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Helping 'witches' who live in exile

In Ghana, isolating widows branded as witches is a custom in this superstitious region. A few groups are trying to help, but progress is slow.

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A year ago, Fatimata Chimsi was living happily with her son, his wife, and the couple's six children in Karaga, a tiny village in northern Ghana. That is, until the longtime widow was accused of being a witch in late 2004. Furious neighbors insisted that Ms. Chimsi had "killed" an elderly man. Afraid that she might be lynched, she fled in the middle of the night, riding on the back of her son's motorbike. Today, Chimsi resides at the Kpatinga "witches" camp.

Mournfully rocking back and forth on a bamboo mat in her clay hut, she cries, "If my family wasn't allowed to visit me, I would die from loneliness."

More than 1,000 women live in exile among six camps in this impoverished region. Isolating widows or older women as witches is a deep-rooted custom in this part of the world. Indeed, accusations of witchcraft may be seen as a way to keep women subservient in African society.

But various organizations are trying to help. Some are using education to fight superstitions, while others are offering loans to these women to help them develop skills and earn income.

Empowering young women by giving them a voice and positions of authority can help, says Allison Berg, who spotlighted the problem in her award-winning 2005 documentary "Witches in Exile" (www.witchesinexile.com).

Not all of the accused are killed or banished. In South Africa, for instance, those believed to be witches are simply shunned, according to Janet Mohammed, director of advocacy and programs of the Christian Council of Ghana, which promotes unity among the country's Protestant churches. But in parts of this West African country, where medical facilities are scarce and the literacy rate is 10 percent, superstition runs rampant. According to the BBC World Service, more than 90 percent of Ghana's 21 million citizens fear falling victim to a sorcerer's spell. Even university graduates who have spent time in the United States talk of old women suddenly turning people into fireballs or pulling snakes from people's stomachs.

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