Pentecostals everywhere sing about the power of Jesus’ name. But in Ghana, they sing specifically that his name is powerful against witches.
More than 90 percent of Ghanaian Christians believe witchcraft is a problem in the country, and more than half have visited a Pentecostal prayer camp to ask for deliverance from witches and demons, according to a study by Opoku Onyinah, theologian and past president of the Ghana Pentecostal and Charismatic Council (GPCC). The Spirit-empowered churches in the West African country don’t take the issue of witches lightly.
But this summer, the GPCC decided to speak up for the women who are accused of witchcraft. The Pentecostal group, an umbrella organization of 200 denominations and parachurches, called for new laws and a national conversation about how to better take care of the more than 2,000 widows who have been exiled over allegations of working with demons.
The churches decided to make a statement after an elderly Muslim woman in a rural village was beaten to death when she refused to confess to witchcraft. Akua Denteh was accused of causing irregular rain, starting fires, and killing children with supernatural powers. A video of her violent death—as a crowd stood watching—was shared widely around the country, and Christian leaders decided they could no longer be silent.
“The elderly, weak and vulnerable must be targeted for the care and protection of our society,” the GPCC statement said. “We must, at all cost, seek justice for this 90-year-old woman and all those who have suffered such atrocities in the past.”
Onyinah, speaking on a popular radio program, called for laws controlling witch hunts and witch identifications. He added a specific condemnation of Christian clergy.
“Pastors who deceive their members by telling them their mothers are witches shouldn’t be listened to,” he said.
In July, the GPCC also called for the government to consider shutting down the six witch camps in the north of the country where the women live in poverty, banished from their families and villages. In September, the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection announced the government would pursue legislation to protect the accused witches from mistreatment and provide them with care.
Most condemned witches in Ghana are not killed. They are exiled in what anthropologists describe as a scapegoating ritual. Evil and misfortune are assigned to one old woman, normally a widow who does not have her husband’s protection. She is punished until she confesses and accepts responsibility. Then she is driven out, taking the sins away. In Christianity, of course, Jesus is seen as the final scapegoat.
“In some cultures, every time there’s a funeral, everybody’s whispering about who the possible witch is,” said Robert Priest, professor of anthropology at Taylor University in Indiana. “Something terrible just happened, and you know, based on a certain set of assumptions, it’s caused by a witch. So you’re looking for who.”
More than personal tragedies are attributed to witches and demons, though. Many Ghanaians say dreams tell them about witchcraft, including dreams about sex, dead relatives, and being pursued by snakes. Incest, homosexuality, suicidal thoughts, and drug addiction have also been considered signs.
“We are a people who do not take responsibility for our actions,” said Emmanuel Anukun-Dabson, executive director of Christian Outreach Fellowship, a church-planting ministry. “Rather, we find scapegoats, and women are the targets.”
There are a few examples of witch hunts before the area that is now Ghana was colonized by the British. Most experts think the beliefs about demons and witches are not part of traditional animist beliefs, though, but something that developed in response to the social disruption of colonization as Europeans broke up social structures and suppressed some purification rituals, while at the same time teaching the Africans about Satan.
New divination practices for identifying witches—like throwing a dead chicken and seeing if it lands on its back or its side—emerged at this time, along with the witch camps, where the accused found refuge.
Some experts say that despite predictions that globalization would secularize and “disenchant” African society, concerns about demons and witches have actually intensified with access to more technology and the growth of the modern economy.
“As more and more people suffocate under the weight of globalization, joblessness, and the general hardships associated with poverty, they have tended to blame witches,” said J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, president of Trinity Theological Seminary in Accra. “If prosperity is not happening, there must be a reason, and in our context, supernatural evil is often considered the culprit.”
There have been a number of efforts to close down the witch camps in Ghana. The women live in extreme poverty, with little access to food or water, and risk death if they leave.
Secular advocates started campaigning against the camps in the 1990s, saying they are inhumane and a violation of the Ghanaian constitution’s commitment to upholding the dignity of all people. But because they don’t believe in witchcraft, activists have struggled to convince people of the effectiveness of alternative methods of dealing with witches.
“Their opposition to supernatural perspectives on reality has hampered their efforts,” said Hans Madueme, a theology professor at Covenant College in Georgia. “Different Christian groups, who do not have the same biases, have a unique opportunity to address this pressing problem.”
The treatment of accused witches became a national issue in 2011, when 72-year-old Ama Hemmah was brutally murdered in a city in the south, showing Ghanaians that the problem was not just restricted to remote rural areas. A Pentecostal pastor was reportedly involved in the lynching, pouring kerosene over the widow before setting her on fire.
Multiple Christian groups mobilized in responses ranging from programs to feed the women in the witch camps to international conferences (including one at Calvin University) to develop long-term solutions.
“Christian responses to African problems need to make better sense to the people than the traditional ones and thereby be good news in their world,” wrote Jon P. Kirby, a Catholic priest and anthropologist. “Rather than simply condemning the traditional world along with the way it understands its problems and goes about solving them, the church needs to get its hands dirty.”
Christian Outreach Fellowship took responsibility for feeding 75 women in one camp. A Catholic group, the Missionary Sisters of the Poorest of the Poor, provided refuge to some of the accused. And the Presbyterian Church of Ghana—the oldest Christian church in the country—launched a mission to help accused witches.
J. O. Y. Mante, moderator of the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church, said religious leaders had a special role to play in combating the practice of witch hunts and scapegoating.
“We are of the conviction that a little reactiveness on the part of our community and religious leaders . . . can prevent such beliefs and accompanying accusations from exploding into violence,” he said. “This is so because the suspicions that lead to the accusations and eventual violent acts begin from, or at least, pass through shrines and some other religious establishments before they gather momentum and attract the murderous clamor.”
The Christians also lent their support to political solutions, including proposals from the National Democratic Congress party in 2011 to pass legislation criminalizing accusations and closing the witch camps. Others warned that closing the camps too quickly wasn’t a good idea.
“When I did my research, I realized that it is rather this camp that serves as shelter for these old women,” Onyinah said. “In the past, killing of these old women was very prevalent in the North. When we destroy [the camps] we can’t help but experience more of such killings.”
The National Democratic Congress opened a vocational center for the accused witches and expanded health insurance coverage and direct cash payments, as part of a plan to provide universal basic income. But the party lost reelection in 2016..
When another old woman was killed by a mob this summer, the former minister of Gender, Children, and Social Protection blasted the new government for discontinuing the policies she had put in place.
“We’re talking about the lynching of a 90-year-old woman . . . may she rest in perfect peace,” said Nana Oye Bampoe Addo, who now works as a human rights lawyer. “Because of the neglect of [New Patriotic Party] and their failure to continue a well-spelt-out program to eradicate accusation of women as witches, it has led to lynching.”
The GPCC is also calling for renewed political efforts. It is urging the government to find ways to shut down the camps and reintegrate the women who have been accused of witchcraft back into society. The Pentecostal organization would also like to see new laws prohibiting accusations and the development of an education program aimed at stigmatizing mob violence.
“We must use the lessons of such gruesome murders to right the wrongs in our society,” its statement said.
The Pentecostal churches also offer spiritual answers to the problem through deliverance ministries. Influenced by American Pentecostals like Oral Roberts and Kenneth Hagin in the 1950s and British-American Pentecostal Derek Prince in the 1980s, many leaders teach that demonic powers can be broken. They lead groups in prayer, asking God to break, bind, and bomb the forces of darkness. Some Christians are told to act out the destruction, making bombing and shooting sounds—“boom boom” and “pew pew.”
The churches also teach that witches can be set free through prayer, instead of being exiled. Onyinah, in his doctoral study, spoke to five women who told him they were witches but were delivered by the blood of Jesus and the invocation of his name.
“Demons fear the name,” according to a popular Ghanaian worship song. “It performs wonders, heals diseases, cures lepers, and destroys the power of witches.”
Daniel Silliman is news editor for Christianity Today. Griffin Paul Jackson is a writer in Chicago.
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