“Do you know any witches?” This is a question that retired pastor Berrie Holtzhausen asks when out searching in Namibia for people with dementia. After once caring for a man with advanced Alzheimer’s, Holtzhausen researched all he could about the disease, and then turned to a life of advocating for those with dementia, who are often accused as witches in Namibia’s tribal populations. “Most Black Namibians,” writes Shara Johnson, “have been raised in communities where witchcraft is as real and relevant to their world as Jesus is to Christians.” Ndjinaa Ngombe, a Black Namibian of the Himba tribe, is but one example: Her family had her locked in chains for 20 years — until Holtzhausen arrived at her village and removed the shackles. Johnson writes a compelling narrative of an extraordinary man who seeks justice for a “misunderstood demographic.”
Sadly, toward the end of the piece, Johnson reports that Holtzhausen himself has been diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer’s, but ends on a somewhat hopeful note that others will follow in his footsteps — including Andrias Mangundu, the son of another accused witch, Frankilde Haingura — to continue educating Namibia’s communities about dementia, and the destructive role that witchdoctors have played in the region.
Ngombe wasn’t bewitched: Her behavior was changing in ways that match typical symptoms of early onset dementia. But she lived in a cultural landscape shaped by a deeply ingrained belief system that blames everything from heart attacks to poor harvests on the supernatural evildoings of witches and wizards. A witchdoctor had told Ngombe’s brother that his life was tethered to hers — if she died, he would die three days later. Therefore, he didn’t want to let her out of his sight. And so time passed — five years, 10 years, 20 years, and she remained alone in the hut.