Understanding the Ovahimba Culture

It is another hot and humid day in the Kunene. We had a tiring day, but a successful one. Kapika seems to get angry rather quickly and he has now decided that he doesn’t want to give us the piece of land he previously promised but would rather have his sister, Ndjinaa, as close as possible to him. He even suggested we build our village right next to his, and it can be as big as we would like. In fact, the furthest border can be as far as his eye can see. Not that, that can be very far at his age…

Humor in any African culture is a difficult concept and here at Kapika’s omuramba, it is even more difficult. But in an effort to get Kapika relaxed, I ask him for the hand of Ndjinaa, to marry her. Fortunately for me, all our listeners caught on and laughed. After a while even Kapika smiled and gave me his hand. (Does that mean, yes?!) And so we sit under the Mopani trees and discuss the future of Ndjinaa and our Himba dementia village. The discussion is open to everyone and the family comes to listen and take part in the discussions. Taking part of course means they just listen…

During our Mopani discussions, bewitching is discussed. A whole new world opens up to me and I think that maybe I am starting to understand bewitching as the Himba perceive it. Here, bewitching is not just a belief – it is the cause of someone’s illness. Not even death is perceived as natural. You die because some bewitched you.

In my struggle to understand witchcraft in an African community, I compare it to the laws of nature. If you throw a stone into the air, gravity ensures that it returns to earth. And this is the law of nature. But witchcraft works different. It is the rules by which community is governed by. If you step out of line, you will be forced by witchcraft to step back into line. If you were born a king, you will die a king and the opposite is also true; if you were born a slave, you will die a slave. If you try to rise above your role or position in community, witchcraft will put you back into your place by restoring the laws that is unchangeable. This, it seems to me, is a life of fear.

According to Kapika, Ndjinaa has been called to guard or protect his life by carrying his soul inside her. She has therefore been bewitched so that she cannot harm her own life. He believes that if she dies, he will also die and if he dies first, so will she. It is very important to him that he stays in control of her life and well-being, because her life is also his life. I start to understand that for the last 20 years he has lived in fear. Ndjinaa’s decline in health is the only reason why Kapika has assigned his two wives to look after her. This of course put dementia care in the Ovahimba culture in a whole new light.

Concerned about the dementia care project, I ask Kapika if he then prefers us to rather pull out and leave. Chaos. No! No! Kapika explains that for the last 20 years he has been searching for answers and asking for help – from witchdoctors, traditional healers, the church and medical doctors but nobody could help him. Kapika says that he now believes that the disease is from God and not a bewitching case. I am of course now totally confused. As Koos, I and Christofer and Johan from Sweden drive back to Epupa Falls Lodge, we decide to continue this discussion over a glass of whiskey. We need a lot of inspiration as Kapika wants his answer tomorrow. My gut is to stay and build the village next to him. My lovely wife calls during the evening and as concerned wives do, she asks if the whiskey is to acquire wisdom as too much of a good thing can turn one foolish.

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