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.