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. To read the full story about Ndjinaa, please see "Twenty Years in Chains: A Triumph of Compassion Over Cruelty."
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 tab (right-click).
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.
Continuing our little safari in Etosha National Park in northern Namibia ... (see the last two installments: "Birds and Those With Patterns" and "Wanna Tussle?") now we'll visit another category of creatures ... those with tusks or horns ... in other words, those with sharp pointy things growing out of their head somewhere. Tusks grow from the mouth, they are essentially massive, elongated teeth; and horns grow from the head and are are essentially crazy fingernails -- made primarily of keratin, the same as nails and hair. I guess technically, they would be "headnails."
We might as well start with the big boys! The animal above which I love few others -- elephants! Those who have had the increasingly-rare privilege of living to old age are often called "tuskers" because of their large tusks ... they keep growing over the lifetime of an elephant. One of the most beloved beers (a lager) in Africa is Tusker beer. :) Naturally, I would know and be familiar with a side note involving beer! The first pic below kind of gives a sense of how the elephant really towers over his savanna mates. An oryx by itself (the creature facing us) does not seem a particularly petite animal. But he looks more like a toy standing near an elephant!
An elephant trunk has a staggering number of muscles. Typically literature will refer to either about 40,000 or well over 100,000 ... it depends on how you are classifying the muscles, whether larger muscle groups or individually. You get the idea either way, that the trunk is an appendage over which the elephant has exceedingly fine motor control, and with its prehensile tip, it can be used to do everything our human hands can do and then some. For example, we cannot store water inside our hands! Trunks are perhaps the most topographic and textured limbs on any mammal, and I think they are one of the most fascinating things one could occupy their time with watching.
In addition to sucking up water to release in their mouths to drink, with its Hoovering power they can also suck up water and mud to spray over their bodies in showers and mud baths. The dirt in Etosha is often a light grayish or chalky color. This guy is really giving himself a power wash!
Here is some interesting behavior we observed ... this elephant was eating a termite mound. First he curled his trunk all around it, investigating it and almost seeming to caress it. The he opened his mouth and started nibbling off the top of it like it was an ice cream cone.
Elephant love! Well, OK, as sweet and loving as this pose below looks, it's actually two young males practicing their sparring skills. Though they were tussling (see more tussles), it was not aggressive ... sort of that line down the middle between play and fight.
And now a much smaller critter with no less impressive tusks relative to their body size ... warthogs. Like elephants, both male and female warthogs have tusks. Besides looking for the requisite junk to determine the sex of a warthog, you can tell a difference by their faces ... down by the jaw, males have a third set of lumps -- the "warts," for which they are named. (This is similar to sexing a giraffe by the little horn nubs on their head ... the older males have a second set.) The warts are not actually hard solid growths, they actually store fat.
Moving on to critters with horns ... Horns are one of the methods Mother Nature uses to express some of her whimsical creativity. A lot of people on safari kind of overlook the antelope species, perhaps because they are typically relatively plentiful and don't have as unique or endearing characteristics as the iconic mammals of Africa -- elephants, rhinos, cheetahs, etc. My favorite antelope species is the kudu. Their corkscrew horns are magnificent. I just can't help imagining if the keratin growths on humans came in such wicked lengths and shapes as the keratin growths on antelopes. Imagine having corkscrew fingernails! haha.
The oryx have impressive horns, as well. Their shape may be nothing to write home about, but the length can be impressive indeed. Because of these great spikes on their heads, they make kind of an epic outline on the flat grasslands (giraffes are the only other animals about which I have this epic-on-the-savanna impression).
I've never seen a black wildebeest, whose horns orient a little differently, but blue wildebeest are one of the most popular animals on the plains. Of course, probably the most famous event in all of Africa is the wildebeest migration up in Kenya and Tanzania. This isn't that exciting of a photo, but it's one of the very few I've taken in which the animals' faces are somewhat visible. So often their dark snouts and eyes make them look like faceless black masses. I think professional photographers must have a special trick for capturing them where their faces are visible without blowing out their bodies into a white abyss.
This is one of my favorite photos just because it shows three very different antelope species getting along just peachy-keen fine. If only the human species were as tolerate and friendly as the antelope species. My favorite safari pics are the ones with multiple species in them.
Springbok are sweet little antelopes. One of the few antelope species in which, like wildebeests, both males and females have horns; the female's just tend to be smaller and daintier than the male's. This was the most plentiful species I saw in Etosha.
Below, we have a female black-faced impala ... these are actually a different subspecies than the common impala, and an endangered one. If you see a pic of one of these, it likely came from Etosha, their main stronghold. But apparently the population in Etosha is still only a little over 1,000. However, the Etosha population began with only 300 animals relocated there from elsewhere for their protection. So though there are more depressing stories of species losing the conservation battle than you can shake a stick at, this one is a success for Namibia.
It's an increasingly special experience to witness a rhino in the wild. I count myself extremely fortunate to have spent loads of time around primarily white rhinos, but also some blacks, in South Africa. And we saw this fellow, below, two days in a row in Etosha. For more on rhinos, including this guy and photos of the little tyke I saw in Etosha, see my "It's Come to This: Saving Just One Rhino" post. While it was nice to hang out with this black rhino, he unfortunately was not very healthy, he had been in a fight and was beat up pretty bad. Our guide didn't feel particularly optimistic for him. But we did see several other healthy ones at the water holes associated with the park camps.
African safaris are not cheap. Especially if you have to fly in from another continent. As with any type of travel, there are certainly more and less expensive ways of doing them. But when I encourage you and anyone else who has never been to make a safari a priority in their lives, I'm not flippantly assuming you all have buckets of money. I myself certainly don't! I realize most of us have to make decisions and priorities in our lives. For me, it's worth not eating out at restaurants at home and not seeing movies in the theater and buying my clothes second-hand to spend my resources instead on being in the presence of these majestic and unique and ancient creatures. And every year that passes I feel more and more drawn to them as their time on earth becomes steadily more precarious. I think that if I had infinite amounts of money, I would pay for everyone on the planet to go on just one safari and see these animals first hand. In my little private Utopia, this would result in the evaporation of indifference and apathy toward the welfare of these animals, which would necessitate solving the underlying problems that threaten the wildlife's continued existence, primarily the eradication of the endemic poverty of the people who live next to the national parks established to protect the animals. As it currently stands, very few of those native people receive sufficiently tangible benefits from the parks they (a) cannot even afford the entry fee into, and (b) are supposed to respect the resident animals of, while their family is destitute. The buyers of poached animal parts most definitely can easily make a choice whether or not to buy them, and carry a moral responsibility not to. The people who desperately need to feed their hungry family ... their choices are not so easy and clear.
But lacking the magical infinite pot of gold ... I hope you enjoyed following me on vicarious safari. :) Now we will enjoy our cold Tusker beer as the African sun pulls a sky of stars behind it as it sets.
OK, here's Part 1 of a little safari through Etosha National Park in the north of Namibia. I made one other post from here, "Wanna Tussle?" about animal interactions. But now we're just on safari ... in this article we'll see some birds and an arbitrary categorization of mammals -- those with patterns. I didn't have a great camera or skills, but it's just fun to share safari ... animal pics never get old to me.
So ... giraffes! The giants with patterns. When I'm around them in the wild I always feel such peaceful awe. They can certainly have their aggressive moments among each other -- fighting for females and fending off predators. But among the puny humans who crane their necks to look up the length of the giraffe's unfathomable neck, they are typically docile, staring dispassionately through their wide and gentle eyes, batting a set of long eyelashes.
They, above all other savanna creatures, compose an epic story of the landscape and the nature of movement. Humorously awkward in some poses, they display an unparalleled grace while traversing the wide open plains.
Walking to a water hole, the giraffe towers over the other thirsty critters with that grace of theirs. Then the grace quickly evaporates as soon as they have to bend down to reach the water! They scoot their legs out one at a time until they are sufficiently "tripod"-ed to reach the ground. When they stand up, they jump up and pull both front legs in together simultaneously.
A behavior not seen too commonly, this giraffe is sucking on a piece of bone ... a behavior called osteophagia. They don't actually eat the bone, just suck on it like a hard candy which releases calcium and phosphorous, which are both beneficial minerals to the giraffes, particularly in regard to their large bone structure. Makes me think of when I sucked on candy cigarettes as a kid.
And here is another animal with spots. My favorite spotted animal, actually. I just got a tattoo of one on my shoulder I like them so much ... the cheetah! This was only my second sighting of cheetah on safari and I was so excited I just about lost my cool over it. The guide, who expertly spotted these three young cheetahs eating a meal in the high grass, told me explicitly to "calm down." I was just a bit beside myself. My camera and lens weren't quite up to the task of capturing them as they were very far away and surrounded by the tall grass. But oh well ... I spent most of the time watching them through the guide's strong-magnification binoculars. These pics are hugely cropped in.
At first we only saw one cheetah head. Then a second popped up, and then a third. The we saw the blood around their mouths and realized they were eating a meal. Then they began licking each others' faces to clean them off. So cute. I sure wish I could have gotten some nice pics! They are likely brothers who have left their mom's care, as they will often stick together.
Now let's move onto zebras ... the most popular images of zebras are of a bunch of them lined up in a perfect line drinking at a water hole, and that does make for a damn sweet photo. Maybe someday I'll be lucky enough to snag such a shot. But I like this one for its chaos of lines and shapes.
Here's a mini line, I guess. What I like about it is the one zebra who's got his eye on me. Uh-oh! I've been spotted! At the time, I had no idea what the consequence might be for being recognized by a zebra, but it turns out it was nothing immediate. Hard to say what future hardships could be blamed on this incident. It reminded me of a scene that would exist in the Far Side world, though I can't think of a clever caption.
And now some zeebs hanging out in a small thicket.
Jackals are cute and wily and the little devils of a campground! In South Africa it was the vervet monkeys, but here the jackals were the ones to watch for. I slept outside on a cot in a sleeping bag (very awesome) but I had to keep my shoes and any stray bits tucked underneath my sleeping bag so the jackals wouldn't run off with them. One night a jackal came into our crib thinking he was going to score some yummy treats, but when he pulled the huge cast-iron skillet off the table he got a bit of a surprise ... it was a little heavier than he imagined and made a completely scary racket. Foom! Off he ran.
Birds are creatures I have not sufficiently appreciated until I started traveling to Africa. I still don't have very many photos of them, but there are some lovely specimens here in Etosha. The most stunning is the lilac breasted roller. I was also terribly excited when our guide spotted these fellas because I specifically wanted to have an opportunity to photograph them. Their coloring is so spectacular ... just imagine if we humans grew things on our body of such varied and vibrant color, like what if our hair grew naturally in a rainbow palette such as this.
Flamingos! These are such fantastical birds, by which I mean birds of fantasy and imagination and drunken tropical holidays ... swimming in rum punch along with toothpick umbrellas, and posing on peoples' lawns, and lit up in strings of bar lights, heck I even have floating candles in the shape of pink flamingos. Their plastic prevalence in festive atmospheres kind of makes them lose their credibility as real-life creatures. So it's fun to run into them in the wild just being hungry, feathered birds.
The tallest of the birds in Etosha ... the ostrich. Are they the tallest birds, period? Hmm, I don't know. Google it and let me know. I like ostriches, though I liked them more before I spent time around them in the UWEC and realized what ill-tempered and downright scary animals they can be! So I'd rather watch them from afar. Or at least from amiddle, in a vehicle that can outrun them.
The kori bustard is a healthy-sized bird, it can reach over 4 feet tall. They're pretty incognito strutting through the brown grass in their brown feathers.
The bataleur eagle, on the other hand, has a bright and intense face. He's a bit intimidating with his penetrating stare, or glare, or hexing gaze ... difficult to tell exactly what's going on behind those eyes -- calculations, curses, ridicule, pitying the fool ... haha. Who can say for sure.
A blue-eared starling. Also has intense eyes but they seem like just flashy wardrobe components ... they don't make me wonder what is going on in his little head nor ponder whether or not I should be frightened of him.
A dark chanting goshawk below. He sounds so sinister, chanting darkly, but he's light and bright and cheery with orange. But he's got a keen eye on somebody here ... methinks that lunchable somebody might agree more with the "sinister" idea.
OK, now it's time for yours and my lunch, to siesta after our morning game drive. We'll come back to finish the safari with tusked and horned creatures ... next post. :)