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.
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.