Bewitched, bothered and bewildered: a study of witchcraft accusation in Northern Ghana by Issah Wumbla

Witchcraft accusation and consequent banishment that still persists globally can be viewed as a form of violence against women and children. While it is believed that women are accused of witchcraft mainly due to their socio-economic status, an intersectional analysis of witchcraft accusation in Northern Ghana shows that other factors also contribute.


Could you imagine justice depending on the posture of a dying chicken? Such is the case of determining who is a witch in the witch-finding shrine at Gambaga. In the court of the god (judge), both the accused and the accuser present a live chicken to be used for the ritualistic trial process by the priest. If the slaughtered chicken lies on its breast as it dies, then the accused is guilty. If the chicken lies on its back with wings spread upwards, then the accusation is false.  This is what a partial observer of the of the witch trial process at the Gambaga witch-trying shrine might think. Believe it or not, witchcraft accusation and consequent banishment persists globally and can be viewed as a form of violence against women and children. However, the means of identifying a witch can be ridiculous as the one explained above.

While it is believed that women are accused of witchcraft mainly because of their gender, an intersectional analysis of witchcraft accusation in Northern Ghana shows that other factors also contribute. Ongoing research on the phenomenon of witchcraft accusation and banishment of women suspected to be witches indicates that the interaction of multiple identity categories such as gender, socio-economic conditions, age, or institutional practices influences the process of witchcraft accusation and subsequent banishment.

The call for the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, and the elimination of all forms of violence and harmful practices against women as stipulated by the Sustainable Development Goal 5 could not have come at a better time. At present, violence against women has assumed rather subtle forms, sometimes passing by unnoticed. Witchcraft branding and the banishment of alleged witches from their communities to seek refuge in witches’ camps, as is still practiced in Northern Ghana, is one such a subtle form of violence against women that requires the attention of scholars and policy-makers alike.

Understanding the phenomenon however, requires investigating it in a more nuanced and pragmatic manner than just considering it as old women’s issue that demands legal and or policy attention. An analysis of the way in which gender intersects with other statuses of power and how the daily struggles for dominion and control over socially valued resources between women and between women and men is vital. My resent research paper titled “Condemned without hearing”[1] provides an intersectional analysis of how gender interacts with age, and socio-economic conditions to contribute to the branding of some women as witches and the practice of banishment.

The research was conducted in the at the Gambaga Witches’ camp[2] and Gbangu in the East Mamprusi District of the Northern Region of Ghana. The study sought to find out how the social positioning of women contribute to discrimination against them in context of witchcraft accusation and exiling of suspected witches. Based on the objective, I did a mini survey on the socio-demographic characteristics of the inmates of the Gambaga witches’ camp and interviewed fifteen of them. The manager of the Presbyterian Go Home Project was a key informant. The interview questions were centered on their experience of accusation and the accusation process. The interviewees provided insights into the social values and structures that influence beliefs and practices in communities, as well as women’s own life experiences and strategies in coping with their situation. Fifteen people from the Gbangu community were also interviewed. Gbangu is a nearby community to Gambaga where the belief in witchcraft was common. These interviews and survey were conducted within a two month’s (mid-July to Mid-September 2017) field work.

Factors affecting witchcraft allegation

The findings are fascinating. Firstly, the study showed that gender is a major social category that influences witchcraft accusation. Women’s susceptibility to allegation is not due to their gender per se. However, their vulnerability emanates from the constructed roles and expectations of women and men. Some practices that are imbedded in some institutions locate some women in lower status of power, making them experience witchcraft allegation and its associated violence differently as compared to men and other women.

Secondly, socio-economic conditions of women contribute to witchcraft accusation. Both relative success in economic ventures and poverty make women the target of witchcraft accusation. The differences between the relative well-off women and the poor in relation to accusation is that those economically well off are also located in other social categories of higher status of power that work to their advantage amidst accusation whereas the poor women are usually located in other categories of low status of power making their experience of accusation and oppression different.

Thirdly, old age usually coupled with the status of widowhood and poor family backgrounds has proved crucial for the understanding of women’s vulnerability to witchcraft branding and exiling. Most of the women surveyed were widows and attested to being affiliated to and dependent on poor family members; as a result, they were defenseless when accused.

Fourthly, there are three levels of decision-making in witchcraft accusation within the accused community thus; at the family, the clan, and community chief’s level. Before reaching the witch finding shrine at Gambaga, leaders of at least one of these levels would have decided or been consulted. And at all these levels, the interactions of all the categories mentioned above influence the decision-making process. Having strong connections such as influential children, affiliation to royalty of good standing, being economically self-dependent as well as a lack of them influences the final decision regarding accusation. These apply to the process of accusation since it is related to the decision-making process.

Concluding remarks

Intersectionality and power relations (Foucauldian power/knowledge)[3] help in our understanding of how the locations of some women accused of witchcraft in multiple social categories (gender, socio-economic conditions, and old age) make their experiences of accusation different than others because the interactions of such multiple identities can mutually strengthen or weaken each other. The concepts also help in the making of meaning in the decision-making process and the process of accusation itself in witchcraft allegation.

Overall, gender, socio-economic conditions, and old age are key factors that influence accusation and related treatment. However, one of these categories or statuses of power considered in this research standing alone is inadequate to explain women’s susceptibility to witchcraft allegation and its related violence. Being placed differently in multiple statuses of power makes women´s experience of violence different from one individual to another. Depending on how many of these categories an accused person belongs to, a woman could be less vulnerable, more vulnerable, or not vulnerable at all. The interactions of gender with socio-economic conditions and age, and their embeddedness in institutions and structures in the accused original communities, influence the processes of accusation and decision making regarding suspected witches.

In general terms, I am convinced this can apply to other forms of violence against women. So, policies and programs aimed at curbing violence should consider the differences in women as starting point for analyzing such phenomena and how they should be addressed. Measures aimed at addressing violence against women might fall through the boundaries at the intersections of the various categories of power and gender related to the problem in context.

[1] Wumbla, I. (2018) ‘Condemned without Hearing: An Intersectional Analysis of the Practice of Branding, Banishing, and Camping of Alleged Witches in Northern Ghana’, ISS Working Paper Series/General Series 633(633): 1-51.

[2] Gambaga is the is the capital of the East Mamprusi District. The camp is in the middle of the town and serves as a refuge for accused witches who are banished from their communities.

[3] Sawiwki, J. (1986) ‘Foucault and Feminism: Toward a Politics of Difference’, Hypatia 1(2): 23-36.

Winker, G. and N. Degele (2011) ‘Intersectionality as Multi-Level Analysis: Dealing with Social Inequality’, European Journal of Women’s Studies 18(1): 51-66.


Image Credit: African Gender Institute/Groupuscule



About the author:

Wumbla Issah holds a Master of Arts in Development Studies-Human Rights, Gender and Conflict Studies: Social Justice Perspectives, a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work with Political Science from the University of Ghana and a Diploma in Basic Education from Gbewaa College of Education. He has has varied research interests in gender issues and development, Child rights, youth and development, educational policies, and social justice. He is a professional teacher and social worker with experience in Teaching, Community Development, and Human Rights Advocacy.

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