The Tale of the Bag of Bras
It began with a crackly phone call one morning.The voice on the line was familiar. Theo Anderson from Friends of the Earth Ghana - it's been years! How is he? What is he up to these days? I'd filmed him in Amsterdam five years back, calmly explaining to blithe Europeans about some little local difficulties being experienced with oil and gas extraction in West Africa. Resource extraction that is funded from and enjoyed in places like Europe, and suffered from greatly in Africa. But now Theo had a new story to tell. Had I heard about accused 'witches' being persecuted? About 'Witches' Camps' in the north of Ghana where thousands of elderly women accused of witchcraft eke out a living in exile from their communities? A women's empowerment network is working for change and they have funding for an educational film for Ghana TV.Would I like to pitch for the job? Would I! The chance to explore West Africa from the inside out, to engage with the region's spiritual traditions while making a hard hitting film on human rights and violence against women? I quickly consulted relativeswith family in Ghana. Yes, I really could dive in and tell this story .. Several months later and I'm at Heathrow airport in the company of keen young collaborator Saskia, video cameras, editing laptop, lots of mosquito spray and a giant holdall full of teenage bras. Bras? what have they got do with witchhunt survivors? Turns out my niece Isabel, whose father happens to be Ghanaian, had read that refugee women are less likely to suffer sexual abuse if they wear a bra. Keen to help, she stirred her classmates to bring in the bras they had outgrown. Her campaign was a great success, even though (perhaps because?) most of her fellow pupils were boys. Anyway, soon she had a giant bin bag overflowing with hundreds of nearly new bras. But then the question: how to get them to the refugees? As an aunt off to film in Ghana's witches' camps, it was inevitable that I would be carrying a great big red bag of bras. So it was that we hauled a hulking sports bag to Ghana's Northern Region, and spent our last day at the mysterious, mud built Ngani Camp (near Yendi) filming ragged, half starved women gathering, touching tentatively and smiling broadly as they pulled out and squished their dry and drooping breasts into West London teenies' cast off bras. Some tried these novelties over their clothes, some put them on upside down, some tried several on at once. One man tested a lacy number for his absent wife. Cackling and joshing, the beautiful, battle-scarred old women of Ngani 'witches' camp' posed for the camera in their colourful rags and tight new 'bodices' (as bras are known in a Ghanaian dialect of English). The camera loved these women, especially their smiles. Until then, we had only really captured their sorrow, their losses and terrible tales of violence and woe.. Many had been battered, some were maimed. All had lost homes, families, livelihoods to an accusation of witchcraft... and these were the lucky ones. They had survived extreme abuse to find refuge in a 'witches' camp under the care of a 'fetish priest' whose power is believed to overwhelm the evil powers of the 'witchcraft spirit'. Wole is a fetish priest with the ancestral role of healing the sick, offering blessings, and diagnosing, sometimes treating, 'witchcraft'. He tends a rough and ancient shrine, sacrificing chickens and goats and bottles of liquor to powers that are held to protect against the 'witchcraft spirit'. Part of his living comes from this work - diagnosing and housing accused 'witches'. Some accused women are infertile, some widows, some mentally ill, some disabled. Some had lost children to violence and disease; some are just mouthy, obstreperous women or have otherwise got on the wrong side of someone in a male dominated society where unscrupulous priests sell prayer as the solution to everything, and when it doesn't work, blame the devil and the 'witch'. When people wonder why Africa's wealth of people and natural resources is not 'developed' enough to avoid malnutrition, war and disease, they often blame the legacy of colonialism, slavery and racism - and they'll be right. But why don't such critical observers also look to the evangelical preachers filling west african airwaves and wounded peoples' hearts with false promises of salvation combined with fear of woman, of evil and the idea that misfortune can be attributed to the weakest in society - and then beaten out of them? It will take more than a few bras to help West Africa's old women stand up to a culture of misogyny and scapegoating. Education, healthcare, the rule of law; also awareness of the very real exclusion faced by ageing women are essential. It's hard to focus on editing bra distribution when there are other, 'more important' things to focus on. But a smile breaking across a face lined with pain and sorrow, and a hobbling dance of celebration, are steps to remember that the sacred feminine lives even in these sad, forgotten women, and that the divine moves too in the 'witches' camps' of a region that feeds Europe so well with chocolate, gold and oil, and is rewarded mainly just with churches..