When Compassion child workers first met him, Emmanuel stood out from the other children. Unlike his shyer peers, the five-year-old was confident and full of energy, constantly peppering them with questions. They loved his natural inquisitiveness, but his family believed his outgoing personality was a sign of something much more sinister.
For centuries, witchcraft has been used in Ghana to explain not just evil, but natural phenomena, from little-understood genetic conditions and mental illness to crop failure.
Emmanuel’s mother is mentally challenged and unable to care for him; his father’s whereabouts is unknown. Gifty, Emmanuel’s aunt, adopted him and brought him to live with her in Sawer, a small town in east Ghana, where he was registered in Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program.
Child workers at Sawer Apostolic Child Development Centre, the Compassion centre Emmanuel attends, said he was happy, respectful and polite. They were surprised when his aunt described him as a difficult child; too talkative, stubborn and disrespectful. She accused him of being possessed with evil spirits, recounting a dream she’d had where he broke her arm. She’d woken to stabbing pains in her arm. To back up her accusation, Gifty told the child workers that a spiritualist in their community had confirmed the boy was operating under witchcraft. She said his black magic was responsible for the death of a prominent village leader.
As the rumour spread, Emmanuel’s friends swiftly stopped playing with him. People began insulting him in the street, jeering that he was a wizard. He shrank inside himself, feeling like everyone hated him. He didn’t understand why.
“They said I did a lot of things I don’t understand,” he recalled miserably.
The child workers were alarmed. Accusing someone of witchcraft can be life-threatening; their fate often hangs on the word of the accuser. The accused can be banished from their families, while others escape to witch camps for safety, usually to avoid being stoned or lynched. Philip Appiah Yamoah, project director of Sawer Apostolic Child Development Centre, knew he had to act carefully if they were to protect the young boy.
“If you believe that Emmanuel practices witchcraft, then you know that this is a spiritual thing which is beyond us, mere men,” he told Gifty.
“So, allow us to refer this to our pastor to handle it from here. And let us all pray for Emmanuel to be set free.”
For weeks, they encouraged Emmanuel and prayed with him, until one day when he didn’t show up. Gifty explained he was visiting his grandmother in the village, assuring them he would return when school began. But school resumed and he was still absent.
Staff became suspicious. To their horror, they discovered Emmanuel had been sent to a witch doctor’s camp. In these rare, isolated settlements, a spiritualist or village chief is believed to have the ability to drain the accused witch or wizard’s magic using rituals and potions.
No amount of persuasion could make Gifty reveal where he was. With the backing of specialist law enforcement agencies, local police and Sawer child workers finally convinced her to open up. Emmanuel had been left with a witch doctor for three months to be exorcised of evil spirits, for a fee. Unable to pay, she couldn’t return for him.
“I did not mean any harm for Emmanuel,” she said. “He is my nephew and I want the best for him. I just wanted him to be set free from those spirits so that he could be accepted by everyone.”
She directed them to an isolated witch’s camp in the forest. Clay huts without doors stood in a clearing surrounded by dense trees. To their relief, they saw Emmanuel. But when they arrived, the witchdoctor cast spells to scare them off. Undaunted, they stood their ground. After repaying the witchdoctor for Emmanuel’s upkeep, he was finally free to leave.
He still doesn’t fully understand what his crime was.
“They said I was a witch and that I kill people and eat human beings, and that I put sicknesses on people,” said Emmanuel.
“They said I caused every bad thing that had happened.” His voice trembled. “I don’t know if it is true.”
At the camp, he couldn’t attend school and was made to do chores. Each day Emmanuel was given a bitter concoction to drink that left himm violently retching; it was meant to purge the spirit from his stomach. “Because of that I used to feel pain in my ribs and the area between my chest and stomach,” he said.
But more painful was feeling rejected by his village back home. “All my friends stopped playing with me because their parents told them that I would kill them,” he said. “I felt that everybody hated me and they treated me badly.”
Thankfully, things have changed in the months since his return from the forest. The regular counselling sessions his child workers arranged are making a difference, as do their frequent visits to him at home and school. They tell him he is fearfully and wonderfully made; that his outgoing personality is something to be celebrated. It’s a message they’ve shared with Gifty, family members, neighbors and the wider community; cautioning them against any form of ill-treatment towards Emmanuel or any other child. Progress is being made.
“Since I came back from the forest, my aunt has been kind to me. Many people have stopped calling me a wizard. Somebody told me that the teachers at the project came to talk to all the people to stop doing those things to me. So I am happy now,” said Emmanuel.
These days, he is still a little more reserved. But his cheeky grin has begun to reappear, and staff are hopeful that in time they can help him return to his joyful, playful self.Words by Vera Mensah-Bediako and Zoe Noakes