01 September 2011

A Conversation with Yaba Badoe

Yaba Badoe
(photo by Niall McDiamid)
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!

The objective of the film was to build awareness. Have the women who are the subject of the film actually seen it? 

The documentary took a long time to complete and eventually came together with help from my co-producer Amina Mama, the women’s movement in Ghana and grants from the EU’s Cultural Support Initiative in Ghana, the African Women’s Development Fund, Pathways to Women’s Empowerment, Ghana, and the NGO, Forward.  Unfortunately, between the time we started filming in February 2005 and completion in July 2010, three of the women who appeared in the film: Asara, a businesswoman, Ma Hawa, the head woman of the camp, and Alima, who we filmed returning home, died. 

At present, Netright – a coalition of Ghanaian women’s groups, who launched the film in Accra this February, is organising a launch and capacity building programme for those working with alleged ‘witches’ in Northern Ghana. I’m sure that during the course of the screenings in the north many of the women who took part in the film will finally see it. 

Gladys Lariba and Simon Ngota who are in the documentary and play a crucial role in rehabilitating ‘witches’ were able to attend the launch in Accra. Gladys Lariba, especially, is as keen as I am, that the residents at the Gambaga camp get the opportunity to see themselves on film.

What were their responses to the film? 

Gladys Lariba and Simon Ngota who worked at the camp for the Presbyterian Church’s Go Home Project – to help alleged witches return home to their communities - are very pleased with the film. They appreciate that they can use it for advocacy and to raise money to highlight issues of violence towards women, who they deal with every day.

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.

Have you seen results in terms of raised consciousness and a call to action regarding the belief and treatment of so-called witches?

It’s really hard to determine the long-term impact of any social issue film. For me, the fact that The Witches of Gambaga is playing a part in a national debate that started when a 70-year-old woman, Amma Hemmeh, was burnt to death in Tema in November 2009 is great. The Commission for Human Rights in Ghana is thinking of using the documentary as an educational tool in schools and Netright is planning to use the film as a campaigning tool to change attitudes towards women believed to be witches. These attitudes, which scapegoat and demonise vulnerable women and children and ostracise them as ‘witches’, need to be questioned and debated. For example, Amnesty International in Kenya is already using the film with teachers and students in its human rights clubs in south-western Kenya. Apparently, every year, in this part of Kenya, elderly women and sometimes men are violently attacked, robbed, rendered homeless and even killed following accusations that they’re witches. If The Witches of Gambaga can play a part in promoting change by helping to stop violence towards women and men alleged to be witches, it will be a great step forward.

You are also a writer. How do you work in the two mediums?

I enjoy both disciplines enormously. Throughout my career I’m combined a love of film with a passion for writing. In my opinion the two disciplines bleed into each other. Making films enhances the skills I’m developing as a writer: a keen sense of narrative structure, clarity of expression, pacing and nuances of texture. When making documentaries I use my sensibility to convey the stories and emotions of other people. I’m not supposed to make stories up – a pleasure I reserve for fiction.

In your novel, True Murder you also explore witchcraft in telling your story...

I started writing True Murder long before I began making The Witches of Gambaga. I think anyone who’s spent time in Ghana is aware of how religious and superstitious many Ghanaians of all ages are. Ajuba, the narrator of True Murder is typical in this regard. However, if the novel is about anything, it’s about an intense friendship between two adolescent girls – both outsiders. Polly Venus and Ajuba Benson’s friendship is what holds the story together and gives it its power. Their passionate friendship accommodates ambivalence and attachment in equal measure. It may be a ‘girl-thing’ but it seemed to me that the only way to convey the full emotional horror of a child’s murder was to ensure that that child was loved intensely by another child – Ajuba in this case.

I enjoy Ama Ata Aidoo's work very much! What is her role in Ghanaian culture and why did you choose to focus your next documentary on her and her work?

As a novelist with roots in both Ghana and Britain, I’m acutely aware of the significance of women’s voices in recounting alternative histories. Ama Ata Aidoo’s life and writing give those of us working on Women Writing Africa: Ama Ata Aidoo at 70 – Amina Mama, poet and critic Abena Busia, and myself – the opportunity to profile an African literary icon as a means to tell the story of post-colonial politics and culture in Ghana through the eyes of a prolific, colourful, Ghanaian intellectual. Her short stories novels and plays have achieved international acclaim. However, Ama Ata Aidoo is a writer with a difference: an artist prepared to dip her toes in the turbulent waters of ‘revolutionary’ change to serve her country as Minister of Education. The idea that creativity can be used as a force to lambast, expose and fight corruption and authoritarianism, as well as instigate change through action, is a form of creativity that is fascinating. All suggestions on how this documentary can be funded will be most welcome!

Interview by Beti Ellerson, September 2011


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