The Headman, the Hunter, the Builder and of course myself
A story with many parts – written by Berrie Holtzhausen
Today I’ll begin at the end of this story. It is early, just before the sun tints the horizon a glowing red above the Mopani trees that surround me. The time of day when you can actually see the footpath but you carry your torch just in case the long black thing in the path is not a Mopani branch but a snake. It’s that time of the morning and I’m out of my bed (the back seat of my truck). “To do what?” you ask. I’m driven by the strongest need that nature can possibly throw at you. Physically strong, I mean. It is so strong it had poor Simpson on his knees when his hair was still long and he hasn’t had a bite yet of the Delilah’s forbidden fruit.
You need to understand this – to go the toilet under normal circumstances to the common man, is something you do when you become aware of the strong natural force within you, without thinking twice. Next to an Ovahima settlement, the need for a toilet takes planning. Especially when you are white, a stranger to the environment and use to living in 2012. Here you don’t plan your eating and drinking habits according to your hunger or thirst. No, you plan it according to safety and privacy. You need to do your “strong-man” routine by dusk. The time of day when the Mopani trees are silhouetted against the horizon, when you can still see without your torch but you don’t see the sun anymore. After that, you eat the bare minimum. Then you have the privilege, like I have now, to move when you can just make out that long black thing in the road is a branch after all.
With my return to my truck, the builder comes running and asks for a lift to Epupa. It is still dead quiet in the Onganda settlement and he just has to fetch his bags. But before he returns, the head man’s second wife is also there to ask for a lift to the clinic in Epupa – the one where a Mopani tree serves as the waiting room. With the returning builder comes headman Kapika and behind him the hunter. To the hunter you do not say no as there is an iron sword point behind his ear and in his hand a knobkerrie and gun without bullets (I think). At his side he carries a hunting knife with which you can behead an elephant (should the desire ever arise) after you have killed it with the gun. He looks unfriendly and I decide that it is not the time to argue because Kapika needs to show the grounds for my dementia project, his second wife didn’t look good yesterday and the builder cut 16 thick Mopani wood pegs for the project… and so we start a long hot day.
It remains a unique day with an even longer and warmer night on the most uncomfortable bed I have ever slept on. No, that is a lie. It is the third most uncomfortable bed I have tried sleeping on. First prize goes to the Bushmen beds (thus named by my wife due to their length) at a certain overnight lodge in Namibia on the Botswana border. Second prize goes to the most northern point on Isle of Sky, west of Scotland in a town called Uig where Pop and I slept on springs instead of a mattress while the rather thin curtains failed miserably at keeping out the light until 11pm.
I will now relay the story of 12-12-12 as it happened:
A lot of us dream to go back in time or to move forward past a lot of bad times to so called better times. I know of at least a few people who would like to develop a time machine to return in time… to before their wedding or into the future to the death of a certain in-law. Here in the Kunene you move back in time with every kilometre travelled. At the moment I’m sitting about 30km from the Epupa Falls where I spent last night and had a fantastic bed with a shower and toilet no more than 2 meters from me. I had enough water to drink and to shower in, a cold beer with the perfect view across the Kunene. Now I’m sitting 30km further under the shade of a Mopani tree, extremely thirsty with a bottle of lukewarm water, a spade and a roll of toilet paper. With the latter I will need to walk about 500m should the need arise. No power to charge my laptop, so I need to write with the speed of a millipede’s legs once it starts walking and of course, no reception.
Half past four this morning while trying to sleep, I thought about this operation that waited. It was then that it hit, today was 12-12-12. When I came yesterday, we put up the big army tent under this very Mopani tree. We replaced the tent poles with the Mopani pegs with the help of the official builder from the Onganda settlement. These pegs are much stronger than any iron tent pole found on the market. I also had a meeting with Kapika and his two wives about the process that needed to happen. You see, I needed to literally remove chains from an elderly lady, she needed to be washed and given fresh and clean clothes.
The purpose of my visit spreads like a wildfire and before long a family member of the elderly lady stands before me. He says he knows about a man in his 30’s that is like his elderly aunt. Not very long after that, there are 10, no 12 people like her. But then I ask him to tell me about this aunt of his that I came to help.
I ask him her name and in the sand he writes; NDJINAA. Then he tells me her incredible story. When her mother was pregnant with her, she started bleeding and went to the headman. They decided to give her some traditional medicine to bring out the baby as they saw the bleeding as a bad omen. But before they could give her the medicine, Ndjinaa was born. Her name means; I know your mother, but I do not know you. This, my friend, tells me that she came into this life as a threat and not as a blessing. There are several more stories about her. About people who were murdered for their belongings and now their souls have returned and live in her. Stories very similar to our own Friday 13th believes.
With the arrival of Koos we can finish setting up the tent. We cut her chains, remove all the old straps and provide her with a nice big bath. (I brought along about 100l of water in plastic drums). The three care workers (also trained by us) give her a bath and new, clean materials to be used as a dress that I bought yesterday in a tin hut at Epupa for N$35 per meter. Four meters of fabric and 2 dresses – the most she’s ever had in the last 20 years. She even slept on the ground because the skin she used to sleep on got too dirty and should have been burned a long time ago.
While the care workers give her a bath, Koos and I negotiate with Kapika and his men about the ground we need for the Ovahimba Dementia settlement that we are planning. I also indicate that every family that brings a person with dementia must donate two goats or a cow and must build a hut for the sick person. With that, our three care workers appear with a brand new grandmother… and she smiles. She even walks upright and takes a longer step with every uncertain step into the future.
Ndjinaa, Clean and Free
I suspect that she had very little drinking water in the last 20 years. Everybody stand and clap hands.
With the joyous celebrations in full swing, Kapika moves the meeting to another Mopani tree and only invites Koos, myself and Juanine who translates for us. He makes his vehicle available under the agreement that we find a responsible driver. Then he sends Koos and Juanine away, calls one of the care workers to translate and tells me that he will donate a goat to the three care workers. I wonder if he has realised that the caring process will be an expensive operation.
I try to have a conversation with aunt Ndjinaa, but when I call her by name, she says I shouldn’t talk to her; I will only bring bad luck on myself.
The police and six soldiers also appear. They are form Okongwati, a town about 30km south from here. The bush telegram has also reached them. I have the opportunity to give them a lesson on dementia. They tell me they know Ndjinaa and that she has been chained for as long as they can remember. I then take them into the tent to show them the new Ndjinaa. The woman among them (called Hello) cannot help but smile.
I hope the sun will set quickly now. That, with the sun, the flies and the heat will disappear. But then the mosquitoes come. OK, as long as the sun just sets. Then I still need to go sort out this “strong-man”. I will sleep under my truck tonight to see how the situation with aunt Ndjinaa develops. She will sleep with the care workers in the tent. Here, where I sit, I can hear them talk. Every now and again she also comments on something.
12-12-12 has been one of the most beautiful days in my life even when I consider that I had a spade instead of a toilet, that I had to sleep on the backseat of my double cab truck, have to sit under a Mopani and type for dear life due to a very quick fading battery, without any possibility of cell phone reception or a fridge with cold water or beer… I had the opportunity to see a person freed from chains. And I know that 12-12-12 only comes along every 100 years. I hope that then they will also have power, running water and air conditioned houses – where our white men and women can survive for longer than a day. And still I wonder: do they want it? I do like to think so. Especially when you consider that the headman’s wife kissed my hand when I gave her 20 litres of water and his second wife asked me to charge her phone in my truck.
Ndjinaa, Clean and asleep
The night went well. I only heard her twice when she called for a care worker to take her to the bush toilet. I don’t think she’s had this much fluid in a very long time.
I conclude that all normal functioning, human beings require only the basics in life. Like the one Ovahimba said this morning, all people like Ndjinaa need, is love.