Movie of the Week: “Witches in Exile” (2004)

I have written extensively on the problem of witchcraft in Africa, and was excited to see that this film had been made. In 2003, Allison Berg traveled to Ghana to document conditions in the six “witch camps” which operate throughout the rural regions of the country. As in all of Africa, witchcraft related accusations represent a vast social challenge to state and economic development.

The accused are largely elderly women, although men and children are also known to be accused. Women said to be practicing witchcraft are cast out of their villages, sometimes violently and the culture vastly believes that such women should be killed. In Ghana, six camps have been created to house women who have been cast out of their homes, providing spiritual cleansing and rudimentary living quarters.

However, the existence of the camps should not be considered as altruistic. The men which operate the camps do so not out of sympathy for the accused, but out of a belief that these women present a threat to the world. In fact, footage of the camp healer portray him as a barelyh coherent drunk, who clearly harbors deep resentment for the women. In fact, most of the men in the film, including families members of the “witches” and members of the community which waged the accusations are portrayed as barely functional, unreasonable and likely imbalanced.

The films downside suffers from a lack of honest statements from the family members of the accused women. Interviews with the sons and brothers of the “witches” are often done in the presence of male community members, so it is difficult to determine whether the men truly believe the accusations, or whether they are merely parroting wider community values. Indeed, the expressions of these men and the hesitance of delivery might indicate that they also believe the accusations to be unfair and may be troubled by the thought of casting out family members, but there is nothing within the footage from which to concretely support this assertion.

Conversely, the accused women are incredibly lucid. They matter of factly describe their situation in both human and social terms, honestly discuss the difficulty of their present condition and rightfully worry of their families’ futures. Most declare that witchcraft does not exist and clearly harbor vast anger against a society which has brought them to the deplorable conditions of the camps. Despite the state of the witch camps, many appear to want to remain, having nowhere else to go, and having discovered comaradery and community with other women who face the same plight.

The camps themselves were interesting to me. Despite the miserable conditions, the women in the camps are almost an oasis of reason, having cast off the great weight of deep rooted superstition. However, I doubt that anyone could agree that the culture of witchcraft is doing sub-Saharan Africa many favors. It is unlikely that anything will be done to overcome this challenge, rapid urbanization and economic expansion have almost exacerbated the problem, but allow religious opportunists such as Christian faith healers and Pentecostal churches to promulgate. If anything, films like “Witches in Exile” expose the incredible complexities of religion, belief and society, particularly in a region as vastly complex and dynamic and sub-Saharan Africa.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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