Welcome to SKJ Travel ... my narrative blog where you can join me vicariously as I adventure around the world. In the archives you'll find posts from some of my travels ... these are very casual "letters to home" style accounts of what I did, with lots of photos. To read my formal articles, they're listed in each archive home page, or visit one of the blue buttons above: Articles/Guest Posts, Interviews, or Literary SKJ, or see the Travel Essays section (right side below archive -- mostly documentaries). Friday Photos are updated weekly, and Tuesday Tales are updated sporadically. You can follow SKJ Travel on social media at:
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The biggest threat to your health and life is your own family. I said this in my introductory post about my recent travels in Namibia, "Dementia and Witchcraft in Namibia," and now I'll illustrate the point in a little more detail with the story of Chief Joseph and his sister Josephine. Though I heard many stories (some of which I'll share another time), this is about the craziest and saddest of the ones I heard personally during the filming for the upcoming documentary, "The African Witchfinder." So to put you right in the thick of things.....
The event that brought Berrie (the "witchfinder") and the film crew to Chief Joseph's courtyard was the tragic tale of the chief's brother. We wanted to interview him about this event and visit the scene of the crime. The first time we dropped by to ask his permission to film in the area and to interview him, the chief was out and a woman and man greeted us outside the family compound's fence. We can't always find Afrikaans speakers (and even more rarely, English) but the man spoke some of both. Dressed in camouflage shirt and pants, "I fought against SWAPO," he said to us sitting in the van in English, latching his fingers over the rim of the window sill.
"I was a soldier in South African army. Against SWAPO." This means that in the war of independence (1966-1990), he was conscripted into the South African army (just like Berrie) to fight against his own people's freedom to establish the nation of Namibia. Meanwhile, the woman was kissing Berrie's hands, rubbing her face all over them, kissing and kissing, I don't know what she was saying. The man walked away toward a tree, turned around and came back to the van.
"I fought against SWAPO. I was a solider in the army. Yes, I was in the army and I [did such-and-such] ..." he smiled. Searched us for a response. Went on with some other details of his time in the army.
The chief eventually rounded a corner and came into view. One could theorize he was the headman based on his colorful tunic. He amiably made an appointment with us for another day. As we pulled away in the van to drive back down the dirt path to the highway, the former soldier was still talking at us about his time in the army fighting SWAPO. He walked alongside the van talking as we could not move faster than the pace of a chicken ... a mother and chicks insisted on walking ahead of the van and could not be persuaded to find an alternate route until Mally finally got out of the van and physically shooed them out of the way. At last we pulled away, leaving the poor man with no one to talk to.
When we arrived for our interview appointment, the chief was sitting in a chair in the shade of a large tree in his courtyard wearing a white undershirt. This is the setting in which nearly all interviews we conducted took place, by the way -- in the shade of a large tree. I was a little miffed that the chief had such a beautiful shirt and yet was going to be interviewed on film in an undershirt. But I was foolish to jump to conclusions! Once we had the chairs all set up and the camera, he put on his tunic. From left to right, the participants in our interview: Chief Joseph, his brother Johannes, his sister Josephine. Conspicuously absent from the line-up of siblings is the elder brother of the three, Kangungu.
Kangungu Ndara was an elderly pensioner who had made his living as a tailor. He bought his own sewing machines and had a nice little shop. Was doing quite well for himself. And that was perhaps his undoing.
If you do well in this society, you will likely incur the jealousy of others who have not had your degree of success. Even if you worked very hard and the others did nothing but sit under an amarula tree all day, they will come to covet your success, wonder why they don't have it, and set out to bewitch you -- that could be in the form of causing you to lose what you have earned, causing you injury, or inflicting death. Perhaps they want to take what is yours for themselves. Perhaps they just want to see you suffer, be knocked down from your pedestal. Perhaps they think you could only have achieved your success by stealing it from someone else, by stealing the life-force power from other people ... then you will be accused of being a witch or wizard. Now you are considered a very dangerous person who, yet in truth, is in grave danger.
Ask a local person, "What makes a witch?" They will say, "A witch is a jealous person."
Ask, "Why do people bewitch one another?" Without hesitation they reply, "Because they are jealous."
"Are you afraid you could be accused of being a witch, or that someone will bewitch you and cause you harm?" The answer comes swiftly, "Every day."
Everyone lives in fear, particularly the successful and the elderly -- whom you could argue have been successful at longevity. Chief Joseph said, "When you start to grow white hair, life becomes more dangerous for you." He rubbed his hand over his close-shorn hair which betrayed him with small patches of white.
Now, I can tell you many stories of the deeds such jealousy has motivated among the people we talked to. This tale, though, is even stranger. But it couldn't have taken place the way it did without the witchcraft culture that infuses everyone's lives every day. Perhaps Kangungu's nephew always had it in for Kangungu for reasons unknown. Descriptions of his behavior toward his uncle depict a simmering animosity. But his behavior all the way around seems like that of just a bad apple.
I poked around the courtyard until the interview was ready to begin. In the shade of the same tree the siblings would soon sit under, a little boy was hitting a dog with a stick. Susanne scolded him not to hit the dog, drop the stick. He sat down reluctantly and the puppy, bless his little puppy heart, still loved the boy and wanted his attention and laid down loyally next to him. Unable to control himself any longer, the boy started pulling on the puppy's tail. "Maybe it runs in the family," Susanne said.
Across the courtyard a mother dog lay on her side in a random spot on the dirt, a brood of tiny puppies squirming and eagerly nursing. They fell asleep with their bellies full in little furry pile. Blissfully disconnected from the sinister world of witchcraft.
Baby chickens pecked tentatively in the dirt, their mother trying to keep an eye on them as she strolled around the courtyard.
Cows corralled in a stick fence next to the river let oxpeckers clean their hides of insects.
"If we had known," the siblings said as they began to relay the tale, "that the young people were thinking all of this and plotting against Kangungu, we would have taken him to a witch doctor to prove he wasn't a witch. But we had no idea."
At this point in our travels, we had learned the basic ropes of bewitching quite well. In order to bring charges against someone as being a witch, you must provide evidence of how you have been bewitched by them. Were you suddenly ill or injured? Did somebody suddenly die? Did you lose your job? These are the things which result from being bewitched. Something happens. Your cattle mysteriously die; your house burns in a fire; you are denied a promotion. Something, some misfortune befalls the accuser who consults a witch doctor or decides for himself who the witch is.
Johannes explained that his nephew had begun telling his friends that he suddenly was having dreams about his uncle Kangungu. Why would he suddenly start dreaming about his uncle out of the blue? The answer to him, or the answer he easily pedaled, anyway, was that Kangungu was a witch. In this culture of mass hysteria, the idea caught on. (recall in "Witchcraft and Dementia" how people in Windhoek were jumping out of moving cabs on the hysteria of snakes being in the cabs). Easily suggestible young people all over the village were suddenly dreaming about Kangungu. "He was in my dream, too!"
"He is visiting all of us at night in our dreams," people began mumbling accusations ... obviously he is a witch. It's a well-known fact here that witches travel at night in the disguise of animals; perhaps Kangungu traveled inside of dreams. It was the only explanation why everyone would dream of him. In the Kake village near the Okavango River in the Kavango East region of northern Namibia, their own version of the Salem witch hunt played out. Once the young people were all convinced they were dreaming about Kangungu, and that he was therefore a witch, the nephew decided this was his opportunity.
"Wait," we said, interrupting Johannes. "So nothing bad actually happened to the nephew? No misfortune befell him or anyone else in the village?"
"No," Johannes said. "They only dreamed of Kangungu, my brother."
This was a whole new level of wicked malevolence ... bewitching accusations based on nothing but alleged dreams.
Now Kangungu had gotten wind of the accusations against him of supernatural evildoing. He knew he must flee. He knew there was no recourse; he could produce no evidence to defend himself. He knew he must simply run for his life and he did. He left his valuable sewing machines, his livelihood, behind in the store.
He left alone, without his wife.
But then ..... he decided he needed just a few things from the home he had made the heartbreaking decision to abandon.
He came back to get these few things. The nephew saw him return. Reportedly, an argument ensued between them. The nephew grabbed a wooden pestle -- one of the only two weapons that can kill a witch -- and murdered Kangungu in the spring of 2015. With such a "weapon," it would be like beating someone with a light baseball bat. It's an incredibly personal interaction to club someone to death.
I had been watching Kangungu's sister, Josephine, the whole time the altercation and assault were being described by Johannes. It was her son who murdered her brother in cold blood. I couldn't imagine the pain that had hollowed out Josephine's eyes into the stare of an empty shell. How to come to grips with the son she raised killing the brother who raised her.
Joseph, Johannes and Josephine all said that Kangungu was the one who took care of them when they were children. He looked after them, he told them to come to him with their problems, he always tried to help them when he could. On a very hot day, the shade the siblings sat in for the interview was cold with sadness. They all seemed numb when they talked about their beloved brother.
Rather than hiding in fear of the law, the nephew walked into the police station and told them what he'd done. He presumed he'd be welcomed as a hero for killing the witch. Incredibly, by some he was. Fortunately, some of the law officers believed in the law above witches, and arrested him. The other young people then burned Kangungu's house to the ground.
Josephine cannot understand her son. She's too busy grieving for her brother to feel badly for her son's imprisonment. In fact, she fears she may be next on her son's inexplicable list. All three siblings are terrified that they are next, that the killer will be released from jail and he will accuse the rest of them of witchcraft as well. When we drove up to Chief Joseph's compound the first time to make an appointment for the interview, as a van full of white strangers, the family was afraid that we were there to tell them he had been let out of jail. Every day they fear this news. They are constantly on edge and anxious. Now think of the stress this puts on the brain, especially an aging brain. Anxiety affects memory and behavior. If they start behaving a little strangely on these accounts, it will bolster any accusations against them of witchcraft.
Other family members looked on from the sidelines as the interview took place. A woman holding her baby girl ... I wondered how this interview was affecting her. If she worried about her daughter, so innocent now, growing up one day to point her out as a witch. Was she thinking to herself, "We must stop this nonsense." Or would she simply think, "I hope this doesn't happen to me."
Chief Joseph told us in the interview that he fears for his life every day. He has several things working against him ... he is old enough to have some white hair, he is a chief with power, he has a killer for a nephew and he lives in a village where anyone can justify his murder simply by saying they dreamed of him. After the interview was over, the genuine depth of his fear was clearly illustrated when he pulled aside Mally and Berrie to ask them if they could give him money. He needed 4,000 Namibian dollars, a hefty sum which he could not currently muster. Why? So he could take his family, his nieces and nephews, with him to see a witch doctor in Angola. He would ask the witch doctor whether or not he was a witch. If he said "no," then the family would be there to hear for themselves the incontrovertible word of the witch doctor. If the doctor said "yes," then Joseph would pay to have the evil spirit cast out of him so that he would no longer be a witch. (another time I can tell you a witch doctor's methods of divination and expulsion) His family would then see for themselves the evil had been removed and he was no longer a witch. Chief Joseph was deeply concerned for his safety and in spite of being a professed catholic, this was the only way in which he fervently believed his life could be spared. As I said before, Christianity coexists with witchcraft, it does not replace or dispel it.
How do you comfort these people when you know perfectly well you cannot protect them? For them, their only salvation lies in the same framework as their damnation ... witchcraft and the witch doctors. Get a witch doctor to proclaim you innocent, or to put a protection spell on you, or to kill your potential enemies before they get to you first. Berrie is a pastor, he can pray for them, and he did. They still asked for money to see the witch doctor. I usually carry with me a pocketful of little token gifts from home when I travel to give to people I might meet with whom I make a special bond or for whatever reason I might want to give someone a memento. This trip I had some dreamcatcher necklaces and some little stone-carved animals with holes drilled so you could use them as a charm on a necklace or bracelet if you wanted. I felt so badly for these siblings so fearful, so helpless, I gave them each a stone animal and told them it would help protect them ... that they had a power from America. I figure they have the same efficacy as a witch doctor's spell. It's all in the power of suggestion.
I always wonder what the stories are behind all the abandoned shops you see along the roadsides. Sometimes in Africa, admittedly, it's difficult to tell the difference between an active one and an abandoned one. But I always wonder, did the owner move away, or die with no one to take it over, was the business not profitable? It seems more of a big deal to establish your own store in rural Africa, so it seems to me it might also be a bigger story as to why it becomes abandoned. I don't know. But I never in my life until now would have driven by this closed-up shop and thought to include in my list of wonderings if a witch used to own it, if it was abandoned because the witch was murdered. It seems extra eerie to me, looking at it now -- Kangungu's tailor shop. The whole countryside seems a whole new level of eerie ... knowing now that there are true stories all around me that would make my hair stand on end.
This is a short and simple post. I was really moved by a couple scenes I witnessed during our time filming interviews for "The African Witchfinder." These scenes happened outside of the official interviews in more casual settings, between Berrie and the objects of his dedication -- elderly people whose families have turned against them inside the cold cultural machine of witchcraft. I present two scenes that show to me the power of the peace that can come from the simplest of gifts that one person can give to another -- an affectionate touch.
Until recently, I never considered that such a seemingly basic thing as modes of physical contact are a part of culture and not universal human experience. I remember how stunned I was when my friend in Uganda told me that his grandparents have never kissed one another on the lips. I always presumed everyone kissed in affection. He said not in their culture. (On the other hand, everyone and I mean everyone seems to hold hands almost obsessively in Uganda ... women with women friends, men with women as friends and couples, and men with men as friends. It took me awhile to get used to this while living and working at the Entebbe zoo, where people were always taking my hand.) Cuddling and snuggling are not really a part of Himba culture, and physical touch as a means of emotional comfort isn't something they (or in fact a lot of cultures, it turns out) engage in. When I went to write a capsule summary for this article, I first began, "Two touching scenes....." and I suddenly realized that in English we use the very word "touch" to mean "emotional" or something that stirs tender feelings. (I decided against the pun and chose a different word.)
I just want to portray these scenes without a lot of back story right now, because to some degree such details are irrelevant. (But I'll share with you in more detail another time the stories of these elderly women.) First, in visiting Ndjinaa ... what you should know about her here is that her family kept her chained to a tree in metal shackles for 20 years because she suffered from dementia but they considered her bewitched and dangerous. After Berrie negotiated with the family for her release and to build a special hut for her to be taken care of by a full-time caretaker, she moved there and her family accepted her as a human being again rather than a bewitched mongrel. Children visit her and sit with her but she is still more of an object, something to observe, for no one can understand her.
Berrie sat down next to her and began stroking her cheek gently with the back of his hand. She leaned her face ever so slightly into his hand and her emotional calmness became palpable. The children sitting around, including her grandson, watched this.
Then Berrie took the grandson's hand and placed it on his grandmother's cheek. Berrie instructed him, "Stroke her face, like this. Ask her if she knows you." He complied but then lowered his hand right away. Berrie took it again. "Keep touching her face," he said. "Tell her that you love her."
Berrie encouraged Ndjinaa's caretaker also to touch her gently, to give her physical comfort.
Then as if intrigued by this novel concept, the kids were touching one another, seeming to contemplate what had just happened.
For a woman who has been treated so unforgivably to yet forgive and be comforted by the power of touch is a beautiful thing to witness. The truth is, I had to suck up a few tears behind my sunglasses. Neither words nor pictures can quite convey to you the tangible feeling that in these slight embraces, Ndjinaa felt safe. And it was undoubtedly the first time her grandson had ever touched her in such a way.
The second scene took place in the courtyard of a family's home. I don't know the woman's name, I'll simply refer to her as Grandmother. What you need to know about her is that several of her children died in younger middle age, what we would consider "before their time." I don't know the causes, but their children, i.e. her grandchildren, have decided the cause is Grandmother herself -- that she is a witch who bewitched her own children and caused their deaths. As preposterous as that seems, that's the way things work around here. As I briefly explained in my post, "Witchcraft and Dementia in Namibia," there are no "natural" deaths in this culture and family members are the greatest threat to one another. So this woman lives with her grandchildren who are literally plotting her death in retribution for the deaths of their parents. Every night Grandmother goes to bed in this antagonistic atmosphere.
First we interviewed her grandson, the person who told Berrie about her in the first place. Then we went to meet her where she sat in another part of the courtyard. Berrie immediately crouched down in front of her and took her hands into his. She responded with effusive laughter holding his hands and kissing them. (later she would do this to me as well when I gave her a gift) (the awkward photo angles are due to having to photograph around the film crew)
It was difficult not to show anger toward the grandchildren for their plots against this sweet and innocent woman just because a witch doctor told them she was a murdering witch. Berrie scolded them for their behavior, for believing in such rubbish, all the while holding Grandmother's hands between his. For every word he spoke in anger to the grandchildren, he cupped Grandmother's hands all the more gently and lovingly as if to balance their malevolence with his loving touch. And you could see the peace spread through her.
He told the grandchildren they must say to Grandmother that they will not harm her, that she is safe. "Tell her," he insisted. "Tell her right now." And he embodied that safeness in his touch. Again, I can't bestow upon you, my dear reader, the gift I had in personally witnessing this, in feeling the comfort hanging right there in the air like a halo surrounding Berrie and Grandmother as she kept her tiny, humble hands wrapped inside Berrie's hands of strength.
For both Ndjinaa and Grandmother, I feel that these brief encounters, however ephemeral they might have been, were a comfort beyond anything I personally can understand, having never been accused by my own family of killing my children or of being a house for evil spirits, and having lived in a culture in which physical affection is taken for granted. They were a few moments of uncommon peace.
all photos in this post can be seen larger by opening in a new window.
I've always loved the hair salons you see along the roadsides in Africa. Finally on this trip, I decided to take a few photos ... one afternoon on a long haul, I kept my camera ready at the window for an hour or two, and every time I saw a hair salon coming up, I grabbed the camera and snapped a pic from our moving car. Well, not even every time, only sometimes; there are just so many. What has always struck me is that the buildings often look so run down and NOT pretty. It just seems to me that if I wanted to have my hair done up pretty or jazz myself up for an evening, I would not feel very encouraged to walk into one of these hovels and trust someone to be meticulous and stylish. And they seem very unlikely to have a hair dryer. haha.
In truth, the ones I ended up snapping photos of were quite well-kept compared to a lot of ones I've seen. Because the more primitive ones, you don't even see the sign until you're practically right on top of it and I couldn't get the camera up in time. So actually, some of these look pleasant enough except they look stifling hot inside, just little cement boxes or metal boxes. I think I'd be sweating like a pig ... not like a pretty person.
But then I began to notice that sometimes the people were sitting outside, so maybe it's just a place to store their supplies, but when it's hot they work outside. Mostly they are doing intricate handiwork like braiding and such. Here's a gal working outside, for instance.
This is a woman I met about whom I don't have the most positive feelings, however I really like her hairstyle. (She looks sweet enough, but I will probably explain more about her in a later post.)
So here is a selection of the photos of hair salons I took from the moving car ... you'll have to forgive if they aren't awesomely framed or executed! Actually my camera did a better job than I might have expected at 120 kilometers per hour. My favorite one I saw on this trip I didn't get a photo of, but it was in Botswana and the words painted on the outside of the little shack were, "Hair Saloon."
And here is my favorite that I got a photo of ... the car wash hair salon. I wonder if their idea was to wash your car while you're getting your hair cut, or to cut your hair while your car is being washed. Of course, if there is only one employee then I guess you must do them consecutively if you'e in the market for both.
The hairstyles I love and appreciate the most in Namibia, though, are the hairstyles of the traditional Himba people. The women take a lot of pride in them. The braids are covered in a red sort-of mud mixture, similar to what they apply to their skin to make it smooth and reddish in color, which is made from local red ocher and an emollient such as animal fat or vaseline. The big tufts at the bottom are actually extensions, in other words, not their own hair.
It was cool that while we were there interviewing and filming for the upcoming documentary, "The African Witch Finder," one of the Himba chief's wives was having her hair worked on by some younger girls, including her daughter, princess Kaviruru. It seemed that they were braiding in new twine to the front of her head, presumable for her to attach her ornamental headpiece (worn only by married women). Here are a couple examples of that kind of headpiece that must be attached. The top photo is of the chief's eldest wife.
Here are the girls working. Such intricate work, I don't think my fingers could handle so deftly such tiny threads of twine and hair!
But women aren't the only ones with specially styled hair ... Himba men also have their traditional 'do, which I imagine takes some effort to maintain properly as well. Often they have special form-fitted caps over the braid.
And lastly, this little kid below I think is just so darling with his tiny budding braided ponytail.
Here is 2015's photo spread from the small wildlife refuge in a mangrove swamp at Playa Linda, Popoyote Lagoon in Ixtapa, Mexico. I look forward to seeing what I've come to think of as "my" animals each year. It's hard to say who is my favorite between the roseate spoonbill birds, the iguanas, or the American crocodiles. But it appears that I never tire of photographing any them. (See pics from past years here.)
I guess maybe I consider the spoonbills the most special because there is no bird like this anywhere near where I live! They seem very exotic to me. And I've watched their population grow at the lagoon. The first year I there, there was one breeding pair. Now there are several. They are pills to photograph because they hang out in the dense mangrove foliage. It's hard to believe such large birds fly around in that space, but they do!
And now presenting the crocodiles, for whom the refuge was established. The other creatures who make it their home are just happy upshots, they found the reserve to be a suitable and pleasant place for themselves as well. But the lagoon was fenced off to protect the crocodiles. These are big boys! Again it's hard to believe so many hang out in this narrow mangrove lagoon, but I've seen 20 or more sharing a small piece of sand to sun themselves. I'm so clever, I call this series of two pics, "Croc pot." :)
Now we add a little unfortunate fish to the croc pot ... but if you notice, he is a rather toothy fellow himself. Reminds me of Star Wars movies where no matter how big and scary one carnivorous creature is, there is always a larger one who comes and gobbles up the first one.
And now a collection of crocodiles showing us their best sides.
Now the iguanas, which I find consistently fascinating -- simultaneously mesozoic and medieval, representing great ancientness and evolution, but looking as if he's wearing a knight's suit of chain-mail armor. Though to be sure, any knight wearing such flashy colors on his armor would have been mercilessly teased. This male iguana particular amused me getting all jiggy with this twig. First he looked like he was dancing with it and then he climbed up it and showed me his belly, which I don't normally get to see on these guys who are usually scampering around on the tree limbs.
Traffic jam in the trees! Move it, Bubba!
And now the iguanas want to show off their best sides, too. I definitely consider their tongues one of their best, if slightly creepy, sides.
Just like when I'm in Africa on safari, my favorite photos are always ones in which different species of animals are hanging out together. Here are some brave birds casually strutting along the shore next to the crocodiles. I guess you gotta do your business even in dangerous waters.
A couple other birds to show ... the ubiquitous white egret and the somewhat more rare boat-billed heron. Its cousin the green heron hangs out here, too, but they are typically elusive to me. Maybe next time!
And lastly, a little turtle love.