Witchcraft and Dementia in Namibia
Summary of Witchcraft and its Implications for the Elderly and People With Dementia
The truth is, I don’t even know where to start! I learned so much on this trip, saw some beautiful land and met some beautiful people as well as some dubious people. I don’t want to write an entire dissertation here, so there will be some holes, but I’ll try to cover the basics to give you an idea of the world I discovered.
I didn’t have a specific agenda in my mind when I asked Berrie Holtzhausen, the founder and CEO of Alzheimer’s Dementia Namibia (ADN), if I could travel with him to northern Namibia to learn more about the connection of tribal witchcraft to sufferers of dementia (as explained in my last lengthy newsletter). In the end, I guess my only agenda was to facilitate the making of a documentary film by the Scottish company, Heehaw Films (my relationship to them also explained in the last newsletter).
The structure of this trip was to compile footage for the documentary by interviewing people in the region who had experience with witchcraft, with knowing people who were either witches or bewitched, and equally to portray Berrie’s personal story and mission in locating people suffering from dementia who have been “diagnosed” by witch doctors or presumed by their community to be bewitched.
I immediately liked Berrie from our first correspondence, but after traveling with him for 16 days and nights, I can firmly say that he is the coolest, most amazing, compassionate and inspiring person I have ever known. I feel so happy that this film is being made and so hopeful that it will get attention and somehow raise funds for his lonely and noble mission.
In a nutshell, what we discovered through the interviews is a culture held wholly prisoner to a deeply ingrained belief in witchcraft. Upon arrival, I had no idea if it would be difficult to find information about witchcraft and to penetrate this culture as white people, or how we would be regarded for probing – if people would be unhappy or trying to keep it secret; just how forthcoming would the locals be?
Well, here is the basic modus operandi: Berrie in his gregarious and straight-forward way asks a random person, say a gas station attendant, a security guard standing outside a grocery store, a proprietor of a bar or store, if they have any witches in their family or community, or if they know of any people in their community who exhibit the signs of dementia. (They do not know the word or concept “dementia,” so he simply lists some of these symptomatic behaviors.) The random person says “yes,” invariably. Then Berrie asks questions about them … are they bewitched by someone else or are they witching others? (it can be perceived both ways when people are behaving strangely) If the “witch” sounds like a possible candidate for suffering from dementia … specifically if they are older, if their behavior is nonsensical like they can’t remember people they know, they get lost in the fields, they see things that aren’t there, etc. … then he asks if Random Person could take us to meet this witch or bewitched soul. Also he asks people if they know any witch doctors. Most people say “yes.” It’s literally as easy as that.
Now, to be sure, if I went around questioning like that, I’d be unlikely to get the people to open up to me. But Berrie is a Namibian citizen and is already somewhat known in the area, as he has been researching it for awhile; he’s already met some of the local headmen (so he can name-drop), and explains to everyone quickly what he’s doing and what he’s looking for, and even straight-up that we’re making a film about it. The people can see the film crew in the van. When we come to a police checkpoint, Berrie says we’re on our way to see Chief So-and-So. One time we even got out of a speeding ticket by using the “we’re not tourists, we’re making a film” card and the police officer kindly let us proceed without a fine.
So we had no problems whatsoever learning the basics. I’m sure there are still plenty of things about witchcraft and witchdoctors that the people are keeping secret from us, though I can’t imagine what … we already learned that the witch doctors kill people with their own hands for their own power (in order to own the life-force of another human), and that they are paid by others to kill people through witchcraft, some of it is very akin to Voodoo practices, sticking pins into images of the person they want to kill, etc., that they accuse people of being witches knowing the implication of their accusation is that the unsuspecting person may be killed by their own family members. We know about the use of body parts … This is all just to say that we have learned a lot of the gruesome details already. We also know they put protection spells on poachers who advertise their supernatural immunity so that the local police are too scared to arrest them. But I need to point out that not all witch doctors are ones who do evil deeds. Some are simply traditional healers who can remove evil spirits from bewitched people or can (for a nice fee, of course) provide a shield against being bewitched.
I don’t think we met anyone who did not say there is either a witch in their family (responsible for killing other members of the family) or someone who has been bewitched (died or had injury or illness). Most people told us that is just a fact of life – every family has a witch. There is no such thing as a natural death in this culture. Every death is the result of someone in the deceased’s family bewitching them. Even if you’re 105 years old and you finally die, it’s because someone has bewitched you. Though you’d be unlikely to reach that age because everyone will wonder why you’re still alive while everyone else your age around you dies, and you will undoubtedly be suspected as a witch yourself and will then be killed rather more violently for it. Kind of like vampires can only be killed a certain way, witches can only be killed with a certain type of axe or a blunt tool they use to pound maize into flour … not particularly merciful ways to meet an end.
Everyone admits that older people are the most likely to be accused of being a witch. If you start growing white hair you are in more danger. And as is natural, your memory begins to weaken a bit with age, or weakens even worse with dementia. With a weakened memory or confusion in your daily life, when someone gets eaten by a crocodile and dies, or has a heart attack, people eye you suspiciously and now you might think to yourself, “Well I can’t really remember where I was last night or what I was doing. What if I AM the witch? What if I went out and killed that person?” Now you are worried and frightened and anxious, which adversely affects your mental state and behavior even more, making you an ever greater target to be accused of being a witch.
Dementia, however, is not only an old-person’s affliction, it can often be induced by HIV Aids and various mental illnesses. Younger people with dementia may be more likely to be perceived on the opposite side … to have been bewitched. People consistently told us that if a witch doctor has tried to voodoo-kill a person (because he was paid to) but it is not yet that person’s time to die, as deemed by the universe or God, then the witching spell will just take their mind away, it will take away the person on the inside leaving only the body to die in its time. I personally suspect that this somewhat incongruous thought is a relatively recently-evolved idea to explain the increased occurrences of dementia, which increasing life expectancy and especially HIV, mental illness and alcoholism have contributed to. Previously the cases of dementia may have been few enough to be explained on a case-by-case basis, but now it’s so prevalent that a formalized consistent explanation has evolved. Everyone we met provided it.
In either case, witch or bewitched, your family and community fears you. And you therefore fear for your own life. Fear is the energy of witchcraft. The second dimension to the bewitching culture has to do with jealousy … this is the other energy driving the malicious practices of witchcraft. But I’ll talk more about that another time.
The first people we interviewed who told about the methods that a witch doctor uses to divine who is a witch and to put a curse on them or voodoo kill them, I thought they were just pulling random stuff out of their head. But these methods were repeated over and over by other people, so clearly these are the truly established practices. They differed between Kaokoland and the Kavango, but were consistent within their own region. Yet, pretty much everyone says the most powerful witch doctors are in Angola, and many people travel there to consult them. They can charge up to 4,000 Namibian dollars for their dark services … for some perspective, the maximum amount of money you can withdraw from an ATM in a single transaction is 2,000 dollars (current exchange rate roughly 15 Namibian to 1 USD). And most of the people consulting witch doctors are very poor and scraping up pennies from who-knows-where to pay the fee in their desperation to dispose of their family members … because believe it or not, typically people can only use witchcraft on members of their own family – your own family are the greatest danger to you.
What has become crystal clear is that there is no way to combat this witchcraft culture, no way to convince people it isn’t true, and so in order to help and protect people with dementia and mental illness, we have to work with the locals within the terminology and culture of witchcraft. To do otherwise would be utterly fruitless. Witchcraft beliefs coexist with Christian beliefs just fine, so missionaries are wasting their time and fooling themselves if they think they are converting people away from this ancient culture. Further, some are taking advantage of this type of belief and promising their own miracles for a handsome price. This has become so prevalent, and the people seldom receive the miracle they paid for, that people are lodging official complaints with the government. Not that they are being duped, but that these “prophets” are of shoddy quality and not delivering the goods. So basically they want a quality control system, ridiculous as that seems.
By the end of the trip, it seemed pretty clear what the best strategies are for starting to address this issue:
(1) Build dementia care villages — a place where people with dementia and mental illnesses can receive skilled care within their own community instead of being removed to some cement-walled cell in a psychiatric ward in Windhoek, but rather live in the type of huts they are used to in their familiar landscape. This way the community takes responsibility for them and might learn to accept them rather than ostracize them or murder them, but the patients will be cared for in the special way that patients with dementia must be, and will be physically protected from being killed by those who think they are witches. Hand-in-hand with this is the need to train caretakers with formal health care courses tailored to address the needs of dementia patients.
(2) Educate the people through the locals … villagers are not going to believe some white people coming in and telling them these symptoms of dementia are a biological illness. However, they are far more likely to believe someone from their own community who can testify to this being the case. For that, we need to recruit “champions” who have seen for themselves the truth of this, people who know some of the success stories of freeing people from the stigma of being labeled “bewitched.” Another time I can relay to you some of those success stories which have already started to cultivate an atmosphere of enlightenment and some people have even expressed to Berrie an interest in being one of these spokespeople, or “champions.”
It’s a long-term vision; there’s no way this culture can be changed even within my own lifetime – it will take generations, but we need to start sometime somewhere. As Berrie says, “A journey of a thousands miles begins with one step.” Berrie is determined to be the man to take that first step. To be clear, neither he nor I want to change and homogenize or Westernize the culture in general, only to rid it of these particular practices which harm innocent people.
For those who made a financial contribution to the ADN “mission” before I left, I used a small portion of those funds to pay for gifts of food to give to families who allowed us to interview them (as they are invariably very poor). The rest I gave to ADN specified to be used to begin a new dementia-friendly village (as outlined above in #1) near Rundu. Another time I will tell you about the village headman we met there who said he would designate some village lands to such a project … If you’d like to contribute to this cause as well, you can contact me via the blue contact button at the top of the page.
Another brief note … if you think this witchcraft belief is relegated to rural people, while I was there, I picked up a national newspaper in a gas station with the front page headline, “Superstitions Cause Panic in Taxis.” The article begins, “At least two Windhoek women have jumped out of moving taxis because of rumours about witchcraft involving snakes. The police have urged people to remain calm.” Windhoek is the capital city of Namibia.
OK … this turned out really long anyway! If you’ve made it all the way down here, thanks for your interest. I intend to write some more in the future and to portray some of the people we interviewed. Lastly, this was our crew traveling through Namibia in a rented van we dubbed the “Berrie Bus.” Which suffered a few unfortunate incidents in our hands …..