Photographer: Shara Johnson
Writer: Shara Johnson
Website: SKJ Travel
In the world of a traveler, you get to see the good, the bad, and the unspeakable
For 20 years, Ndjinaa lived in chains. Her family chained her ankles together with heavy metal links, and anchored her with a wire around a wooden post. They fed her like a mongrel if there was enough food to spare in the camp. She slept on the bare ground after her traditional cow skin bedroll rotted and no one replaced it. Her clothes eventually rotted, and no one replaced them either. No one plaited her hair; no one bathed her body. She was known as the house of evil spirits – when 24 years ago she began to behave strangely and speak incoherently after she bore several children, it was clear to her clan of the Himba tribe in northern Namibia that the unhappy souls of kinsmen had inhabited her body; she was deemed bewitched. In a culture hinged on witchcraft, witches and the bewitched are often cast out of their community, but Ndjinaa is the chief’s sister, and he’s convinced their heartbeats are linked – if she dies, so will he. So instead she was shackled, where the chief would not lose sight of her.
Naked, ostracized, hungry and demoralized, she fell deeper into “bewitchment” until her words no longer made any sense except for one phrase, “bring me tobacco from Sessfontain.” It meant, essentially, bring me anything … food, water, tobacco. She was discovered like this by a white man in the area who then told his friend and mine, Berrie, who recognized that she was suffering from dementia, not bewitchment. It’s hard to know what brought on the dementia 24 years ago, but it was surely horrendously exacerbated by her subsequent treatment. In December of 2012, Berrie negotiated Ndjinaa’s release and built for her a separate hut outside her family’s kraal and hired 2 full-time caretakers for her. He convinced her family and the community that she was not possessed by evil spirits, she was merely ill. Amazingly, with the rapidity of flipping a light switch, her family accepted her, and the children began to visit her. Now when she utters something nonsensical, she is no longer a creature to be feared, only a woman whose words got lost inside her head. Ndjinaa displays immense grace in unconditional forgiveness. She offers the children who visit her bits of her own food even after she spent 20 years being ignored if she cried in hunger.
I met her in 2014 and came back in 2016 with a film crew to tell her incredible story and to follow Berrie’s work in uncovering the stories of others who live in fear and danger of witchcraft, whose lives have been destroyed by the culture’s pervasive belief in it, and lives that were brutally taken away because of it.
Villagers who learned of her release kept asking Berrie what drugs he was giving to Ndjinaa to calm her down, to make her seem human again. Nobody could believe that simply unchaining her and treating her with dignity and respect was a plausible “treatment.”
“We give her unconditional love,” says Berrie. “That’s it.”
Here, he is trying to teach this concept to Ndjinaa’s grandson. Berrie sat down next to her and began stroking her cheek gently with the back of his hand. She slowly leaned her face ever so slightly into his hand. The children watched this. Then Berrie took the grandson’s hand and placed it on his grandmother’s cheek. Berrie instructed him, “Stroke her face, like this.” The boy complied but then lowered his hand right away. Berrie took it again.
“Keep touching her face,” he said. “Tell her that you love her.”
Ndjinaa sat so still and humble while her grandson slowly brushed her cheek. It was one of the most peaceful and redemptive scenes I have ever witnessed. This photo is no great work of portraiture, but to me the gentleness of the human touch between Ndjinaa and her grandson comes through and fills my heart every time I look at them. While I witnessed this and snapped these photos, I struggled to hold back tears. Now as I write about it, I don’t bother.
WHAT IS PHOTOJOURNAL ALL ABOUT
Photojournal is all about expressive or dramatic photos that tell a thousand words. Each photo represents the photographer’s emotions at the precise moment of capturing the picture which, in some aspects, is immortalized through digital print.
I aim to showcase some of the great works of other people and share their experience through a significant photograph. Everyone have a story to tell, but sometimes there are no words to express them; however, through photos captured from the photographer’s perspective, that memory and emotions, even though words can’t explain, will hopefully touch the viewers understanding of the photograph – and maybe, even relate to it.
Therefore, Photojournal is all about curating these pictures that have distinctive meaning, not because of its overall artistry, but for its importance to one unique individual.
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