Spellbound: Inside West Africa's Witch Camps


As I attempted to digest stories of spiritual cannibalism, of curses that could cost a student her eyesight or ignite the pages of the books she read, I knew I was not alone in my skepticism. And yet, when I caught sight of the waving arms of an industrious scarecrow, the hair on the back of my neck would stand on end. It was most palpable at night, this creepy feeling, when the moon stayed low to the horizon and the dust kicked up in the breeze, reaching out and pulling back with ghostly fingers. There was ...

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Spellbound: Inside West Africa's Witch Camps

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As I attempted to digest stories of spiritual cannibalism, of curses that could cost a student her eyesight or ignite the pages of the books she read, I knew I was not alone in my skepticism. And yet, when I caught sight of the waving arms of an industrious scarecrow, the hair on the back of my neck would stand on end. It was most palpable at night, this creepy feeling, when the moon stayed low to the horizon and the dust kicked up in the breeze, reaching out and pulling back with ghostly fingers. There was something to this place that could be felt but not seen.

With these words, Karen Palmer takes us inside one of West Africa’s witch camps, where hundreds of banished women struggle to survive under the watchful eye of a powerful wizard. Palmer arrived at the Gambaga witch camp with an outsider’s sense of outrage, believing it was little more than a dumping ground for difficult women. Soon, however, she encountered stories she could not explain: a woman who confessed she’d attacked a girl given to her as a sacrifice; another one desperately trying to rid herself of the witchcraft she believed helped her kill dozens of people.

In Spellbound, Palmer brilliantly recounts the kaleidoscope of experiences that greeted her in the remote witch camps of northern Ghana, where more than 3,000 exiled women and men live in extreme poverty, many sentenced in a ceremony hinging on the death throes of a sacrificed chicken.

As she ventured deeper into Ghana’s grasslands, Palmer found herself swinging between belief and disbelief. She was shown books that caught on fire for no reason and met diviners who accurately predicted the future. From the schoolteacher who believed Africa should use the power of its witches to gain wealth and prestige to the social worker who championed the rights of accused witches but also took his wife to a witch doctor, Palmer takes readers deep inside a shadowy layer of rural African society.

As the sheen of the exotic wore off, Palmer saw the camp for what it was: a hidden colony of women forced to rely on food scraps from the weekly market. She witnessed the way witchcraft preyed on people’s fears and resentments. Witchcraft could be a comfort in times of distress, a way of explaining a crippling drought or the inexplicable loss of a child. It was a means of predicting the unpredictable and controlling the uncontrollable. But witchcraft was also a tool for social control. In this vivid, startling work of first-person reportage, Palmer sheds light on the plight of women in a rarely seen corner of the world.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Fascinating and disturbing..." Canwest News Service
Publishers Weekly
In this empathetic account, Palmer looks at witchcraft, witch doctors, and superstition in present-day Ghana and examines why some believe in them completely, while others do not, positing that belief might have been extenuated through Africa's lack of wealth, education, healthcare, and women's rights. The less somebody understands economics, medicine, science, philosophy or politics, Palmer suggests, the more he or she could credit certain things to the supernatural. The author takes us inside remote encampments where women thought to be witches are isolated and punished. There, they must live on their own, away from the comforts of family, and sometimes beg for work. She recounts the experiences of women like Ayishetu Bugre, who had been accused of witchcraft by a jealous, drunken brother-in-law. Her sentencing depended on the death throes of a sacrificed chicken, which is believed to be a message from the tribal ancestors. Palmer also talks of Asara Azindu, whose success and independence bothered those around her. They blamed her for a meningitis outbreak, claiming she had poisoned the town's main water source. With these and other stories, Palmer effectively highlights the grave effects of ignorance and superstition, and the cruel, abusive situations in which scores of Ghanaian women currently find themselves. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews

Anecdote-rich account of how witchcraft pervades the culture of a stress-ridden region of Africa caught between ancient traditions and modernism.

Palmer, a Canadian journalist working in Ghana to improve investigations of human-rights abuses, became curious about witch camps after she read about them in a 2007 U.S. State Department report. The camps, which in northern Ghana are actually seen as a tourist attraction, began as a kind of sanctuary for people facing beatings or death in their home villages after being found guilty of witchcraft. Today they house thousands of women and a few men in conditions of abject poverty. The author witnessed the judgment process, in which the direction that a slaughtered chicken flops on the ground determines guilt or innocence, and she interviewed women living in the camps, some of whom believed themselves to be witches, people who believed they were the victims of witchcraft, social workers, religious leaders and health providers. Besides detailing the impact of the belief in witchcraft on individual lives, she provides a capsule history of Ghana under British rule, when attempts were made to stifle witchcraft, and she notes the difficulties witchcraft presents for economic development in northern Ghana. Women who have some small success in business arouse jealousy, which leads to accusations of witchcraft from resentful neighbors, which then leads to condemnation and expulsion. Development agencies, Palmer writes, are at a loss about how to help women in the witch camps without increasing their dependency or encouraging the dumping of unwanted wives and burdensome old women by desperately poor families. Interestingly, the author seems to have fallen under witchcraft's spell. "I still can't say I believe, but I don't disbelieve either," she writes. She also purchased and carried with her a protective travel fetish, and the predictions of a witchdoctor prompted her to make an imprudent life-altering decision. Palmer's investigation will not persuade skeptics, but her report leaves no doubt that belief in witchcraft is a cultural reality in that part of the world.

Shapeless and meandering, but full of gritty details and some memorable characters.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439120514
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 5/4/2013
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Karen Palmer applied for her first passport at age 21; in the 12 years since, she has traveled to more than 25 countries, 17 of them in Africa. While living in West Africa, Palmer wrote for the Washington Times, South China Morning Post, Toronto Star, Sydney Morning Herald, Newsday, and Newsweek. She lives in Ottawa, where she works as the media officer with Oxfam Canada. This is her first book.

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