SPELLBOUND: Inside West Africa’s Witch Camps takes readers inside six colonies in northern Ghana where women accused of practicing witchcraft are banished to live. Tracing the circumstances that led to accusations against some of the women, Spellbound takes a closer look at why the belief in witchcraft remains so pervasive in modern times.
From the Publisher:
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 scepticism. 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. 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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Reviews & Media:
The Atlantic: A journey to the outlands of reason and belief, this immersive, The Serpent and the Rainbow–esque work of journalistic anthropology refutes the notion that our modern world is becoming ever smaller and more scrutable.
Salon: “Spellbound” opens with a blood-curdling story of one woman’s witchcraft trial, and only later reveals that Palmer spent countless hours talking to dozens of people in order to reconstruct that simple narrative. Reading “Spellbound” doesn’t make the reports of African witch scares sound any less bizarre — a man’s soul trapped in a cockroach or a pair of adulterous lovers becoming permanently locked together in intercourse will never be the stuff of mundane morning newspaper fare. But Palmer does construct an understandable context for all this supernatural weirdness, as well as a chastening vision of its all too human costs.
Publisher’s 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.
CBC’s Dispatches: The Queen of Witches lives in Ghana, surrounded by lesser witches, all of them living in exile after being expelled from their villages. On the surface, it is about sorcery and spells. But there’s a complex belief system behind it all, often fuelled by some pretty craven human motives. Canadian journalist Karen Palmer found a network of villages where witches are made to live in Ghana and went to them to find out why the superstition continues.
Maclean’s: Karen Palmer interviewed dozens of Ghanaians—women in the camps, their families, and their advocates, many of whom were devoted Christians and Muslims—and only a handful unequivocally denied the existence of witchcraft. The couple who looked after Palmer in Gambaga—social worker Simon, who relentlessly sought to repatriate accused women to their home villages, and his wife Evelyn—were believers. While the author observed, Evelyn allowed a witch doctor to cut into her breast with a razor and then hold a frog against the wound, all in the name of treating back pain. Even urban Ghanaians, friends who snickered at Palmer’s research, would turn around and warn the author to top up a taxi driver’s tip and never answer a cellphone displaying the numbers 967, lest she summon a curse.
New York Post: How Modern-Day Witch Trials are Destroying Rural Africa
Huffington Post: Ghana “Witch” Killing Points to a Broader Culture of Fear and Suspicion
Yahoo! Canada: Life-threatening witchcraft accusations still a grim reality for women worldwide
On Writing: Karen Palmer talks to Open Book about how the writer’s isolation is much the same whether she is living and working at a witch camp in Gambaga, Ghana, or in an apartment in London, Ontario.
Sarnia Observer: Karen Palmer says some of the situations she found herself in while researching West Africa’s witch camps still seem hard to believe. They include an early Sunday morning ceremony performed by a witch doctor her African fixer had hired to cure his wife’s health problems.
New Yorker: On Witches & Dopplegangers and Internet Black Magic