Across African Sand
Journeys of a Witch-Doctor's Son-in-Law
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        WITCHES GALORE…                  MAKING A FOOL OF MYSELF…


     On both sides of the road, women were out in the fields making a final effort to salvage crops that had received almost no rain.  Each field contained an assortment of food plants: sorghum, maize, pumpkins, peanuts, squash, beans, and nyimo, all mixed together, planted seed by seed.  The women—all wearing headscarves of red, green, and yellow—were stooped over, chopping forcefully at the weeds with short little hoes, or pulling them out with their bare hands.  Weeds were the enemy; they robbed the crops of moisture.
     A young woman looked up, and she called to me in Kalanga, "No yenda ngayi?"  Where are you going?
     "Ndo yenda ku Namibia," I'm going to Namibia, I answered.
     "To Namibia?  People will kill you."
     "Who will kill me?"
     "Bad people will kill you," she replied with genuine concern.  "And what about school?  Aren't you teaching?"
     "No, I'm not teaching this year."
     "So you're leaving us."
     "No, I'm not leaving you.  I'm just going to Namibia.  I'm returning in May."  I had to be back in May—that was vital.
     "In May?  But people are going to kill you..."

UNLIMITED SAND…                                BACK
     The road was becoming gradually worse, and by mid-morning, it had deteriorated into a six-rutted mire of soft sand.  The terrible condition of the road had been caused by the seasonal passage of high-axled cattle trucks.  Where the sand was firm, they had bounced along, forming road corrugations.  Where the sand was soft, they had plowed through, digging deep trenches in the road.  Where the existing tracks were too deep, they had driven at the side of the road, creating an additional pair of ruts.  I hated trucks.
     I fought my way through the soft sand.  At one point, my front wheel suddenly sank deep and jerked to a stop.  I was thrown forward and bashed my right knee against the gear-shift lever.  I picked myself up and rubbed the knee to reduce the pain.  I moaned aloud, "Damn.  This is all I need—two bum knees."
     The ruts were now up to three feet deep and were often so narrow that the cycle bags scraped against the sides.  I swerved uncontrollably back and forth, trying to keep balance and trying to keep the wheels turning.  I looked back at my tracks, and I saw that my riding was leaving a long wavy skid through the sand.
     Eventually no amount of pressure on the pedals would make the bike go, and I ground to a halt.  I would have to walk.  The sand was so soft that the bike couldn't just roll along.  I had to muscle it forward.  With no room for both me and the bike down in the rut, I trudged atop the bank, bent over at the waist, pushing and dragging the bike each step of the way.  Regardless of how hard it was to move forward, I was still full of determination, and I felt confident that I could keep going no matter how difficult it became.
     As I strained, I constantly watched the other ruts to see if one of them improved.  If I saw a better one, I shifted the bike a few ruts to the side.  Due to the load of water and supplies, the bike was too heavy to just carry over.  I had to man-handle the bike, in and out of each rut, one wheel at a time, as I heaved it across the mounds of sand.  That left me exhausted, and after only twenty yards, I would usually discover that the new rut was even worse than the one that I had just abandoned.
     While moving so haltingly, I never let myself think about the distance remaining.  I concentrated on what I could see.  I focused on getting through the next hundred yards.  I just kept going—riding where I could, and dragging the bike where I couldn't.  I stopped somewhere for lunch and continued the struggle.  After each hard pull, I would cross my arms over the handlebars, put my head down, and pant.  When sweat came dripping off my nose, I knew that it was time to find a place to cool off.  Sweating was a waste of water.
     With each step, with each crank of the pedals, I worried about my water supply.  My  vital water had to be protected and conserved, so only when thirst demanded it would I pause and take a sip of warm, brackish water.  Then, while standing there with my shoes full of sand, catching my breath, I would glance down at the bike odometer.  I would check hopefully at the numbers on the readout, but the distance covered was almost always discouraging.  A quarter mile of sand could take a half an hour to negotiate.  That was bad.
     By late afternoon I was done in.  I sat under a leafless tree and wondered what I was doing.  Perhaps everyone had been right—the Kalahari could not be crossed by bicycle.  The chain was clogged with sand, and the back wheel was still making that same terrible sound.  I was troubled.  For the first time, I began to have serious doubts about the feasibility of the trip.  I sat with my head in my hands.  Things looked very depressing at that point.

WITCHES GALORE…                                   BACK
     In Mapoka, the action of witches was a daily concern.  Everyone knew that a witch hired by an enemy could cause illness, misfortune, or even death.  We were all constantly on guard against the action of witches.  When you needed to spit, you always kicked dirt over it afterwards.  If anyone collected your saliva, they might give it to a witch who could make a powerful medicine against you.
     I once had a fellow teacher cut my hair at her place, and she made me take the cuttings with me when I left.  She said that if I put the hair into her waste bin, it would blow around and get into her food.  That was the most rational explanation that she could give to a European.  More truthfully, she was afraid that if the hair stayed with her, it could lead to trouble.  For if anything bad should happen to me—like getting sick or having an accident or losing some money—people might then accuse her of using my hair for witchcraft.  Everyone was very cautious when disposing of hair trimmings and fingernail clippings.  It was always done in secret.  Too many bad people were known to be roaming about.
     A prominent man in Mapoka was believed to have killed a rival with poison.  Kopano, along with many others, refused to shake his hand.  They feared that he might have muti on his fingers.  As a standard precaution, Kopano generally made me wash my hands after I had shaken hands with some suspicious person.
     One weekend when Kopano came home, Shobi told her that a particular woman from a distant village had given him a bowl of fresh peanuts to roast.  The woman had specifically told him, "Be sure that you share the peanuts with Philip."
     Of course, Shobi did not cook the peanuts, nor did he give any of them to me.  He threw them away outside of the compound.
     When Kopano heard about it, she was very concerned.  She took me alone into our room, and she sat me down on the bed for a serious talk.  "Shobi is clever," she said.  "That woman is a witch.  She wants to kill somebody."
     "She wants to kill somebody?" I asked.  "Why?"
     "She's jealous.  She is jealous of me, so she wants to hurt you.  If something bad happens to you, people will say that it is me doing this thing to get your money."
     "But I have no money."
     "People are thinking you have money.  That woman is bad.  One time she was giving us some dried meat, but we didn't eat it.  We were burying it.  We were having a dog, a good one.  Fat!  That dog was digging up the meat, and eating it, and it died.  That one, she wants to do something to my family.  She's a witch.  You know, they say, When you're rich, your family wants to kill you.  But it's not your close family, it's others, outside."
     "Because they're jealous?"
     "Yes.  That one—she killed her own child!  It wasn't a small baby.  It was a girl in school.  The mother was sending her to get firewood in the bush, but that girl, she wasn't coming back for a long time.  They found her dead.  They said that she was falling down from a tree, but there was no blood.  You know, if you're falling down from a tree, there's going to be blood.  That girl was dead with no blood."
     A month later, after some rain had fallen, we went to look at the spot where Shobi had discarded the woman's peanuts.  Not one of them had sprouted, and this was taken as further proof that the woman was indeed a witch.
     Our most widely discussed case of witchcraft occurred near Francistown.  A woman's husband was having affairs, so she discretely went to someone for help.  She was given muti to put into her husband's bath.  She was instructed that the bath water must be cold, and that she must not—for any reason—enter the room while her husband was bathing.  She went home, and the next morning she prepared the bath.  She told her husband that his bath was ready, and she went to the kitchen.  After a short time, the husband began calling to his wife.  The water was too cold, he said, she must come.  She went to see what the problem was.  But when she opened the door, she took one look, and she screamed a scream that could have woken the dead.  And then she fled.  Her husband had been turned into an enormous snake.
     For weeks, everyone was talking about this event.  Someone drew a sketch of a creature having a man's head attached to a snake's body swimming in a basin of bath water.  Someone else typed up the details of the story.  Copies were made and passed around.  This was an amazing story, but for me, the most astonishing part was that most people sincerely believed that it really did happen.  Even college graduates, who might have had doubts about the truth of that particular case, maintained that this type of thing was indeed possible, and did sometimes occur.  To skeptical foreigners they would say, "Maybe you don't have witches in Europe, but things happen here that you would find difficult to believe."

MAKING A FOOL OF MYSELF…                        BACK
     Kebebe and his two friends, all three Nharo Bushmen, walked into the shop carrying their sets of bows, arrows, and spears.  They wore ill-fitting European clothes—polo shirts  missing the sleeves, green pants with holes at the knees, and leather shoes several sizes too big.  Except for being so short and light-skinned, the three Bushmen looked like any other poor people in Botswana.
     Kebebe had come to sell his hunting set.  It consisted of a sinew-stringed bow, four arrows without the poison, a cylindrical quiver made of bark, a wooden spear, and a digging stick, all carried in a leather pouch made from the skin of a springhare.
     The Bushmen greeted Nicodemus, the smartly-dressed shopkeeper, who was half Tswana and half Nharo Bushman.
     I listened to them for a minute.  Then I stepped forward and said, "Ntum."
     Kebebe looked at me and smiled.
     "Ntum," I repeated.  "Ntana ai?"  These were Bushman greetings that I had learned in the eastern Kalahari, but I might just as well have been speaking Bengali.
     Kebebe and and his friends all laughed.  "What is this ntum?" they asked Nicodemus in the Nharo language.  "What does 'ntana ai' mean?  Please, tell us, what is he saying?"
     "He's talking to you the way the Bushmen speak near Sua Pan," explained Nicodemus with a pitying shake of his head.
     I had just discovered that the languages were completely different.  I also learned that I possessed a real knack for making a fool of myself when interacting with the Bushmen.

CANNIBALISTIC TOADS…                                BACK
     I rarely used the brakes.  If I needed to stop, I just eased up on the pedals and let the sand bring the bike to a halt.  Braking was an insult to the work that I was doing, and it seemed like a careless waste of energy.  But when I saw the pool of water, I squeezed hard on the brake levers, and the bike skidded to a stop.
     I looked at the pool and said to myself, "Whoa.  Here's something new."
     The pool was really just a puddle of mud, only a few yards wide.  It was a remnant of the last rain, and it would soon be dry.  The incredible thing was that in and around the water were thousands of two-inch toads.  Their bodies were brown and stubby, accented by a single dash of color.  Running their lengths, from between their bulging eyes and down to their stunted legs, were fluorescent stripes of yellowish-green.  The toads were ravenous.  They pounced on and ate anything that moved.  And the thing that moved the most were the other toads.  All around the pool, the toads were busily devouring one another.
     I watched in fascinated horror as one toad seized another toad, no smaller than itself, and gulped it part-way down its throat.  Then a third toad, seeing a protruding pair of legs, hopped over and latched onto the part that had yet to be swallowed.  The two toads pulled back and forth on their comrade, gulping and swallowing, until they were nose-to-nose, each with a half a toad down its throat.  All around the pool, hundreds of toads were paired off this way, with each couple fighting a grisly tug-of-war over the consumption a brother or sister.  Astonishing.  I wondered if this was a common occurrence, and if turn-of-the-century travelers had ever been warned: Beware the cannibalistic toads of the Kalahari.

SWAPO FREEDOM FIGHTER…                            BACK
     Davey, like Muhongo in Windhoek, had been a SWAPO freedom fighter.  He told me that during the bush war, he was shot in the stomach, and he was taken to a hospital in Angola.  "My sister was in exile at that time," said Davey, "and she heard that I had died.  She wrote a letter to our mother that I had died.  She wrote home that I was dead.  I didn't know about that letter, and I didn't write to my mother myself, because it could be dangerous for them if people knew that they had a son in SWAPO.
     "For fifteen years, my mother didn't know that I was alive.  They all thought I was dead.  My little daughter too.  She thought I was dead.  They sold everything I had.  They sold my car, and my business.  They sold everything.  Last year, when the new government granted amnesty, I came home.  I didn't know that they thought I was dead.  My daughter didn't know who I was.  It had been fifteen years.  Fifteen years!  She was just a little girl when I left.  And she didn't know that she had a young brother.  This young boy, he was born in exile.
     "When my mother saw me, she collapsed, and they had to hold her up.  She shook her head, and she put her arms around herself.  She didn't believe it.  She said to me, Davey, is it really you?"
     I listened to all of this, and I tried to comprehend the suffering that he had endured.  I hardly knew what to say.  After all, I was nothing more than a glorified tourist.  I felt awkwardly distressed-- hearing this type of tragic story while I was waiting to go off on a rich-man's holiday in Etosha.  Here I was having a vacation, while the Namibians around me were trying to put their shattered lives back together.  I felt like I was eating ice cream and  cake at the site of an airplane crash.

 Copyright Phil Deutschle.  No text nor images may be used without explicit written consent.

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