A rusty motorbike speeds across the vast dry savannah of Ghana’s impoverished northern region, leaving a cloud of reddish dust in its wake. Arriving at a small group of round thatched huts, the young motorcyclist helps his old mother to dismount to begin her new life in exile.
Frail 82-year-old Samata Abdulai has arrived at the village of Kukuo, one of Ghana’s six witch camps, where women accused of witchcraft seek refuge from beating, torture or lynching.
The camps are said to have come into existence more than 100 years ago, when village chiefs decided to establish isolated safe areas for the women. They are run by tindanas, leaders capable of cleansing an accused woman so that not only is the community protected from any witchcraft but the woman herself is safe from vigilantes.
Today they are still run by local chiefs, and accommodate up to 1,000 women in spartan huts with no electricity or running water, and roofs that leak.
Once people call you a witch, your life is in danger and so without waiting to pick up any of my belongings, I just fled” -Samata
For water, the inhabitants of the Kukuo camp walk three miles each day to the River Otti, struggling back uphill with heavy pots of water. It’s an intolerable way for an elderly woman to live, but it’s a life they are prepared to endure so long as they are safe. They survive by collecting firewood, selling little bags of peanuts or working in nearby farms.
Samata lived some 40km (24 miles) away in the village of Bulli. There she spent her autumn years caring for her twin grandchildren while her daughter worked in the fields. It was a happy, fulfilled existence, a gentle winding down after a long working life as a second-hand clothes trader. Then suddenly one day one of her brothers came to warn her that villagers had begun blaming her for the death of her niece, a young girl on whom Samata was accused of putting a spell.
“I was confused and filled with fear because I knew I was innocent,” she says. “But I know that once people call you a witch your life is in danger and so without waiting to pick up any of my belongings, I just fled from the village.”
The witch camps appear to be unique to northern Ghana. But Ghana shares with other African countries an endemic belief in witchcraft with illness, drought, fires and other natural disasters blamed on black magic. The alleged witches are nearly always elderly.
An ActionAid report on witch camps, published this week, says that more than 70% of residents in Kukuo camp were accused and banished after their husbands died – suggesting that witchcraft allegations are a way of enabling the family to take control of the widow’s property.
“The camps are a dramatic manifestation of the status of women in Ghana,” says Professor Dzodzi Tsikata of the University of Ghana. “Older women become a target because they are no longer useful to society.”
Women who do not conform to society’s expectations also fall victim to the accusations of witchcraft, according to Lamnatu Adam of the women’s rights group Songtaba.
One of Samata’s younger sisters, 52-year-old Safia, is also living at Kukuo. She first came here to join her own mother and grandmother, both of them banished from the community for the same reason. “They are not witches,” Safia says. “This is just hatred, jealousy and a way to get rid of you.”
Like most members of the witch camps, including Samata, Safia believes in the existence of witches but feels many women have been unfairly accused.
Related: Ghanian Witches (Video)