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Q&A with Karen Palmer: Spellbound by West Africa's witch camps

Ottawa resident, journalist and Oxfam Canada spokesperson Karen Palmer’s first book, Spellbound, explores West Africa's witch camps.

Ottawa resident, journalist and Oxfam Canada spokesperson Karen Palmer’s first book, Spellbound, explores West Africa's witch camps.

What is a witch camp?
In northern Ghana, in this particular area, when women are accused of witchcraft, they get taken to a chief with their accuser and both of them bring chickens and cut the throats of the chickens… depending on how they die, it determines whether a woman is guilty or innocent of witchcraft. If the chicken dies with its beak in the sky, she’s innocent. If it dies with its beak in the ground, then she’s a witch. Their families and the communities refuse to take them back, and they’re taken to these villages.

Were the camps what you had expected?
I read about witch camps in a state department report and in my guidebook. I kind of had these visions that they would a creepy place. But you can’t tell the camp from the rest of the village. And the women themselves were quite old, emaciated, quite pathetic-looking women who are too old and too vulnerable to be living on their own. There were no pointy hats, no warts on the nose sort of thing. They were older women who had sort of outlived their usefulness and ended up being accused of witchcraft.

What were some of the things you did and saw?
I heard some pretty creepy stories. I couldn’t turn off this western mindset of wanting to have proof –I really want to see something or touch something that makes me believe. So we went off in search of fireballs, which they say are witches flying through the night air and I went to the hospital, because there was a story of this boy who was a patient at the hospital. Every time he went to take his medicine, it would disappear.

Do you think that the spiritual realm exists?
When I went over, I was very black and white. There’s no such thing as witchcraft and there’s probably a logical reason for everything that’s happening here. The longer I spent in the community, the more everything became greyer and greyer for me. I heard a lot of stories that were quite similar. It really made me wonder… When I was there, hearing about it every day and being in that environment broke down that sort of wall.

Karen Palmer first arrived in Ghana in 2004 to help improve the quality of human rights journalism. She later returned and stayed for three years.

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