omuti: otjiherero for traditional medicine
The official newspaper of Namibia, New Era, ran an article yesterday entitled “Dispel the Belief that Disabled People Are that Way Because of Witchcraft.” People, especially in the rural areas, are quick to ascribe witchcraft as the culprit for anything. Why did you fail your Grade 10 exams? Someone is out to get you. Crops failed. Might be a hex. Even HIV is linked to witchcraft. From the classifieds:
“Traditional Dr. Aki Treat
Chronic diseases, Remove badluck,
business attraction, men, women,
Love, Marriage, Work problems,
Outside Otjituuo’s one and only shop there’s a big poster advertising a healer, a certain Dr. Mulatiwa. Until recently I hadn’t heard of any omuti being practiced locally. It seemed like when I would ask people about it they would claim it happened elsewhere. Last week I walked into the staff room to do some copying. The room is normally occupied by a roving half-naked toddler. Instead there was a meeting going on. It seemed some parents as well as community members were there – listening to some Grade 7 girls who were animatedly speaking in Otjiherero. I cynically believed it was a case of rape at the hostel – an all too-frequent event. I asked the secretary what was going on.
Apparently a woman had been coming by the hostel at night harassing these girls. The story went that the woman had been told by a witchdoctor that if she gave poisoned meat to a certain Grade 7 learner she would gain powers. That was the extent of the story that I gathered. Now the girls were refusing to stay at the hostel because of the danger of the woman returning. Even though I couldn’t understand the Otjiherero in the room something struck me as odd – something about the girls who were involved which made me wonder.
This was only the beginning. Over the course of the week the problems with the learners became worse. Other kids reported seeing things at night and were not comfortable. Kids were falling asleep in class because they hadn’t slept the night before. I asked Uandara what the school was doing about it.
He said that there was nothing they could do. The parents of the girl who had originally brought the claims were working on a remote farm and said his children shouldn’t have to stay at the hostel if they didn’t want to. Now more kids were leaving the hostel after school because of the “witchings.” Several of the girls from Grade 7 were not even attending school anymore.
Like I said, I had felt something was amiss from the very start. There was a certain incoherence in the way that the school was dealing with the situation. It was all the staff could talk about and classes were cancelled on the first day of the outbreak. But there was something awry. The girls’ stories, when cross-examined, didn’t match up. Then the girls started to turn on each other. One would deny that she said she had seen the woman, while the other girl would claim the opposite.
It soon became clear the whole thing wasn’t so phenomenal as witchcraft. There had been a conflict within the community regarding kids who were taken to a certain cultural festival. It took a few days for this to leak out. This had encouraged jealousy and that had caused the woman to come looking for one of the girls. It was more envy than anything else. Then when the “victims” left the hostel they started really enjoying living at their parents’ home with no supervision. Whether the woman tried to give anyone poisoned meat remains shady. To me it was something out of the Salem witch trials. The first girl’s allegations fed the fears of others. This week everyone was mostly back in school and the witchcraft allegations have receded as we get ready for exams. I for one wouldn’t be opposed to approaching Dr. Mulatiwa to see if he has something for protecting against mass hysteria.