After (never quite) growing up in the Peter Pan house, running away with the travellers, and ending up as a journalist embedded in a clandestine insurgent rebel clown army, I’m pretty used to living in a fairy story. But making a film for a West African campaign against witchcraft abuse was a deeply weird journey, even for me.
In fact, tt felt like a trip out to the other side of the looking glass.
When the documentary commission came in from Ghana’s Southern Sector Women and Youth Empowerment Network, I knew very little about witchcraft accusations and abuse. So I went to the library, and surfed the net, and came across justifications like the following:
“Women fetch water and give us food, so they must be evil”.
Come again? Did he just say that women are evil because they do the work that keps men alive?
“Men can also have the witchcraft spirit, but they use it for the good of the family, to benefit the community. Women use the witchcraft spirit to to gain power over others and cause sickness and death,” said another.
When our tiny crew reached Ghana and collapsed in front of the TV for a little, we discovered the role of the pastors. Like salesmen anywhere in shiny suits, they rant and rave and promise the world (that cure, that job, that visa) to vast congregations who pray wildly to God for healing and redemption and give the church plenty money… So when the impossible promises are broken, pastors rant and rave some more and blame ‘the work of devil’, ‘a witch in the family’… ‘root them out!’.
The media doesn’t always help as well, sensationalising accusations as if they were straight truth. Headlines like: @Wonders Never Cease! Woman Turned into Snake!’ accompany, for example, a report of mob violence against a depressed young mother taking shelter in a gutter where a snake also took refuge.
Airwaves are filled with ranting penetcostalist preachers, fundamentalist Christian evangelicals funded by Europe and Americ, a North-South funding stream said to dwarf development aid).
Patriarchy. Fear of the feminine. Blaming Eve. Misogyny. Feeding fear. Scapegoating. Kicking the cat in a region scarred by centuries of slavery, exploitation, racism, competing religions denigrating the old ways of knowing the earth, the ancestors, the spirits of nature and woman. Power exercised through unaccountable, invisible structures of tribe, nation, institution, corruption, mosque, church. (A productivist way of relating to the commons spreading across the land, across women’s bodies, across the family.)
And who is at the rough end of all of this?
Old women, ill women, infertile women, unmarried women, widowed women, argumentative women, even ‘overly successful’ women. Women with land, or a husband, or successful children, that someone wants for themselves. Women who someone, somewhere has a problem with and would prefer to be out of the way. Some men too, powerless ones for the most part, and children, increasingly, too.
Scapegoats all, for a generalised sense of supernatural fear, for spiritual unease, for uneducated impotence, for illness where there is no doctor, ignorance were there is no schooling, no calm quiet media to know what the cause of suffering is.
Scapegoats for no sanitation, no clean water, for no cameras, no good roads, no buses, no ambulances, no clinics, no roofs that don’t leak in the rain. Scapegoats for the world not being as we all would want it, as it should be if Jesus really loves you and Allah is a truly merciful God, omnipotent and good…
This suffering, this lack – compared to the pastors, the colonists and the corporates, the people on TV with their cars and houses and planes and lovely clothes… – any lack, any child’s illness must be somebody’s fault…
‘Living close to the earth’ is no lifestyle choice for the leisurely here.
The roads are mud, the houses mud, the anthills are the same red mud..
The people say that in the villages where there is still no electricity supply, you can see the witches flying in the small of the night. See them flying to meet in the big trees on the hill top, flying to feed on the souls of small children, flying to steal men’s penises or the milk from a new mother’s breast… and in the day they cry ‘kill the witch’. They believe that pastors can drive out the evil spirits through fearsome ‘healing’ prayer camps and they believe that old time fetish priests have the power to contain the evil spirits so prevalent in women. It takes a fetish priest with the power himself to purge the inherited witchcraft spirit, and misuse of the highly potent ‘India powers’ – sold in shrines beside the road – when used for ‘private’ purposes..
The purpose of our film was to show the conditions of elderly and ill women taking refuge in the ‘witches’ camps’ scattered across Northern Ghana. These clusters of rough thatched huts are something like involuntary, unresourced old folks homes, where the destitute and battered survive in the care of traditional authorities, especially fetish priests.
Known as ‘witch doctors’ in the West, spiritual authorities are gifted with a hereditary power to diagnose, remove and/or contain the evil ‘witchcraft spirit’ when it threatens a community. So when the cry goes up that someone dreamed about this lady carrying a weapon, or that he saw her give the evil eye to a child and now the child is dead, she may (if she is not killed by the mob) find her way – or be beaten to – one of the ‘witches camps’ we visited.
Gambaga is the best known. There are other films about this town centre encampment, and charities based there. Some locals say that the camp needs to be kept open for the chief and town to have some income, from visitors, from media, and from the charitable sector.
I wouldn’t really know… as a foreign charity film maker who visited twice… Hmmm.
Ngani is where we spent more time. It felt like a gentler and more magical place, very rural, more isolated, and so crueler, stranger too in its own way. Here we met most of our interviewees. One, a fierce hearted, beautiful woman who used to brew liquor successfully, was blamed when six of her children died and she refused to die too. Another could no longer walk after a beating left her dragging her ancient bones across a dusty threshold…
Tale after tale of woe after woe of a scale that can hardly compute. I won’t try and summarise, simply as that you watch the film. See their faces, and hear their voices tell their tales. They are strange tales, harsh.
And then back into town for the community workshops, educating villagers not to blame an illness on their aunty or bad luck on a kid. This was another strange experience for a former street activist accustomed to being pushed, pulled and generally disprespected by police back home in London. Here I was on the same side as the police, promoting the rule of law, the place of evidence in judging guilt, the rule of law against assault and women’s rights to be human. We also filmed health officials propagating science and western medicine – less challenging for me as a scientist, but still odd, for me as a shaman raised on the feminist version of the European witch hunts: male doctors and pharmacists ousting the wise women, herbalists and midwives from their place at the heart of society. No, nothing is simple, everything is to discover.
SOSYWEN’s challenge to quacks, abusers and woman haters is also a challenge to western feminists like me. If our sisters back home were to stop sweating the little stuff and pay some more attention to the lives and deaths and knowings of our sisters to the global South, emancipation for women worldwide might really get underway. .. In that I include south – and other parts of London, where west African evangelical churches are spreading and women and children, like Kristy Bamu and Victoria Climbie, are tortured to death for Eve’s sins.
Meanwhile there’s a need for research on who pays for the missionaries and propaganda of fundamental monotheism. Are religious charities of Europe and North America feeding a plague of hatred and violence in god’s name? Are there acts that can be taken, back in the cities of the west, to root out this stream of ‘evil’ at its source – where priests are trained and supported, where funds are raised for churches and the fantasies filling West African airwaves with religious mania?
If witch hunts still seem like a fairy tale, maybe it’s because we’re choosing not to see what happens in front of our noses.