February 21-28, 2007

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Maureen Thrash

Photograph by Laura Mattingly
Vision and a mission: Maureen Thrash and friends began the local Monterey Bay Chapter of Women of Vision, now orchestrating annual AIDS walk fundraisers.

Women, Witches and Widows

Angela Mason attempts to spark a witch liberation movement

By Laura Mattingly

Three years ago on a trip to Ghana to celebrate the creation of a new well funded by international nonprofit organization World Vision, longtime human rights activist Angela Mason discovered something she least expected--"Witches."

"Now we have drilled thousands of wells over the years in Ghana," says Mason, "and here we were celebrating this beautiful, clean, water well, and as I looked around the villages I noticed there were no women about my age, 50--today I'm 53, but three years ago I was 50--and I asked my colleague, 'Where are all the women my age? Are they busy preparing food?' I just thought they were elsewhere. And she just--her face crumpled--and she whispered in my ear, 'They're either dead or they're in a witches camp.' And I said, 'What?! What do you mean, a witches camp?' And she says, 'Well, the people of this region believe in sorcery and witchcraft, or juju as they call it,' and I said, 'What?!'"

Many small villages in West Africa have retained centuries-old beliefs in the power of magic and the power of human intention. In response to the sickness or death of a child, the death of an adult (common now due to the AIDS epidemic) or a person being struck by lightning, the community may decide that some other person is responsible for the tragedy. Menopausal women, primarily widows, are the most likely scapegoats, accused of witchcraft, and consequently killed or ostracized.

"And they say, 'You! You've put a hex on my child!' And they literally chase the older women away," says Manson. "If they don't run fast enough or a relative doesn't spirit them away to safety, they are lynched, or they are clubbed to death, or they are cut with a machete. If they make it out of their community, they go to one of about half a dozen witch camps where they live for the rest of their lives, with no means of support, no rights, no possessions, and worst of all, no family."

For the women who survive, life in the camps is fraught with suffering, alienation and abuse.

"These women have been socially excluded now from the rest of the society, and they go under the sort of 'protection' of the witch doctors that run these camps, who 'exorcize' them by making them drink disgusting concoctions like chicken blood. And often these women are abused physically and sexually in these witch camps. And suddenly there's a stigma on them, not only for them, but the family back home," says Mason.

World Vision has done work in over 100 countries around the world, and the organization aims to advocate for the well-being of children. As Mason sees it, older women and grandmothers provide an important and irreplaceable role in raising children in many African nations, so she believes helping the marginalized women of Ghana to be in the interest of her organization on many levels.

When Mason returned to Ghana later, to investigate the "witch camps" with the help of journalist Sherry Amatenstein, she found that young children, daughters and granddaughters of the aged ostracized women, were solely responsible for taking care of them.

"So I was seeing all these little children who were living with their so-called grandma witches, and those little kids have to fetch and carry for their grandmas because, obviously, these women are--50 to 60 in West Africa is considered old. And so these marginalized women, these amazing women, have their little granddaughters running around looking after them. And of course the child is then also stigmatized and socially excluded," says Mason. "I mean, it's one of the most horrific things I've ever seen. And I thought, who better to tell than a group of fiftysomething women in Monterey, to sort of begin a movement of our Women of Vision chapters getting behind this endeavor to bring these women the things that they need. But also, it's a human rights issue, it's a justice issue."

Under the umbrella of World Vision, local chapters called Women of Vision have sprung up throughout the United States and the world, the first of which began as a grassroots movement in Orange County in 1991. There are now 15 chapters throughout the United States and one in Bermuda. Each chapter meets regularly and receives help, information and speakers from World Vision, giving members a sort of crash course in worldwide social injustices and empowering them to become aware and active in helping other women and children suffering from poverty, disease and discrimination.

The Women of Vision Monterey Bay Chapter, begun three years ago by Maureen Thrash and friends, got steeped in subjects completely foreign to their day to day lives, including the global experience of the AIDS pandemic, harmful traditional practices such as genital mutilation and early marriage, armed conflict and its effect on women, gender discrimination, sex-trade, sexual slavery and slavery in general, just to name a few.

"So we kind of got into these topics and we're all like, oh my gosh, we live in such a bubble, you know?" says Thrash. "We're in such a comfortable little middle-class thing, which I'm grateful for, don't get me wrong, I mean thank God, but you begin to understand the disproportionate allotment of things. We just went, man, we want to do something."

Each Women of Vision chapter takes on projects of local fundraising, in order to adopt and fund both local and international projects. The Monterey Bay Chapter initiates annual AIDS walks, and their funds currently support children and families in the village of Mkawa, located in Malawi, Africa, struggling to survive the social, economic and psychological impacts of the AIDS pandemic.

World Vision, because of its structure and the scope of its participants, bypasses many of the problems and much of the criticism that other nonprofits with international activities do.

"Well, the beauty of it is, our staff in World Vision Ghana are Ghanaian," says Mason. "Our staff in the region, northern Ghana, live in the region, and they're known as community workers. So it's not expats like you and me going in. But it's actually our staff, working at a grassroots level to effect change. We lucky ones are the people that get the chance to fundraise, so we're able to send the much needed resources so that our local staff can do what they know how to do best. So clever, isn't it? We're the money and they're the ones who affect change. Because we can't just go barreling in there as white women telling them what to do. That wouldn't work."

Angela Mason will give her talk, 'Women, Witches and Widows,' at the Women of Vision Monterey Bay Chapter February Partnership Meeting, Saturday, Feb. 24, at 4pm, at the home of Stephanie Golino, 1730 Wharf Road, Capitola. For more information, contact Maureen Thrash at 831.728.1622, or email [email protected]

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