Rungano Nyoni’s debut feature I Am Not a Witch opens with a little girl (Maggie Mulubwa) arriving in a rural Zambian village with no parents and no name. Accused of witchcraft by one resident, others start chipping in with anecdotes of the girl’s mischief.
The local police are called and the girl is quickly shipped off to a witch camp. Named Shula by the grandmotherly women also kept at the camp, she has a white ribbon tied to her back and given a choice. She can either keep the ribbon and work for the police as a witch, or cut the ribbon and be turned into a goat. Though in real life there is no such practice, the ribbon functions perfectly as a metaphor for the non-choices afforded women by such blatant and superstitious misogyny, and reflects the reality of life for many in Zambia.
Indeed, the fact that accusations of witchcraft are actually illegal in that country doesn’t stop widespread belief in magic, so much so that a magistrate in 2016 called for the law against accusations to be repealed. Mr Bamba (Henry B.J. Phiri) is the police chief running the semi-official operation. Bamba is a ludicrous, corrupt fool, a scruple-free Chief Wiggum scamming his way through police work. His character lends a comic absurdity to the bleakness of the scenario, whether it is his attempts to squeeze himself through the window of a locked bus, or his squirming through a TV appearance with a silently weeping Shula in tow. But it’s his wife, Charity (Nancy Murilo), who provides the key to the heart of I Am Not a Witch.
Only a mite less self-important than Bamba himself, Charity struts around the other women showing off her expensive clothes and crowing about the merits of ‘respectability’. Yet it’s clear that she at least as in thrall to Bamba’s authority as the women in the witch camp. A scene where Charity invites Shula into her house works both as a moment of sisterly bonding between the two, and a subtle depiction of Charity’s own servitude to the absurd patriarchy they are caught up in. The mad system that can declare an eight-year old girl a witch may be represented by the bumbling police chief, but it does not end with him.
Fed by a foul brew of media hysteria, credulous politicians and gawping Western tourists, Nyoni never loses sight that there is an innocent child at the centre of this bleak circus. In any other context, Shula’s brilliant white ribbon fluttering against the earthy tones of the Zambian landscape would look beautiful. But as each new injustice piles on the last, the image becomes ironically imbued with its own magical properties, symbolising the terrible absurdity that keeps beleagured women powerless while the lunatics take over the asylum.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell