is not for me... the village people have their ways. This man over here is a wizard.’

A man full of vacancy who has a gruesome head injury is surprised suddenly to be the centre of attention. He appears to have a mental disability of some kind, and if his head injury pre-dated his banishment to Gnani, it would have made him an easy victim when the witch-finders came looking for a scapegoat. Throughout the trip I have seen mentally ill or distressed people taunted for fun, and my guess is that this man is another tormented spirit.

‘They are here for life,’ says Abdullah. ‘Once they have been accused of witchcraft or wizardry they must be cleansed after a sacrifice is made to the spirits. Then they are free from the power. Both these people were accused of witchcraft after the death of a child in their village... the others, maybe for different witchcraft.’

‘These people killed children?’

He notes my incredulity.

‘I find that hard to accept,’ I say.

‘If the death cannot be explained, the village believes there must be a witch among them. That is the way.’

I look down at the frail woman beside me who is staring at her bare, arthritic knees.

‘Often, people are accused with no evidence. It is a village decision; it is the way it is,’ says Abdullah. ‘While they live here and have made the sacrifice, the village is safe from them – and they are safe from the village. While they live in Gnani the chief here can take away their powers, but if they return to their village they will be killed. So they have no choice. Would you have a choice?’

I ask, ‘What do they do with their lives out here?’

‘Some farming. They have to eat. The witches can raise families here, they can even marry the local people, but they must never leave. The older ones like Fati Adam do what little they can.’

I sit down again next to Fati and notice she has two open sores on her feet which are covered in flies. I look into her face, engulfed by the cruel complacency of empty time, and she blinks out from behind a glassy film, probably cataracts. She has dirt in the creases of her wrinkles; calloused, withered, dusty.

‘Will she get medical care?’ I ask.

He looks doubtful.

For my sake, he says, ‘Perhaps.’

Abdullah is no more convinced than I am.

‘Many witches have poor health,’ Abdullah says, warming to his purpose.‘I am taking information so they would register for the National Health Scheme. It is only eight cedis [about £4] a year but many cannot afford it or do not know about it, so they do not register.’

I ask him to ask Fati how long she has lived in the camp.

Her response is weary and whimpering.

‘Many decades,’ he translates. ‘Too long to remember. She is very old, so her daughter has come to look after her.’

A late-middle-aged woman washing clothes in a tub a few paces away who has been ignoring us indicates that she knows she is being talked about, and throws me a cautious glance. It stirs a sadness within me. I have ridden for days to be here and, I have to admit, felt excited about my first meeting with a witch. But now I am here, sitting next to a wronged woman who needs more than anything the love of her family and some urgent healthcare, I am ashamed of my own naked curiosity.

Fati Adam talks to me in a whisper, searching for my face, missing my eyes but rather staring towards the north. The moment stretches into the future, into a life of unjust exile. Patience – or despair incarnate.

‘Ask Fati where her home village is,’ I say.

‘It is over that direction... where she looks.’

The Black Stars of GhanaThis extract was taken from Alan Whelan's latest book, The Black Stars of Ghana. For more information about Alan and his books, visit www.abhaha.com. Or order your copy now on Amazon.