SPELLBOUND by Karen Palmer


Inside West Africa's Witch Camps
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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.

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4391-2050-7
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Free Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2010