Yaba Badoe talks about her experiences as writer and filmmaker, her film The Witches of Gambaga and its reception, and her current documentary project about the renowned Ghanaian writer, Ama Ata Aidoo.
Yaba, tell us a bit about yourself, your experiences with cinema growing up in Ghana.
I’m a Ghanaian–British documentary filmmaker and writer. After graduating from King’s College, Cambridge University, I worked as a civil servant at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ghana, before returning to the UK to do a second degree. I then became a General Trainee with the BBC. I’ve taught in Spain and Jamaica and worked as a producer and director for the main terrestrial channels in Britain. My TV credits include Black and White, a ground-breaking investigation into race and racism in Bristol, using hidden cameras for BBC1; I Want Your Sex, an arts documentary exploring images and myths surrounding black sexuality in Western art, literature, film and photography for Channel 4 and a six-part series, VSO, for ITV. I go back and forth between London and Accra and work for part of the year as a Visiting Scholar at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, where I make films for the Audio-visual Unit there.
I left Ghana to attend school in Britain when I was very young, so my memories of cinema in Ghana are early ones of Saturday night trips to the Rex Cinema off the High Street in Accra, to watch American movies. I loved them and vividly recall crying passionately at a particularly poignant scene (so it seemed to me back then) of a blonde-haired girl, around the same age as me, up there on the screen, furiously tearing up a beautiful blue party dress. If she didn’t want the dress, I reasoned, she could at least give it to me! I’ve loved cinema ever since for its power to transport me into another world.
How did you develop an interest in filmmaking?
I’ve enjoyed watching movies for as long as I can remember. However, my decision to become a filmmaker evolved gradually while I was working for an MPhil in Development Studies at Sussex University. It seemed to me that the ideas we were grappling with at the time: the subordination of women in the development process, neo-liberal and Keynesian approaches to economics, the histories of colonisation and imperialism, were much too important to restrict to academic debate within ivory towers. These were ideas that I wanted to disseminate to the widest possible audience to stimulate discussion and change.
I also remember watching Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home at school – a TV drama about homelessness. I was around 14 at the time and the film gripped me completely. It made me want to improve the situation of homeless families in Britain. I guess, ever since then, I’ve always known deep down that film can galvanise public opinion and change attitudes. I know because it happened to me!
Your film, The Witches of Gambaga has drawn a great deal of interest and has received awards as well. Tell us about the subject and how you became interested in making the film.
I first heard about the Witches’ camp at Gambaga in January 1995 when I was covering a story in Tamale for the BBC World Service. I was working as a stringer for the BBC’s Network Africa back then. I returned to Tamale in March of the same year, hoping to make a day trip to Gambaga to interview some of the women living at the camp. It took me a lot longer to gain access to them than I’d anticipated. When I eventually got to interview three of the women’s representatives, I was shocked to discover that two of them actually believed they were ‘witches’. Tia, who told me she’d been wrongly accused of witchcraft, was quickly forced to retract her statement. I was horrified to find that women accused of witchcraft were forced to undergo a trial by ordeal. Depending on how a chicken died – with its wings facing the sky or the ground – you were either a witch or not. I had to spend the night in Gambaga. I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking what would happen to me if I was accused of witchcraft and the chicken test went against me. How would I let my family down south know? It was then, I suspect, that alleged witches became more than objects of my curiosity. Instead they became women I identified with, because I could see that but for an accident of birth, I could easily be one of them!
What are the reactions of Ghanaians toward the film?
At the screenings I’ve attended, I’ve noticed that most Ghanaians have been deeply moved by the testimonies of women in the documentary: women who’ve been torn away from their families, who’ve had their livelihoods and property destroyed and have been beaten up and tortured because they’re believed to be witches. When the film was screened at the British Council in Accra, several middle-class women got up to speak about how the belief that women are witches had touched their lives. From broadcasters to scientists, it seems from the response we’ve received, that no woman anywhere in Ghana is exempt from the threat of being accused of witchcraft. The Witches of Gambaga has stimulated passionate debate in newspapers, on radio, television and at universities in Accra and Cape Coast.