One woman lost the home she owned and the prosperous cafe she ran. Another is still nursing injuries from a beating administered by relatives and neighbors. A third, subsisting in her old age on odd jobs, doesn't even know how long she has been banished.
Their crimes: Each was accused witchcraft.
Their punishment: Exile far from home in a string of isolated villages populated only by other "witches."
Hundreds of women such as former cafe owner Azaria Alzumah, beating victim Pakurgu Batibaa and frail Azara Abdulia live in squalid settlements in remote northern Ghana, where they are relegated to poverty and servitude.
The custom of ostracizing women because of suspected sorcery has existed for generations in several African countries. Among them is Ghana, a West African nation where superstition still permeates many aspects of daily life.
But human rights groups, aid organizations and women's rights advocates are trying to convince communities that banishment is self-defeating. They are launching a campaign to first educate people and ultimately to wipe out the practice.
Officials from two organizations, Management Aid, or MAID, and International Needs Ghana, argue that the custom is detrimental to the development of a modern democracy in which women should play a role.
Communities that banish elderly women lose the wisdom and experience they can offer, said the Rev. Walter Pimpong, executive director of International Needs Ghana, which is based in Accra, the seaside capital that is an 11-hour drive from Gnani. Younger women are robbed of the chance to get an education and lead healthy and productive lives.
"These women are our human resource base in the communities," Pimpong said. "If we are not treating them well and allowing them to do what they can to help us build this nation, then we lose."
Gnani is one of four known witch camps in northern Ghana, but aid workers suspect that the number of sites could be much higher. While the exact number of women living in them is unknown, human rights advocates estimate that the figure could run into the thousands. At least 660 "witches" between the ages of 35 and 80 live in Gnani alone.
Simple suspicion is enough to have a woman branded a witch. Sometimes her only crime is that her face appears to someone in a dream, someone dies, or sickness or bad luck befalls the community. Sometimes the real reason is envy or spite.
"In African traditional religions, there must be a reason why something happens to you, especially when it is bad," Pimpong said. "[People] see human beings as channels through which these [unfavorable] things can be introduced into the community."
Cafe Owner Accused in Cousins' Deaths
That is what happened to Alzumah, who had a steady income and a staff of 12 at her cafe. Today, the matriarch, who is in her 70s, shares a cramped, windowless mud hut with another elderly woman. Her sole possessions are a rusty tin can, from which she drinks her daily diet of cornmeal porridge, and an old pot.
When two of Alzumah's cousins died unexpectedly three years ago, she was accused by a neighbor of being a witch and summoned to the village chief. Following age-old custom, the chief exiled Alzumah without any proof of her responsibility in the deaths.
Alzumah believes that her cousins were victims of an outbreak of measles. All four of Alzumah's children died of the disease, which may have contributed to the suspicion that she had supernatural powers, she said.
"I'm just unlucky; that's why they blamed me," said a weeping Alzumah, who also suspects jealousy over the success of her food parlor. "Now I have nothing."
Once a woman is reported to the chief, banishment is virtually inevitable. Once accused, many women "confess" in the hopes that it will spare them a beating. And once banished, a woman almost never comes home.
"Every woman is a potential victim," said Imoro al-Hassan Adani, director of MAID, adding that the accusation is often accompanied by physical abuse. "Sometimes they get to the [witch village] very sick, sometimes with severe wounds. If they escape without being brutalized and beaten, they are lucky."
Batibaa was tied to a stump and beaten with sticks. She arrived last month and is still nursing her injuries.
Her daughter is one of two wives of a resident in Batibaa's home village. Batibaa was accused of causing the son of the other wife to become sick.
Batibaa suspects that the child had malaria, which has claimed many lives in the village. At a recent funeral, the boy drank from the same cup as Batibaa and shortly afterward fell ill. So the verdict seemed clear: Batibaa, a successful shea farmer, was accused of being a witch.
"If the boy had died, I would understand it better. But the boy is still alive," she said. She suspects that the real reasons for the accusation were envy over her bountiful harvest and a grudge held by the brother-in-law who "inherited" her as a wife when her husband died.
Even after the women lose their homes and possessions, entry into a village such as Gnani is not guaranteed for those accused of being witches. Before a woman can be admitted, the fetish priest in charge of the witch camp must conduct a ceremony to drive the evil out of the woman's soul.
A chicken is slaughtered, and its blood is mixed with dirt and water. The priest prays over the potion to summon ancestral gods, and the woman must drink the concoction.
Women Condemned to a Harsh Life
Fetish priest Shei Tindanaa, who has been in dusty, fly-infested Gnani for three years, claims to have "cured" scores of women in this fashion. At least 25 women have been banished here in the last three months alone.
"Until the gods prove that someone is innocent, I am not against [the practice of banishment]," he said. And because of tradition, he said, the practice simply can't be eliminated.
So the women are condemned to a bleak life. Most of them live at least two to a hut. Many lack mats and blankets for a bed. They must fetch water from a stream a mile away--too far for the frail and elderly. Food is scarce, and the women struggle to grow crops in parched, red soil. Some, like Abdulia, are too weak to tend their own gardens, so they must work for others.
Abdulia and her three children were banished because her husband's older brother accused her of trying to kill him. A stooped and frail woman now in her 60s, she can't remember how long ago that was.
"Whenever I think about it, I weep," Abdulia said. "Now, wherever I go, I have problems with people. They always say, 'The witch is coming.' They gossip about me. They don't like mixing with me."
Adani, the MAID official, said such women live the rest of their lives with the stigma of being branded a witch.
Ghanaian law forbids banishment and rituals that violate fundamental human rights, and the crime is punishable by at least three years in prison. But no one in Ghana is known to have ever been charged, let alone sentenced, for accusing a woman of witchcraft and expelling her from her home.
"If the government could come out and assist women, right now I would be with my children," said Mariama Mahamadi, a haggard woman who guesses she is in her 30s.
She was forced to abandon her six children in September and live in Gnani after her half-brother died of a snakebite. His children accused her of transforming herself into a reptile and killing him out of malice.
"I am bitter about being here, but what can I do?" Mahamadi said.
Local authorities say it would be tough to close down the settlements.
"We have many ethnic groups with traditional practices," said Adolphus Wemegah, deputy commissioner of the criminal investigation division of the Ghanaian police. "Some people believe that if they take this issue up with the authorities, they might be punished by their gods."
Rights advocates argue that police know enough about the camps to crack down. In the meantime, MAID is trying to tackle the issue from the grass-roots level. Following tradition, the group plans to consult the Yaa-Naa, or king, of the region and persuade him--or provide enough material rewards--to eradicate the practice.
The goal is to re-integrate the women back into their communities. But old customs die hard, and the process is bound to be lengthy.
In addition, the fetish priests who preside over the witch camps would have a lot to lose. The women provide an instant source of labor and easy access to numerous partners. Tindanaa, the Gnani priest, has taken two of them as wives.
Humanitarian groups also are trying to make the daily existence of the exiled women more bearable by improving their huts and providing drinking water, sleeping mats and blankets. Some women also have been brought into a micro-credit program that allows them to start small businesses.
But that is small comfort to women who just want to be welcomed back home. Said Batibaa, the former farmer: "I would prefer to die rather than stay here."