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Dementia and Alzheimer's in Ghana: The forgetful witches


Ghana's population is aging, with accompanying symptoms such as Alzheimer's and dementia. But in villages, these diseases are often mistaken for black magic - and the elderly are deported to witch camps.

The arrival

Issaku Shaibu's fate is sealed, the sentence has been pronounced: the 71-year-old is a witch cast out by his own family.

He's sitting on a narrow wooden bench, surrounded by hustle and bustle, but Shaibu is staring into space.

He adjusts his cap, it now sits bolt upright over his eyebrows, at least a bit of order.

But his world is out of joint, everything has been lost overnight.

Shaibu now lives against his will in the Gambaga witch camp.

As is so often the case, it began with an inexplicable illness.

His granddaughter, with whom Shaibu loved to spend time, was getting worse and worse.

"Your mind was out of order," says the grandfather.

The child's parents were desperate for an explanation, something to hold on to.

That something finally came in the night, Shaibu learned later.

The girl dreamed of him.

This is not a good sign in northern Ghana.

If someone appears in a dream, then he has magical powers.

The family was sure: the grandfather bewitched his granddaughter.

So the Shaibu suddenly found himself in Gambaga, a place that everyone in Ghana knows.

Because witch trials are held here, the traditional chief of the place is said to be able to sense black magic - and vanquish it.

His nephews brought Shaibu here, they didn't want a suspected witcher in their family.

The old man scratches his beard, his shoulders sagging: "I don't understand any of this.

I don't think I hexed anyone.” He's not entirely sure.

The chief's son becomes monosyllabic on the subject of witch trials, although he has since taken over responsibility for them from his father.

We meet him on the grounds of a vocational school, where he works early in the morning as a security guard.

It's an easy job, but colleagues respect it, and passers-by greet you with a slight bow.

Because after work, Prince Amidu is a powerful man, he can decide the fate of people.

Or rather: He lets the chickens decide.

The animals are the most important part of the traditional witch trials: their heads are cut off, then they wander around for a while before finally falling over.

If they land on their backs, chest up, the following applies: innocent, not a witch.

If they land on their stomachs, one thing is certain: witchcraft was involved.

For the chickens, the process ends in the cooking pot, for the convicts like Shaibu in the witch camp right behind the chief's house.

Because his chicken landed on its stomach, he says.

And then there was the matter of the pants.

When Shaibu arrived, the chief's son directed him to walk around the camp.

"We're doing this to summon a sign from the spirits," says Prince Amidu.

"I was very scared," says Shaibu.

Then it happened: He wet himself.

"That was a very clear sign," laughs the chief's son, "the spirits have spoken." Now Shaibu lives in a small round hut made of mud, which he shares with another resident, in an environment that is completely foreign to him .

The morning devotions

The next morning everyone is there at 8.30 sharp, as always on Thursdays, the appointment gives structure to their lives.

There are not enough chairs, there are now too many residents in the camp.

The women and men look at each other helplessly, some go outside again, others stand listlessly in the middle of the room, many wander around aimlessly.

Some get loud, they bicker, a woman intervenes.

A resident greets the SPIEGEL team and introduces herself, for the second time.

The first time was the day before, she forgot.

Almost all of them are over 70 years old, their hands are shaking, their eyes are vacant.

The camp for witches and sorcerers looks more like a retirement home


When morning prayers are over, Deputy Camp Manager Obed Yobe remains in his chair until everyone has left the room.

He takes a deep breath, then says, "Look around, most people here have some sort of ailment.

Many are confused, forget everything.

They have symptoms of Alzheimer's and dementia, but people think it's witchcraft."

And so it is that the camp is bursting at the seams. 89 people are currently living here, often in twos or threes in tiny huts.

And there are more and more, says Yobe, because the population in Ghana is also getting older.

In 1960, Ghanaians were on average just 45 years old, today it is 64, and the trend is rising.

Yobe is employed by the Presbyterian Church, he looks after the residents, and he sees a lot of things here critically.

He, the churchman, repeatedly gets into conflict with the family of the traditional chief.

But Yobe sees things pragmatically: "Without the camps, people would be even worse off."

There are now at least six witch camps in the country.

They offer the accused witches a place of refuge, protection from violence in their home villages.

But they are also highly controversial in Ghana: the chiefs earn a lot from the rituals, they are accused of exploiting the helpless residents.

Old age is also often seen as a sign of supernatural powers in northern Ghana.

Anyone who is over 70 or even 80 is quickly suspected of being a witch.

If an illness then occurs in the village, the old people are first accused of being behind it.

The Forsaken

Two old ladies are sitting on wooden stools, under them dried and moldy corn kernels.

It's the waste from the market in town, the two of them picked it up from under the stalls, now they're sorting out the halfway edible grains to process them into cornmeal.

That's all they have, it's their only meal.

Obed Yobe stands next to them, watches for a while, then says: "We have no more donations, no more sponsors, so the residents are on their own." Anyone who is still reasonably fit has to work on the chief's fields - sometimes there is a pittance, sometimes grain in return.

Kombian Tonjong is annoyed.

She wants to concentrate on sorting the corn kernels while ranting about the world.

Tonjong likes to scold a lot, her roommates describe her as "nasty," but they don't mean it badly.

Because the over 80-year-old – she does not know her exact age – shows typical symptoms of dementia.

The other women here in the camp understand that, they know how to classify it, Tonjong's village community couldn't.

“They teased us old people anyway, because sometimes we don't behave the way they want us to,” says Tonjong.

Then she gets angry, gets upset.

The woman next to her puts her hand on Tonjong's arm and talks to her roommate in a calm voice.

The comforter is the leader of the Bimoba in the camp, an ethnic group in Ghana.

Every ethnic group in the witch camp has such a leader, they take care of the daily affairs, at the same time they are unwilling nurses.

The system works, albeit under undignified living conditions.

The residents find a kind of everyday life, a social cohesion through the fixed reference persons.

They sit together in the small courtyards between the huts, cook together, tell stories from their villages or doze off.

They share their food, the solidarity among the outcasts is great.

For some, Gambaga is literally a last resort.

Memune Jadan owns nothing but the clothes she wears on her own body.

Her gaze is firmer than that of many other residents, and despite her advanced age she is still in good health.

Jadan didn't say anything, maybe that was her downfall.

"In my village, old people were often made fun of, and sometimes they were even beaten," she says.

There is now a whole research paper on the witch trials and the question of why mainly old women are accused.

One explanation is that before colonial times, they held important roles in the community, they were respected and honored.

But when the social system imploded with the arrival of the missionaries and English troops, the pensioners lost their jobs in the village.

Young men became increasingly powerful, and women became easy prey, especially after the death of their partners.

Memune Jadan's destiny took its course in the church.

One of those noisy free churches where the devil is cast out and pastors yell into microphones.

Nothing for Jadan, she preferred to stay away from this activity.

But a few hundred meters from her house one Sunday, a woman rolled on the ground in front of the altar, saying she was possessed by evil spirits, and then she gave the name of the suspected perpetrator: Memune Jadan.

It wasn't long before a mob with machetes moved to the elderly woman's hut.

“They screamed that they were going to slaughter me.

At first I thought it was a joke, but then they came through the gate and wanted to get into my house,” Jadan recalls.

She was able to escape at the last minute over a wall in the garden.

In that moment she knew: Gambaga was her only option.

She walked for eight days, slept along the way, and ate next to nothing on the way.

When she got to the camp, she collapsed.

That was three weeks ago, meanwhile she has regained her strength, she laughs more often again.

Maybe Gambaga is the last stop in her life: »I can't go back.

That would put my children in danger,” says Jadan.

The Returnee

A lot has changed over the past twelve years, but Konduuk Labik has moved her chair to exactly the same spot where it has always been: right next to the door, with a view of the inner courtyard.

That way she can keep a close eye on everything: who comes in, where the chickens are going, what her grandchildren are up to.

She did not sit in this seat for years after she was expelled from her village as a suspected witch.

Now she's back in her village, "reintegrated," as camp manager Obed Yobe puts it.

"She eats so much that even if we cooked for her four times a day, the plate would be empty every time," laughs Labik's son Patrick.

He sits next to his mother, when she wants to get up he hands her the walking stick.

The 82-year-old had a stroke in the camp and has been paralyzed on one side ever since.

That was the moment when her sons said: It can't go on like this anymore.

Together with Obed Yobe and his team, they pulled out all the stops.

It's very complicated to bring a witch back home.

First, the chief of the home village has to agree and bring the family of the accused witch to a table with the alleged witch victim.

Everyone must agree.

This was successful with Konduuk Labik, those involved probably felt sorry for the woman, who was in poor health.

"I'm so happy.

I had already given up hope of being with my family again one day,« she says herself.

The sons report that some of her symptoms have improved since she returned to her familiar surroundings.

She forgets less, is confused less often and recognizes her grandchildren.

Even a walk is sometimes possible again, albeit very slowly.

But in order to be allowed to stay permanently, one more step is missing: spiritual purification.

Not a pleasant topic for Obed Yobe.

He, the churchman, would prefer not to have this process, but hardly any village community accepts the return of a witch without this ritual, performed by the son of the chief in Gambaga, the witch slayer.

The accused often have their hair shaved and have to drink spiritually treated water from a gourd.

The problem is the price: the chief's family has the "purification" paid dearly, the ritual can cost up to 70 euros.

The relatives of most of the women in the camp simply cannot afford it.

Labik's sons are still saving too, but their mother is allowed to stay with them for the time being.

Ghana's government has wanted to close the country's witch camps a number of times. It regards what the chiefs do with suspicion and criticizes the poor living conditions.

But the project was never implemented, because where else should the accused go?

Obed Yobe is certain: only education in the villages will help.

They used to do that a lot, going around with a male nurse, talking about the symptoms of aging and explaining that supposed magic often has a medical explanation - both the illnesses of the supposed witch victims and the behavior of the supposed witches.

"After that, the number of witch trials in these villages decreased, it was a great success," Yobe recalls.

But now there is no money for it.

Many church organizations have withdrawn, not wanting to be associated with black magic.

Other aid organizations also prefer to keep their hands off the sensitive issue.

"But without our educational campaigns in the villages, we will never be able to close the camps," fears Yobe.

Then he has to go on, someone has just arrived again.

The chickens are already being prepared.

This contribution is part of the Global Society project

Expand areaWhat is the Global Society project?

Under the title »Global Society«, reporters from

Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe

report on injustices in a globalized world, socio-political challenges and sustainable development.

The reports, analyses, photo series, videos and podcasts appear in a separate section in the foreign section of SPIEGEL.

The project is long-term and is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF).

A detailed FAQ with questions and answers about the project can be found here.

AreaWhat does the funding look like in concrete terms?open

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) has been supporting the project since 2019 for an initial period of three years with a total of around 2.3 million euros - around 760,000 euros per year.

In 2021, the project was extended by almost three and a half years until spring 2025 under the same conditions.

AreaIs the journalistic content independent of the foundation?open


The editorial content is created without the influence of the Gates Foundation.

AreaDo other media also have similar projects?open


Major European media outlets such as The Guardian and El País have set up similar sections on their news sites with Global Development and Planeta Futuro, respectively, with the support of the Gates Foundation.

Did SPIEGEL already have similar projects? open

In recent years, DER SPIEGEL has already implemented two projects with the European Journalism Center (EJC) and the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: the "Expedition ÜberMorgen" on global sustainability goals and the journalistic refugee project "The New Arrivals", within the framework of which several award-winning multimedia reports on the topics of migration and flight have been created.

Expand areaWhere can I find all publications on the Global Society?

The pieces can be found at SPIEGEL on the Global Society topic page.

Source: spiegel

All news articles on 2022-11-28

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