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


iggz said...

Hey Parker, great post...awesomely cool lesson in cultivation. Keep up the writing and the pictures! It's always great to read

Hope all is well.


Ken Lewis said...

Hi, Parker! I lost your blog address for a couple of months when my old computer finally gave up the ghost, but just recently got it from your Dad. I love your writing about the people and the country. Have you ever thought of writing a book? I know people in the publishing business, so let me know. How much longer will you be staying in Afrika?

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