Witchcraft studies

The gendered nature of witchcraft accusations aimed at women who deviate from accepted social norms.

A Vodun shrine in Benin. Image credit Linda De Volder via Flickr CC.

Belief in witchcraft remains a confounding issue in many African societies. An increasing number of people say they believe in the suzerainty of one God, but activities abound that show a reverence to whatever spirits remain. In Ghana for instance, filmmakers, actors, and producers in Ghallywood, who have to film a scene involving witchcraft, have been known to perform various Christian rituals like praying before and after to prevent evil spirits from coming into their lives.

The recently published, Witchcraft as a Social Diagnosis, by Roxanne Richter, Thomas Flowers and Elias Bongmba, presents an interesting convergence of humanitarian work and scholarly research to examine the gendered nature of witchcraft accusations in Ghana and across Africa. It interrogates feminist discussions on the marginalization of women accused of witchcraft. The book focuses specifically on the field of medicine, presenting and analyzing statistical data on gendered medical issues, health insurance, etcetera, as they relate to witchcraft in Ghana. It also provides readers context by exploring the notions of taboo and issues such as the stigmatization of people with albinism, epilepsy, and ostracism towards the birth of triplets in certain parts of northern Ghana. The book examines the stigma surrounding these medical issues and its connection to the widespread belief in witchcraft in that region.

In connecting the stigma towards these medical conditions across other African societies outside Ghana, the book shows that the tendency to accuse elderly people, particularly women who deviate from social norms, is not limited to Ghana. We see how the accusations and banishment to witch villages adversely shape the physical and mental health, material reality, and lived experiences of victims of these accusations. “I am sixty-six years old now,” one man says, “I have been here for about twenty years now. Because of that, I missed my family for many years. However, I was very strong when I was brought here and one juju woman who claimed to be somebody who could detect somebody who has witchcraft powers.”

Though most work (documentaries especially) on witchcraft in northern Ghana have focused on the Gambaga witch village, a shelter for women accused of witchcraft, this book focuses on the Gnani, also in the north. Gnani witch village serves as a shelter to both men and women accused of witchcraft. There, the researchers interact with people accused of witchcraft, and present the subsequent social, religious, and economic implications of witchcraft accusations on their lives.

The attempt to generalize from one community to across a country and continent comes up against a number of limits, however. One of the arguments presented in the book is the claim that among ethnic groups in this area there is “medical pluralism,” meaning that there are no institutions or individuals assigned to be in charge of medical issues. This claim is untrue as the Dagbamba, like many ethnic groups in Ghana, have traditional healers. Community members look to these healers for remedies for various sicknesses. In fact, among the Dagbamba there are traditional health specialists in orthopedics. As far as the treatment of bone fractures is concerned, the tuɣlana was/is usually preferred over western medicine. This argument of “medical pluralism” was based on past research on the Dagbamba that drew unfounded conclusions on the medical practices of the people in the area.

In the sphere of contemporary culture, the decision to draw on Kumawood (Kumasi’s film industry) films to understand people’s perceptions of witchcraft is baffling. Though both Kumawood and the Dagbanli film industry are Ghanaian film industries, Tamale’s film industry provides more context since it mediates the socio-cultural reality of the Dagbamba in the region where the Gnani witch village is located. This is especially since Dagbanli films like Kali Duu have complicated depictions of the ways in which African traditional religions are practiced, perceived, and have been maintained in this part of the country.

So while the book attempts to make an empirical sense of issues surrounding witchcraft accusations and diseases, it fundamentally stumbles over how to effectively explain the turn to the supernatural realm for answers. In this way, the main argument becomes a Manichean battle of western medicine against African epistemologies and belief systems. It also doesn’t help that the book’s “feminist” argument—that the Abrahamic religions and African traditional religions collude to reinforce harmful notions about gendered witchcraft accusations—is confused with an effort to speak from a position of “objectivity.” This causes it to inadvertently demonize African traditional religions. An extensive discussion of African traditional religions would have provided the authors with a stronger contextual foundation upon which to build their argument, by demonstrating to readers how witchcraft is embedded, embodied, and conceptualized within this region.

The recommendations offered to address the issue of stigmatizing elderly women who are accused of witchcraft seem practicable. Many, including Ghana’s Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection would be wise to implement them. Although people accused of witchcraft are usually women, in the Gnani witch village there are also men accused of witchcraft. So while it makes sense that the book examines the gendered dynamics of witchcraft accusations focusing disproportionately on women, it would have made their main argument stronger to explore the roots of this phenomenon.

Further Reading