Where witchcraft trials still happen


In the Northern Region of Ghana, Halloween isn’t so much not celebrated as not heard of. The closest I got to celebrating was giving some candy to my Humanist Action: Ghana teammates and watching a scary movie. As the next US holiday follows quickly, I am reminded that these holidays are intimately tied to violently oppressive chapters in US history–chapters that are not so much closed as retold today.

The legacy of the of the oppressive othering that followed the first Thanksgiving is on display in North Dakota at this very moment. Mostly Halloween is a chance to dress in costume, eat squiggly candy worms, and beg for candy from neighbors. But there are dark sides too. When I was growing up I had two black cats. Every year our vet would call us about a week before Halloween to urge us to keep the cats indoors until a few days into November for their own safety. Every year a number of people dress morbidly in oppressively racist costumes–in blackface, as Indian princesses, as geishas.

Being in Ghana this year for Halloween put a whole new shade to this holiday. In the US, “witches” show up at pretty much every doorstep and Halloween costume party in the US. But I’m in a country where women are literally being accused, punished, and banished for being witches. That’s why I’m here in Ghana–to reveal the humanity of these oppressed people and to explore ways to end the accusations.

I’m not trying to suggest that “witch” should be included in the roundup of offensive, bigoted costumes. Witches are and always have been fictional characters. They are usually baddies in stories–in morality tales of the 15th and 16th centuries witches were often the bad element that lured people off the moral path. They are always manufactured scapegoats in real life.* And when Halloween took its present form in the early 20th century, there was little to no danger of being accused and executed for witchcraft in the US. There still isn’t. But that has certainly not always been the case. That certainly still is the case in Ghana and in some other places.

Just before I came to Ghana, I visited Salem, MA. In part I went because it was not far from my home, it’s a place I’d always wanted to visit, and I’d never been. But I also went because I wanted to learn about our own history of witchcraft accusations and the related violence before coming to a part of the world where witchcraft accusations are still a common part of life. There is a bible verse that I’ve always loved about worrying about the log in one’s own eye before worrying about removing the speck in another’s eye. I went to Salem to learn about the witch trials mania that occurred there and especially to try to understand the circumstances that allowed the mania to end.** Also, perhaps, more importantly, I wanted to have a powerful and tangible reminder that witch trials are not a small part of the history of the nation where I was born or the continent where my ancestors came from. Of the people accused of witchcraft, 20 were killed–19 hanged and one crushed by stones while the authorities tried to coerce a confession from him. Five others died in prison. Those guilty of the murders were mostly well regarded, upstanding citizens of Salem.

As with most things, I’m not sure that an easy answer exists as to why the witch mania ended in Salem. The executions ended quite abruptly following an order by Governor Phips coinciding with an accusation against his own wife. There is little doubt in my mind that, as richer and more powerful people were accused, the accusation’s power was diminished.

Susannah Martin’s memorial bench at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial. (Photo credit:Wendy Webber)

In one case the victim was a Barbados-born slave whose Caribbean upbringing probably helped condemned her, though none of her confessions actually relate to voodoo practices. In another case, the victim was almost certainly mentally challenged. In fact, all of the four original accused were outcasts in some way. Though later some were people who had some material success, they were not empowered. Many of the accusations were against women who had successful businesses or who owned homes in areas where officials wanted the land for commercial purposes and their own enrichment. They did not have the clout or respect needed to successfully defend themselves from the charges of witchcraft.

The women and men accused of witchcraft in the 17th century shared the plight of many women in the world today and especially those accused of witchcraft. Yes, today, witchcraft is still being used as a tool used by accusers' greed, avarice, spite, or fear. Today, in Ghana, accusations of witchcraft are most dangerous to those with the least power–evidenced by the fact that in this patriarchal culture many men who are accused are able to return to their lives after a ritual cleansing. Women, on the other hand, must stay in the camps even after the same ritual cleansing.

While I was in Salem I took a historical walking tour of the town.*** At the end of our tour, the guide asked us all to consider that witch trials continue to happen–they just have different targets and different names. Though he could have, he did not refer to modern witchcraft accusations such as the ones happening here in West Africa, or in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, or, in more isolated occurrences, in the USA or Europe. He was instead talking about communists in the 1950s and gays in the 1980s–two targeted groups he named. Alleged “witches” are not on his, or our, radars.  Yet they exist, they are human, and they need and deserve recognition as oppressed people.

A good deal of my work revolves around dispelling myths and empowering people. We are concerned about equality of treatment, respect, and bolstering individual endeavors–not being threatened by them. The reasons for witch hunts are very complicated. Witchcraft manias have existed throughout history across the globe. While here in Ghana, and in a few other parts of the world, “witch” is still the scapegoat, the mania that leads us to blame our problems and obstacles on anyone but ourselves is alive and well in every corner of the world. The scapegoat just has a different name. Are there really any differences between what happened in Salem, and what was behind the Communist accusations of the 1950’s? How about gay bashing? How about fear of who’s coming across the Rio Grande? Is there a difference? Aren’t we responding to fear instead of rationality? Aren’t we responding from ignorance rather than information?

In Salem, our little tour group was asked by this scholar who we thought might be on trial today–the targets of 2016 mania. I answered “Muslims.” Unfortunately, there were many answers. Far too many.

* I am not referring to Wiccans who embrace the term "witch" with positive connotations. That is a whole other story.

** In part, Salem is a tourist trap. Some of the museums are not worth your time relying on the lore of events rather than the history for their exhibits and tours. Many of the sites and activities rely on the purported supernatural occurrences either at the time or in the present. But, in you're able to get past that, there is some interesting an important history to learn. My information comes from a scholar of the witch trials who has devoted his life to studying this episode in New England history.

*** I learned more information during that two hours that I did while visiting any of the museums in town. I highly recommend this for anyone visiting Salem. Be careful though to avoid the ghost tours that focus more on strange happenings than on the history of the mania. Our guide even pointed out where the "haunted" buildings were and gave potential explanations for the "supernatural" occurrences.