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I don't actually know how it started. I had been at the far end of the field, staying behind Toby who was filming a benign scene of Berrie talking with some of the local kids under a tree.

Berrie chatting with Himba youth under a tree outside their kraal. Namibia.Although I don't know the conversation that was taking place, now that I've looked through my photos of the incident, perhaps I can guess who was the instigator, the provocateur, of the quickly unfolding scene. ha!

Berrie and young Himba man preparing to square off in a stick-fighting duel. Namibia.

I had lowered my camera and looked elsewhere for a minute, apparently, not realizing a challenge had been issued for a duel ... for when I next looked toward the tree, this is what I saw, below. I frantically yanked my camera up to my eye to capture the unexpected events unfolding, as the kids standing nearby watched with a spectrum of quiet interest, surprise, laughter, and cheers.

White man versus Himba ... a stick fighting duel! Near Epupa Falls, Namibia.

Tuesday Tales are usually short narratives or portraits, so I guess we'll consider this one a photo tale (similar to a photo essay) of a few unique minutes in Kaokoland, Namibia. :)  I'm just compelled to share these pictures because they are to me special and priceless, as I doubt you will see pics anywhere else of a regular (i.e. not an athlete) white man stick-fighting a Himba out in the village fields. So now let me just paint a brief portrait of the white man in the scene. Well ... to truly paint would take an awful lot of time and words; let me instead offer a dry capsule of a few facts that will at least outline some of the biographical highlights of our lovable nutball pictured above. (his daughter tells me their family calls him an alien, haha)

This took place while filming for the forthcoming documentary, The African Witchfinder (see Namibia II archive for more articles on this project). The "witchfinder" is Berrie, human being extraordinaire. A preacher with the Dutch Reform Church who was once excommunicated for his liberal views (i.e. tolerance) of all of God's children. Open hearts run in his family ...he grew up in Apartheid-era Namibia with a father who taught him to love and respect all people regardless of color. He has since been re-accepted into the church. He says he remains a preacher in order to fight religion. That's just about the best line I've ever heard in my life. I personally subscribe to no religion or prescription for spirituality, but I adamantly believe, as Berrie does, that there is a difference between God and religion. I am at times tempted to align myself with Chairman Mao's quoted sentiment, "Religion is poison."

Slightly more favored by me than his quote above is my favorite of his: "Less praying, more doing." He doesn't just sit around in a little cloister praying for the souls of his flock and the world. He sold the building that was his church, as well as his preacher's house that was subsidized by the church congregation. With the proceeds (and his small congregation's blessing, as well as his amazing wife's), he's "doing." He's going out into the world and making a difference. Not by converting people to his beliefs -- he's no missionary -- but by respecting other people and trying to understand them. He founded Alzheimer's Dementia Namibia and built the first, and currently only, care home specifically for Alzheimer's patients in Namibia. And he's saving those whose lives and health are endangered by witchcraft and religion ... this is how he earned the moniker "witchfinder" for the film.

So Berrie is a knight fighting under the banner of the love and acceptance of God. He's fighting against witchcraft beliefs in Namibia which condemn countless innocent people with verdicts of them being witches. Witch doctors con people out of their personal resources and fortunes and proclaim innocent people as witches, condemning them to any number of misfortunes, including being kicked out of their village, and not uncommonly, they are murdered under the mob mentality of "kill the witch!" (learn more at "Witchcraft and Dementia in Namibia") Even parading as Christian preachers, sinister people are duping the superstitious Namibians into handing over all their money. Literally, "if you give me all [yes, all] your money, I will pray for you and banish the evil spirits stalking you."

The seed of Berrie's fight is his compassion for people with dementia who are accused of being witches or of having been bewitched because of their erratic or nonsensical behavior. His goal is to identify these victims, and ideally to build villages to relocate them to where they can have trained medical care and asylum from witchcraft accusations. It's a huge vision -- no such places exist in Namibia or have been dreamed of except by Berrie. Some people accomplish things by determination and perseverance, some by ingenuity, some by luck or good connections, some by wealth, and some by the sheer force of their personality. Berrie's primary allies are perseverance and personality.

He can walk up to anybody, start a conversation, connect with them, make them feel safe enough to share personal information within a matter of minutes, get them laughing with him, trusting him. It's phenomenal to watch. It's truly a gift. He's simply so genuine, so open, good-natured with his heart and soul on his sleeve, you can discern his intentions immediately.

Without knowing them at all, he walks into a kraal or a courtyard and takes up playing with the kids, teasing them or singing to them, shaking hands with adults and offering arms around their shoulders and hugs (when appropriate ... he's not a creepy kind of hugger). His affection for humanity shines.

So now here we are in Ndjinaa's village (read her incredible story, "Twenty Years in Chains") to document her story. I look away for a second and when I look back, Berrie is already en garde, parrying and thrusting.

Traditional stick-fighting in Namibia: Berrie versus a Himba man.Traditional stick-fighting in Namibia: Berrie versus a Himba man.

So I tried to capture this remarkable scene as Berrie was giving it his best (he was once a soldier in the war of Namibian independence ... maybe he picked up a few skills training then!). And I have to say I was mightily impressed by his deftness and proficiency, all things considered! I believe all the Himba were, too! Judging by the sound the sticks produced when they made contact, the Himba man was not taking it easy on Berrie!

Young Himba man wielding traditional stick-fighting sticks. Near Epupa Falls, Namibia. Young Himba man wielding traditional stick-fighting sticks. Near Epupa Falls, Namibia.

So here was a classic example of Berrie making friends and allies through the force of his irresistible personality. Who is going to move more mountains in the land of the Himba -- a white man with a camera or a white man wielding traditional fighting sticks? A man who studies the Himba or a man who connects with the Himba inside their own culture? If I ever write a biography about Berrie, I'm going to title it, Less Praying, More Doing, and make one of these pictures the cover photo. 

Go Berrie! Traditional stick-fighting in Kaokoland, Namibia: white man versus Himba man.Go Berrie! Traditional stick-fighting in Kaokoland, Namibia: white man versus Himba man.

I think I already published this as a Friday Photo, but it's one of my favorites ... after the "fight" was over, this kid picked up one of the sticks and started play-fighting all Ninja-style, having an awful lot of fun with himself. I have to imagine he will always remember the day a white man clashed sticks with his kin in the fields. 

Himba boy playing with a traditional stick-fighting stick. Kaokoland, Namibia.

And so dear readers, I'm pleased to have introduced you to my friend, Berrie, whom I greatly admire. Be sure to cheer him on in his next duel ... both the literal one and the figurative one, battling witchcraft and religion.

*

 

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