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They Were Labeled Witches. They Just Had Dementia.

In tribal communities across Namibia, older, eccentric people are often accused of witchcraft and violently attacked. One man realized it was something else entirely.

They Were Labeled Witches. They Just Had Dementia.

The Kahenge West courtroom in northeastern Namibia was full; people spilled out into the hallway to hear the ruling. “Villagers, neighbors, policemen — everyone wants to see what will happen, but no one was allowed to make a peep inside,” says Berrie Holtzhausen, whose body was taut with tension that day. When he heard the verdict, he clenched his fists, straining to keep his emotions in check. As soon as the judge ended the session, Holtzhausen immediately stood up, walked backward and bowed before exiting the courtroom, as is the custom here. Then he dashed down the hallway raising his arms in a victory “V” and shaking them, miming a shout without sound. In the parking lot, he beelined to his vehicle and drove just a short distance before stopping the car, getting out on the side of the road and jumping for joy. “I shouted my lungs empty,” he recalls. “I was so joyful!”

The judge had sentenced two women from Siya village for the crime of accusing a neighbor, Frankilde Haingura, of being a witch, and for mashing her head in with a stone, leaving her for dead. Incensed at being punished for trying to rid their village of a witch, one of the attackers protested to the judge: “But she killed my son!”

“I don’t want to hear anything more about witchcraft in my courtroom!” the judge barked. Holtzhausen blinked with euphoric surprise. He had worked tirelessly to inform the courts and communities about a long-forgotten law that criminalizes naming another person as a witch. Written into Namibia’s constitution in 1933, it had lain unused, indeed unrecognized, for decades. Now Haingura was the first beneficiary of Holtzhausen’s efforts to revitalize the enforcement of this law.

“Everyone told me, ‘You will not succeed in court. You’re not even a lawyer; how do you think you’ll succeed?’ I said, ‘Well, I must — it’s very important for Frankilde but also for the future of this country.’”

Previously known as South West Africa, Namibia gained independence from South Africa and its oppressive apartheid policy in 1990 after many years of guerilla warfare in the Border War. About the time Namibia was founded, Holtzhausen began a remarkable journey from irreverent preacher to caregiver for people with dementia and finally to his latest role: locating people who have been accused of witchcraft in Namibia’s tribal populations. His pioneering discovery of a connection between persons with dementia and an elevated risk of being named a witch spurred a personal mission to seek justice for this misunderstood demographic.

“Witches need us to understand them,” he says. “My objective is to open the eyes and minds of communities — the police, the courts, everyone — that this is serious.”

A white Afrikaner, Holtzhausen, now 65 years old, spent his youth living in small towns in what would become Namibia, frolicking in perpetual mischief — playing pranks on his neighbors, skipping school and exploring nature instead. “We had so much freedom then, running up and down the street,” he says, reminiscing about how he and his friends would help girls climb through the windows of their boarding dormitories at night to join house parties.

Berrie Holtzhausen, 2017.

“It was a great life,” he says, his words coated with nostalgia. “But it wasn’t the same for Black Africans. They had a 9 p.m. curfew, they couldn’t be out at night.” White children like Holtzhausen were taught that the system of apartheid was the way it should be. “As white Africans, we were all brainwashed, even me. We hate the Blacks; the Blacks are our enemies.” Holtzhausen says that his own father was a rare outlier. “He didn’t believe in apartheid. He was never judgmental — there was no such thing for him that ‘you’re of a lower class and I’m of a higher class.’” Still, Holtzhausen says, “Apartheid infiltrated every single thing that you were.”

During the Border War, whites like Holtzhausen were mandated to serve in the army, fighting against the Indigenous South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO). After his time in the army, Holtzhausen attended university, then staked out a family life with two daughters and a job at a chemical plant. He wasn’t exactly a rule-follower, but his life was fairly steady. Then one day while driving to the hospital to visit his dad, whose body was failing after decades of alcoholism, Holtzhausen was in a car accident; a Black man ran him off the road. “I hated Blacks,” he recalls. “I was so angry, I wanted to kill that guy.” He stormed to his parents’ house to get his father’s gun, but he wasn’t able to find it.

Holtzhausen later shared the events of that night with his dad. As he stood at the hospital bedside, his golden hair running like a river down his back, his dad called him Absalom, a biblical reference to a man with long hair. “Absalom, son, you must make peace with yourself. You need to make peace with God, and you need to make peace with your neighbor. You can’t live like this, you’ll kill yourself.”

His father died shortly afterward, but his words continued echoing through Holtzhausen’s head.

“I was thinking after this, ‘I wonder if God really exists, if there’s really life after death, does this mean I’ll meet up with my father again one day?’” He bought himself a Bible and read it during his work breaks, even when he went to the bathroom.

For several years after university, he was required to report for biannual three-month stints with the army in the Border War. Once, he was stationed at a POW camp, watching over a severely injured SWAPO captive. The wounded soldier, a Black African, hesitantly mentioned he was gravely thirsty. Holtzhausen fetched him some water, and they started a conversation that revealed that neither of them truly wanted to be fighting. When Holtzhausen left the prisoner’s bedside, the man thanked him for the water and told him that the previous soldier he had asked for water didn’t bring it but instead put his fingers inside the POW’s wound and twisted them until he was screaming from the pain. “That’s why he was afraid to ask me for water,” Holtzhausen says, shaking his head, still horrified when he thinks about it. “I never forget that.”

His interactions with the SWAPO soldiers, his focus on the Bible, and his father’s dying directive all convinced Holtzhausen to make peace with the neighbors apartheid had tried to separate him from.

He started going to church, trying to learn more about God. Eventually, he was spied reading the Bible on his breaks at work. Although it was his own time, the company pointed out that he wasn’t supposed to be engaging in politics or religion at work. He came home that night and told his wife, “I think I’d rather go and study to be a pastor. I think I’ve got a message to lead people.”

In 1992, two years after SWAPO won the Border War and the Republic of Namibia was founded — and as the apartheid system in South Africa neared its end — Holtzhausen was ordained as a pastor of the Dutch Reform Church in the South African city of Pietermaritzburg.

That same year, 2,000 miles away at the western edge of the border between Namibia and Angola, 55-year-old Ndjinaa Ngombe, a Black Namibian of the Himba tribe, was shunned by her family. People say that her brother — then the local chief and now the chief of all the Himba — had supernaturally gathered the spirits of the people he had killed and imprisoned them inside his sister so that they wouldn’t haunt him. Her family bound her ankles with a pair of leather cuffs and a chain. Then her brother tied one end of a separate chain to her shackles and the other to a pole dug into the ground near her hut.

Ndjinaa Ngombe outside her hut, March 2016.

Abandoned to live alone in her mud hut, her behavior grew increasingly erratic and inexplicable. She no longer spoke sense. She hardly spoke at all. And no one spoke to her. “She’s bewitched!” her family and community said. No one would touch her. No one helped her maintain her hair, which grew into a tangled mess. No one softened her skin with traditional red ochre and emollient. She had nothing to sleep on but the dirt floor. Sometimes she didn’t even have clothes.  She was the last person in the family to be offered food, if there was any left. Naked and malnourished, her body began to collapse, bending at the waist, as if a reflection of her broken spirit.

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.

Holtzhausen moved back to Namibia to minister in 1999. From the beginning, he was not your typical preacher. Upon discovering religion late in life, he had formed his own ideas, and he was not hesitant to share them in his sermons. “I was called a false prophet, the nephew of the Devil, the Antichrist, all kind of nasty things,” Holtzhausen says.

Holtzhausen doesn’t believe in hell, and he thinks that the church itself is not essential to an individual’s relationship with God. “I said that God is not in a church,” he explains. “I had a lot of sermons about this nonsense — the church is like a little idol.”

He was twice placed under investigation by the Dutch Reform Church for his rather radical and progressive sermons, scrutinized for 18 months each time before being cleared. These theological investigations didn’t even include his more flamboyant actions, such as the time he stood up and declared himself to be a homosexual (even though he’s not) at a meeting in which pastors were discussing whether to allow gay people to be ordained.

“I just got fed up with this,” he huffs. “There was no one there to represent gay people.” After that, wherever he went during the conference, people avoided him. “No one wants to touch me or have me touch them!”

He laughs over how many congregants he lost over the years due to his atypical sermons. “Religion is rules you need to obey. It’s just like being in the army — any religion — you’re told what to think and do, who are your enemies, you’re good or you’re bad and you’ll go to heaven or hell, or whatever,” he flicks his hand in annoyance. “The Bible is the words of men trying to define God in their own culture in their own time,” he says, his frustration building. “God is not religion! I became a pastor to save people from religion.”

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He took the mantra that the church is not essential quite literally. After he inherited a congregation that was deeply in debt, he decided that the solution to their money woes was simple: Sell the church itself. His congregation agreed to the unconventional solution, though many residents in town were aghast and considered the sale offensive. The new owners — an atheist and a Jew — rented the church building back to them for two hours each Sunday.

Two members of Holtzhausen’s congregation turned to him for spiritual guidance after their granddaughter, Michelle Simon, was killed in a car accident at age 16. The family told him how Michelle had given her heart to the elderly and to other people struggling in life. Holtzhausen, sensing that something good could come of this tragedy, suggested that the family ask people to bring money rather than flowers to the funeral, in order to start a fund in Michelle’s name. Her grandfather donated 10,000 Namibian dollars (about $700 in U.S. currency) to seed a trust, and they waited for inspiration about how to use it.

When a congregant brought to Holtzhausen’s attention that an elderly couple in his area was homebound and that their own family wasn’t helping them, they decided to use trust funds to employ two women as in-home helpers. After the wife passed away, the widower requested that Holtzhausen use his house to care for other elderly people. But zoning regulations didn’t allow this kind of activity, so Holtzhausen instead looked for a property elsewhere to fulfill the widower’s wishes. He found the right place in the seaside town of Swakopmund, where he was living at the time, and “Michelle House” was opened as a care home for the elderly.

The road where Holtzhausen made his 500-mile drives from his home in Swakopmund to Kavango in the northeast of Namibia.

A few months later, they accepted a man who was living with advanced Alzheimer’s. He passed away after only three months, but during that time Holtzhausen took note of the man’s concerning behaviors. For instance, the man would walk up to a door that was closed and simply stand in front of it. “He wasn’t able to open it because he couldn’t understand the door handle,” Holtzhausen recalls. “This guy had been a farmer on thousands of acres his whole life.” And now he was trapped inside a house.

With this insight, Holtzhausen began looking for a farm or plot of land to house people with similar conditions. In a heaven-sent moment, a woman offered to rent her farmland, called Yakadonga, to Holtzhausen for 1 Namibian dollar per month (about 7 cents in U.S. currency). He spent months renovating it to accommodate Alzheimer’s patients — a care farm, he called it. Yet he didn’t know anything about dementia. “I didn’t even know the word. I was very stupid!” He was operating purely on intuition that told him that open spaces and proximity to nature would benefit the well-being of those who couldn’t articulate their needs.

While visiting his daughter in England shortly after opening Yakadonga, he began researching Alzheimer’s disease. He learned that dementia was not synonymous with Alzheimer’s, but that dementia “is the condition of the brain, the umbrella term for the symptoms and signs of a brain that’s been degenerated by a disease, often Alzheimer’s.” He took an online course on understanding and caring for persons with dementia; then in 2012 he began training staff. He founded Alzheimer’s Dementia Namibia (ADN), a nonprofit dedicated to running the farm and advocating for dementia patients’ rights.

View from the back porch of the Alzheimer’s Dementia Namibia (ADN) care farm.

At the time, there were no facilities in Namibia dedicated to caring for people with dementia — he had nothing to model his farm after, and no one to consult about how to run such a specialized home. “It was trial and error,” Holtzhausen says of the first years at Yakadonga.

He had also yet to discover just how widespread the scope of maltreatment was regarding people with dementia, particularly in Namibian communities where witchcraft culture thrives.

Holtzhausen reconnected with a high school friend, Koos Verwey, who was leasing land from Ngombe’s brother, the Himba chief, to run a tourist lodge. Verwey invited Holtzhausen to visit and meet the Himba family. On October 7, 2012, Holtzhausen arrived at the village where Ngombe had been shackled for the past 20 years.

As they entered the family settlement, he could hear a woman talking and shouting from one of the mud huts. Holtzhausen asked Verwey why she wasn’t coming out to greet them like the rest of the family members were. “She can’t,” Verwey said. “She’s chained inside.”

When Holtzhausen asked who she was, Verwey said he simply knew her as “the mad woman, the witch.” No one had ever told him her name.

Holtzhausen couldn’t stop thinking about her. He decided to go back to the settlement with another man who spoke the Himba language. As they approached Ngombe’s hut, the man warned Holtzhausen, “She’s bewitched. She’s dangerous.” But when they reached the hut, she poked her head out and looked straight at Holtzhausen, smiling as she talked on and on.

Ngombe family’s hut, near Epupa Falls, Namibia.

“What’s she saying?” he asked.

“I can’t translate this,” his companion said. “She’s speaking nonsense.” A campfire flickered directly in front of the hut’s open doorway; she couldn’t step over the fire with her chained feet, though Holtzhausen could see from her blackened soles that she had tried.

Holtzhausen leaned over the low flame to peer inside. There was nothing, not even a bedroll. “I couldn’t believe what I see. She was filthy dirty, a container hanging from her neck she spit into all the time. There was a piece of cloth over her head, and she smelled of dirt and dung. I knew she must be hungry, I could see her collar bone sticking out.”

Although he was horrified at her living conditions, what kept nagging him was how everyone called her mad. “That’s exactly what people say about persons with dementia — ‘they speak nonsense, they’re mad.’”

He voiced his feelings to his friend Verwey that night. “I was very distressed. I was sad and angry.” Verwey, unfazed, told him, “I learned from the beginning you don’t interfere with culture.” But Holtzhausen knew he couldn’t leave Ngombe where no one cared about her, no one touched her, and with chains around her legs. “I can’t even say like an animal, because you don’t chain an animal either. I don’t know what to do, all that I know is that we need to unchain her.”

Holtzhausen encouraging Ngombe’s grandson and caretaker to interact with her. No one had touched her for twenty years while she was in chains.

Holtzhausen convinced Verwey to negotiate for a piece of land outside the family’s village on which to build a hut for Ngombe and to train caretakers to live with her there.

On December 12, 2012, Holtzhausen himself removed the chains from Ndjinaa Ngombe. And every six or seven weeks after that, he drove more than 500 miles north from his home in Swakopmund to check on Ngombe and her caregivers. He spent hours sitting under the trees, asking the family and the community about their culture and their beliefs. The more he learned about witchcraft, the harder his jaw set.

Holtzhausen removing the chains from Ngombe’s ankles, December 12, 2012. (Photo courtesy of Alzheimer’s Dementia Namibia ADN)

Holtzhausen saw parallels between the destructive role that witchdoctors played in these communities and the rigid Christian dogma he’d rebelled against — including the way some preachers swindled followers out of money with false promises of miracles and healing.

Witchdoctors who offer clients supernatural services are little more than con men who regularly squeeze the life savings out of their clients with promises of divining who bewitched them, providing supernatural protection, and exacting supernatural revenge.

“Superstition is making me angry; religion is making me angry,” Holtzhausen says. “It’s because of the fear witchdoctors are using to control people that the dark side of witchcraft exists.”

In 2013 Holtzhausen took another course on understanding dementia. Out of several thousand students from all over the world, Holtzhausen was surprised to find himself one of only two participants from the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. Shortly thereafter, he met a specialist from one of the largest towns in north-central Namibia who said he’d been working with dementia patients for 20 years — but claimed he had never met a Black person with dementia.

“What?” Holtzhausen said to himself. “How is this possible? I’ve just freed Ndjinaa with my own hands, but according to him there’s no one in Black Africa living with dementia.” Holtzhausen understood then the extent to which dementia was perceived as a white person’s condition — one that was also completely overlooked in the Black community.

In truth, dementia is one of the fastest growing health issues on the planet. The World Health Organization estimates that 50 million people are currently living with dementia globally, with the number projected to triple by 2050. An estimated 63 percent of cases are in lower-income countries, although the real percentage is quite likely higher, because extremely little data has been collected on the prevalence of dementia in the Black population of Sub-Saharan Africa. Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI), a global federation of Alzheimer’s and dementia associations that works in collaboration with the World Health Organization, found in a study of five Sub-Saharan countries that, “No equivalent term for dementia was identified in any local languages.”

Accordingly, there are no medical facilities in rural areas of Namibia (which cover most of the country) that have staff trained in diagnosing dementia, or even in the recognition of it. There are no MRIs or other machines to conduct brain scans anywhere except in the capital city, Windhoek, hundreds of miles away from the northern rural areas. The vast majority of rural Namibians can’t afford private practitioners, and there are no wards for dementia patients in public hospitals.

Many underlying diseases can cause dementia, including HIV-AIDS. Namibia has one of the highest rates of HIV in the world, although the government has worked hard to increase access to medications and reduce viral loads in patients, so that they can no longer transmit the virus. Still, approximately 10 percent of the population, more than 200,000 people, are living with the disease, mostly in rural communities.

One of them is Frankilde Haingura, who had just left her hut in the village of Siya one day in 2013 to fetch water when her neighbors ambushed her and gashed her head open with a stone. This was the fourth time she had been attacked, and it was the most serious injury yet — and this time she was seven months pregnant. For the fourth time, her two sons went to the police station, and for the fourth time, no one would listen to them.

The previous year, a boy in the village had taken his family’s cattle to graze on Haingura’s bountiful crops because his mother had told him that Haingura had bewitched their own crops to make them have a poorer harvest. (Jealousy lies at the bottom of many, perhaps even the majority, of witchcraft allegations.) The neighbors quarreled for several weeks, and then the boy died suddenly on the village soccer field while running after a ball.

Immediately Haingura was accused of killing the boy by supernatural means. “The whole community hated us,” her son Andrias Mangundu says. According to tribal law, such an accused person must go to three or more witchdoctors and at least two must report in a letter to their tribe’s hompa — the chief — that the accused is innocent in order for them to be cleared.

Haingura forfeited all of her savings trying to get the required letters; she sold all her cattle to hire a car to drive to a witchdoctor. The hompa never received the required letters declaring her innocence, and the neighbors kept attacking her. After Haingura was assaulted with the stone, a doctor at the hospital helped her file another complaint in the district’s common court. The accused attackers were taken to jail, but a few months later they were released on bail. Unbeknownst to Haingura, the court then quietly removed the case from the docket, noting simply, “The accused were not able to find legal aid.”

Haingura’s two sons, distressed at the persistent attacks, decided that they should drop out of school in order to look after their mom. The elder one, Hamutenya, did so. But Mangundu, 16 at the time, liked school so much he couldn’t bring himself to actually quit. The rest of his family fled the village to escape the unending persecution, leaving him behind. He came home from school one day to find an empty hut, save for one bag of maize flour and a couple of dishes.

Mangundu lived alone as a teenager, went to school in the day, prepared his dinner in the evening, studied by candlelight at night, and worked in a stone quarry on the weekends to afford his food and school books. He moved into a hostel to finish grades 11 and 12. “Every weekend I must dig more stone to be able to pay to live there,” Mangundu recalls, showing me photos of his hands from that period, the finger pads sliced open from handling the sharp edges of cut rock.

He learned that his parents were working in his father’s family’s fields, for nothing but a few cups of maize flour each day. Once one of the most prosperous villagers in her community, Haingura, an accused witch, was now destitute.

Holtzhausen, meanwhile, in 2014 met Susanne Spittel, who had been studying the connection between witchcraft and dementia in Ghana for a doctoral thesis at the Institute of Public Health and Nursing Research at the University of Bremen, in Germany. They decided to work together to investigate the prevalence of this connection in the Kavango region of northern Namibia. “We met a lot of people,” recalls Holtzhausen. “People who had lost their jobs and people afraid for their lives … people showing symptoms of dementia … it became clear that it wasn’t just Ndjinaa who was an isolated case.”

Farm on the side of the road in the Kavango region in the northeast of Namibia.

At the end of their trip together, Holtzhausen and Spittel went to the National Broadcast radio news channel, which agreed to air a message from Holtzhausen, translated into 11 different local languages, asking listeners to contact him if they knew someone who was acting confused, behaving strangely and losing their short-term memory. “And five minutes later my phone starts ringing,” he says.

Holtzhausen continued to drive around the Kavango meeting “witches” and “wizards” and learning ever more about the insidious practices of the witchdoctors who pitted neighbors and family members against one another, claiming they could see the faces of witches in a white sheet, among other supernatural feats, and nurturing perpetual anxiety in these communities.

Holtzhausen was now energized to locate Black Namibians living with dementia. He started asking around about persons with dementia, but nobody understood the word. Then he asked, “Do you have any witches in your family?” And when people answered yes, more often than not, those “witches” presented signs of dementia.

“You’ll never find people with dementia if you ask for dementia,” Holtzhausen says, so he began looking for witches instead. If he stays in a hotel, he asks the staff if they know any witches. If he goes to a grocery store, he asks the clerks if they know witches. He put a picture of Ndjinaa Ngombe being released from her chains on his truck; when people approach him in parking lots asking about the picture, it’s the perfect time to ask them, “Do you know any witches?”

People approach Holtzhausen’s truck, intrigued by the depicting Ngombe being freed from her chains. (Photo courtesy of Alzheimer’s Dementia Namibia ADN)

In 2016 I was involved with Cloud Break Pictures in gathering footage for African Witchfinder, a documentary about Holtzhausen. After the release of the film, Holtzhausen adopted the moniker and added an “African Witchfinder” decal across the door panel of his truck. Frankilde Haingura’s son Hamutenya saw the sign and approached him at a gas station one day, asking, “Does this mean you are for witches or against them?” After Holtzhausen replied he was for them, the young man confided that his mother had been accused. He revealed that she also had memory loss; sometimes she couldn’t remember her own sons’ names, and she was often disoriented.

The following month, Holtzhausen met up with Hamutenya’s brother, Andrias Mangundu, at the same gas station, and they set out to look for Haingura where she now lived in exile.

When they were close, Mangundu directed them to turn off the highway onto a narrow sandy track leading into the bushes. Holtzhausen put his 4×4 truck into low gear, and they drove through the sand, the sticks and thorns of the bushes encroaching on the sides of the vehicle. A woman suddenly came into focus at the side of the road. She was holding a small branch covered in berries and was meticulously eating them off the branch. Holtzhausen rolled to a stop.

In silence, they watched her cross the hot, sandy track in her bare feet, a ragged short-sleeved dress hanging off her emaciated frame. She seemed to hardly notice the vehicle until she reached the other side of the track and turned back to face the truck, where she could only see a strange white man on the driver’s side.

Mangundu slapped his hands on the dashboard and drew in his breath as he saw her visage straight on. “That’s my mom!” he shouted, both shocked and excited. He sprang out of the vehicle and ran around the front, calling her name. Her eyes clouded as she searched the young man’s face. He threw his arms around her, and her expression of apprehension melted into recognition as she hugged her son.

Mangundu bid his mom to get into the back seat, saying he would explain everything when they got to her hut. She climbed in and sat placidly, calmly harvesting berries from the branch into her lap, then eating them one by one, implicitly trusting her son. “I couldn’t believe this was his mom,” Holtzhausen says. “She was so thin … she looked sick.”

They reached her home in less than a mile. As they stepped out of the truck, Mangundu had no words, but his sorrow and embarrassment were palpable. There was one hut with a thatched roof, as well as one small hut-in-progress with only walls. Haingura’s two young daughters were pounding pearl millet into flour with a standing mortar and pestle; it would not even make enough porridge to feed the whole family for one night. There was a single chair that had only three legs. No table. No shelves or storage containers; there was nothing to store.

Rain clouds were moving in. Finally Holtzhausen broke the forlorn silence: “So tell me, Frankilde, why do they call you a witch?”

Holtzhausen retired as a pastor to devote himself to advocating for accused witches and other persons with dementia full time. He began a letter-writing campaign to officials in the national government, citing Ndjinaa Ngombe’s story and asking “to be given the opportunity to meet to provide further information about our people living with dementia in Namibia.” He even wrote directly to the president.

Holtzhausen’s vehicle on the road as he drives to the area where Ngombe lives.

He eventually received an audience with the vice president, who was cordial, but when nothing further came of that meeting, Holtzhausen dug in deeper. “I decided to see everyone in this country I can put my hands on.” Holtzhausen wrote to the Office of the Ombudsman, which investigates human rights violations, declaring that he wanted to write a law to address the harmful practices of witchcraft. An official told him, “But there is a law.”

“So why doesn’t anyone know about this law?”

“Because they all believe in witchcraft, and they don’t want to use this.”

“This” is the Witchcraft Suppression Proclamation 27 of 1933, which includes a list of punishable offenses: accusing another person of using “non-natural” means to injure another person or their property, declaring or suggesting someone is a witch or wizard, and giving poison to another person as a test to determine if they are a witch. Additionally, the law declares it illegal to use “pretended means of witchcraft or supernatural powers” to cause harm to another or to divine fortunes or advise others how to bewitch someone — essentially outlawing the practices of witchdoctors. Because it was written by white people in the years leading up to apartheid, the law is viewed by some as a veiled form of suppression of the entirety of Indigenous tribal cultures.

Holtzhausen speaks with Sabina Mbangu, who has dementia and was accused of witchcraft. She was poisoned by her grandson two years later.

Holtzhausen approached the deputy prosecutor general, proposing to inform all Namibian prosecutors about the Witchcraft Suppression Proclamation, but the prosecutor told Holtzhausen, “This law has never in the history of this country been used successfully in a court case.”

Invigorated rather than deflated by these words, Holtzhausen printed more than a hundred copies of the Witchcraft Suppression Proclamation to hand out around the country. “Everywhere I go,” Holtzhausen says, “I’m trying to teach everyone — the courts, the policemen, up north, here in Swakopmund, in Windhoek — they want to chase me away. I say, ‘No, no, this is the law, you can’t chase me away! Then you’re against the constitution of our country.’”

Holtzhausen decided to test the mettle of this law on the women who had attacked Haingura and accused her of killing a boy through witchcraft. In 2018, he sought out the prosecutor of the common court in Kahenge West to determine why Haingura was still waiting, four and a half years later, for her attackers to be put on trial. The prosecutor himself expressed surprise as he pulled the file and read the explanation that the attackers had never secured a lawyer, and that further, the court had repaid their bail money.

“Basically a big fat apology to the attackers. Totally wrong!” Holtzhausen exclaims. “I was livid.”

“If there’s one thing I want people to understand,” says Holtzhausen, “it’s how prevalent the belief is in witches.” It would be a mistake to assume that witchcraft believers are simply uneducated. Most Black Namibians have been raised in communities where witchcraft is as real and relevant to their world as Jesus is to Christians. (And many people hold both beliefs simultaneously in their worldview.) Belief in witchcraft is endemic at every level and station in Namibian society.

Holtzhausen has come to understand that the only way to step through the door and engage people in conversations about witchcraft is on the terms of witchcraft — that is to say, acknowledging their belief system but lobbying to eradicate the harmful aspects of it. In this sense, his status as an outsider is an advantage. He doesn’t live in a community where his anti-witchcraft beliefs and actions will endanger him; it can be difficult for an Indigenous person who doesn’t believe in witchcraft to take a stand because they’re usually an island in their community, surrounded by others who consider it traitorous to their culture to speak against witchcraft.

The common courts have a higher authority than the tribal courts, as well as a responsibility to arrange trials for criminal charges, yet they have been reluctant to uphold the rights of accused witches. The prosecutor in Kahenge West, however, agreed to Holtzhausen’s request for the case to be put back on the docket, and charges were renewed against the two attackers who thought they’d gotten off scot-free years ago. A new trial date was set to determine whether these women should be held accountable and punished for injuring Haingura despite their belief that she was a witch.

The setting for the tribal court where community meetings and court sessions take place under a large tree in the Kavango region in Namibia. Common courts that process criminal charges take place in standard buildings.

Again and again the trial was postponed, for one reason or another. Holtzhausen drove more than 500 miles from his home to attend every scheduled hearing with Haingura, only to be told repeatedly to come back later. He gave the judge a copy of the Witchcraft Suppression law; the judge had never seen it before.

Haingura became extremely disheartened by the postponements; she felt that her complaint would never be taken seriously. Even when the trial finally did take place, she was so hopeless that she didn’t even attend the final ruling. Mangundu, her son who had put himself through school, had other obligations and didn’t attend either. Her other son, Hamutenya, went with Holtzhausen to hear the decision but was too nervous and fidgety to sit in court; he waited outside. Holtzhausen sat on the bench like a man in the eye of a storm — surrounded by onlookers who wanted to see the women who attacked Haingura be let off.

The judge waxed on about the factors in his decision. When he began to quote from the Witchcraft Suppression Proclamation, Holtzhausen says, “Every single muscle in me wanted to jump up and kiss the magistrate!” One of the women was convicted of assault, and the other was convicted on grounds of breaking the Witchcraft Suppression law, the first known conviction based on the law in the country’s history. In lieu of kissing the magistrate, Holtzhausen got in his truck with Hamutenya, then jumped and shouted with glee by the side of the road.

Andrias Mangundu after completing his first-year courses at nursing school. (Photo courtesy of Alzheimer’s Dementia Namibia ADN)

Each woman was given a choice for her sentence: either time in jail or a fine paid within a week. Both chose the fine, about 3,000 Namibian dollars (around $200), which required them to sell some of their cattle to pay. Holtzhausen wasn’t disappointed with the mild sentence. “My objective is not to put people in jail, but to open the eyes and minds of the community and the police and the court and everyone that this is serious.”

The ruling came on October 7, 2020, exactly eight years to the day after Holtzhausen met his first “witch,” Ndjinaa Ngombe. A national newspaper reported on the court case the following week with the headline, “Justice for the Witch of Siya.”

Holtzhausen’s hope now is that accused witches will have more courage to step forward and defend their innocence. No witches are free until all witches are free. “I’m not stupid,” Holtzhausen says. “I know this will never happen in my lifetime, not for generations.” He has faith that others, including those from within these communities, will take up the fight and carry it forward. “The people who [will] make the real change in Africa are the Black Africans,” says Holtzhausen.

“People within the Black community,” says Mangundu, “when they see or hear Berrie talk about their culture, they end up saying, ‘Ahh what does this white man know about our culture or witchcraft?’ Some people say bad and some good about him, mostly they label him as a witch.”

Holtzhausen believes Mangundu will be among those leading the next steps. Mangundu had been intending to start university courses to become a teacher in 2019, but Holtzhausen convinced him to instead apply to nursing school with the financial backing of ADN to learn about dementia and receive medical training. In 2020 Mangundu passed all of his first-year courses. He is also becoming vocal in his community and among his classmates in speaking out against the harmful practices of witchcraft. He plans to write a memoir about his family’s experience.

Forty-three days after jumping for joy on the side of a road celebrating Haingura’s victory, Holtzhausen was in a medical center in Windhoek undergoing brain imaging scans that would confirm the news he’d been suspecting for a few years. He’d been having difficulty remembering names and Bible passages he’d known for decades, forgetting things he had just done. He became alarmed when he recognized changes in his own behavior toward his loved ones.

The diagnosis was advanced Alzheimer’s. The doctor was incredulous that someone with the amount of brain deterioration shown in Holtzhausen’s scan could be functioning as well as he was. According to the brain scan, the doctor remarked, Holtzhausen should be a patient at his own care farm.

That farm remains, in 2021, the only place in Namibia, a country of 2.5 million people, designed solely for dementia patients. Holtzhausen moved the care farm to a new location in 2015, designing a new residence based on extensive research into what types of spaces are most comfortable for persons with dementia. He brought Ndjinaa Ngombe to live there in 2018.

Holtzhausen with a patient at the ADN dementia care farm.

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, nor for many other diseases that cause dementia, but a possible way to delay its debilitating effects, Holtzhausen shows us, might be to have a mission so deeply rooted within you that your mind is continually turning — processing, analyzing, projecting, strategizing, empathizing, learning, teaching, insisting, never giving up.

His father’s words of counsel from so long ago still stay with him — he has made peace with his neighbors, with God, and now with himself.

“Still today, I really want to live until … ” he searches the corner of the room with his eyes for words. “Well,” he grins after a moment, “I’m in love with life. I’m in love with my job.”