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Banished 'Witches' Sing Of Their Pain — And Their Dreams

Three of the women who sing about their plight — and their hopes — on the album <em>I've Forgotten Now Who I Used To Be</em>. Their names are withheld to protect their physical safety because they have been accused of witchcraft.
Marilena Umuhoza Delli
Three of the women who sing about their plight — and their hopes — on the album I've Forgotten Now Who I Used To Be. Their names are withheld to protect their physical safety because they have been accused of witchcraft.

On a brief track called "I Stand Accused," a woman in a remote part of Ghana intones and repeats the title phrase with the intensity of a global town crier. She's accompanied only by the sound of pieces of firewood being struck together. But in her solitude she's speaking for a community called Witch Camp that has recorded the new album, I've Forgotten Now Who I Used To Be.

This singer is one of an estimated 1,000 women in northern Ghana who have fled their homes because of witchcraft accusations — and the fear that they will be physically attacked as a result. Reasons vary for such allegations: Some charges arise so that land they owned could be stolen. Other times women with mental or physical disabilities are condemned. Virulent sexism, ageism or personal jealousies are usually part of these accusations. Their livelihood can include chopping firewood for local chiefs and gathering discarded food for themselves. One track describes an especially harsh means of survival: "Abandoned (Forced Into A Life Of Prostitution)."

For Marilena Umuhoza Delli, who produced the Witch Camp album with her husband, Ian Brennan, their stories convey personal resonance. They had heard about the women while working on similar projects around the world.

"My mother is from Rwanda and she's disabled, widowed, a three-time genocide survivor," Umuhoza Delli says. "I grew up poor in Italy in a conservative area, so it was impossible to look at these women's circumstances and not see my own mother. With Ian, as we have done in Tanzania, with genocide survivors in Rwanda and Cambodia, our objective is to provide a platform for these women who are otherwise censored or unheard."

Umuhoza Delli and Brennan have considerable experience in making such marginalized voices heard by encouraging them to turn their stories into songs. They produced the Zomba Prison Project album I Have No Everything Here, which features voices from a Malawian maximum security prison. For Witch Camp, Umuhoza Delli and Brennan traveled to three northern Ghanaian rural villages that house accused witches. (They did not name the villages out of concern for everyone's safety. Working with (and supported by) chieftains and translators who knew the local Mampruli and Dagbani language dialects, the producers spent two weeks recording in December 2018.

None of the women in Witch Camp have musical backgrounds.

"We recorded more than 100 people, six hours of music and most of the women are elderly, many in their 70s," Umuhoza Delli says. "The whole record is composed of instant compositions" — songs they improvised themselves.

"It was pretty fast, but it was incredibly intense," Umuhoza Delli says of the sessions. "We're talking about recording from morning until later afternoon."

The musical accompaniment, she says, is from "objects from their immediate environment: a teapot, a tin can, a balloon left over from a political rally." One of the few Ghanaian men in the camp who was accused of witchcraft — and is known as Wizard — played the talking drum on the album.

The compositions became mantras. Some women would say the same phrases over and over again, like prayers. The women wish to remain anonymous for their own safety, and, says Umuhoza Delli, "to let the songs speak for themselves."

"When they had the opportunity to sing, they were shocked and happy that there was such an interest in their lives," Umuhoza Delli says. "There was a positivity around this project, everyone participated actively and was very involved."

That energy comes across in "Love" and "Love, Please," with communal voices sounding almost ecstatic in response to the lead vocalist's pleas for love and acceptance. These exchanges also make the solo singers on most of the other tracks sound even more stark and piercing.

But whether Witch Camp features a group shouting together or lonely voices depicting the isolation surrounding these villages, an overarching sense of empathy becomes a life force throughout the album, especially with songs like "I Trusted My Family, They Betrayed Me."

Within Ghana, belief in witches has permeated across social strata and appears as a plot point in television programs. But Ghanaian media has also called for an end to perpetuating the false belief in witchcraft and advocated for re-entering these accused women into general society. Last summer, after 90-year-old Akuah Denteh was murdered following such an accusation, an editorial in the Ghanaian Times declared, "The lynching of Akua Denteh though heartbreaking and condemnable provides us a unique opportunity to take the bold decision to close down all such places [camps], liberate all the women who have been branded witches and indeed say 'no more witches camps.'"

Women who contributed to the 'Witch Camp' recording.
/ Marilena Umuhoza Delli
Marilena Umuhoza Delli
Women who contributed to the 'Witch Camp' recording.

Along with hoping for Ghanaian society to reintegrate the women from the witch camps, Umuhoza Delli advocates for a wider change of consciousness.

"It's distressing the high number of doctors, police, teachers who still believe in witchcraft," she says. "This is a problem that affects all of us. Ghana is a great nation, and like in any country, it is a few bad actors who cause such stress."

UNESCO is one of the principal organizations that has been working to heighten awareness of this issue throughout West Africa. Mahmoud Ahmed Badji is a researcher and assistant in the social and human sciences section of UNESCO's regional office in Dakar, Senegal. "We need to talk to local authorities, religious authorities and young people to explain to them that we need to learn to live together without discrimination," says Badji, who hopes that artists and athletes can play a role in spreading such messages.

The hopes for everyone involved with I've Forgotten How I Used To Be is that this album will go far in galvanizing international consciousness.

"Music has a great power," Umuhoza Delli says. "People will listen to messages in songs they would never tolerate otherwise."

Aaron Cohen is the author of Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power (University of Chicago Press) and Amazing Grace (Bloomsbury). He teaches humanities and English composition at City Colleges of Chicago and regularly writes about the arts for such publications as the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader and DownBeat.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aaron Cohen
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