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Spellbound: Inside West Africa's Witch Camps [Hardcover]

Karen Palmer
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Oct. 26 2010
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.

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"Fascinating and disturbing..." Canwest News Service

About the Author

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.

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5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful insight into a different world Jan. 7 2011
Spellbound is compelling as it uncovers a culture of witchcraft still alive and well in Ghana. The personal stories woven into the history make it a wonderful read.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spellbound: Inside West Africa's Witch Camps Dec 29 2010
By Just Frank - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I recently returned from my second visit to one of the smaller Ghana's witch camps Ms. Palmer refrences in this book. The village chief began our discussion with this statement: "Witchcraft was here at the beginning of time and it will still be here at the end of time". This book does an excellent job of recounting village life, the way that witchcraft lingers at the backs of people's minds, and the complexities of the issues. Thank you, Ms. Palmer, for answering so many questions that I did not have time to ask.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Spellbound Aug. 16 2012
By P. Newhart - Published on Amazon.com
When author Karen Palmer first learns of the witch camps of Ghana, in which accused witches are sent to live a poverty stricken existence away from their villages, she feels compelled to investigate and inform the western world of these women's plights.

What first appears to be simply an issue of African superstitions quickly shows itself to be more complicated and a way to dispose of women who have outlived their usefulness or who are proving too adept at business. It's also a solution to the jealousy that is common in the polygamous societies of Northern Ghana. While these causes are visible to outsiders, Karen still wants to learn if there is any truth behind these claims...can witchcraft really exist or is it just so deeply engrained in the population that they see the evidence they wish to see?

This was an interesting account of Ghana and this issue. Karen Palmer is careful to examine all sides of the issue and never comes to a hasty conclusion, either regarding witchcraft itself or a solution to the problems. A well written account; recommended for any interested in human rights issues or Africa itself. I only wish that the author would have included some of the photographs that she wrote about taking.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Book March 31 2011
By Legend of a Cowgirl - Published on Amazon.com
This is a well-written investigative book about a cultural belief that is ruining the lives of many women, a few men, and disrupting families. Ms. Palmer lets us know that the belief in witches is a traditional belief that is hard for many Africans to discredit as they embrace Western culture. For a woman (and a few men) to be accused of a bewitching someone could be fatal for the accused and the witch camps are a safe haven for these people.

Ms. Palmers writes a brief history of how British colonialism created tension in the country and how the British tried to handle the situation. She explains that witchcraft is not outlawed in Ghana and there are "licensed" practitioners who usually are men. She explained how these men may be contributing to the women being accused of witchcraft. The author doesn't belittle the Ghanaians who believe in the practice, and even explains that witchcraft hasn't been absent from European history or her own current beliefs. Actually, Ms. Palmer seems to go out of her way to try to find people to validate the practice. She shares the frustration of trying to obtain substantive proof by interviewing the women, their families, herbalist (the male witches), doctors, government agencies, and aid groups which assist the women. Often times she shares with us the cultural differences of understanding, especially when trying to obtain an answer to her question.
The author doesn't discredit witchcraft, nor does she give definite proof of it. She provides the reader with information to form his or her own opinion.

She writes of the various issues that prompts the accusations against the women which often is caused by poverty: envy that the accused is successful in her business; sudden illnesses brought on by insects, airborne diseases, nourishment and lack of facilities to ensure clean water; competition among wives in polygamous marriages; and the burden of taking care of the elderly are a few. This book explained the frustrations the government, hospitals and aid groups have with trying to find a viable way for the outcast women to survive and to stop the debilitating accusations.

This book is a fascinating cultural and geographic study of Ghana, since both contributes to the hardship the people are currently facing. The only flaw is that Ms. Palmer didn't interview any of the men who were accused of being witches or explain the accusations they faced. I highly recommend this book.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Spellbound: Inside West Africa's Witch Camps" (Free Press) Nov. 15 2010
By Dennis Miller - Published on Amazon.com
This is the amazing story of the witch camps that exist today in Northern Ghana as told by a fabulous writer named Karen Palmer. The book presents a series of episodes about different camps and the women whose lives they completely dominate. It's a fascinating account on every level.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good in spots, but disappointing May 9 2012
By Readhead13 - Published on Amazon.com
Interesting in spots, but unnecessarily long-winded, and where are the pictures? And if this book is "for the women," why did the author not have the courage to enter into a shrine just because she had to be naked from the waist up? No, she let the male go in and describe it to her. Really, where's the power in that?

This book would have been much better had the author let go of her inhibitions and been more participatory. I just finished Chapter Six, which had the disappointment of the lack of shrine visit. I'm hoping for better as I continue, but I am not hopeful.

And really, no photos? So many things described verbally would have been so much better represented by a picture.

Overall, a disappointment.

And, no, I didn't buy it from Amazon. I bought it from my local used bookstore.
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