'If they say I am a witch then I must be a witch!'
The Witches of Gambaga is a disturbing documentary about a community of women condemned as witches and exiled to the village of Gambaga in northern Ghana.
The film was produced by Nigerian feminist and academic Amina Mama and Ghanian writer and filmmaker Yaba Badoe, who also directed and narrated the film. During repeated visits over a period of five years, Badoe interviewed the women, traditional rulers and community activists in the region.
The village of Gambaga has traditionally been a sanctuary for women accused of witchcraft. There, they are protected by the village Chief. Many of the women are elderly; they arrive to Gambaga after being forced into exile by their families.
Their ‘guilt’ is established in an arbitrary way: when a male or even a child accuses a woman of witchcraft, a chicken is caught. Its throat is then cut and, if it dies with its wings down, that means the woman is a witch.
In trying to understand what it means to be a witch, the film’s producer and narrator Yaba Badoe asks the question which goes to the heart of the issue: ‘If witchcraft traditions are so deeply entrenched, then to be born a woman is to be born under a shadow of suspicion?’ This notion is contrasted to men, who can also be witches, only in their case it’s accepted as a positive practice (the male witch ‘protects’ his house and family).
To understand the naming of women as witches requires close scrutiny of the factors behind the issue. On the one hand, there are the powers of Pentecostal churches and Muslim marabouts in Ghana and other parts of the continent; on the other, traditional and spiritual practices are often used to hide or justify the failure of nation states to address poverty, and also the lack of socio-economic responsibility of governments.
It’s similar to cultural and religious fundamentalism that is the driving force behind homophobia in Africa. Both the charismatic churches and some local Imams feed on witchcraft by portraying it as the cause of social and economic problems. The power of male authority and the low status of women are central to the issue; it’s also pertinent to point out that although accusations of witchcraft cut across class and age, it is those women who are seen as strong and independent who are most at risk.
The ‘witches’ of Gambaga are protected by the paramount Chief, the Gambarrana. There is no doubt he benefits from their presence: the women have to pay to be allowed to stay in the village, and they must pay to leave it. It’s clearly in the Chief’s interest to accept either a ‘confession’ as proof of guilt or the direction of the chicken’s death, and to ensure the practice continues.
But as the film points out, good and evil is never simple and change is always possible. As we see from the film, the engagement by local community activists has been central to eliminating the practice as well as trying to reintegrate the accused women back into their villages. Even though this can be a slow process, it is preferable to a confrontational strategy led by people from outside, especially westerners who simply descend on communities. Once the work has been consolidated at a very local level, it can be taken up by activists at a national level and can move towards intervention by community leaders and the government.
The Witches of Gambaga shows that there is another way to address traditional and religious practices which hurt women and children. Women activists are beginning to speak out against the practice and the film itself has contributed to raising awareness at national level. Changes in attitudes by local leaders can also contribute to ending the practices of accusing women of witchcraft. For example, in one of the villages where the practice was prevalent, the new Chief chose to ignore the supernatural and instead counsel families and encourage a change of attitude towards women in general.
The success of the film is due to Badoe’s persistent visits and her personal engagement with both the women and the Chief, who allowed her to film the ‘secret’ ceremony which decides on the guilt of the women. Her interviews are intimate and heart-breaking; they show both the vulnerability of the women and their agency. For example, a young mother of two is ambivalent about her exile, but at the same time she’s focused on ensuring her children are educated by raising money to send them to school.
The film wishes to confront and expose the issue of witchcraft. It tells the story as a matter-of-factly and, thankfully, lacks the ‘pitying’ and lecturing tone which is so often found in documentaries made by non-Africans. The film treats the women and its audiences with respect.
Watch the trailer of The Witches of Gambaga:
And a longer version:
The Witches of Gambaga was the winner of the Best Documentary at 2010 Black International Film Festival. Yaba Badoe is the author of True Murder, a mystery novel set in England. She also wrote 'Spellbound', a piece about witchcraft in Ghana, for New Internationalist.
For more on witchcraft and human rights please visit Witchcraft, Displacement and Human Rights Network.