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Upon my fourth visit to Granny Sabina, she came to greet us in her courtyard bubbling with laughter, her wrinkled face consumed in smiles. This was not unusual; it was her modus operandi with us. Considering two of those times she didn't know (or recognize) us from Adam, I presume this is how her delightful personality drives her to greet everyone inside her courtyard.
What was different this time, was that she greeted us and called us "friend." Aw. Isn't it funny the simplest and smallest things that can touch your heart. This was the highlight of my day.
I met her in 2016 with the film crew of African Witchfinder, and knew her then only as "Grandmother," or as Berrie most often referred to her, "Granny." Berrie learned from one of her grandsons that her other grandchildren had accused her of being a witch, of being the one responsible for the deaths of their parents -- her own children! If you haven't followed my posts about witchcraft culture in Namibia, you can read a little primer in my post, "Witchcraft and Dementia in Namibia." I outlined her basic situation in "The Peace in Human Touch," which to summarize here, is that one of her grandchildren had gone so far as to be raising money to pay a witchdoctor to kill Granny through the dark art of witchcraft.
The day after we interviewed her family for the film, we returned briefly because I wanted to give her a gift, a necklace with a Native American dream catcher affixed to a small pouch. I told her and her family that it would protect her from harm and from evil spirits ... I figured: fight superstition with superstition. Sometimes, especially in this early stage of trying to educate people and prevent witchcraft killings, you have to resort to this. Start by communicating in their "language" of superstition.
When we arrived, Granny was resting inside her hut, but someone from her family fetched her and she came out to greet us, breaking into huge smiles. When I hung the dream catcher pouch around her tiny neck, telling her it was a gift (through her granddaughter translating, as she doesn't speak English) she clapped her hands and began singing and dancing with me and Suzanne. It was awesome, one of the sweetest moments ever.
In 2017, as I was returning to Namibia for a brief reunion with Berrie before continuing on to safari in Botswana, he received a phone call from Granny's grandson, Markus, the one who first told Berrie about her. Markus said that another family member had died and that Granny's life was now in renewed and greater danger, as the family was going to meet to decide who was the family witch who caused the death, and we all knew that more than likely, the finger would fall to Granny.
Alarmed, we drove out to her house directly to check on her safety. Arriving at her compound, another of her granddaughters greeted us whom we hadn't met the previous year, a pretty woman named Hildegard.
She spoke some English, so could translate for us, and fetched Granny, who did not recognize us but smiled and laughed, of course, and stood beside us amiably.
Berrie tried to jog her memory, describing our visit the previous year. She smiled but was obviously hazy in bringing forth a recollection. Berrie then pointed to me and told her I was the one who gave her the necklace as a gift the previous year. It's hard to say for sure, but that appeared to be the catalyst to make her suddenly remember us. Then she doubled her smiles (quite a feat) and grabbed our hands into hers. I think she genuinely recalled us now. My husband and Berrie's brother were with us, whom she had not met before, but she treated them the same.
I asked her granddaughter if Granny still had the dream catcher necklace, and she said yes, she knew what I was talking about, and it was inside Granny's hut. (this made me happy)
So then we asked Hildegard about the death in the family. "Death?" she said. "No one has died. My aunt still lives right over there. She just left to go work in another town."
Berrie recounted to her the phone conversation with Markus detailing the death and the imminent family meeting about who was the witch. The granddaughter was slow to speak in further reply, but she insisted the death did not occur.
"Has anyone accused your grandmother of witchcraft recently?" Berrie asked.
She replied, "No."
Granny apparently was safe and sound! And where was Markus? He told Berrie on the phone he was in Windhoek (we are way up north in Divundu). Hildegard said he disappeared overnight several months earlier without saying anything to anybody; it was news to her to hear from Berrie he was in Windhoek. Berrie grilled her about Markus, her aunt, why Markus would say something like that ... (not to be antagonistic, but just trying to work out what on earth was going on). But Hildegard seemed strangely, almost doggedly, quiet about this bizarre, contradictory situation.
This whole issue of contradiction is a topic for another conversation. It seems weird, and it is, but it is not unusual to encounter these circumstances of drastically contrasting information from different parties on the same topic. People also often give very measured responses to questions, which make you wonder if they are simply processing the question or the English (not their first language), or if they are scheming to themselves what is the answer that they should give, without regard to the truth of it. Or maybe it's just a cultural behavior? It's unsettling to wait for their answers, which, when they come, mystify you. Whatever are the wheels in their head turning over?
During this visit, we learned that Granny's name is Sabina. I really like that name. We learned Granny Sabina's age: 89 years old. Another woman was at Granny's side. We imagined she was Granny Sabina's sister, but Hildegard insisted (because we asked several times in disbelief) she was Granny's daughter, who was in her 70s. They looked to us the same age. We had brought some gifts of pasta and sugar for Granny; her daughter promptly carried them off.
We left highly confused over the situation with Markus and his aunt. Berrie tried to call Markus back with no success. Was he genuinely misinformed about his family? What motivation could he have for telling a lie like this to Berrie? What did he stand to gain, or what did someone else stand to lose?
We came back a couple days later because I had forgotten to bring with me that day the gift for Granny I brought from America ... another Native American item -- a cedar berry bracelet that's supposed to protect the wearer ... another superstition, but we thought at that time Granny was in renewed danger, so I brought her renewed protection.
This is when Granny Sabina greeted us as "friend." I had Hildegard read out loud to Granny the slip of paper that came with the bracelet explaining its powers, and I slipped the small beaded bracelet onto Granny's dainty wrist.
Since we were there, Hildegard set four plastic chairs out in the shade of a large tree. She, Sabina and the daughter sat in the dirt while we had a conversation. Hildegard provided no new insight into the situation with Markus and her aunt, but while she and Berrie were talking mostly between themselves, I looked around with my camera and watched Granny Sabina as she listened to the language she didn't understand, idly drawing circles in the dirt with her finger, still strong in old age like my own grandmother's hands were. She picked up a large, stiff leaf from the ground that was creased like a scooper and meticulously scooped out pebbles from the fine dirt in front of her, setting them off to the side.
As always in the courtyards we visit in Namibia, chickens meandered about. It was hot; they nestled down in the shade of the same tree as us.
Granny took her leathery foot out of her flip-flop sandal, brushed dirt off the bottom of it with her hand, and slipped it back in her shoe. Her daughter sat with legs outstretched and I was a little fascinated at her gnarled toes on one foot. Everything about her seemed older than her mother, who, though wrinkled and weathered, tiny and fragile, still possessed an aura of sturdiness and grace.
I asked Granny Sabina about how things used to be in the past, when she was younger, if times had changed much during her lifetime. I imagined if she were to mention anything, it would probably be about highways and vehicles, convenience stores and cell phones. She replied that it rained a lot more in the past, that people had more and better mahangu crops (millet). She drew more circles in the dirt with her finger to illustrate digging a hole in the ground and planting a seed in it, then she mimicked pouring water on each seed. She used to farm mahangu.
She said people had more to eat, and people shared all their food with one another -- they built big fires at night and everyone gathered around. The women cooked, she recalled fondly, the men talked, then they came together and ate. Now nobody does that, Granny said .. no fires, no sharing of food. A fly had been parked in the corner of her eye almost this whole time, now it moved across her cheek to the other corner and back again. She asked if we brought meat for her.
The crops are very poor now, she said. People are always just waiting for the rain. The government's crops are good -- and yes, you can see driving through the country that they're tall and lush, supported by expansive irrigation systems and sprinklers. Why don’t they help the locals do the same? Both Sabina and Berrie wonder. (and now I, as well) The government exports a lot of these beautiful crops without giving the locals the opportunity to buy them, nor helping them farm by subsidizing irrigation systems. Why don't the local people try making their own irrigation systems? you might wonder. Well, that is a topic for another day, I will try to get to.
Before we left, I asked if I could take a photo of Granny Sabina and her daughter in front of Granny's hut. Hildegard told us Granny was born in that hut, but Berrie said he knew that wasn't true (I can't recall now how he had information to the contrary). Again, the seemingly senseless contradictions. In any case, here is Granny and daughter outside a traditional thatched hut. It has kind of a National Geographic feel to it from its "classic" days of documentary photography. haha.
I also noticed that Granny's front tooth had rotted out since the previous year. First pic below taken in 2016, second in 2017.
So dear reader, you have a tale of Granny, a tale of mystery, a tale from another culture to which I am a total outsider ... but welcomed to warmly by Ms. Sabina, former mahangu farmer, tiny woman full of grace, with the deepest smiles and good will.
It is with a heavy and angry heart that I must report Granny Sabina has died. But we are quite confident she didn't simply die, but rather that she was poisoned. Why? Because her family still believes she is a witch. By whom? Our deductions, if you can believe it, lead us to suspect her grandson, the one who first introduced us to this grandmother, claiming that he didn't want her to be killed as a witch and that he didn't believe in witchcraft. But everyone has a breaking point, it seems, at which they will revert to the beliefs entrenched in their culture ... after he couldn't find a job in Windhoek and was out of money, his granny, it appeared to him, was a witch afterall. He came home for two weeks during which Sabina got sick and died. Then he disappeared, not even coming back to attend the funeral. Berrie attended the funeral.