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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They say he was born standing up, that he landed on his feet and ran off like an animal. I've been told he's a very powerful witchdoctor and that he killed five people, at least, to gain their life-force for his own power.
They say that the ghosts of those people he killed began to haunt him and torment him, and that with his supernatural powers, he gathered those spirits and imprisoned them inside his sister, Ndjinaa. She became "the house of evil spirits."
He has been the chief of his regional Himba tribe for many years. Now the Namibian government officially recognizes him as the chief of all Himba in Namibia. When he met recently with the president of Namibia, he expressed no gratitude; rather, he told the president he was lucky to be alive, lucky to be surrounded by friends, otherwise he could kill him "just like that."
All of this was difficult for me to believe of the 80-something-year-old man that I met two years ago (he had not yet been given the title of chief of all the Himba) who vaguely raised a friendly but indifferent hand to me and my fellow photographers as we presented our gifts, who spent the duration of our visit to his kraal sitting in a chair with his neck folded and head resting on his chest, dozing in the afternoon sun. My impression of him was a benign portrait of advancing frailty. We spent our time mostly photographing the women and children (see my post from this day, At the Crossroads)
I found myself back in that village with the film crew to gather footage for "The African Witchfinder." We arranged for an interview with this enigmatic man, Chief Kapika, the man who ordered his sister, Ndjinaa, chained to a pole over 20 years ago because she was bewitched.
Unlike her brother, she didn't enter the world as a strong and magical animal. When her mother was pregnant with her, she started bleeding one night, which was not only a physically bad omen but a supernatural one as well, and she went directly to the headman. He decided a witchdoctor should be summoned to banish the evil that caused the bleeding and give her some traditional medicine to bring out the baby. But before the witchdoctor could treat her, Ndjinaa was born. From her first woeful days in the shadow of a bad omen, her fate seemed to have been foretold: the name she was given means, "I know your mother, but I do not know you."
And eventually she was known as the house of evil spirits. The community explains the source of her bewitchment as described above. But Kapika's family tells a different story which absolves the chief of any involvement. They say Ndjinaa never cared for her husband, matched to her through an arranged marriage, maybe she even had a lover on the side; the husband told Ndjinaa that if he died before she did, she would never be married again and she would no longer be a person. Upon her husband's untimely death, her husband's ghost came back immediately and made her crazy. However, if you talk to the chief, or indeed anyone, long enough, you will get a seemingly infinite number of variations on these stories as well as entirely different explanations. These are the primary ones I heard.
There was some debate about where to conduct the interview, and it was decided upon Chief Kapika's suggestion that we would set it up in the shade underneath a large mopani tree outside of his kraal. It was taking a long time for the chief to arrive and there was discussion that it was a long and inconvenient walk for him at his age (all told, to walk out of the kraal and around the fence to the tree, was probably no more than 400 feet) and that perhaps we should conduct the interview just outside his hut inside the kraal. This discussion confirmed my impression of frailty.
Eventually he came shuffling out of the gate, thin and shriveling, with a small group of younger men escorting him. Imagine my surprise when suddenly he erupted in rage, yelling venomously, and started chasing a teenage boy, swatting viciously at him and trying to grab him by the shirt. The young boy ran away from him toward the truck we were standing at with a rifle in his hand. This seemed a bit alarming, but it turned out the rifle was Kapika's and was broken; Kapika wanted to know if our host, Koos, could fix it. I have no idea what triggered Kapika's outburst, but suddenly the stories I had found hard to believe now seemed entirely plausible.
After he calmed down, he continued shuffling over to the chair we had set up for him in the shade; his two-piece loin cloth had slipped down in the back, and the chief of all the Himba, a simmering pot of aggression, tottered to the tree with his shrunken buttocks exposed like a patient who has forgotten to fasten their hospital gown. He slouched into the chair and resumed his mask of frailty. One of his wives helped him zip up his jacket as though he were nearly an invalid. I would have bought it had I not been lucky enough to witness the previous scene. Now I wondered if his concern over the working of the rifle was not idle, maybe he was still capable and willing to use it. After all, he thought he could kill the president just like that.
In light of his heartless behavior, you may wonder why, after using his sister as a vessel to contain the evil spirits that would otherwise haunt him, why didn't he just banish her, send those spirits far away. Enter another witchdoctor. He told Kapika that his life was chained to his sister's. That if she died, his death would follow within three days. After Ndjinaa came to be a house of evil spirits, she began to behave strangely and wander around, leaving the camp. Naturally Kapika needed to keep tabs on her given their new relationship. Under the veil of it "being for her own good" that she not wander out of camp, he purchased a heavy metal chain, put some straps around her ankles then shackled her feet together and chained her to a pole made of a tree branch. There she spent the next 20 years of her life, chained to this pole below, which still stands in the kraal.
I asked what will happen to the spirits if she dies first. They say Kapika can transfer them to someone else if he’s powerful enough ... but of course he would have only three days to accomplish this before he died. If he doesn't get them transferred ... who knows? Nobody seems to. Probably they will surface in the next person in the family who begins to behave inexplicably strangely. But here's the irony -- that person, right now, seems to be Kapika himself.
Over the years after Ndjinaa was chained, her cowhide bedroll became horrifically filthy and pretty much rotted away. But no one replaced it, so she slept on the dirt. Her clothes ran a similar course and no one replaced them either. She was never bathed. She was the last person in the kraal to receive food if there was any left over after everyone else and the livestock were fed. Naked, ostracized, hungry and demoralized, she fell deeper and deeper into bewitchment until her words no longer made any sense except for one phrase, "bring me tobacco from Sessfontain." It meant, essentially, bring me anything ... food, water, tobacco.
One time, people from a church who learned of Ndjinaa came to pray for her. They told Kapika they had cast out all the demons and she was free of curses and bewitching, and that she could be unchained now. Kapika believed them, and once she was unchained she ran straight into the woods and was missing for three days. She was eventually found hiding underneath a bush. Somewhere in there I also heard a variation that she killed several goats during her brief freedom. Kapika had her retrieved and immediately chained her back to the pole, as clearly, she was still possessed and still a threat. Then the chief declared that no more prayers could be said for Ndjinaa ... no praying, no hoping, and certainly no loving.
Around the time Ndjinaa was chained, I think a little after that, a man named Koos, a South African Afrikaner, an officer in the South African army who had fought against SWAPO (the Namibian forces fighting for Namibia's independence) moved to the area and received permission from Kapika to build a tourist lodge on the banks of the Kunene River (which is land owned by Kapika). He took a deep interest in the Himba culture, and when the chief's daughter, Kaviruru, was born to his youngest wife under the streaking light of Haley's comet, he promised her to Koos, promised that she would be his wife when she became of age.
Koos continued to live in close contact with the Himba and Kapika's family and eventually adopted a Himba girl as a daughter. (and now has two adorable granddaughters) In October 2012, Koos and Berrie crossed paths after more than 30 years of having lost touch. They were schoolmates growing up from the time they were little kids, and it seems very good friends. They were both drafted into the South African army during Namibia's war of independence. Berrie left the army as soon as he could while Koos stayed and rose to a very high ranking position until the war ended.
When they reunited, Koos invited Berrie to visit him at his lodge at Epupa Falls. He took Berrie to meet Chief Kapika in his kraal, and here Berrie saw Ndjinaa in her deplorable condition. He asked Koos about her, who explained that everyone said she was bewitched. He didn't know what was really wrong with her. But a light bulb went on immediately in Berrie's head and he explained what dementia was to Koos, who had never heard of Alzheimer's, knew nothing about dementia.
They agreed she was not bewitched, she was not a house of evil spirits, she was a human being who deserved a life of dignity, not one of a mongrel. She had likely fallen victim to dementia, which could have stemmed from a number of root causes, and in the Himba culture, such behavior can only be explained through the lens of witchcraft. Many different reasons seem to have evolved regarding the source of the bewitchment (it was Kapika, or her husband, I also heard it was Kapika's eldest wife, and Berrie has heard yet more versions). But as I have explained before in this series (for example, in Witchcraft and Dementia in Namibia), few things happen in Himba lives that are not the result of witchcraft in some form. With no knowledge of biological or psychological illnesses and disorders, the only logical explanation to them for a person's behavioral change is because they're bewitched.
Ndjinaa's misfortune in suffering from dementia was horrifically compounded by the supposed spiritual connection to her brother, which resulted in her being chained. But once Berrie saw the situation, he knew he had to right this egregious wrong. The next month he returned to Epupa Falls to ask Kapika if he could remove Ndjinaa's chains and arrange caretakers for her. To his and especially Koos's surprise, the chief agreed. So in December 2012, Berrie returned again and they removed the chains. Right away he also had her bathed and gave her clothes. After 20 years of being dehumanized, within a couple hours so much of her dignity was restored.
I've told Ndjinaa's story as it would have unfolded for her, living in the framework of her culture. She herself believed she was bewitched, that she was bad luck for anyone who spoke to her. Her life unfolded beyond her control, routed instead by her brother the chief and the witchcraft culture. Then rerouted by Berrie and the revelation she is biologically compromised, not supernaturally compromised. You can read Berrie's and Koos's own words about their part in Ndjinaa's story via the links on their names.
So many villagers who learned of her release kept asking Berrie what drugs he was giving to Ndjinaa to calm her down, to make her seem human again. Nobody could believe that simply unchaining her and treating her with respect was a plausible "treatment."
"We give her unconditional love," says Berrie. "That's it." The villagers still can't get past the bewitching mindset, they simply believe that Berrie was the one powerful enough to cast out the evil spirits from her.
After she was set free and lived in a hut outside the kraal, it was like a light switch had been flipped. Immediately everyone accepted her back into the family, back into their hearts, even. The children, especially, visited her all the time. No one was afraid of her anymore. One day the princess Kaviruru was not in her hut in the morning. Her mother went looking for her and found her curled up beside Ndjinaa, sleeping.
But even more touching than the family's acceptance and reintegration of her, is Ndjinaa's immense grace in her unconditional forgiveness. She spits venom at no one, instead she breaks bread with them, offers the children bits of her own food even after she spent 20 years being ignored if she cried in hunger.
Koos admitted when we interviewed him that when she was set free, it took awhile for the significance to really affect him. He told us that at the time, he felt it was a unique and even special day, but not particularly emotional. For Berrie, though, it was a very emotional day, and when the film crew interviewed him about it, he broke down in tears and they had to pause the filming. Broke down because his heart hurt so much for Njdinaa's despicable treatment, but then soared so high to see her walk freely again. As I was sitting and watching the interview, it made me cry as well, not only for Ndjinaa's sake, for what she endured and the glory of her freedom, but also for Berrie's, as his loving and compassionate heart was so deeply invested in her. (read more of Berrie and Ndjinaa in The Peace in Human Touch)
Berrie had the heart from day one, and the appreciation for what they had accomplished. But for Koos it had to settle in. Once it did, he became a vigorous champion for Ndjinaa, and from here the story involves a lot of negotiations between Chief Kapika and Berrie and Koos to get permission to build a special hut for Ndjinaa outside of the family's kraal, one for her and one for her caretakers. They eventually got the permission, in fact Kapika essentially deeded a plot of land to Berrie where he could bring other dementia patients, too, if he wanted. (and another woman, Kaputu, does live with Ndjinaa now ... read about her tragic story which, like Chief Petrus, involves the overuse of antipsychotics)
At long last, here is where I enter. In 2014 when I was visiting Kapika's kraal to photograph his family, we were staying at Koos's tourist lodge, he's the one who negotiated the terms with Kapika, i.e. what gifts we would bring for him to allow us inside the kraal. And after we'd been photographing for awhile, he insisted that we must come away and see something else. As tourists/photographers who paid to be there, we were a little irritated that we were being basically pushed out the door by Koos when we understood that Kapika said we could stay there however long we liked.
But what Koos wanted to show us, with great pride, was Njdinaa's hut, he wanted to tell us her story. Now that I know a little more about him, I understand his pride and his impatient desire to tell us this amazing story. This is how I learned of Ndjinaa. And her story stuck with me. Festered in me, needled at my heart and mind. Finally, I did a wee bit of research online and quickly found myself at Berrie's blog. I wrote to him, told him of my interest. Learned he was investigating more stories like Ndjinaa's. I asked if I could join him on one of his research missions. He agreed. The more I learned about Berrie and this daunting mission he had undertaken, a lone solider trying to educate people held prisoner to the witchcraft culture about the biological cause of dementia and to rescue people like Ndjinaa, the more I felt his story needed a wider audience than what I could provide for it. I met Mally, the CEO of Heehaw Films, told him the story, and without batting an eye, he signed on to come to Namibia and collect footage for a documentary. And so I found myself back with Chief Kapika and Ndjinaa in 2016 conducting interviews.
Ndjinaa and Kaputu now live in a different place than in 2014 (now on the ground deeded to Berrie), they have a large fenced-in area, room to add more huts in the future for others with dementia to keep them safe and properly cared for. Chief Kapika's behavior seems ever more erratic. For years he adamantly opposed the building of a dam on the Kunene River in his territory. Then suddenly last year he signed the papers to allow it. (I think it was at the signing "ceremony" that he told the president he could kill him.) One could speculate the government took advantage of his mental capriciousness to convince him, or bribe him, to sign the papers. They "crowned" him chief of all the Himba and gave him a new car (somebody else in the tribe drives him around in it).
Njdinaa's story is so remarkable, it's really become the banner story for all that Berrie and Alzheimer's Dementia Namibia (ADN) are now trying to accomplish ... to recognize people who are victims of dementia and have become further victimized by their family and community in the name of bewitchment and witchcraft; to inform the families and communities of the reality of biological illness; to show that the "bewitched" are not full of evil spirits and they simply need to be properly cared for, to be recognized as human beings and be granted their dignity. As you will have gathered if you've read the other posts in this archive, this is not a trivial battle, nor a mission whose goals will be realized any time soon, owing to the entrenchment of the witchcraft culture in everyone's psyche and worldview. But Ndjinaa's survival and her reclamation of freedom are the inspiration to keep trying.
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I'm not actually a birder, I don't have a list I'm ticking off. In fact, I had to ask a friend to ID almost all these birds pictured below for me. I can't yet say I "have an interest" in birds, but I can say that largely as a result of my yearly visits to wildlife refuges in Ixtapa, that birds have become more interesting to me. I used to overlook them in favor of more flashy or cute animals like mammals and the intriguing reptiles of Ixtapa. But slowly they grow on me -- I get a little excited when I see one I don't think I've seen before or one who thinks he's all incognito in the trees but I spotted him anyway.
The exception to my historically placid response to birds has been the roseate spoonbill, which captivated me from the first one I saw in the Popoyote Lagoon, a stone's throw down the beach from the hotel I stay in each year on Playa Linda in Ixtapa (Hotel Azul, if you want to check it out). Their population is practically skyrocketing inside this small refuge since my first year sighting them. Very exciting.
Every year I hope to be able to capture them on "film" in flight. Every year I end up with a few shots with blurry dots of pink flying into the mangrove swamp. Now there are so many spoonbills living here that my odds greatly increased this year. These aren't astounding pics, but they're the best I've gotten to date. Seven of them flew overhead in a little pod, if you can believe it! But I only managed to catch a couple. They make for a really interesting sight with their unusual bodies and beaks.
The next bird that I quickly learned to identify and therefore seek each year is the green heron. They are tricky little devils to photograph because they are always so deep into the mangroves ... it's like a photography obstacle course trying to get your lens to ignore all the branches and roots and leaves everywhere to get this one little bird in focus. But these guys are now ones that get me excited when I see them -- maybe for the sole reason that they're one of the few birds I can identify. I feel the first tinglings of what it must feel like to be a birder when I spot these guys. Check out this one in full size and admire the iridescence in his delicate feathers.
This year Erik and I took a little outing away from our resort to another small lagoon wildlife refuge, Barra De Potosi. Our boat driver seemed a wee bit impressed that I spotted the green herons and knew what they were, and subsequently made him cut the motor to get some shots! haha. I dunno, maybe that's my imagination because I felt all smart and cool over my vast knowledge of Mexican birds (bird).
Another little booger I see every year is this dainty yellow birdy, a tropical kingbird. As I spend a lot of time standing under the trees waiting for spoonbills, iguanas, crocodiles and other assorted birds to do something interesting, these guys are always flying overhead tweeting and twittering. I hear their songs first, then try to follow the sound until I spot them. But they're always high above me in the trees, back-lit and almost impossible to photograph ... that is, when I am even able to get my camera trained on them before they flit away. This year I finally got a couple decent shots.
But the most exciting aspect of 2016 was seeing a bunch of birds I had not seen before, or at least had not noticed before. These are great blue herons we saw on our boat excursion into the lagoon at Barra de Potosi. I'd recommend this boat ride to anyone ... no it's not adventurous, it's very mellow, but especially if you're a fledgling birder, here's a nice little trip for you. Not that I am such a person ..... These herons are pretty well camouflaged, at a swift glance looking like just part of the tangle of mangrove tree roots.
Here's a new guy I'd never seen nor heard of before, a tri-colored heron. Guess it's not too difficult to see where the name comes from.
And then I had the Pelican Epiphany. There were loads of brown pelicans at Barra de Potosi. But what I didn't realize is that adult brown pelicans are beautifully-beyond-brown! They have really lovely colors on their head and neck and beak. The opening sentence about them on the website, allaboutbirds.org, sums them up with perfection. But I'll include the whole first paragraph here, in case you, like I, don't know much about them ... "The Brown Pelican is a comically elegant bird with an oversized bill, sinuous neck, and big, dark body. Squadrons glide above the surf along southern and western coasts, rising and falling in a graceful echo of the waves. They feed by plunge-diving from high up, using the force of impact to stun small fish before scooping them up. They are fairly common today—an excellent example of a species’ recovery from pesticide pollution that once placed them at the brink of extinction."
There is something about their expressions that is so whimsical and comical that it just makes me laugh. Out loud, even. Looking at the photos after I got home, I swiftly came to find them very endearing. Here are a few of my favorite shots that to me somehow portray their whimsical, happy personalities. They often seem like they're smiling.
This guy is just coming into his breeding colors ... the back of the brown pelican's head turns to a dark rusty red color during their breeding period.
And this fella, on the other hand, is just a young 'un, not yet grown into any colors. But still sporting that pelican personality.
The other thing that I never much paid attention to until now was how prehistoric these animals look. Nearly straight out of a dinosaur book. While floating on the water or dive-bombing in the air, they look a little more like "just" birds. But when they strike a different position, they seem wholly Jurassic.
A new critter that I saw at the Popoyoti Lagoon was this yellow crowned night heron. Pretty neat bird. What blew me away was when I asked my birder friend for some ID on this bird and the little one below it, and learned that they are the same one -- this second bird is a juvenile. I would never guessed that one!
On the way out to the Barra de Potosi, we made a couple pit stops with our taxi driver/guide -- who, incidentally, we managed to track down from the last time we ventured out from our resort on a day trip (that time we spent the day in Petatlan) and he remembered us, too! We watched some bakers making traditional pastries and baking them in giant wood-fired ovens ... but the wood was not your traditional wood! Their fuel came from coconut husks. In their yard we found some other birds! OK maybe they're not the exotic wildlife in the lagoons, but frankly I find turkeys pretty fascinating with their brightly colored heads and wattles. Erik could apparently speak pretty fluent Turkey because every time he gobbled at them, they gobbled right back, quite excitedly ... which makes me wonder what he was saying in their language. Hopefully we did not fail to deliver on a promise that Erik had been making all that time ... "yes, we'll bring you a truckload of tasty seeds and then break you out and take you to Fowl Shangri-La, where the iguanas [lurking in the treetops above] will wait on you hand and foot ... no wait, umm, foot and foot ... and you'll sleep in nests made of silk." Yes, I hope he was not saying that.
Now don't worry, amid all these feathers, I haven't forgotten about my friends with scales -- my primeval pals, the iguanas and crocodiles. I consider them old friends by now, these creatures who de-creepified the reptile world for me. OK, I'm still not super keen on reptiles (particularly snakes), however, the iguanas in particular have convinced me to be more fascinated by than fearful of them.
Finally, a couple shots of the critters for whom this refuge and sanctuary was established -- the American crocodile. What I like about the first photo below is that it's a portrait of texture (look at it full size!).
And my favorite shots, you may know by now because I mention it often, are when multiple species are hanging out together. On African safari, such shots usually are comprised of compatible herbivores or omnivores, for example, elephants with springboks and zebras. I really particularly love the shots available here at Popoyote where the birds hang out so nonchalantly with their predators. And yes, the crocs do eat the egrets ... I've seen it. But hey, an egret's just got to go about his daily life!
But the egret has his own noms, and of course the fish he eats hang out in the water with him, going about their daily lives, as well. I'm not actually exactly sure what this egret was chowing down on. It looks kinda gnarly. But he did seem to be enjoying it.
Okay dear readers ... are you all birders now?? Well, I leave you with some seagulls in flight. They make me smile because the birds seem so terribly intent and they're like a little squadron flying together toward their intended target. At the Barra de Potosi.
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.