I have been invited to a screening of “The Witches of Gambaga” on Saturday, March 24th 2012 at 7:00pm at the Grace Hotel (125 W 45th St) in New York City. The event is being promoted by GhanaProNet, a fledgling professional network of dynamic and innovative Ghanaians (and friends of Ghana) whose goal is to provide opportunities for dialogue to positively impact the Ghanaian community in Ghana and in the diaspora. The film itself is a profound 55 minutes of a story that needs to be told, but the event will culminate in a discussion and a social networking forum.
As luck would have it, I will not be able to attend the screening and social hour but I wanted to use this opportunity to bring attention to the matter. I have previously mentioned witchcraft in my blog in recounting the cutting down of our Indian almond tree by my father at the request of his mother who believes that those ubiquitous trees along coastal Ghana are the meeting places of witches, a belief reiterated on my recent trip to Belize.
As inauthentic Ghanaian as I am and despite the fact that my family is Christian and educated, I, like many other Ghanaian people live in a society in which witchcraft forms a fundamental part of the way of life. Was it not from fellow pre-teen and teenage mouths that I heard “eh, Nzema witchcraft/ayεne” when I would tell my classmates in JSS in the 1990s that I was Nzema? It seemed to be the only thing they knew about the Nzema people. From Ananse stories, to accounts of family history, to newspaper stories – both gossip and factual, to Nollywood films, to sermons from charismatic religious leaders – Christian or Muslim, witchcraft in Ghana, and for the most part most of Africa I dare say, is very real and very much inextricably woven into the social fabric of our day to day lives.
Is it not just the other day that Coach Stevanovic (a Serbian) claimed that it was because of witchcraft amongst the team that the Black Stars suffered a disappointing fourth place finish in the recent African Cup of Nations?
But the question is how long are we going to continue to infringe upon the human rights of those that we call witches? When will we stop hiding behind “culture” and “religious freedom” as an excuse to treat other human beings badly?
The Witches of Gambaga is an award winning documentary that won Second Prize in the Documentary Section of FESPACO 2011, Africa’s largest film festival, which by the way I will one day attend. It also won Best Documentary at the Birmingham Black International Film Festival in 2010. It was directed and produced by Yaba Badoe, a Ghanaian-British writer and filmmaker. It is an intimate haunting account of the lives of several vulnerable women in Northern Ghana who have been accused of being witches and have sought refuge in one of several witch camps.
Gambaga, north of Tamale, is an underdeveloped rural and agriculture based town similar to many others in northern Ghana that are hardest hit by poverty and by the lack of technological advances and access to doctors. Unlike those in southern Ghana, the “Northerners” tend to be Muslim (Sunni Islam) and it is this that co-exists with whatever traditional cultural beliefs that are held by the various ethnic groups. Also unlike the Akan who populate most of southern Ghana, the “Northerners” are patrilineal and patrilocal.
The witch camp at Gambaga is said to have existed for over a hundred years where they have been afforded protection by the Gambarrana, title for the chief of Gambaga. I told my mother about it and she doubts that such a place exists, this despite the fact that she used to live in the North when she was younger. So I can believe that not many Ghanaian people are aware of it and it is for this reason that I see the greatest value in this documentary. Raising awareness and hopefully appealing to the people of Ghana to condemn the practice and to the government of Ghana to protect the rights of all citizens is no easy task when the beliefs that this practice is based upon permeates all levels of society. I think it’s possible to convince people that certain actions are inhumane and that these women (mostly) should not be outcasts led to live in deplorable conditions, but that doesn’t answer the “what do we do then with these witches” question.
Through the documentary, you learn that there are over 1000 women condemned to such witch camps. While being afforded life and protection seems like a good thing (it is better I suppose than death which is still the fate of witches in Ghana and elsewhere) we learn that the women pay the Gambarrana dues, they work in his fields, and they must ask his permission to leave. Is that really philanthropy then on his part?
We learn of the trauma that these women experienced when being accused of witchcraft and the on-going trauma of internalising such a belief and being kept ostracised from their families. My mother’s recollection of village living is the gossip. I can believe
that as gossip is a way of life be it in populous New York City, or in a
village of 20 people in the middle of the Amazon forest. So I can
imagine the malicious gossip, the unease and anxiety, and the ease with which such women are targets (of witchcraft) whenever a calamity occurs.
There are similar threads woven in the stories of these women. The
barren woman. The widowed woman who has according to tradition returned
to live in her father’s compound, and now finds herself at the mercy of
her brother (now head of the compound) and his wife/wives. The woman who
for one reason or another has found herself to be head of her own
household or successful by her own perseverance. How dare she succeed on her own merits, how dare she live independently without any protection
from a man (father, brother, husband). Surely, it must be witchcraft!
It brings to question gender politics, yes I always manage to make everything about gender, and the role of gender in witchcraft. Not the simple observation that witches are women, for that too is the general trend in the western superstition of witches. But that it is because of the inequalities between genders that these women are as vulnerable as they are. You can even make it about the powerful entity that is female sexuality (and the associated ability of procreation), an entity that has always and will forever baffle men in all nations and of all religions, and will always cause them to try and control and contain it! [cough] the current birth control issues in US politics (refresher) [cough]