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Ghana - Traditional Religion

Despite the presence of Islam and Christianity, traditional religions in Ghana have retained their influence because of their intimate relation to family loyalties and local mores. Important traditional occasions are celebrated by the respective ethnic groups. These festivals include the Adae, which occur fortnightly, and the annual Odwira festivals of the Akan. On these sacred occasions, the Akan ancestors are venerated. There are also the annual Homowo activities of the Ga-Adangbe, during which people return to their home towns to gather together, to greet new members of the family, and to remember the dead. The religious rituals associated with these festivities are strictly observed by the traditional elders of the respective ethic groups.

The traditional cosmology expresses belief in a supreme being (referred to by the Akan as Nyame and by the Ewe as Mawu). The supreme being is usually thought of as remote from daily religious life and is, therefore, not directly worshipped. There are also lesser gods that take "residency" in streams, rivers, trees, and mountains. These gods are generally perceived as intermediaries between the supreme being and society. Ancestors and numerous other spirits are also recognized as part of the cosmological order.

For all Ghanaian ethnic groups, the spirit world is considered to be as real as the world of the living. The dual worlds of the mundane and the sacred are linked by a network of mutual relationships and responsibilities. The action of the living, for example, can affect the gods or spirits of the departed, while the support of family or "tribal" ancestors ensures prosperity of the lineage or state. Neglect, it is believed, might spell doom.

Veneration of departed ancestors is a major characteristic of all traditional religions. The ancestors are believed to be the most immediate link with the spiritual world, and they are thought to be constantly near, observing every thought and action of the living. Some ancestors may even be reincarnated to replenish the lineage. Barrenness is, therefore, considered a great misfortune because it prevents ancestors from returning to life.

To ensure that a natural balance is maintained between the world of the sacred and that of the profane, the roles of the chief within the state, family elders in relation to the lineage, and the priest within society are crucial. The religious functions, especially of chiefs and lineage heads, are clearly demonstrated during such periods as the Odwira of the Akan, the Homowo of the Ga-Adangbe, or the Aboakyir of the Efutu (coastal Guan), when the people are organized in activities that renew and strengthen relations with their ancestors. Such activities include the making of sacrifices and the pouring of libations.

The religious activities of chiefs and lineage heads are generally limited to the more routine biweekly and annual festivities, but traditional priests—given their association with specific shrines—are regarded as specialized practitioners through whom the spirits of the gods may grant directions. Priests undergo vigorous training in the arts of medicine, divination, and other related disciplines and are, therefore, consulted on a more regular basis by the public.

Because many diseases are believed to have spiritual causes, traditional priests sometimes act as doctors or herbalists. Shrine visitation is strongest among the uneducated and in rural communities. This fact, however, does not necessarily suggest that the educated Ghanaian has totally abandoned tradition; some educated and mission-trained individuals do consult traditional oracles in times of crisis.

The law criminalizes harmful mourning rites, but such rites continued, and authorities did not prosecute any perpetrators. In the north, especially in the Upper West Region, widows are required to undergo certain indigenous rites to mourn or show devotion for the deceased spouse. The most prevalent widowhood rites included a one-year period of mourning, tying ropes and padlocks around the widow’s waist, forced sitting by the deceased spouse until burial, solitary confinement, forced starvation, shaving the widow’s hair, and smearing clay on the widow’s body. If a widow engages in work or economic activity after the spouse’s death, she may be regarded as adulterous, considered the cause of the spouse’s death, or be declared a witch. In these instances the widow may be forced to undergo purification rites or leave her home.

The Trokosi custom is practised in south-eastern Ghana. A family must offer a daughter to the priest as a way of appeasing the gods for a relative's transgression, past or present. The tradition has been part of the Ewe culture for centuries, requiring a girl to spend the rest of her life as a 'wife of the gods'. Children as young as 18 months are sent to the shrine. When a Trokosi girl dies, her family is expected to replace her with another young girl, passing the problem down from generation to generation.

In 1998, the Government passed a law against ritual servitude (among other things), criminalizing the practice of trokosi, although there have been no prosecutions under the law. Government officials were under the impression that the practice had since almost vanished. Information obtained from other sources indicates that the practice continues to thrive. Reportedly, there are at least 23 shrines in the Volta Region and 3 in the Greater Accra Region which still accept trokosi.

International Needs Ghana (ING) and other non-governmental organisations have led efforts to liberate trokosi and put an end to the practice. According to ING?s own estimates 3,500 girls have so far been liberated and 50 shrines have stopped accepting trokosi. ING seeks to liberate trokosi with the cooperation and consent of affected communities. Communities willing to cooperate are provided with much needed development infrastructure such as schools and boreholes. Fetish priests and shrine owners are encouraged to accept livestock or monetary donations, instead of girls, from families seeking to appease the gods.

The constitution prohibits practices that dehumanize or are injurious to the physical and mental well-being of a person. In the Northern, Upper East, and Upper West regions, where adherence to indigenous religious beliefs remained strong, rural women and men suspected of “witchcraft” were banished by their families or traditional village authorities to “witch camps.” At these villages in the north populated by suspected witches, some of those interned were accompanied by their families. Such camps were distinct from “prayer camps,” to which persons with mental illness were sometimes sent by their families.

Most accused witches were older women, often widows, whom fellow villagers accused of being the cause of difficulties, such as illness, crop failure, or financial misfortune. Some persons suspected of witchcraft were also killed. NGOs provided food, medical care, and other support to residents of the camps. The Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection monitored witch camps. The CHRAJ had an office in the Northern Region that monitored three witch camps and supported efforts to protect the rights of those accused of being witches. According to the CHRAJ, the Kukuo camp had a population of 123, the Tindaan Shayili-Kpatinga camp 34, and the Gnani camp 20.

The camps are said to have come into existence more than 100 years ago, when village chiefs decided to establish isolated safe areas for the women. They are run by tindanas, leaders capable of cleansing an accused woman so that not only is the community protected from any witchcraft but the woman herself is safe from vigilantes. Today they are still run by local chiefs, and accommodate up to 1,000 women in spartan huts with no electricity or running water, and roofs that leak.

The witch camps appear to be unique to northern Ghana. But Ghana shares with other African countries an endemic belief in witchcraft with illness, drought, fires and other natural disasters blamed on black magic. The alleged witches are nearly always elderly.

An ActionAid report published in September 2012 explains that women flee discrimination, threats or even mob justice after being accused of witchcraft and blamed for „crimes? such as causing sickness, droughts or fires, cursing a neighbour or even just appearing in someone?s dream. Those who reach the witch camps are the lucky ones. Women have been murdered after accusations of witchcraft. Recently a mother of three was beaten and set on fire after being blamed for making a child sick through witchcraft. In 2010, the case of a 72-year-old woman who was set on fire and killed made headlines around the world. Some elderly women have lived in the camps for as long as 40 years – abandoned by their families and trapped in the camps until they die.

Their only companions are young girls, often granddaughters or family members, who were sent with the women as „attendants?. Most of these girls have never gone to school, or have dropped out, and even when they reach the age when they could leave the camps, they usually cannot because they are tainted by the word „witch?.

An ActionAid report on witch camps, published at the end of August 2012, says that more than 70% of residents in Kukuo camp were accused and banished after their husbands died - suggesting that witchcraft allegations are a way of enabling the family to take control of the widow's property. "The camps are a dramatic manifestation of the status of women in Ghana," says Professor Dzodzi Tsikata of the University of Ghana. "Older women become a target because they are no longer useful to society." Women who do not conform to society's expectations also fall victim to the accusations of witchcraft.

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Page last modified: 16-03-2017 19:02:50 ZULU