Friday, February 26, 2010


A few more pics of the plowing process and from an afternoon in the fields...
The recently-plowed fields with our homestead in the background

The donkeys plod along

Sad sackers...

Meme Emilia with cow horn and ongongo

Demonstrating the method of singular consumption

The bountiful tree and its fruitspring

That bucket weighs about 50 pounds

My artistic close up on the post-liquidized fruits

Kola-ing in action

The workstation that produces the sweetly-sourly alcoholic omagongo

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The fruits of their labor

Cultivation time has come to Namibia. The rainy season is here but compared to last year it is much more mild. At least so far... People in villages all across Owamboland are busy tending the fields and working like mad in all aspects of farming. It's a never-ending process. One of the first steps is to clear the leftovers from last years crops. Old corn husk, sorghum stalks, and other rubbishes are rounded up, dug out of the ground and burned. Burning has something to do with nitrates are other minerals (agriculture is not my gig) as well as clearing the slate to start afresh with clean fields. With the first rains, they gauge whether it's time to plant. Sometimes the rains can be deceiving and if they decide to go for it but then the sweet nourishing moisture disappears for weeks, they are sadly out of luck. So when they take the plunge, they go whole hog, or should I say whole donkey. If there is no money to hire a tractor, plowing is done the old fashioned way: with donkey and rusty old metal plow.

Shitaleni and Egumbo plus donkey workers

When the fields are furrowed and ready to go, planting is the next step. I've helped out with this a few times this year but I really can't take any credit because planting a few rows of corn is equivalent to about 1% of the total work that goes into a successful harvest. With corn, they plant two two two in hoed holes and then cover each hole with the previously excavated dirt. With mahangu (millet), they scatter a small handful every few feet or so. With bean, it's one one one. With iishenda and omatanga (two kinds of gourds), it's a few seeds of each in holes dug close to the fence which acts as a trellis for the skyward-bound creepers. All the while, the capering chickens, guileful goats, boisterous birds, and marauding mice are an ever-present threat. The chickens are difficult to control but once the seeds have been set in the ground a few days, those clucking featherbags are no longer a problem. The fences are kept secure so those nimble goat fiends can't find a fortuitous foothold. Pots and pans are banged, scarecrows are erected, and voices call out with bird-curdling shrieks to keep the flying chattering beaked ones at bay. Mice are tricky buggers and the most people can do is give the cats a lot of encouragement. Traps are mildly effective but sometimes non-targeted prey becomes the victim. That's how I found myself feasting on rabbit last year. My view towards most all creatures is to leave and let live, but these people who depend on subsistence farming do not have the luxury to make that sort of humane decision. They need to eat, they need food, and they will not sacrifice their crops so that nonhuman animals can eat instead. So the battle wages on...

Once the seeds have been sown, lots of attention is directed towards the clouds. Too little rain and the crops will wither and die under the relentless rays. Too much rain and the crops could drown, which is what happened last year to all the omatanga. But somewhere in the middle is just right. It's kind of a Goldilocks situation, but more real, and with less bears. The rains this year have been about perfect. Once every few days there are some light showers during the night and about once every ten days is a big thunder and lightning storm that gives the earth a good soaking. Let's hope it continues in this manner. As the water energizes the plants and the lush greenery begins to cover the fields, the unwanted plant cousins invade. Some common intruders are onjohwa (a thorny spiny monstrous weed that actively seeks out any bare feet),etse lyakuku (the grandmother's head - a colloquial name for a rather innocuous weed),omwidhi (common grass), and onyanganyanga (an onion like bulb that apparently is poisonous if eaten. Hoes are the trusty weapons used in this floral combat zone by warriors of all ages, from grandmothers bent with age to toddlers who can hardly lift their implements of plant defense. It is a daily chore and Mwingona, Meme, and Egumbo (along with any generous neighbors) can be found in the fields twice a day: from before dawn until time to go to school, and again from a little before dusk until time for supper.

Egumbo, Niita, and Mwingona hoeing the floral intruders

On top of all the work that goes into growing maize, mahangu, sorghum, beans, gourds, and ground nuts, there is also the fruits of the omuye and omugongo trees to be had. The omuyetrees yield thousands of yellowish pinkie toe-sized berries called oombe that are a definite village favorite. They are quite sweet but unfortunately have a pit inside so there is not much actual fruit to eat. But the taste is exquisite. I choose to anagrammatically spit the pits but most people just swallow everything. In my oshiwambo dictionary, oombe is defined as a bird plum so maybe it's on the internet somewhere. From the omugongo trees come the wonderful and bountiful oongongo fruits commonly known as marula. They are golf ball-sized and also have a large pit inside. The soft juiciness around the pit though is a prized commodity in the village. They can be eaten one by one and the best way to do so is to soften up the insides before biting a small hole in the semi-thick skin and sucking out the sweet tangy juice. I like this method but after five or so, your tongue feels as if you have eaten a whole bag of super sour candy. The more common way though is for a family to spend an entire afternoon sitting out in the field under one of their omugongo trees gathering the fallen treasure into piles and kola-ing. Kola translates as 'liquidize' which is basically what happens. An old cow horn is used to pierce the yellowed orbs and the squirting juice is collected in buckets which when consumed in large quantities can be quite intoxicating. A watered down version is much more palatable and is called oshiwa. The thousands of pits from the used oongongo are poured into piles around the homestead and saved for many months. By August the remnants of the pulp is completely gone and all that is left is a marble-sized nut. They are cracked open day after day in endless tedium but the result is large bowls filled with white nuts (omashuku) which can be eaten plain or pounded until a nice nut oil forms which is then poured on various side dishes. It is so much work. You have no idea. I could go on and on about how much work people do in Namibia but it is late. I have had several conversations about this topic with meme and one such encounter could go like this in which I say, "Oh, meme, moNamibia okuna iilongaoyindji! KoAmerika ongele aantu oya hala iikulya, otaya yi
kositola okulanda" = "oh, my mother, in Namibia there is so much work! In America if people want food, they just go to the store to buy." And she says "oh aiyaiyai eeno, iilonga oyindji.
Onda vulwa shinene na otandikulupa." = "(sounds of distress or annoyance) of course, there is so much work. I get very tired and I am getting old." But she says it with a smile and her constantly positive and joking attitude. She is 54 and has had 5 kids and I will be very sad to say goodbye. She doesn't speak any English but is probably the closest Namibian friend I have. I started talking about cultivating but got sidetracked about my host family, some really great people who I should write more about. Next time. Arrividerci!

Niita, Tillye, Mwingona and Meme liquidizing the marula fruits

Meme ota kola

Messy Onesi

Pronounced as if you were consoling the famous Scottish loch monster - Oh nessie

Two weeks ago marked the start of after school training for athletics, which we would refer to as track and field. When classes finished for the day, almost the whole school could be found out on the sports field whether they were running or not, enticed by the novelty of something different than their regular walks home through the bush. Mr. Musilika, the teacher directing the show, would vainly try and round up the runners in each age bracket for the various events which include the 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 1500, and 5000m. The young kids were completely uninhibited and eager to go, but as the age groups progressed, reluctancy to step up to the starting line began to seep into the collective mindset of the potential athletes as the fear of failure and the merciless teasing of their peers wrought havoc on their confidence. More than that though, was the complete and utter disorganization that seems to plague events of all kinds that occur in Namibia. Musilika would manage to corral a few of the 400m girls, but then while trying to find the other kids he knew to be strong runners, the original group would disperse and the gathering process would have to start again. Despite these setbacks, some training did get accomplished albeit with no warm up jogs, no equipment, and no formal coaching on running technique or strategy. The next day I brought my running shoes and managed to instill more enthusiasm in the masses by going on a longer run with a large group who were suddenly raring to go. It almost killed me though. I hadn't played soccer, juggled, or done anything active for almost two months, so I was later ruing the decision to go on a thirty minute run in the 100 degree heat without satisfactory hydration. I managed to run the whole way but probably could have been diagnosed with heat stroke and lactic acid overdose. Let me tell you, those kids smoked me! They are so amazingly fit that when they arrived back at school, well before me I might add, they continued doing a few more laps around the field! The fact that they are so tough must be that they grew up living, working, and playing in this constant heat, not to mention that their stringy muscular bodies carry them upwards of 10km every day as they walk to and from school. And most probably eat just one meal a day at dinner. Very Impressive. I survived the first day and now that I know how blazingly merciless the African sun can be at two in the afternoon, I have run a few more days since then with a marked improvement in my endurance and stamina. Less than one week of training was all we got before Musilka, who can be quite a spacey character, came to me on Friday afternoon at 1:30 (20 minutes before school ends and everyone goes home) with the information that Saturday is the zonal competition for schools in our region.

Me - This Saturday? (incredulous at the timing)
Musilika - Yes it must be (obviously, what's the big deal...?)
Me - You mean tomorrow? (still incredulous)
Musilika - Yes they changed the date and I just remembered today (his spaciness on display)
Me - But it's too late now, how will we get there? (the American way, bent on full preparation and precise planning)
Musilika - Ahh maybe I can ask Amputu (a fellow teacher with a pickup, but alas he is not available tomorrow)
Me - Maybe Meme Maha? (another teacher with a truck, but again, no luck)
Musilika - Well, I know some people in Tsandi who I can try to ask tomorrow in the morning (the string of hopeful ideas continues)
Me - Ok, so which learners can we take? Will we meet you there? (trying to formulate an orderly plan)
Musilika - Yeah just start walking to Tsandi in the morning and I think you will meet the learners on the way (the Namibian version of a plan)
Me - Ok see you tommorrow then (after a year plus in Africa, I have learned to go with the flow)

This is a very typical example of how things works in Namibia: last minute information, countless unknowns, and a lot that is left up to chance, yet it usually seems to work out in the end. We quickly told the learners before school ended, and the ones that wanted to go said they would walk the 8km to Tsandi in the morning and that some would be meeting at the school at 6am. I suggested 6:30, counting on the requisite lateness due to African Standard Time, and planned to meet them at 7. So the next morning I arrive at the school at 7 and of course no one is there yet. A few show up at 7:15 and we start the two hour walk to town. Along the way, more and more learners join our entourage and by the time we reached Tsandi, we had amassed 14 kids, which seemed like quite a good turn out considering the situation. The competition was to be held in Onesi which is a small 'town' about 30km from Tsandi. The idea behind the zonal competition was to invite the relatively nearby schools to a central location and send the qualifying runners on to Oshakati to the regional meet for all athletes from all four regions of Owamboland (Oshana, Oshikoto, Ohangwena, Omusati). Elamba is just one of many schools that were invited to the Onesi meet, which was one of several zonal meets for all schools in the Omusati region.

Musilika managed to convince one guy to drive all of us to and from Onesi for a fee of N$260, so we two teachers squeezed into the cab and the learners piled into the back of the pickup truck and perched themselves around the edges in a way that would make any American mother sick with worry. But that is how things are done here and, rest assured, we all arrived safely in Onesi around 10, late for only the first race, which fortunately, none of our kids were running. The 'track' at the school where these qualifying races were being run turned out to be no more than an overgrown field rife with dead plants, animal dung, bottles and other rubbish. What an ideal and pristine location! We quickly learned that several of the other schools weren't as resourceful as we were, as only half of those invited were able to make it. Apparently we were not the only ones informed at the last second. I assume you all have been to, or participated in, a junior high or high school track meet and maybe you are picturing that scene, only in Africa. That image is definitely as far as could be from a Namibian track meet at a rural village school.

No lanes and curved corners for the track - instead a few spectators stood at what seemed to be to the right distance and physically created the corner for runners to go around. Several runners got confused and were disqualified for going on the wrong side, several collisions and falls resulted when runners tried to turn the sharp corners too fast, and a few times the corner-marking spectators fled in fear when the older stronger faster boys came bearing down on them at full speed. I just had to laugh at how ridiculous those moments were.
No measurements were taken - the 'organizers' just estimated the distance of 100m by taking 100 long strides 4 times to form a large squarish space. Not exactly the Olympic-regulation-sized ovals we are used to. I have no idea how they measured the 5000m course.

No equipment whatsoever...
No starting gun - one guy was the designated starter and yelled "Ready?! On your marks! Go!" without any real consistency or rhythm, and oftentimes he didn't even check to make sure that all the runners were ready. I can't tell you how many false starts there were.
No starting line - they just cut a wavy line into the scrubby grass with hoes.
No starting blocks - instead the runners knelt behind that nonlinear line and tried to get a grip on the dusty ground.
No finish tape - they tied a bunch of skinny palm tree leave together to form a rope of sorts, but more often than not they forgot to hold it up for the finishing runners.
No megaphone to make announcements - the organizers just shouted results across the field and a few kids missed their races because they didn't know when they were starting.
No stopwatch - the top two runners from each heat, regardless of their times, moved on to a final heat which determined the two kids from each category that qualified to go to Oshakati.
No changing rooms or bathrooms - both activities took place behind distant bushes.
No running shoes or uniforms - running barefoot is the norm and they just wore whatever clothing they had that approximated loose lightweight apparel. Some kids had nothing, or forgot it at home, and chose to run in sweaters, long skirts, and even jeans!

But none of that mattered to the kids. They had a blast and so did I. I bought some bread and juice concentrate for our midday snack and we commandeered a bucket of unknown cleanliness from a neighboring school and mixed in water from the nearby church. Cups were created from plastic bottles cut in half with a rusty knife and we reveled in sticky orangey sweet happiness. I forgot my umbrella but braved the murderous sun to provide moral support and encouragement for my fledgling athletes. They were understandably exhausted after their races and I helped them deliriously navigate their way back to the shade tree. It was also a chance for us to see another community, as most of my learners had never been to Onesi even though it is only 30km away. We were able to walk through the 'downtown' which consists of a finitely countable set of shops and bars, and our conversations about what we saw were more free and open than classroom math lessons. Johannes Niilenge says to the others, "with sir you must talk English and also you must laugh in English!" When I asked if they get blisters he says, "oh! sir, when the ground is too hot, my feet are so hot!" Walking back from the shop, Sakaria Sheehama says, "sir, your English is ok, we understand you, but oh!, when your mother was here, no we can't understand." At the end of the day, we left in good spirits and even had six kids qualify for the larger regional meet. I will make sure to bring my camera next time as unfortunately I have no documentation to give a better sense to my wordy descriptions. The meet in Oshakati is happening next weekend, and although I'm predicting better facilities and hoping for a bit more organization, I'm sure it will be another memorable experience.