Karen Palmer, author of Spellbound: Inside West Africa’s Witch Camps, is a veteran journalist, not a historian of witchcraft, so for me to read the book from the latter perspective is to do her a slight disservice. (As an inside, the subtitle might better read “Inside Ghana’s Witch Camps,” but maybe some editor thought that “West Africa’s” had more punch.)
From her website:
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 [a sort of refugee camp for accused witches] 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 women who confessed she’d attacked a girl given to her as a sacrifice; another one desperately trying to rid herself of the witchcraft that she believed helped her kill dozens of people.
One troubling thing about studying the Renaissance and early modern witch trials (1500s-1700s) is that we never hear from the victims except through the filter of witch-trial testimony.
Now if you can assume that the phenomenon of witchcraft in northern Ghana is analogous to “our” witch trials—and it certainly sounds that way to me—then once again there are no clear answers about what is going on.
There was Ayishetu, chased from her village by a violent mob, whose life was destroyed by the accusation that she practiced witchcraft, and Winangi, a tiny splinter of a woman who’d gne seeking witchcraft to protect herself and her children. She pleaded to her husband to move her to the camp when she felt she’d lost control of the dark gift. A smart businesswoman named Asara had ended up at the camp when a debtor accused her of causing a meningitis outbreak. Napoa, mannish and grumpy, readily identified herself as a witch and caused fear among the other women living at the camp (41).
The surrounding culture is mostly Islamic but with lots of magical practitioners. Muslim polygamy also contributes to the problem. How do you get rid of the oldest wife? Accuse her of being a witch!
Another analogy with the European witch trials is this: The village shaman-herbalist is not the witch but rather the person who accuses the witch. Or if someone has accused her (usually it is her), the shaman-herbalist conducts a ritual (e.g., watching the death throes of a chicken) to pronounce whether she truly is a witch or not.
So I recommend Spellbound both for a look at contemporary West African issues with witchcraft but also for thinking more about its history in Western culture.