“The dark side of kinship”

Sociology professor seeks to understand conflict over witchcraft in Ghana


Journalists flocked to the northern region of Ghana, interviewing residents about the murder of an elderly woman. The story had shocking headline potential.

She was burned alive for being a witch.

Stories similar to this have drawn reporters many times, each posing a variation of the same questions: Witchcraft still exists? And it’s causing disputes in 2014?

Dr. Alexandra Crampton, assistant professor in the Social and Cultural Sciences Department, asks a different question at the root of the issue.

“How do you eradicate deep-seated beliefs?”
Crampton’s research interests include how intervention programs work in vulnerable populations.

In Ghana, witchcraft is not seen as a problem because it’s a way of life. Crampton explores this in her study “No Peace in the House: Witchcraft Accusations as an ‘Old Women’s Problem’ in Ghana.” Accusations of witchcraft in Ghana are often a way to resolve disputes and explain life events that can be positive or negative.

Such events usually go beyond what modern science can explain. For example, the need to explain a person’s inability to find work or a tragic event happening to a loved one may result in witchcraft accusations. Witchcraft is just one method of answering existential questions.

Accusations commonly take place within the family system. This is what researchers have referred to as “the dark side of kinship.” Aging women are generally the ones victimized by these cultural ideals. For the accused, traveling to witch camps in northern Ghana is the only safe option.

Media coverage of witchcraft in Ghana has focused primarily on the negative effects of the practice (Flickr photo by Ernst Moeksis).

Crampton notes in her article that international media has publicized much about the problems women face by being attacked or banished as witches. While this grabs attention, she explained, it does little to present witchcraft as part of everyday life. Her work instead focuses on the topics of gender and aging, marking how negative views about those factors contribute to accusations.

“If you’re only focusing on the most horrific aspects of witchcraft accusations, you don’t see the more complex picture about where the stresses are coming from,” Crampton said.

Aging in Ghana is paralleled by a growth in knowledge. The older a person is, the wiser they are perceived to be. It is also believed that with this wisdom comes the knowledge of witchcraft. Such knowledge is a reason for respect, as well as fear. It is used to explain success and failure.

Older generations are meant to provide for younger generations. If troubles arise though, older generations, particularly women, become the scapegoat for misusing witchcraft.

Crampton explained that poverty is most prevalent in northern Ghana (Flickr photo by Ericsson).

According to the article, poverty is the root of the issue. The witch camps’ location in northern Ghana is no coincidence; this area is the least developed part of the nation. Raising the education levels of this region is critical to the easing of cultural tensions.

However, simply installing an educational framework will not be successful.

This kind of approach takes an outsider’s perspective, noting a problem and creating a solution without understanding the people involved. Crampton notes that an all-too-common pitfall on the road of good intentions is failing to understand a culture.

“You need to engage with people,” Crampton said. “Understand that they have strengths, abilities and insights that are useful as well.”

The necessary time to build rapport and trust presented problems for Crampton. She was only able to spend several weeks in and around the camps. Also, having seen similar scenarios with reporters and researchers, members of the witch camps she visited had grown to be wary of outsiders.

Many people have come trying to help, but few come seeking understanding.

In Ghana, Crampton worked with the Go-Home Project, a non-governmental organization. The project was sponsored by the Presbyterian church and focused on family conflict resolution. Negotiating between families and its ostracized members, the group sought to successfully reinstate family members in their villages.

The G0-Home Project ended in 2009 due to a lack of funding, but the style for resolving long-standing familial conflicts proved successful in returning family members. Crampton noted that one of the reasons an NGO such as the Go-Home Project does not receive funding is because its mission wasn’t to eradicate witchcraft.

Flickr photo by zug55

From the outside, it would seem that ending witchcraft in Ghana should be any group’s main goal. However, as Crampton explained, the Go-Home Project viewed witchcraft accusations as a symptom of the underlying issues of family tension and poverty. They did not try to overhaul the cultural system and implement a new system. That would likely result in a rejection of the system and no progress being made.

“It’s not easy to change people’s beliefs and ideas that they are born into,” Crampton said.

While working within the cultural system has proven more effective, it doesn’t receive the attention necessary to garner funding. Media portrayals of the camps miss the factors that create marginalization to focus on the sensational nature of witchcraft.

The stigma of witchcraft in the western world creates a mindset that immediately relates the term “witchcraft” with something negative. Crampton explained that it becomes difficult for outsiders to see witchcraft as part of Ghana’s way of life when they already have a preconceived notion that witchcraft is bad.

Crampton’s work seeks to open people’s options so that there are different ways of viewing a situation. This sort of mediation style puts the decision in the community’s hands without imposing a rigid human rights framework.

“We try to empower people, we try to strengthen a positive that’s already there,” Crampton explained.

Rather than dismissing witchcraft, Crampton believes that mediating family conflicts and helping families deal with the grief of loss or poverty are more effective measures. This stems back to the idea that those seeking to help a community must first build trust and rapport before enacting change.

Crampton brings that mindset to her current work with the Milwaukee County Family Court Mediation Services. There she works with parents and children on custody decisions so that the family can decide without requiring a court order. In her work there she sees the threads of conflict and the difficulties of intervention as she did in Ghana.

Research and reporting by Wyatt Massey, a junior studying writing-intensive English and advertising. Connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.