If you wish simply to read about Chief Petrus, one of the characters we met on our research journey, scroll down to the first photo ... our experience with him begins there. I'm beginning with more of a personal dissertation on poverty in a witchcraft culture. Then the chief will help illustrate my point.

A couple weeks ago I read an article online titled, "Why is Africa so poor while Europe and North America are so wealthy?" It was a short article focused on criticism of a paper published a few years ago titled, “The Out of Africa Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development,” which "drew inferences about poverty and genetics based on a statistical pattern." The author of this article, Andrew Gelman, writes, "Any claim that economic outcomes can be explained by genes will be immediately controversial. It can be interpreted as a justification of the status quo, as if it is arguing that existing economic inequality among countries has a natural, genetic cause." While I think that's a genuine concern for the upshot of publishing such a piece as scientific findings, what riled me up was simply that two economics professors wrote that piece from a cold and sterile statistical model of ancient human history and migration rather than relevant human behavior. Have either of them even spent time in Sub-Saharan Africa, the object of economic sluggishness?

Until my recent trip to Namibia, I might have been inclined to consider their theory with a degree of interest, if not agreement. I would have wondered how they could think that the rampant, endemic corruption on the state level which prevents most countries from prosperity as a sovereign unit could be so trivial in comparison to genetic statistical data as to not even account for it in their theory. However, that might have been my one objection to their methodology. I make the point many times in my series of posts on witchcraft that lack of education among its believers is perhaps the primary hurdle in combatting its harmful, destructive effects, and it hasn't escaped me that here I was inclined not to challenge a "scientific" paper because of my own lack of education of what the actual living, breathing society is like to live in -- my previous experience as a tourist has turned out to be utterly irrelevant.  

Mr. Gelman points out Jared Diamond's position in "Guns, Germs and Steel" (which I read years ago) that "Eurasia had an economic advantage from two sources: the availability of domesticable animals and a more favorable geography in that innovations could be spread along east-west rather than north-south axes, with these two features favoring the development of agricultural societies." That's a somewhat less cold and removed analysis and theory, however the theory is based on looking at the African society from above it and outside of it, and without any attribution to cultural factors.

Africans may have had limited access to innovations of technology in the past, but not so today. Any technology is available to pretty much anyone with the money to procure it. So why don't Africans have enough money to do so? Because of genetic distribution and historical migration patterns from millennia in the past? I confess a weird fondness for distilling things down to their abstract basics. I like it that the universe distills down to nothing more than waves of probability ... that there's the remote chance that everything could disappear for a fraction of a second! haha. I typically actually find an unlikely comfort in the starkness of the universe. (I think my favorite essay I wrote is about this ... if you want something bizarro to fill some more of your time, check out Eye of the World. :) ) So I was taken aback by my own adverse reaction to the sterility of this paper ... I resented the stripping out of the humanity. As individuals, our existence, in any meaningful way, distills down to the thing that makes us uniquely human, that which enables the establishment of societies (and subsequently economics!) -- our emotions, our self-awareness not just of the fact we're looking at ourselves in a mirror, but that we see and understand our place within the society that surrounds us, we can evaluate our place on a number of levels that correspond to emotional states.

Enter the witchcraft culture. Berrie's theory that he related to the rest of us is that lack of economic development and individual prosperity boils down to the limitations placed on individual motivations in the face of the fear of witchcraft -- of being bewitched or accused of being a witch. It did not take long traveling with him and seeing and hearing what we did for me to fully subscribe to this theory. I was so pleased today to run across a scientific paper just published last month titled, "Witchcraft Beliefs and the Erosion of Social Capital," which presents precisely the same idea as Berrie relayed, based on similar ethnographic observations about witchcraft.  I won't encapsulate the paper here, if you're interested you can check out the summary of the paper, published by Boris Gershman, on the African Economic History Network website. Let me just extract a couple of points from his paper:

(1) "A survey module on traditional beliefs ... shows the distribution of trust and witchcraft beliefs across 188 African regions covered by the survey and reveals a rather obvious negative correlation between the two."  "The estimates suggest that, other things equal, a one-standard-deviation increase in the regional prevalence of witchcraft beliefs corresponds to an average decline in trust by roughly 0.1 standard deviations."

(2) "The overall narrative emerging from interviews and ethnographic observations suggests that witchcraft beliefs erode social capital, thereby hindering the fragile process of African economic development."

So now let me introduce you to Chief Petrus to illustrate my point.

Chief Petrus, woodcarvers community in Okahandja, Namibia.

A less hearty soul than he, a less beloved character than he, likely would have given up. Even if he had been cured as he was from his temporary mental illness, he could have decided his success was not worth the risk of being bewitched again. He could have slunk down into a minor role in the community he established, handed the reigns over to someone else, and lived quietly carving small animals from wood. I daresay, most people in his position would have. Instead, he came back, took up his position of leadership, the community gave him back full respect, and furthermore, their eyes have been opened to the possibilities that there are other explanations for peoples' behavior and the events that befall them than witchcraft. Or at least, for the behavior. But let me back up a bit.

Chief Petrus, called simply "Chief" by his community, is not the chief of a tribe but of an artisan community that he has fostered. His selfless goal is to teach many people, including women and children, the craft of wood carving and the business of selling their work. He's a magnanimous, kind and generous soul just wanting to help people help themselves. He invested himself in the success of others, and many people humbly owe what personal financial stability they have squarely to him. Most people are grateful, but everyone knows there will eventually be those who are jealous or want more of their share of the pie.

Chief Petrus and 9 others had bought the piece of land where the current Okahandja wood craft market stands for the carving and artisan community from the municipality of Okahandja many years ago (back in the Apartheid era). They secured it in a Closed Corporation (CC) and each person got 10% shares as members of the CC. Chief Petrus was chosen as lifelong chairperson of the CC. In this role, he had worked hard and eventually (in the last decade) he applied to the government for a loan to upgrade the small artisan lot into a much larger workshop. The market lies directly on the highway that crosses Namibia from the coastal area of Swapkopmund to the many tourist destinations in northern Namibia. Being so well situated, the chief understood its potential to become a major tourist souvenir destination. This loan would be a huge boon for the locals to improve their trade and increase their profits. 

In the days leading up to the loan's approval, someone approached the chief and asked for a portion of shares in the CC, which the chief denied him. As you may now predict, the natural recourse in this culture was that the denied man told the chief he would bewitch him in revenge. As was already illustrated in the post, "You Could Be the Next Witch," people suffer a great deal of fear and anxiety if they feel they are imminently to be bewitched or accused of being a witch. People therefore frequently fall victim to psychosomatic illnesses. Some of them quite dramatic. 

Two days before Chief was set to sign the official papers to receive the loan, he fell suddenly ill with symptoms similar to a nervous breakdown. He went to the hospital to see a doctor who prescribed him haloperidol. This is somewhat standard procedure in medicine ... it's an antipsychotic drug often administered to psychiatric patients who need to be calmed down. But it is typically to be used as a temporary measure just until the patient has calmed down. What Berrie discovered, though, was that the chief was being prescribed an outrageous dosage of three times a day every day. Not only did the chief fail to recover from his illness/breakdown, he got progressively worse. Eventually the excessive haloperidol turned Chief's mind into mush. When you ask him about that time, if he can remember it, he says he was confused inside his own head. His couldn't grasp his own thoughts, he lived largely in a wordless fear, doped up on meds.

"Were you scared?" we ask.

"Sure." He shrugs his shoulders as if he doesn't really know what he was. He was simply something else. Not himself. He listens to what other people say about him during that time with his chin in his hand. He's disconnected, as if listening to a story about someone else ... they say his speech made no sense, he did not recognize his own family and friends, ran around naked, and worst of all, he could no longer sculpt wood -- his lifelong trade and passion. 

Chief Petrus listening to others talk about him during his illness. Okahandja, Namibia.

The chief's initial problem was compounded by the apathy of the medical system he sought help from. Was this an isolated mistake by a particular doctor? No. Antipsychotics, particularly haloperidol, seem to be used throughout Namibia as a bit of a panacea with little thought to its dosage, efficacy or relevance to the patient's symptoms. You may be thinking this part of the story has nothing to do with witchcraft. Wrong! We talked to people in the nursing profession (for example, the caregivers at the "dementia farm" Berrie established outside Swapkopmund for Alzheimer's patients) who say that nurses (admitting even themselves until Berrie educated them) think that many patients in psychiatric wards are bewitched and they are afraid to go near them. So a person who is receiving the wrong medication, such as Chief, is unlikely to get anyone's attention or consideration that his problem may be medical rather than supernatural. The hospital staff simply presumes bewitching, they hold their breath and serve the medications, then swiftly retract from the presence of the patient. In Petrus's case, though he was an outpatient, his family remained ignorant that his problem was medical, believing instead the lack of recovery was due simply to the power of the bewitching, so they never confronted or questioned the prescribing doctor; they kept refilling the prescription for haloperidol for years, all the while taking the chief to witch doctors and traditional healers trying to bring him back from a spiritual purgatory. 

Meanwhile, back at the woodcarvers artisan community, progress stalled. The government loan to expand the business cooperative did not go through because the chief lost the mental faculties to sign the papers. According to the CC's system they'd set up, no one could take over the chief's Chairman position until after he died. So the expansion project stagnated while the community's leader languished in a mental no-man's land. The person everyone pointed to as the bewitcher did not get his wish for installation into the CC even though he tried to forge his way in with an unsuccessful attempt to steal and alter the CC documents, some say he even wanted to take over the chief's position. His jealous actions merely doomed the entire cooperative to small-scale operations, carving outside in the weather and selling in tiny vendor stalls made of sticks and plastic tarp.

Was the economic stagnation of the community due to lack of genetic diversity? Due to a lack of access to resources? Due to a climate that allowed ancient Europeans to domesticate livestock easier than them? No. The economic development of the artisan community was stunted by the chief falling victim to what I imagine was a psychosomatic illness in a culture immobilized by the belief in bewitching. If anyone else had stepped forward to try to lead the community, draw up new loan papers, they would have been the victim of the next disgruntled woodcarver's bewitchment ... it's a rare person who decides to carry that burden of fear in order to be a leader.  

So how was the chief rescued from the cycle of being dangerously over-medicated? The "how" is Berrie. The "why," which is what led to the "how," I believe is attributable to the chief himself. If not for the strength and integrity of his own character, he may have lived the rest of his life babbling incoherently like a dementia patient, no one may have spoken up for him. But both his biological and woodcarvers family cared deeply about him, feared for him, mourned for him, but felt helpless. One day Berrie stopped into the craft stalls and met Black Jack, a woodcarver and vendor in the artisan community.

Black Jack, wood carver and friend of Chief Petrus, Okahandja, Namibia.

As is his way, Berrie struck up a conversation on his topic of interest, dementia. Black Jack thoughtfully realized that Chief Petrus fit Berrie's description of a dementia patient and took him to meet the chief. Berrie decided to investigate the situation and discovered the shocking antipsychotic dosage. And as is his way, once Berrie perceived an injustice, he doggedly pursued it -- convincing Chief's family to take him to a different doctor and remove him from the haloperidol regimen. And voila ... the chief recovered his wits.

His place in the community's heart was made evident as soon as we stepped out of our vehicle with the filming equipment. People came up to us from every direction, it seemed, to tell us, "He’s the chief!" They say this with pride in him and gratitude for his role in their lives. With similar pride and gratitude they called Berrie “doctor,” acknowledging he saved the chief’s life. Though Berrie consistently contradicts his given title of doctor, the people don't really have any other frame of reference in which to think of him, so it sticks. 

While incapacitated by the haloperidol, not only did Chief lose the coordination to carve, to add insult to injury, he lost his carving tools themselves to the bewitcher, who stole them at the same time he broke into Chief's workshop to look for the CC documents to alter. Once Chief had recovered, he asked Berrie for money to buy new carving tools. Berrie correctly placed his trust and confidence in the chief to use the money in good faith, and gave it to him.  Today, Chief is extremely energetic and animated ... almost a wee bit manic as if making up for lost time. While everyone else is carving small figurines (and a few larger ones), bowls, jewelry, mostly things you can take home in a bag, Chief is working on a huge wood carving of a rhinoceros, made from an entire tree stump. He uses the kind of axe that is one of the two weapons that can kill a witch to whittle down its features.  

Chief Petrus working on his wooden rhinoceros. Okahandja, Namibia.Chief Petrus now nearly finished carving his large rhino.

This interview we conducted with Chief Petrus, his nephew, son, and Black Jack, was the first interview we conducted, so I wasn't yet prepared for how easily and bluntly they would share their beliefs in witchcraft, nor for how deeply they believed in it, or the details they could tell of the process of consulting a witch doctor, how witch doctors figure out who witches are and how to cast spells on others ... divulging all this in the same casual tone and degree as people in America might talk of a family physician, how you make an office visit and how he diagnoses and treats the flu. Black Jack and Chief's nephew especially surprised me -- they were so well-spoken in English, I would never have guessed from talking to them in any other context that they believed so deeply in witchcraft and that they felt their lives are so out of their personal control. They seemed far more educated than that.

Johannes, wood carver and nephew of Chief Petrus. Okahandja, Namibia.

As I mentioned in Witchcraft and Dementia in Namibia, one of the strategies for education is to have a set of "champions" -- local tribal people who can personally attest to what Berrie is "preaching" -- that dementia is a biological illness, not a supernatural one. Chief Petrus is one of the flagships of Berrie's effort to educate people -- Chief's family and friends are perhaps some of the very first people who could be recruited into these champion roles. I think his situation could not be used as effectively as an example if he were not so beloved, because his friends are all so passionate in caring to understand what happened to him. Chief's nephew and his son and Black Jack all expressed enthusiasm for being educated by Berrie about dementia. They don’t portray an attitude of shame or embarrassment for their ignorance, only an attitude of gratitude for being educated, for being helped, for someone to have had such a caring heart to use his knowledge and resources to help their chief. Black Jack, though, seems palpably more thoughtful about all of this; you can almost see a little light bulb above his head, that he really is "seeing the light." He said with genuine conviction that he understands better when he sees people behaving strangely, he has a new perspective on them, that maybe they are just sick. (In fact, he knows someone else already whose family keeps them locked in a room, and now he is considering they may have dementia or a medical condition.)  

There is an important distinction, though, to be made in the middle of this optimism ... while these young men are now aware of and believing in the concept of biological illness being responsible for strange behavior, they still believe that the victim of an illness is likely the victim of bewitching. The difference is that now they realize the bewitched person may not be beyond help or redemption -- not damned to a spiritual purgatory nor inhabited by evil spirits -- they realize that perhaps a witch doctor is not the only person who can cure the afflicted, that rather, a medical doctor is the appropriate person to consult. That maybe they should not treat "bewitched" people as pariahs, but as people who, in fact, need extra love and care, for they are still the same people they once loved even if their behavior has changed. (And also, they in particular now know the drug haloperidol can be responsible for strange behavior). So their belief in how witchcraft operates is not eradicated, merely modulated. But that is still a big and notable step. These are the first champions.

I was captivated by several of the young children who roamed the woodcarvers market lot while the interview was being set up and conducted. So beautiful, so happy, so innocent.

Children in the woodcarvers market, Okahandja, Namibia.Children in the woodcarvers market, Okahandja, Namibia.

But here in Namibia, our rather tired cliché of "the innocence of children" takes on a second meaning ... literally this is the only time in their lives when they cannot be accused of being a witch. Too young yet to have enemies, it's the only time they will not be bewitched in the name of jealousy. The only time they cannot bewitch another in the name of jealousy or fear. They are judicially innocent of witchcraft charges for this brief, sweet time in their lives. It makes their childhood seem all the more precious.

Children playing in a wheelbarrow, Okahandja woodcarvers market, Namibia.



Read more articles in Namibia II

Visit Alzheimer's Dementia Namibia (ADN) blog, working to educate Namibians about dementia and other mental illness


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