Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Witch One?

My friend was recently involved in a witching. As the story was first explained to me in a mixture of Afrikaans and English, it seemed that he was the one who was witched. However, upon further discussion, I discovered that he merely took part in a witching, but was not witched himself. No need to worry :)

Witchcraft is no joke here. It’s a traditional belief, assumed by most everyone to be true, that has been around forever it seems. Whether I’ve heard stories or witnessed it myself, strange and unexplainable things do occur here and often times, the only answer people can give you is “witching.” Even people who say they don’t believe in witchcraft use it to fall back on or as a last resort. To be perfectly honest, I don’t believe in it myself but I don’t mess around with it either.

A traditional healer, or witchdoctor, is an actual profession here. People make a living listening to other people’s problems, and doing what they can to solve them. It’s African therapy. In the classified section of the country-wide newspaper, The Namibian, there are countless listings for witchdoctors seeking to heal this or that problem. In most towns and villages, you can easily locate a witchdoctor or two. Some healers have other jobs and practice their witchcraft secretly, but many are totally open about their work; if you take a walk through the location, you can easily find yourself a healer, as many of them post signs in their yard advertising their services. Some witchdoctors specialize in certain areas (health, money, etc.) but most you can consult regarding anything that is troubling you. If someone experiences a period of bad luck, they will visit a witchdoctor to counteract what they assume is a bad spell that has been put upon them. People also visit witchdoctors to “witch” someone else who they dislike for one reason or another, which seems to me to be when things can get dangerous. No one can prove how witchdoctors go about fulfilling their requests, but, as I said, strange things do happen here; people are involved in accidents or go missing, and it simply becomes common belief that they were witched. We even hear about witching at my school. After a stream of thefts from my house, my learners as well as some colleagues agreed that my house must be witched and I should visit a witchdoctor for advice. I am much quicker to blame the sticky hands of my small learners than a bad spell being cast upon me, but it was hard to ignore these claims. These are educated individuals, many of whom do not live traditional lives anymore, but after all other options were explored, witchcraft, they told me, was the only alternative explanation.

During training, 3 friends and I visited a traditional healer in the location just to learn more about this element of Namibian culture. We had to communicate using Afrikaans and English through an interpreter who then translated it to Khoe Khoe for him. Because the translating took a bit of time, the doctor didn’t realize until some time had passed that we were just there to ask questions and that we had no money and no interest in witching anyone. Once he did realize this, however, he became quite angry with us. He started screaming things at us in KKG and flailing his hands about. The shack that he lived in was made of tin. In the summer time, with the hot Omaruru sun heating the tin throughout the day, the insides of these shacks get unbelievably hot. As our visit with this man wore on and he got more and more upset, that heat seemed to skyrocket. All of us began to sweat profusely and continually reach for our Nalgene bottles, the liquid contents of which were near boiling at this point. The atmosphere finally got so unbearable that one of my colleagues had to get up and leave because she couldn’t breathe. The rest of us tried our best to apologize to the angry man as we followed her out. I’m not sure what happened in that shack that day. It may have just been the African heat and our imaginations running wild with dehydration, or it may have been something a bit less explicable… whatever happened, it was definitely strange. Whether witchcraft is real or not I’m not sure, but I don’t care to explore it any further than I already have.

Witchdoctors are responsible for many traditional beliefs in Namibia and around Africa. We’ve all heard the belief that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS, but there are many more beliefs just as strange and just as dangerous but that are being perpetuated by traditional healers. People just want answers to their problems; answers to why something is happening to them or to someone they care about. I’m not positive, but I don’t think witchdoctors ever say, “Sorry, I can’t help you with that.” They seem to have solutions for everything, even things we outside the witching world would consider unsolvable or incurable.

Last week my friend (and Himba wrestler) *Johannes came into my office to visit with me and we started talking about witchcraft. Apparently a few days earlier, his youngest brother (also the reigning champion of Himba wrestling) fell victim to witching. As the story goes, that Friday late at night, their oldest brother had been woken by dogs barking outside his house. When he got out of bed, he saw two naked ladies running away from his house. Strange, he thought, but coma not strange enough to lose any more sleep over it. He went back to bed and the next morning, he and Johannes left to do business in a neighboring town, leaving their youngest brother home alone (don’t be too concerned; he’s a 21-year old Himba man who’s built like a house). That night, as the youngest brother slept, the two witches appeared again. Casting some sort of spell over him to keep him asleep, they made two small incisions on his chest and stole some of his blood. Because things like human blood are used in different spells, witches have to attain many of their necessary resources by stealing. They do not intend to witch that person, just to borrow some of their bodily fluids. He awoke the next morning to find the small cuts on his chest (which I have seen… they are real), and realized what had happened. Thankful I suppose that he hadn’t been witched himself, he and his brothers said nothing to their witchy neighbor, and life has continued on normally since then.

Needless to say, I just try my best to not upset anyone, especially those people I know practice witchcraft. Johannes works to reassure me, saying that he has never known of anyone who has tried to witch a white person, but he has warned me that my long, white-person hair could be something witchdoctors may covet for their spells… I’ve been wearing more ponytails lately.

Happy Halloween! :)


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