My Interaction With ‘The Witches’

It has been a decade since I last had an injection. Until that rush to the Nyaho Medical Centre in Accra on December 29, 2013, I had always survived on oral treatments for the intermittent fever, headaches and stress that come with this business of journalism.

That is understandable, given it that unlike the one that occasioned my going to Nyaho that fateful night and the one before it in 2004, most of my ‘sicknesses’ had not been diagnosed as serious, hence the nurses’ decisions to always rely on drugs instead of the needle to relieve me of those disorders.

In the 2004 case, for instance, the community nurse’s explanation for opting for an injection over oral treatment for the malaria I had was that I had been overexposed to the malaria parasite carrier – the anopheles mosquito – and, therefore, required an injection to be able to recover and regain my health and energy quickly.

I agreed with her totally because in the run-up to that bout of malaria and after, I was sleeping on some wooden planks in the garage of the Bolgatanga Senior High School (BIGBOSS) Administration Block.

On those planks, some childhood friends, my mates from Winkogo, which hosts the regional senior high school, and I often whiled away our early night hours, mostly between 8p.m. and midnight, while we waited for BIGBOSS students to desert their various classrooms for us to use the light to study.

Our hustle to study was occasioned by the non-availability of electricity in our various homes.

But given that the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE), for which we were candidates, was just around the corner and we needed extra time beyond the normal classes hours to study, we did not mind exposing our bodies to the anguish of the weather and the night.

Therefore, in that garage, which I often picture with nostalgic feelings, we competed for space to study and as a result, exposed ourselves to dozens of mosquitoes breeding in the weeds nearby.

The journey to and from the school and staying awake to study was even the more dangerous. On one occasion, a scorpion stung Evans ‘Down Blow’ Agongo, a neighbour and close childhood friend, while we were on our way to our reading venue and that caused us to suspend the reading ‘escapade’ that night.

Thus, as far as the search for electricity to study was concerned, our lifestyle then, however young we were, was more of taking risks, albeit calculated.

As a result, hearing the nurse, who was also the wife of one of the teachers at BIGBOSS at the time, say that I was overexposed to the mosquitoes and cold was not news.

But that is now history, especially given that I was able to overpower that malaria, thanks to the treatment, pass the BECE, continue to BIGBOSS and later to the Ghana Institute of Journalism (GIJ), where I learnt how to report from any place, including a ‘witches camp’.

History of Gambaga camp

Not many journalists in the world fancy festive seasons. I am not an exception. That is because as people celebrate these occasions in the arms of their friends and loved ones, journalists are always out and about, nosing for news around that season to feed the celebrating public.

The same happened during last year’s Christmas.

Within the period, Edmund Kofi Yeboah, Seth J. Bokpe, friends at Graphic, and I were deployed to the Gambaga Witches Camp, the Dwarfs Island and Nzulezo, respectively to observe and report on the Christmas celebrations in those areas.

The Gambaga Camp is one of six such facilities in the Northern Region serving as refugee camps for people accused of witchcraft.

Oral tradition has it that the camp was initiated by a Muslim cleric, Imam Baba, in response to series of brutalities meted to accused witches.

Banishing alleged witches was so horrifying that the Muslim cleric started the settlement on the outskirts of Gambaga but when the inhabitants increased, the cleric reportedly handed it over to the Gambarana, the traditional and spiritual leader of the Gambaga township, for spiritual cleansing, otherwise described as de-witching.

That tradition of de-witching, which starts with the determination of witchcraft, has since been handed down from generation to generation and the current Gambarana, Chief Yahaya Wuni, explains that nobody stays in the camp without first going through it.

“When they come, I perform my rituals and consult with my gods to see if the person actually sees. After that, I cleanse the person and give her a place to live in the camp,” he said in our last meeting in December, last year.

Those rituals involve the killing of a cock whose lying position, either supine or prostrate, determines the truth or otherwise of a witchcraft allegation levelled against anyone dragged to the palace.

Chief Yahaya, who has been on the skin for nearly a decade, reminisced that he was yet to return anyone the rituals had proved innocent back to where she came from.

‘Bewitchment’

It has been eight months since I returned from the camp but images of the place, the people and their voices are still fresh and clear in my mind.

I still see Hafisha, the 20-year-old accused of profiting from her mother’s witchcraft, struggling to hold back tears although they forced themselves onto her pulpy cheeks. The story of how Fatima, an accused, fled her house while blood dripped from a deep cut on her mid-neck still rings a bell.

The same applies to Ashietu. She escaped mob justice for allegedly drowning a neighbour’s son in a dream. Images of me dancing, interviewing and mingling with these women and children, who are seen as outcasts, are still luminous and stories of how people keep a distance from them, be it at the borehole, grinding mill or market square, continue to beam in my mind.

Back from camp

That is why I collapsed while on my way home and was rushed to the Nyaho Medical Centre in the evening of December 29 – the very day I returned from the camp.

It was the first time in over a decade that sickness had, within the twinkling of an eye, dismantled my otherwise crispy body.

As was to be expected, relatives, colleagues and friends cheerfully teased that the witches had bewitched me, hence my sickness immediately after my return from the place.

While I often smiled as a response to such teasing, hearing them reminded me of how Samson Laar, the young man catering for the women, suffered a leg fracture in the course of duty. He, like me, was also teased and even advised by friends and relatives to quit his job else the ‘witches’ would ‘finish’ him.

“People were saying they had run out of meat that is why they are now turning to me,” Mr Laar, a die-hard Presbyterian, told me at the time.

But like his case, I falling sick immediately after returning from the camp was only coincidental. It was a reflection of how the human body cannot forever contain excess stress, virtual starvation and exposure to cold and mosquitoes, which I had done before and during the five-day journey.

Sadly, however, what this meant was that this coincidence could have triggered a mob justice against otherwise innocent women, forcing them to seek refuge either in the Gambaga, Gnani, Kukuo, Kpatinga, Bonyase or Nabuli camps, all in the Northern Region.

And whenever I think of it, I cannot but quickly believe that mere perception indeed kills. The earlier we erase this perception, the better.

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