Whenever an issue divides opinions among Ghanaians, then it’s usually a national matter that has piqued the interest of almost everyone. This week, the controversy surrounding witch camps in the country has reared its head again.

The issue was renewed when it was raised during the vetting of the Minister-designate for Gender, Children and Social Protection, Sarah Adwoa Safo. Facing Parliament’s Appointments Committee on Wednesday, February 18, 2021, she tried to explain why shutting down these witch camps was not tenable.

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Sarah Adwoa Safo
Sarah Adwoa Safo

Asked how she’d address the issue when given the nod as Minister, Adwoa Safo said: “I believe in a rebranding of these camps because as far as the women of these camps are concerned they have found families in these camps and so I will engage them.

“Attempts to withdraw these women have proven difficult in the past that is why I believe that another and a novel approach to dealing with the matter will be more prudent.

“So, if they see it as homes and the ministry supports them with the necessary social amenities that is expected of a state – they are given food, they are put on LEAP, and they are given clothing – I believe that negative branding as a witches camp will be taken away.”

The biggest takeaway from Adwoa Safo’s comment was her bluntness in saying she intends to work to “rebrand” these witch camps, rather than completely close them down.

Many views have been shared on this particular subject, with some agreeing with the Gender Minister-designate and others describing her comments as crass and absurd.

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The Gambaga witch camp
The Gambaga witch camp

Not to cast aside anyone’s view on the matter, but the reality is that there is some logic in remodelling these witch camps. For many people who live down south, there is very little understanding about how these camps came into being and how they even operate.

The inmates of these camps are people who have been ostracised from their homes and families on the allegation that they are witches. These people are outcasts to their families and societies and, therefore, are scared to return to their homes.

What many have so far failed to see if that, while these witch camps appear to be prisons – and they actually are – they equally serve as sanctuaries for the women sent there. The women and children are there because their families do not want them.

What that means is that completely shutting down these camps will, in effect, mean rendering all these inmates homeless. That’s why Adwoa Safo’s intention to rebrand these witch camps makes some sense.

“Rebranding”, in her own words, means the Ministry will provide the necessary social amenities for the women, give them food, clothing and offer them jobs by putting them on the LEAP programme. For all the absurdity attributed to Adwoa Safo’s comments, we can all agree that if this is executed properly, it would a systematic and effective way of tackling the issue.

Now let’s answer these questions: If we rush to abolish these witch camps, can we guarantee the safety of the inmates? Where are the over 1000 inmates going to stay? Who is going to be taking care of them? And what guarantee do we have that their families will accept them back?

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These women and children desperately want to feel belonged. Rather sadly, they are finding that in the witch camps, after being declared outcasts by their families. It was just recently that an old woman was lynched in Kafaba on suspicion of being a witch.

In southern Ghana, such stories aren’t taken too seriously, but they are happening with frequency in other parts. So it’s better to understand the situation before rushing to take some decisions.

We cannot afford to get it wrong, because getting it wrong would mean making the situation worse. Fortunately, the Minister-designate for Gender has pledged to ensure the government takes over the management of these witch camps and cater for the needs of the inmates.

It may not be the most ideal solution, but it’s the “most human-faced” short-term solution. And should it be done properly and with efficiency, these camps can even migrate into nursing homes for the aged who are homeless.

It’s understandable that the mere existence of “witch camps” in the 21st century is frustrating, especially for a country that has a fair share of educated citizens. However, this is a deep-rooted challenge and it must be tackled step-by-step.

Adwoa Safo understands that. The former Gender Minister, Cynthia Morrison understood it, too, that it is better to prioritise the welfare of the women and children in these witch camps than close the camps down and render the inmates homeless.

As it stands, the problem is not the witch camps, which have become homes for outcasts. The problem is having societies who think of others as witches. The problems is having families who ostracise and alienate their own blood due to mere allegations of witchcraft. The problem is allowing these outmoded and human-demeaning practice to go unchecked for so long.

The existence of these witch camps is as a direct consequence of the a deep-rooted barbaric mindset of some societies. And these camps must be systematically phased out, not abolished when no clear plan has been laid out for the inmates.

That said, there is the need to take a strong stand against this menace. If there was a law or policy that prescribed severe punishments for people who abuse and cast others out of society on suspicion of them being witches, these things wouldn’t be happening in the first place.