African Witchfinder: a film about dementia & stigma in Namibia and South Africa

For this year’s World Alzheimer Report, ADI looked at global attitudes towards dementia. The report combines the results of the largest study ever undertaken regarding attitudes towards dementia, as well as case studies and experts from around the world.

One of the case studies comes from Berrie Holtzhausen, CEO of Alzheimer’s Dementia Namibia. The case study examines the challenges related to stigma, including witchcraft, in Namibia and South Africa.  The case study can be read on page 125, of chapter 4, in our World Alzheimer Report. To read the case study, click here.

This accompanying blog is from one of the directors, Toby Trueman, behind an incredibly powerful and important film capturing Berrie’s work in Namibia.

 


It was back in 2016 when we were first introduced to Berrie Holtzhausen, the CEO of Alzheimer Dementia Namibia. The wonder of social media had put us in touch with Shara Johnson, an American travel photographer who met Berrie when visiting Africa. Shara passed on his number, and it wasn’t long before myself and co-director Mally Graveson were chatting with him over Skype.

The emotional power of his experience was striking; Ndjinna, the sister of a village chief,accused of witchcraft and chained to a pole in a decrepit mud hut for 20 years, living off scraps thrown to her by terrified villagers. Ndjinna has dementia. Berrie negotiated her freedom and set up a care village to drastically improve her quality of life, then used this experience as a case study in a mission to help other ‘witches’ throughout rural Namibia.

All too often, these so-called ‘witches’ were people suffering from mental health issues and in some cases targeted simply because they were elderly. For those in sub-Saharan Africa being labelled a witch can be a death sentence and, as we were to find out, one often carried out by members of their own family.

We followed Berrie for three weeks, travelling thousands of kilometres through the beautiful and varied Namibian landscape; visiting Ndjinna and her brother, the King of the Himba, and travelling to other villages, seeking out those who had been accused of witchcraft or affected by this deadly combination of superstitious beliefs and lack of understanding of mental health.

The stories we heard were both shocking and heart-breaking in equal measure. Murder, sedation, and the threat of extreme violence were regular topics of conversation. This was balanced by the extraordinary breadth of Berrie’s humanity; his continued drive, his absolute dedication to helping the most vulnerable people, was humbling.

Whilst making the film, with long hours spent traversing dirt roads and seeking remote communities, we learned so much about the widespread belief in witchcraft. How it lurks in the background, affecting everything from village life to country politics. How jealousy can quickly combine with a lack of understanding in a series of events that ends with the taking of a life.

Ignorantly, it seems completely medieval to us ultra-privileged residents of the first world, but the current reality is that in amongst the ancient beauty and natural wonder of the African continent, people are being murdered by their own families simply because they are behaving in a way that cannot be explained. This must change.

Leaving for Scotland, we realised we were only scratching the surface of this topic; the film we completed can only serve as a brief introduction to Berrie’s work and an even broader overview of the incredibly complicated situation in sub-Saharan Africa.

The truth is that a belief in witchcraft is leading to the violent persecution of those with dementia and other misunderstood mental health issues, and we hope this film will help raise awareness of what is happening every day in Namibia and beyond, perhaps even help trigger a drive in early-stage education that will save the lives of the most vulnerable.

 


About the film

African Witchfinder is the first documentary film to be produced by Cloud Break Pictures, the original content arm of Edinburgh based video production company Heehaw. Directed by Mally Graveson and Toby Trueman, the film screened at film festivals in the US and Europe, where it picked up 4 awards. The full film is free to watch on the Cloud Break website.

You can find out more about Heehaw by visiting here.

Alzheimer’s Dementia Namibia are a member of ADI. You can find out more about their work here.

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