For those who have followed me since the making of the documentary, African Witchfinder, I wanted to give an interesting update on Ndjinaa, the unchaining of whom, in 2012, started my friend Berrie's journey to becoming known as "the African Witchfinder." If you're unfamiliar with Berrie and the documentary, first know that he finds accused witches in rural Namibia in order to help them, not to persecute them; and then for the background on Ndjinaa in chains, please see this article: Twenty Years in Chains: A Triumph of Compassion Over Cruelty. Berrie and his lifelong friend, Koos Verwey, were the ones to secure Ndjinaa's freedom; Berrie himself cut off her chains. 

So to pick up from when Ndjinaa, who has dementia, was living in her own hut outside the family kraal with full-time specially trained caretakers, and Berrie having convinced her family that she has a brain disease and is not bewitched nor a witch herself .....  (below is a pic of her outside this hut in 2016)

After awhile, the novelty of this idea of a supernaturally benign disease began to wear off the family, and new evidence of abuse surfaced in Ndjinaa's behavior and on her body, after some members of the family died. This indicated to Berrie that Ndjinaa was still being blamed for the misfortunes in the family, that in spite of their lip service to Berrie's dementia awareness educational campaign, they still considered her a witch. Recall that nobody dies a natural death in the witchcraft culture ... a witch, usually within the family, is always responsible for supernaturally causing the car crash, or stopping the heart in a heart attack, or turning into the crocodile who kills a child, etc. 

Berrie decided then to bring her to live on the ADN (Alzheimer's Dementia Namibia) care farm he established outside Swakopmund, where she has been for the last five years.

I took this photo below of Ndjinaa and Berrie last month (October 2023) as she sat by herself on a chair eating lunch in the “greeting” room (where visiting family can meet with their loved ones), a sort of enclosed porch room, at the ADN home.

Berrie Holtzhausen standing beside Ndjinaa sitting in a chair. Photos of removing the chains from Ndjinaa's ankles behind them.

On the wall beside her are the photos of her being released from the chains she was bound with for 20 years, the ADN logo, you could say. She was so frail and emaciated and withdrawn at the time of her freeing. You can see her in the chair now plump and happy. She babbles to no one in particular and laughs to herself all the time, the staff says.

She chattered and chattered the whole time I was talking with some of the staff. Meanwhile, a resident with only one shoe on was dancing around the room on his toes, bow-legged, with his lunch in a giant bowl (rather than a plate), holding it and eating all the while jigging from one foot to the other and trotting around the porch and the yard. There have been/are a number of people in the home who must always be moving, physically in motion. He was so friendly and came up to me to say "Hi," then danced off in his single shoe.

In locating the ADN home here on a "small holding" acreage, Berrie recognizes the need for expansive visual space and the need for freedom of movement that is an overriding characteristic in many dementia patients.

Ndjinaa babbled on and on while I was there. Most people can’t understand her words; one staff member speaks her language and can sometimes pick things out. Berrie kept calling to her, “Ndjinaa, how are you?” She would answer in a long string of chatter and then Berrie would say to her jovially, “I can’t understand a thing you’re saying!” He just wanted to engage her.

He lets her have her snuff -- the only small comfort she was given by her family for those 20 years chained to a pole and fed about as well as the livestock.

So Berrie's friend since their childhood together in the 1960s and early 70s was Koos Verwey. When you walk it back, I ultimately met Berrie because of Koos. I was staying at his lodge in Epupa Falls when I met Ndjinaa, to whom Koos introduced my tourist photography group as he was so proud of his role working with Berrie in freeing her from chains and negotiating with her brother, the chief, to provide a special hut for her with her own caretakers. As a result of this afternoon I contacted Berrie to learn more about him and Ndjinaa, and we have been friends since. I met Koos again in 2016 when we interviewed him for African Witchfinder.

Koos leases the land for his lodge from the chief and subsequently forged a close relationship with the family. He knew well of Ndjinaa but nobody would talk about her, and not wishing to stir up any animosity, he didn't persist in inquiring ... until Berrie came along and insisted on knowing why she was chained up. From then on Koos and Berrie worked in tandem to arrange her freedom -- two white men that would surely have stood out in Ndjinaa's world even if she couldn't sort everything out in her mind. On some level I imagine she understood they were the ones who gave her a new life in which she now eats and laughs and wanders about freely.

I think it was just the day before I arrived back in Namibia in October that Koos had a dizzy spell while on his balcony where he lived at the Epupa Falls lodge and fell backward onto a set of wooden stairs and sustained severe injuries including a broken neck. With no pain medication or anything, he endured many hours of transport in a passenger truck, hundreds of kilometers, over rough dirt roads, potholed and washboarded, transferred multiple times from one vehicle to another until finally arriving in a town from which he could be airlifted to Windhoek. Epupa Falls is extremely remote. A hellacious journey if there ever was one. He was in hospital in critical condition for the duration of my time visiting Berrie back in Namibia.

On the day that I visited ADN care farm with Berrie, that morning he had received word from Koos's family that they thought he was in his last hours. Although he was in an induced coma, the family said (via WhatsApp group for Koos's friends to keep apprised of his condition) that anyone wanting to convey their thoughts to Koos could write them a message that they would read out loud to Koos.

As Berrie and I went to leave the ADN home, I was walking to a corner of the low-walled yard when I heard a noise behind me and turned around to see Ndjinaa on a cement slab that slopes down from the enclosed porch out into the yard. She was on her side and I thought she had fallen. But no, it turns out, Berrie told me, she likes to come outside and sit there in the sun. I turned to look the opposite direction toward our car and Berrie reached me, and we were about to step over the wall when Ndjinaa appeared beside Berrie — she had gotten up and apparently run over in a flash. He was so surprised, and then she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and put her head against his chest, hugging him firmly. Berrie couldn't see the look on her face but I could. It was that look when you hug someone or something that gives you maximum comfort, like a pet or a teddy bear as a kid. That emotion of both love for them and gratitude for their unconditional love of you.

“I guess she wants to say goodbye,” Berrie said and chuckled. Then he put his arm around her shoulder and led her gently back to her sunning space on the cement. I actually tried to get my phone camera turned on to take a photo of this tender moment, but it was too slow to wake up and I missed the opportunity. Berrie then came back quickly to the car so she wouldn’t follow him again.

I had no idea this was anything unusual. Considering how Berrie cut her chains, brought her to this safe place, I presumed that was a typical expression of affection. It's true she has dementia, but as there were only two white men consistently in her life, Berrie and Koos, and they both protected her, I still have to think she recognized on some level, however wordless and jumbled that level might be, their role as protector. But when I told Sufrani (Berrie's daughter and now CEO of the care farm) about this sweet scene I witnessed, she was stunned. She couldn’t believe it. She said that never happens. I was so surprised. Berrie hadn't mentioned that at the time.

I hadn't told him about my conversation with Sufrani when later in my trip he pointed out how interesting it was that as Koos lay dying, Ndjinaa hugged him for the first time ever. "Really?" I said. "She's never done that?"

"No, never!" Berrie exclaimed. It's been nearly 12 years now that Ndjinaa's and Berrie's lives have been intertwined. 

Starting from years ago, Berrie has said that he feels people with dementia live in a world that is different from "ours" (those without dementia), a world we can't understand but a world that is no less valid, no less sensical in its way, it merely has different parameters that we can't perceive. He has said for years that people with dementia can perceive things that those without cannot. He says this based on countless hours of observation and interaction with people living with dementia. The brain is a vast and largely uncharted territory; when factors such as diseases start messing with it and altering its structure, who knows what frontiers are forged with these new cell configurations. Even if our medical machines only see deterioration, it's still an altered brain that may now use other of its parts in recesses our machines can't yet penetrate or discern.

To my mind, it is worth pausing to consider, to wonder, to contemplate, to marvel, at this alignment of events that on the day that one of the two white men who freed and "saved" her lay dying several hundred kilometers away, she expressed a singular moment of affection for the other. 

Random coincidence? Or could Ndjinaa perceive something beyond our field of perception to know that one of the men who freed her was on the last leg of his earthly journey? Perhaps when she saw Berrie with her eyes, she saw Koos also with her heart's eye, and knew somehow in some way it was her last chance to express gratitude.

I'm not willing to endorse one side or the other -- coincidence or some sort of ESP. But I most definitely find it one of those "things that make you go hmmmm." A big long hmmmm.

The only other person Berrie has ever seen Ndjinaa hug is Tjinguva, her grandson, though she is unaware on a conscious level that he is her grandson. Perhaps she saw, with some special inner mind's eye, Koos in Berrie the way she saw Vehatehako, her daughter, in her grandson. If you want to understand what I mean by this, you can read a portion of an essay I wrote about it HERE.

Koos did not die that day, but he did pass away a couple days after I returned home near the end of October. He was a legend to many, an interesting person who spent the latter half of his life trying to atone for the sins of his earlier half in the military. One of his legacies is his part in freeing Ndjinaa, which sparked Berrie's journey to becoming "the African Witchfinder," a journey which will undoubtedly end in meaningful positive change in his country to end abuses and harmful practices of witchcraft culture. It has been a wild ride in recent years. I've not written any updates on the travel blog, but trust me: big change is coming. 


Koos Verwey in 2016

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