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.
Is this not the portrait of a woman to fall in love with? :-) Stay safe, Grandmother.
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.