Four years ago the chains that held her captive for decades, were finally cut.
Branded as a witch and “mad woman” by her fellow-villagers, Ndjinaa spent her days in solitude. She would mutter words in context that had no meaning. Once she was taken to hospital, but there was no cure for what Ndjinaa had. There were whisperings of her wandering off, once found close to death in the veld; talk of how she had hit her brother, Chief Kapika; gossip of her trying to suffocate the kraal goats and setting the wooden fence around the village alight.
Ndjinaa’s plight came to the attention of a man who tirelessly works towards making the voices heard of those suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia in Namibia, Berrie Holtzhausen.
In Ndjinaa’s case, it is the story of a mother, her daughter and her grandson, their lives irrevocably changed by a disease that brought fear and mistrust for those involved, as well as humiliation and isolation over something they had no control of.
This is the story of a family at Mbakutuka Komopando, Alzheimer Dementia Namibia''s (ADN) Himba village in the north of Namibia, where those who have been branded as evil and filled with witchcraft, have found dignity and compassion.
For the founder of ADN, Berrie Holzhausen, Ndjinaa, her daughter Vehatehako and Ndjinaa’s grandson Tjihenguva, all lie very close to his heart.
In July this year, exactly 3 years and 7 months after he unchained Ndjinaa, Berrie interviewed ADN’s care workers while Ndjinaa was sitting close by. Since then Ndjinaa has developed a lot in some areas of her daily life, Berrie says, especially her “expressive” communication.
“When I met her in 2012, she could only say one full sentence which made sense: ‘I need tobacco from Sesfontein’.”
They however quickly discovered that this sentence or single words, like ‘katuzondjombo!’ (a combination of two words ‘katuz’ - I don’t want to speak, ‘ondjombo’ - spring) and ‘okanaha’ – tobacco - all meant a certain need, namely that she was thirsty or hungry.
“If she uses a word regularly, she is trying to say something. I taught the caregivers to give her water if in her ramblings they hear any word than can be connected to it. If she uses the word ‘tobacco’, she is either thirsty or hungry.”
Now, when Ndjinaa is thirsty, she will ask for water. If she doesn’t want to wash her face and hands, she will wait till the caregivers turn their back on her, and quickly throw out the water and pretend she really did wash her face.
In the past, she would have started crying while singing traditional songs. Berrie had to explain to her caregivers that Ndjinaa was crying and hallucinating about loved ones who have passed on. “It was worst at night when she called the names of her father and mother and everyone who had passed away or she hasn’t seen for a long time,” he says.
Now Ndjinaa hardly cries or speaks to “dead people” any more, although she still can’t do the things she used to do as mother and woman.
Ndjinaa’s daughter Vehatehako, is her last born and was taken away from her as a baby when she began getting confused and was regarded as being bewitched.
Vehatehako means “they’re making a joke out of me”.
As an African growing up in Christianity, superstition is well-known to Berrie, but it was Ndjinaa’s family who shed the most light of the impact this and witchcraft had on a family, Berrie says.
“During our visit to Ndjinaa and her village, Vehatehako told us that Chief Kapika has been collecting Ndjinaa’s old-age pension – this from the sister he chained up for 20 years, solely for his own advantage. Apparently a witchdoctor warned Chief Kapika 25 years ago that if Ndjinaa dies he will follow her three days later.”
Berrie recalls a visit to Ndjinaa nearly a month after unchaining her where he found her living outside Kapika’s village in a tent.
“I noticed small kids staying a safe distance from her. As soon as Ndjinaa appeared, they scattered like rabbits and would hide away. I explained to them they don’t need to be afraid of her, that she is not a witch or dangerous,but their grandmother who missed and loved them.
“For 20 years, no one shared or was taught to share anything with her, with the exception of Vehatehako.”
In the years that followed this visit, Ndjinaa began sharing her food only with a boy called Tjihenguva, who is Vehatehako’s son and Ndjinaa’s grandson.
“During one of my visits to the village, Tjihenguva was sitting on Ndjinaa’s lap. I remember her beaming with happiness, while Vehatehako stood next to her mother with tears streaming down her face.”
Berrie met Vehatehako three months after Ndjinaa was unchained. He was told that Ndjinaa''s mother started bleeding while she was expecting her. According to the Himba culture, when something like this happens, one needs to kill the unborn child before he or she is born.
“While the leaders were discussing and preparing the traditional medication to kill her, Ndjinaa was born. Her name means ‘we know your mother, but who are you?’”
Vehatehako grew up in her uncle Chief Kapika’s village. He took her away from Ndjinaa the day she was born. However, she always knew the “witch” in the chains was her mother. She was never afraid of Ndjinaa.
It made Vehatehako sad to see her mother in chains, she told Berrie. She would often share her water and food with her mother, and in rainy seasons make a plaster of cow dung and mud to seal her mother’s hut.
One of the symptoms of dementia is that sufferers don’t recognize their own family and loved ones, but that their long-term memory remains with certain things like a photo triggering these memories. This means they may not remember their own daughters or sons, but can confuse a grandchild with a son or a daughter, especially if they look alike.
“In Ndjinaa’s case, Vehatehako and Tjihenguva look alike. As a child Vehatehako was the one caring for Ndjinaa. In turn she will never forget the positive feelings which were created when Vehatehako visited her, sharing her food and water with her. For Ndjinaa, Tjihenguva is Vehatehako to her.”
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