Yaba Badoe is a Ghanaian – British documentary film – maker, journalist and fiction writer. A graduate of King’s College, Cambridge, she worked as a civil servant in Ghana before becoming a general trainee with the BBC. She has taught in Spain and Jamaica and is, at present, Visiting Scholar at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, where she is completing a documentary film – The Witches of Gambaga. Her Short stories have been published in Critical Quarterly and in African Love Stories, an anthology edited by Ama Ata Aidoo.
Geosi Reads interviews Yaba Badoe:
GEOSI READS: Let me start with your documentary film The Witches of Gambaga. In fact, I had goosebumps all over my body after watching it. What inspired the film?
YABA BADOE: I stumbled on the Witches camp at Gambaga in 1995 when I was working as a stringer for the BBC World Service in Ghana. I was shocked that, not far from where I was born in Tamale, there were refuges for women believed to be witches. What was even more horrifying was the fact that women were condemned for witchcraft through a ritual by which a chicken is slaughtered – and depending on whether the chicken dies with its wings facing the sky or the ground – a woman is forced to live in exile from her family. After spending a sleepless night at Gambaga I wanted to make a film about the women there, because I realised that if I’d been born nearby, it was more than likely that I would be targeted as a ‘witch’ as well.
GR: Permit me to dig into the film proper. What is your judgment about the killing of a chicken and how it dies to determining whether a person is a witch or not?
YB: I think it’s horrifying that in the 21st century in Ghana, in a country lauded for its human rights record, a woman’s future can be determined by the way a chicken dies.
GR: It must have been very difficult seeking the consent of the major players involved at the camp designated for witches. How did you end up with the permission to film?
YB: Research for the film and the filming itself wouldn’t have been possible without the incredible help and support of Gladys Lariba – the care-worker at the witches’ camp who works very closely with the women living there – and her supervisor – Simon Ngota. Moreover, no filming or research could have taken place without permission from the chief of Gambaga, the Gambarrana, Yahaya Muni. He gave me access to research and then film the women in his custody. Gladys helped with translations, provided me with background information on women whose testimonies I recorded, and enabled me to develop close relations with them. What struck me was that many inmates at the ‘witches’ camp were prepared to share their stories with me; were prepared to answer my endless questions and then take part in the film. Everyone who participated was extremely patient, cooperative and accommodating.
GR: In the film, I noticed that most of the accused witches are in their middle ages or are aged. In your research and in filming, did you ever stumble on teenagers or young adults accused as witches?
YB: No, most of the women at the camp in Gambaga tend to be middle-aged widows or elderly women. The youngest inmate at the camp while I was there was Salmata, who was around 35 years old. Witchcraft is believed to be passed from mother to daughter, so very young women are stigmatized when their mother’s are accused of witchcraft. Nonetheless, unlike in the south of Ghana, accusations of witchcraft directed at children, is not something I came across in Northern Region.
GR: What do you hope to achieve with this film? What has been the reception since its release?
YB: People who’ve seen the film have been moved by it and are keen to use it as a campaigning tool to change attitudes towards women believed to be witches throughout Africa. These attitudes, which scapegoat and demonise vulnerable women and children and ostracise them as ‘witches’, need to be questioned and debated. If ‘The Witches of Gambaga’ can play a part in promoting change by helping to stop violence towards women alleged to be witches, it will be a great step forward.
Overall the film has been received very well. It won Best Documentary Award at the Black International Film Festival in Birmingham in 2010 and has just won 2nd prize for Best Documentary at Fespaco 2011 in Ouagadougou. Fespaco is a biennial film festival held in Burkina Faso and is the biggest and best of film festivals in Africa.
YB: The documentary took five years to make. In retrospect, shooting the film was the easiest part of the process. I had a great cameraman, Darren Hercher, the chief on Gambaga, Yahaya Muni, was cooperative and gave me permission to film rituals that had never been filmed before, and the women at the camp were endlessly patient in telling me their stories. They soon got the hang of filming as well.
What proved to be extremely challenging was finding the funding to complete the documentary, a task which wouldn’t have been possible without the help of my co-producer, Amina Mama, and well-wishers such as Yao Graham of Third World Network in Ghana, Dr Takyiwaa Manuh of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Dr Rose Mensah Kutin of Abantu for Development, Kwasi Gyan-Appenteng of the EU’s Cultural Initiative Support Programme in Ghana and Naana Otoo-Oyortey, the Executive Director of Forward in London.
GR: Let me move on to your novel, True Murder. Upon first view at the title, one is likely to conclude that it is a crime or mystery novel. Can it be classified as a crime or mystery novel?
YB: The question people usually ask is whether True Murder is crime novel or a ‘coming of age’ story. I think True Murder could be described as both a crime novel and a coming of age story. I’m a huge fan of American ‘detective’ writers – from Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald to Denis Lehane. Discovering the flexibility of the detective genre, its huge emotional range and resonance, helped in the creation of ‘True Murder’. Most important of all, it made the writing of the novel, despite the darkness of the subject matter, enjoyable. The idea was to use this most malleable of forms to equip an unlikely protagonist. Ajuba Benson, the narrator of ‘True Murder’, is an awkward outsider intent on unraveling a mystery which is as much about herself as her best friend. It was my intention to give Ajuba space to inhabit the story completely, so that her positioning would disrupt the usual accretions projected on to black characters, which at times can reduce them to vehicles representing issues of social injustice. Instead, ‘the gaze’ depicted throughout the tale is Ajuba’s. As a result her best friend’s family appears ‘exotic’, even as she yearns to become a fully-fledged family member. Hopefully, by undercutting the usual perceptions of race and framing Ajuba’s story as an investigation, universal themes of love and betrayal, as well as the age-old struggle to attain happiness within a family context, are probed, irrespective of nationality, culture and gender.
If I were forced to slot True Murder in to a particular genre, my preference would be to describe it as a psychological thriller in the Gothic mystery tradition. A nervous heroine determined to resolve a mystery as it unfolds in the English countryside is the stock in trade of gothic melodrama. However, once the heroine is an African, another layer is added which I hope enriches the genre, making it very much of today.
GR: You solely dedicated the book to your mother. What informed this dedication? Are there scenes in the story that can be linked to your mother? And to what extent is the novel autobiographical?
YB: I dedicated the book to my mother because her love and enduring faith in me sustain me to this day. My mother passed away ten years ago and yet her confidence in me gave me the stamina to persist in becoming a writer. It’s that same persistence that enabled me to complete ‘The Witches of Gambaga’, with the help of friends and colleagues.
‘True Murder’ is autobiographical in as much as I was sent to boarding school in Britain at a young age. The idea for the novel came to me when I was 14 or 15. Around that time, I found out that a girl who had been in the same class as me at prep school had been murdered. All of us who knew Clare and her family were traumatised by the event. Indeed, what happened to her haunted me to such an extent, that I decided, all those years ago, that if I were ever to write a novel, it would be about that: an event that turned the everyday rules of life completely upside down. I knew that a child was going to get murdered in the story – but how that was going to happen and who the characters involved would be, took much longer to work out. Altogether, from the three months it took to write the first draft of the story, to the length of time it required to write subsequent drafts, I’d say ‘True Murder’ took around two years of continuous hard work over an 18 year period to write! Well, you know what they say: ‘If at first you don’t succeed…’
GR: …Try Again! Isn’t it? Would you then suggest this as a workable tool for budding writers who have made the first attempt and failed? Is the two years of continuous hard work over an eighteen year period of writing not too long a time to give up – say – in the case of budding writers?
YB: Every writer has to make up their own mind as to how long they persevere in trying to get published. In my case, when the opportunity presented itself, I decided to keep on working on ‘True Murder’ until, with the help of excellent editors, I made it as good as it could be. I’m very committed to the craft of writing and prepared to put in the time and effort to be as good as I can be. Some writers are very lucky and get published quickly. Getting a novel into the public domain took me a long time. When ‘True Murder’ was eventually bought by Jonathan Cape, they did the novel proud. So in the end, the long struggle was worth it.
GR: One reviewer, Kinna of Kinna Reads has described your style of writing as ‘Completely Seductive’. Can you describe your style and your voice as a writer?
YB: I leave it to readers, reviewers and critics to describe my style and voice. The main source of satisfaction for me is that people are gripped by the book and enjoy it.
GR: I noticed a great deal of superstitions running through the novel –the fear of witchcraft, the avoidance of mirrors and many others. Had you started your research into the making of your film before writing the novel? Or, what informed the superstitions we see Ajuba pick from her mother back in Ghana?
YB: 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 is typical in this regard.
GR: Film making and writing fiction? Which of the two are you likely to be caught doing most? Do you have any preference over the other?
YB: I enjoy both disciplines.
GR: Can you share with us how you landed your publishing contract? Was it difficult finding a publisher for your novel?
YB: Yes, it was a long, arduous journey but I got there in the end!
GR: The theme of divorce is also prevalent in your novel as we see Ajuba’s parents’ marriage breakup and the resulting effect on Ajuba being damped off at a boarding school. In your view, do you see divorce as a disturbing force on the life of a child – say – Ajuba in this case?
YB: If the story of ‘True Murder’ is about anything, it’s about an intense friendship between two adolescent girls – both outsiders, both with a load of baggage that they’re humping around. Polly and Ajuba’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. Once I identified that this type of intense friendship between two adolescent girls was the overriding theme in the novel, writing the story was easy.
GR: Should readers then overlook the sub – themes that are encountered in the story?
YB: Every reader takes something unique from a story. As a writer I want my readers to enjoy reading the story. What they get from it is up to them.
GR: You have worked with the B.B.C. What kind of work did you do there? Briefly tell us about your experience with the B.B.C?
YB: I joined the BBC as a General Trainee in 1981 and was trained in radio and TV production. I was given an excellent training in broadcast journalism and really enjoyed my time working for BBC radio and television. I particularly enjoyed working with the World Service.
GR: Have any writers inspired you? Any books you’ve loved over the years?
YB: Apart from the writers of pulp fiction that I mentioned earlier, I’m a great fan of Toni Morrison. I think ‘Beloved’ is out of this world. It was voted the best novel of the last century by the New York Times and I agree. I love Bessie Head and Ama Ata Aidoo’s short stories. I grew up reading and loving Daphne du Maurier. ‘Rebecca’ is a particular favourite. I enjoyed Isabel Allende’s ‘House of Spirits.’ I adore 19th century women novelists – the Brontes, Mrs Gaskell, Mrs Oliphant and Ellen Wood’s ‘East Lynne’. Contemporary Nigerian writing is excellent: Chinua Achebe, Helon Habila and Chimananda Ngozi Adichie all hit the spot as far as I’m concerned; as does Ian McEwan early work.
GR: You wrote an interesting piece titled ‘What Makes a Woman a Witch?’ I want to put you on the spotlight here. In your view, what makes a woman a witch?
YB: I refer you to the article: http://www.feministafrica.org/uploads/File/Issue%205/FA5_feature_article_2.pdf
GR: Who should read your book? If there are any words or phrase to tell anyone to pick your book, what would it be? You may add your last words.
YB: The book is for anyone who enjoys psychological thrillers and likes a good, fast read with twists and turns and surprises.
See my review of Yaba Badoe’s novel, True Murder here.
See my review of her award – winning film, The Witches of Gambaga here.