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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.