‘I quarrelled with my brother and his family. My brother hit me and made me leave the house. That very night he collapsed and died. His family blamed me: his children beat me up and wanted to kill me. Luckily, my eldest son saved my life. When I was able to move, I set off for Gambaga.’
Amina Wumbala is a 68-year-old widow from the village of Suo in northern Ghana. Her experience is not unusual. Every year in this part of Ghana, hundreds of women endure communal and domestic violence as a result of traditional religious beliefs that demonize women. It’s also assumed that it is in women’s nature to harm others. These beliefs, combined with decades of poor health and educational standards, mean women inhabit a world where it’s believed that nothing – not even illness or death – happens by chance.
For over a century, women from all over the northern region have found refuge in a camp in the town of Gambaga. At the moment there are 80 women living there under the protection of the chief, Gambarrana Yahaya Wuni: the custodian of one of four places of sanctuary for women condemned of witchery.
Women are more likely to be condemned for witchcraft than men (there are only 17 men among the more than 1,000 people in the refuges) because they’re seen as interlopers in the families they’re born into and outsiders in the families they marry into. Although it is usually poor, uneducated women who end up being accused of witchery, no woman is exempt. Asara Azindow was once a wealthy trader with her own restaurant and a house. She was one of three successful women – all running their own businesses and living independently of men – who were accused of starting a meningitis epidemic in 1997. A large crowd of men threatened to beat Asara up; her property was looted and her home destroyed. ‘I didn’t realize how much people hated my independence,’ she says.
She was lucky that she managed to escape the mob. No-one knows the number of women who never reach safety. Yet more women are tortured before they arrive in Gambaga. When Awabu Tamara was named as an accomplice by a friend accused of bewitching a relative’s son, she was taken to a fetish priest for a trial by ordeal. Adamant that she wasn’t a witch, Awabu was tied to a log and tortured for three months. Flesh was ripped from her skull and her back was lacerated with beatings: ‘Eventually, they realized that I’m a person who doesn’t fear anything and they released me. I tried to return to my family compound but when my brothers refused to let me in, I turned my face to Gambaga. That’s why I’m here.’