I Am Not a Witch, the transfixing, audacious debut feature from the Zambian-born Welsh director Rungano Nyoni, opens as Zambian villagers surround a bemused police official. The cause of their collective consternation is Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), a mute orphan accused by her community of witchcraft: one local alleges the girl has chopped off his arm with an axe. (Somehow said limb remains visibly, stubbornly attached.)
The girl is soon taken away by a government official, enrolled in a so-called witch camp, and used to help solve crimes. A long white ribbon is attached to her back to prevent her from escaping.
“It’s a visual way of representing something that happens in real life,” says the film’s writer-director. “The women are usually controlled through magic potions or, in the witch camps in Ghana, through an invisible shrine. They can’t leave the camp without permission. And the shrine stops them from flying at night, so that protects the local villages from them. There are lots of rules about the shrine. One, conveniently enough, is that only a witch doctor can see it.”
Shrines? Magic potions?
“Zambia is full of this kind of stuff,” she says, laughing. “So many weird things happen there. I met this chieftain who was renowned for catching witches. And he catches them with these hoodoo trinkets made with feathers and vials or blood and chicken bones. But these things are so intricate. There’s months of effort there. In Zambia, there’s modernity and the internet. And yet there’s talk of witchcraft.”
Real-life witch camps
While researching her screenplay, Nyoni spent more than a month in one of Ghana’s real-life witch camps, villages that simultaneously function as tourist attractions, labour camps and women’s refuges. Grandchildren and tour buses can visit. The women are permitted to go to church, but they are still forced to work in the fields for local chiefs.
“It’s just like a regular village but it’s a village of older women,” says Nyoni. “They all live together. The local chief will allow them to stay and they’ll plough the land in return.”
Many of the women she met at the Ghana settlement were 70 or older. There remains a stigma around the idea of old-age homes, says Nyoni, so the camps are a place for that constituency. But that alone doesn’t account for the witch camp phenomenon.
“There are different reasons as to why they ended up there. When I asked them why they had been accused, many seemed to think it was jealousy. Some of them had started a business in their village and then when the business did well, the accusations followed. A lot of them were widows. And when you’re a widow you’re quite vulnerable in certain places. If a family member accuses you, then they can take your house. I met this one woman who said: ‘We’re women and we’re the weaker people; that’s why we are here.’ That’s the best explanation. It’s oppression. It happens to the most vulnerable people.”
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