All the more chilling for being based on real life rural witch camps in Zambia, Rungano Nyoni’s surreal tale of a young girl accused of being a witch works both as drama and allegory.
The girl (Maggie Mulubwa), later named Schula, or ‘uprooted’, by her witch family, watches mutely as she is accused, with the hysterical vehemence of a mob, of causing misfortune. At first you believe the world weary female police officer will put them in their place but witches are something all believe in. An odiously jovial government official, Mr Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), hears of the girl and sees an opportunity for exploitation.
The witch camp is a community of women all tethered by long white ribbons to stop them ‘flying away’. They are displayed for tourists and used for manual labour in quarries and farms. Schula is given the option of deciding to be a witch or a goat; as a witch, she will have a community, as a goat, she will be nothing more than food.
There are many satirical moments, black in their humour, as we listen to the posturing of officials juxtaposed with pop music and interspersed with mangled western popular culture references. We can see it is all a sham but not even those most oppressed by it dare to question the status quo. A telling scene is with Mr Banda’s wife and her monologue about respectability.
The women in the witch camp and Shula are engaging and their faces and personalities, along with the surreal imagery of spools of ribbon, make this a memorable and sobering tale. The ribbon is a sad metaphor; women who won’t conform or are simply not liked are given a tether and convince that this is some form of safety, in itself freedom. It takes a child to see through the lie.
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