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Scott Edmondson and the Witches

  • By Jacqueline Tasch
  • Published Feb 9, 2009 8:00 AM
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Scott Edmondson's photo of an actress preparing to play the role of Mami Wata. (The photo at the top of the page was also shot between takes: witches gathering in the forest.)

Surely more than one Fulbright fellow has lost a laptop in the course of fieldwork, but Scott Edmondson may be the only one who turned his search for the missing item into a chapter of his dissertation.

Just before it disappeared, Scott had been using his computer to edit a film he’d helped to make about Mami Wata, a mermaid-style spirit in traditional and contemporary African religion. In a hurry to get the film made, its producers had paid only cursory attention to obtaining the kind of spiritual clearances that are an ordinary part of gaining access in Ghana. Earlier in the filming, two actors fell ill, and shooting was suspended until they poured (more of) the requisite libations and paid proper respects to (more) local powers.

At bedtime, Scott left his laptop running to process his work, and in the morning it was gone, having been stolen while "my wife and I and our dog were sleeping 10 feet away." Everyone suspected some sort of "medicine" had been used, so Scott spent the last part of his fieldwork "paying visits to everyone who claimed to have the power to find the stolen machine" — from Pentecostal pastors to traditional spiritual practitioners "we drove four hours out of Kumasi to see." Some were asking a price for their help so high that "you could buy a new laptop" while others asked for only "a couple of eggs and various other items" and accepted "a tip of a dollar or two."

Department of World Arts and Cultures

Graduate Quarterly (PDF version of this and other "Fulbrights in the Field" stories)

Scott’s quest provides a fascinating instance of how culture and religion interact in Ghana. His dissertation in the Culture and Performance program (Department of World Arts and Cultures) will tie this experience together with a narrative analysis of Ghanaian films and gospel music videos, his behind-the-scenes look at how such media are made, and the increasing competition between Pentecostal-style clergy and practitioners of neo-traditional religions for the hearts and minds — and pocketbooks — of ordinary Ghanaians.

On an earlier trip to Ghana funded by a grant from the Graduate Division, Scott began to gather data about the gospel music industry, which has the loosest links to African American gospel music and perhaps to the gospels themselves. Instead, it has a more Old Testament orientation. "Most of it has to do with deliverance and battling enemies," Scott says, and a summary statement might be: "Lord, protect me against my enemies, help me smite them, and deliver me to victory." Typically, people find these enemies close to home, often in their own family.

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Writing the script

During his Fulbright year, Scott expanded his research to films and videos involving similar themes and stories of spiritual warfare. Indeed, in West African cinema, witches are almost as dominant as action heroes in American movies. A top seller is Kyeiwaa (pronounced Chay-wah), a film series about a witch and her exploits. The opening scene provides an example of the dramatic themes, Scott says. As a woman and her husband are working in the fields, "you see Kyeiwaa appear off to the side, and there’s a visual effect where she shape-shifts into a snake and bites this woman, and the woman dies."

The movie was an immediate success, and today there are 10 Kyeiwaa movies, each introducing "a new way to see her turn into different things," Scott says, with the same theme: Kyeiwaa "taking out people in her village and her family to accrue more power." When the Kyeiwaa films "got really hot," Scott says, "then everybody started making a witch movie." In a country where some people become very wealthy seemingly overnight — but most do not — many are suspicious that something besides hard work is responsible, and witchcraft or "juju" provides a plausible explanation.

So, of course, it was only natural that juju was the explanation offered for his laptop’s disappearance. "Especially for an outsider like me, it’s all pretty sensational or fantastic to assume that this is what’s happening," he says, "but a lot of things play out that way."

Story courtesy of the Graduate Quarterly, a publication of the UCLA Graduate Division. Photos furnished by Scott Edmondson.