„The Witches of Gambaga“ by Yaba Badoe (2010) – Review

In Ghana’s Northern-Regions‘  multi-ethnic landscape seven settlements still differ more than any other from the rest: They are a ghetto for mostly elderly women but also younger ones and men who were accused of perpetrating witchcraft-crimes. Most popular is the perception of a witch leaving her sleeping body behind and meeting with other souls of witches in the bush to cannibalize human souls, preferably those of relatives. Sickness and death are commonly related to witchcraft and accusations are often backed by dreams that are believed to serve as a nexus to the spiritual world. While treated differently in many regions and circumstances, malicious witchcraft is a capital offense in most areas of Ghana and therefore lynchings, harrassments, evictions and torture are likely to happen to those who fall victim to a witchcraft-accusation. Those who escape lynching are brought to shrines for an ordeal or run away to the cities and the settlements for witch-hunt-victims.

For more than ten years Yaba Badoe, a Ghanaian writer and film-maker, has been visiting the so-called „witches-home“ at Gambaga, which is maybe the oldest and surely the most famous site where about 80 women accused of witchcraft seek refugee. Gambaga is not a remote rural area – it is a minor Ghanaian city with excellent roads to the urban Hot-Spot Tamale. The town has an internet-cafe, electricity, a regional prison, schools, a post-office and two simple guesthouses. The countryside is bushland with its beautyful red and green hills and giant rocks shattered around. The settlement for witch-hunt-victims is not only an asylum: Women are sentenced to exile from their homes in protective custody by the Gambarrana, a traditional, yet powerful chief. Badoe interviewed women accused of witchcraft to uncover their stories. For a woman in an area of Ghana that is sexist to the bones, it is especially remarkable that she was able to reach the chiefs permission to interview him and film the chickens ordeal.  This ordeal is the final authority for many oracles throughout Africa. Once a case is brought to the chief of Gambaga, he demands a fee and a chicken. The fowls throat is cut and it is thrown away. If it does not die with its‘ wings upturned, the ordeal proves the womens guilt – she is now exorcised of the supposed witchcraft spirit, she has to drink a potion, she is shaved and she has to testify her deeds. If the ordeal „proves“ the innocence of the woman, she might be terrified enough to stay nonetheless. If she stays, she is obliged to work on the farms of the chief before she can work on a small field of her own, if she not entirely depends on the help of relatives or the solidarity of her mates in the camp. Should she want to leave the camp finally, she has to pay „reimbursement“ for her stay. This „reimbursement“, as Badoe has investigated, has risen to an insane amount of 100 UsD.

When I visited the camp for 14 days in 2009 I was not permitted to see the ordeal and I did my best to disgruntle the chief who is notorious for his mood swings. His vain is easlily piqued while money pleases him to liberalness. Badoe managed to command his respect through her long-term observation. She proves, that documentary is possible in this highly ambivalent field and that it becomes professional mostly through time invested and intimacy towards the subjects. Badoes‘ work is investigative but by no means neutral. Her canny humanist approach does not hide the subject behind „realism“ and at the same time refrains from binary oppositions. Her thesis  could be read as she says in the documentary: „To be born as a woman is to be born under a shadow of suspicion.“ This suspicion is always enforced by the role of male authorities like the Gambarrana who states: „Women have their own witchcraft. Can you tell who’s a thief? That’s how witchcraft is.“

Badoes number of more than a thousand women condemned of witchcraft who live in northern Ghanas‘ camps for witch-hunt-victims is vague. In fact it is now clearly more than 2500 and up to 4500 people who are living in seven settlements for witch-hunt victims, mainly at Tindang/Gnaani and Kukuo/Bimbilla.  Unknown numbers go to the cities or to distant regions. But all of them suffer while some have agency and options beyond common stereotypes of victims. Badoe does a great job portraying the agency of the women. And agency is enhanced drastically by media and foreign interest. But agency is limited as soon as the stigma is concerned. As one victim states: „In the same way fire burns, I am a witch.“ There is up to no defense against the chiefs‘ verdict. The chief sees himself as a philanthrope while he profits from the women through forced labour, ritual-fines, „reimbursement“ and fame for overpowering „evil witches“. Badoe makes his fragile ego visible.

Her insightful documentary brings the victims of witch-hunts and their emotions closer to the audience. The beautyful colours of Northern Ghana – dark faces in front of sunflooded clay-huts, red dust and dry wood, the pied clothing – foil the dull pressure put on individuals as a result of fears of witchcraft. Light is grateful in Ghana: Every face is a scarred sculpture, every hut an environment. The impressive monumentalism of the aesthetics of primitive modes of livelihood is treated with self-evidence. Badoe is far away from exploiting this environment, though she does not deny its aesthetics  – her way of filming escapes exotistic, neo-romantic artwork as much as the lurid, over-engineered realism that is in vogue. It focuses on the story to tell and the understanding of the audience, it raises questions instead of answering them.