Looking in my spam folder, find emails with subjects such as: "Do You Want to Touch Me?" "For a Special Man a Special Photo!" and "Someone Wants to know you closer... it's me!" For most of us, these emails are such a familiar presence they don't even warrant attention, let alone a response. But have you ever wondered where they come from? And if they ever work?
The answer, in a lot of cases, is: yes, they do work – along with similar approaches used on dating sites for lonely hearts – and they often come from Ghana. A sophisticated bot designed to soak up as much fool money as possible? Not quite. More: groups of young people sitting around in a living room who are desperate for a quick buck, and who raid electrical landfill sites for computer parts and combine their scamming practices with voodoo.
This process is known as Sakawa, an ever-growing practise in Ghana, and filmmaker Ben Asamoah has made a feature length film about it. After the film's screening at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen, he talked me through his experiences of watching Sakawa at work.
VICE: How did you come to this story?
Ben Asamoah: I was born in Ghana and my mum moved to Belgium when I was still a baby. I lived there until I was 11 and then she decided to start a business in Ghana, so we went back and I went to boarding school there. I went back to Belgium to finish more school, and then when I returned to Ghana I stumbled across Sakawa and realised that most of my peers from school were practising it. I felt like that would have been the life I would have lived if I'd have stayed in Ghana.
What themes were you looking to explore?
I wanted to give people in the Western world a deeper understanding of places like Ghana, because I feel like the concentration has always been on where they fell rather than where they slipped. I wanted to focus on trying to create understanding for these people and the lives they live, and why they get involved with what they do. We ship a lot of electronic waste, which ends up in places like this, and the boys try to recycle it, burn it and get copper and metals, but the Sakawa boys realised that it contained useful information that they could use for the practice. So I guess I wanted to show that the world is all a bit more interconnected. It's not just an isolated situation about barbaric Africans trying to scam us.
Were the people you filmed your friends who you went to school with?
No. They were a different group. My friends are a bit older and doing different kinds of Sakawa activities, which I would probably not be able to justify morally to film. I just wanted to make a film that focused on the elementary stage of Sakawa. To make the viewers realise that a lot of this isn't very advanced, with a lot of people making very little money. It takes a while to perfect the craft. The people I concentrated on were people with not much experience and not very advanced. It's not always about a well-organised group of people; it can just be a young girl or boy in some instances who are just trying to make a living and are struggling to find their way.
They don't especially seem to enjoy the work in the film. Did you get the feeling it was something born out of necessity rather than choice?
Oh, absolutely. There's a thin line between necessity and greed, and the boys I went to boarding school with, they are in the greed territory. The elementary stage of this practice is very much something born out of necessity. They don't have a dream to be Sakawa boys or girls; they have a dream – just like the people in the West have a dream – and they are using this as their platform to get there. Morally you can debate it, but I was less interested in that.
Does it get a lot darker and more complex with boys who have gone into the greed zone?
Yes. It starts with dating websites and people looking for love. But it also grows into things like credit card fraud and so on.
Was there a parallel to be drawn for you between the scammer and the scammed? It almost seems like everyone is a victim in a way – some of circumstance and others of being scammed. It seems like people on both sides don't really want to be where they are in life.
Absolutely. You have programmes like Dr Phil, where people with lots of money come on and talk as victims [of email scammers], but it's always shown from the Western point of view. I wasn't interested in that – I wanted to show that we both have a problem. Most of these boys don't enjoy the practise; they aren't singing kumbaya whilst doing it. When you tell a lot of people that you love them over and over again [as they do in the email scams], to a certain extent the word loses its meaning. You become desensitised to it and it has no value any more. That can impact their relationships with people. It does affect their lives.
When you see the boys pretending to be girls on the phone – often having phone sex – to men in America, it looks like an exhausting thing to be doing.
It's hard work. You're speaking to people and you're trying to sweet talk them for weeks before you get $50 out of it. Then you have to pay for the phone credit, so it's both a financial and emotional investment.
At the level you were filming, how successful are they? How much of a response rate are they getting?
It's very low. They will use dating sites and wink 50 to 70 times at someone before they get a response. They have to do a lot of convincing to get people to believe that they are actually in Ghana. Let's say they speak to 100 people and ten fall for the lies – out of that, you might get something from five of them if you can convince them you are in Ghana so that they'll send money to help them travel to America. I'd say about 5 percent of the people that practise Sakawa are able to make thousands of dollars doing it, but when it comes to people who have been practising it for about a year or so, they might make a couple of hundred dollars a month.
What does Sakawa mean exactly?
Some people believe it came from the Hausa language, but I would say generally it just means an online scam in combination with voodoo rituals, or juju as they call it.
How integral is the belief and practice of voodoo in the online scamming?
It is an animistic religion that has existed prior to Christianity and Islam and so on. It is deep rooted within most African countries, and they believe in it equally as a physical world. A lot of people believe that voodoo is instant, rather than Christianity or Islam being more long-term, like life after death. So they believe that whether you are a Sakawa boy or you are selling tomatoes at a market, once you practise voodoo there is a greater chance that you will be successful. Knowing that, a lot of fake voodoo priests have jumped on that. There's a lot of fakery out there. Everybody is scamming everybody. The voodoo priests scam the Sakawa boys and the Sakawa boys scam the Westerners.
So do the voodoo priests actually market themselves to the Sakawa boys for that use?
100 percent. It's a proper business strategy. One of the voodoo priests allowed me to film him while he was doing all his adverts for stuff. He's one of the examples of someone who has just set it up to be a business. It's just marketing; he does radio, billboard signs, etc. A lot of people are taking advantage.
How many people are practising Sakawa?
It's not just a marginalised group of people doing it. It's about eight of ten in Ghana among the youth. Even ones that have day jobs, they might teach in secondary school and then they come back home and sit on their laptop and do the same thing. The banks participate in it so they can receive the money, lots of people are involved – it's deep rooted.
Are people still falling for it, or are they getting wise to it?
That was their biggest fear about participating in the film. They were worried I’d expose them and they would stop getting money from it. But I’m not the first person to make a film on this or write about this, and there's Dr Phil on TV advertising against it. It doesn't change the status quo. There will always be a lonely or lustful person to find who will fall for their scam.
In a weird irony, their taking advantage of something to make a buck almost feels quite fitting of capitalist culture in America doesn't it?
Yeah, it does. It's exactly that. You have to do what you can do with what you've got. In the end, nobody is going to help you, and you can drown in self-pity, so it's them getting up and working with the tools they have. I really hope they will be able to find a different platform to do this. I want to actively contribute to them finding a different output for the skills they have. These are boys that I believe if they are given the right platform would be able to do different things.