Oh my Africa – November 2014

I’m bound to read any news article that has the word ‘bizarre’ in the title, but unfortunately, this one ended in ‘puts newly discovered species in jeopardy’.

Yes, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the new plant species, along with 900 other plant varieties and 1,400 chimpanzees, are unprotected against roaming people, their cattle, and other destructive activities.  Some folks misread some maps, or perhaps didn’t read the maps at all, and put the reserve’s borders more than 50 kilometers west of where they should’ve been.

To add salt to the wound, this newly discovered flowering plant, Dorstenia luamensis, found only on a few cliff faces inside this once protected area, was named after the park, the Luama Katanga Reserve, which no longer exists.  Established in 1947 near Lake Tanganyika, and a globally important biodiversity hotspot called Kabobo, the actual borders were confused during the DRC’s civil wars, and now the government has reserved a chunk of not-so-globally-important land.

“The moral of this story is that keeping track of parks – and especially getting maps and boundaries correct – matters hugely for biodiversity. The call to action here is to fix the records and re-protect the reserve before this unique plant and all the biodiversity it contains…are destroyed,” said James Deutsch, Vice President of Conservation Strategy of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), whose scientists discovered the plant and the mapping error.

Although the WCS has lobbied the DRC government to fix the mistake, they have taken no action.

The new plant. Credit: Miguel Leal/WCS

 

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Use it or lose it: a novel concept

Rainwater harvesting.  One of those ingeniously simple ideas, probably soon- to-be new green-living fad, that should just be common sense.  I mean, how many zillions of times have I watched water run through the streets, or collect in ditches, or create little rivers in the sand?  Yet it never occurred to me to catch it and put it to use.  I think it was because I grew up in a place wealthy with water; we took it for granted.  It took desert-country living to get the idea through my ignorance shield that it is true wealth falling from the sky, not pretty little shiny things to watch disappear.  And even then, this discovery was an accident.

Somehow with my innate mixture of environmentalist and cheapskate (my desire to lighten our load on the earth and stop spending so much money on diesel to pump water), I began researching permaculture.  This is a practice of designing land systems that are sustainable and self-sufficient.  Yet even though the creator of this concept hails from fairly dry Australia, the bulk of permaculture information is for temperate climates.  And understandably so; it’s much easier to do there.  The one book I eventually found for dry climates was about rainwater harvesting and how the author, who lived in Tuscon, Arizona, one of the driest and hottest places on earth, turned his desert home into a green garden using not much more than rainwater.  Although Arizona gets rain throughout the year and not in one seasonal clump like Namibia, they often get less than our farm, so I figured this could work for us, too.  And naturally I recruited Jay, a native Namibian, a man famous for putting buckets under leaky gutters, a born rainwater harvester.   Also a guy with a bulldozer.

Our farm is big though, and long neglected in this department, so it’s going to take a while.  The good news is, we are at the foot of a huge hill so although we are now well-eroded, we also have a lot of runoff to work with.  We’ve started then, with the water which is always running straight through our yard and out the front gate.  It wasn’t complicated work, only about two days work in all, and Jay does not consider it “work” when he gets to use the bulldozer.

Here’s a before shot featuring the dozer and the huge hill in the background:

The water would always come down the dirt paths, one of which is visible in the picture, and continue left, flowing right out the front gate.  Our plan was then to rather have it head straight down past the gate and into these citrus fruit trees:So employing one of my newly learned rain-harvesting strategies (berms) and a channel Jay plowed in front of the gate, we turned this:

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAinto this:

2013 1003And a month later, without watering, this:

For lack of a more sophisticated expression: it’s awesome.  In the meantime, another gutter has gone up on an old shed with a big roof.  An abandoned diesel tank is waiting dutifully underneath ready to catch, and later pass into our veggie garden, what falls.  I am now eager to launch more transformations and curious if we’ll see even a glimpse of the current farm ten years down the road.

So thanks, big momma nature, for giving us rain.  And thanks for the plants that grow food.  And also for the intelligent people, to help the rest of us figure out what to do with the first two.

Mambas, mambas, everywhere

Snakes are common neighbors here in southern Africa.  We’ve got lots; from tiny blind snakes that live underground, which completely baffled me the first time I found one, to egg-eaters that put on a big show but are harmless, unless you’re an egg.  There are semi-dangerous ones like the pythons with a vicious bite and a tight grip; they can kill a person if they’re big enough.  And we have the lethal line-up too, including multiple varieties of cobras, the bad-tempered puff adders, and to top it off, Africa’s largest venomous, most aggressive, and easily most dangerous snake, Dendroaspis polylepis, the black mamba.

Although I would rather not, these are the neighbors I run into most often.  Or maybe it’s just that the occasions are so vividly burned into my mind with adrenaline and fear.  Take for instance the latest encounter:

Jay and I were checking on our bees in the bee house out in the bush.  We had to stick them out there in an old worker’s dwelling because we ran out of room here by the main house.  The building consists of two small, separated rooms containing a total of five bee swarms.  We’ve been on alert lately when working in that house due to a run-in during a past bee-check that Jay was lucky to survive.  He had bravely (word choice debatable) gone in ahead of me, without a suit, to smoke the hives (smoke makes bees believe there’s a fire, so they suck up loads of honey for safe-keeping and get too fat to fight when we open the box).  When I heard a shriek from within, I figured he’d lost his bet of not being stung.  But when he came flying out the door, arms and legs flailing, his enormous eyes spoke of something much worse than a bee sting.  Indeed, although he had checked before entering, he overlooked the large gray snake against the gray floor in the dimly lit room.  Only once the 2.5 meter (8+ feet) body was slinking its way between his legs did he spot it.  Hence the shriek.  Although there was only one escape route, the door, the snake, possibly befuddled, disappeared behind the door, allowing Jay to run through it.

So this time, as he was preparing the smoker, I went in full-suited (though I don’t know if that would make a big difference against a pissed-off mamba) and peeked around for a giant venomous snake.  I found none, so I returned to Jay in the other room.  As I watched him, crouched over, back to the door, try to coax the smoke out, death turned the corner.

I had the enviable position of facing the door where I could see the mamba accelerating toward us.  My words, “ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod” were probably not the most useful warning to give my partner, alas, they were the best I could come up with at the time.  At least they got him to stand up and turn around, just in time to see the thick black tail disappear past the other side of the door.  It seems we had frightened it as much as it had frightened me, and it decided against joining us in the tiny room.  I then found a few more words “Closethedoorclosethedoorclosethedoor”, which Jay did.  I glimpsed the snake again as it slid past the room’s one window which the bees fly through.  It then occurred to me that we should leave the wee room, now filling with smoke, in case the mamba decided to climb in through the window.  It was gone by the time we got outside, so with great haste and apprehension we finished the bees and fled for home.

The bee/mamba house

The mamba is feared for many reasons; its size, speed, and aggression (it has been known to chase people); the fact that it will spread a hood (in case the person has not already shit himself); and it will deliver multiple bites if deemed necessary (even though one bite can kill a man in an hour).  Once bitten, your brain will remain alert while the rest of your body succumbs to paralyzation and you slowly suffocate.  This according to in an oft-consulted book on our shelf, The Complete Guide to the Snakes of Southern Africa.

The author notes that large quantities of antivenom may be required to save the victim’s life.  That is if the victim has access to antivenom.  An employee of Jay’s uncle was bitten by a black mamba last year on a farm a couple of hours away from us.  His co-workers loaded him into the truck and rushed him the 100km into the nearest town.  The man arrived at the hospital alive but the facility had no antivenom and no heart-lung machine to keep him alive.  He died within the hour.

The book also mentions that most snake bites occur on the limbs and that pressure bandages can be applied to prevent the rapid spread of the venom.  Tourniquets, however, should be avoided, except in the case of a black mamba bite.  But what if the bite is not on a limb?

A neighbor was once cruising his farm on a motorbike.  Up ahead on the dirt road, he spotted a black mamba.  Long as they are, they often cover the entire width of the road, leaving no room to go around.  He may also have been driving too fast, and on dirt, braking hard results more in sliding than braking.  In any case, he drove over the snake, effectively triggering a defense response.  Since he wisely did not stop, all he saw of the mamba’s reaction was that it had raised up off the ground, as if to strike.  Once back home, he found two teeth punctures in the seat of his bike, right behind his butt.  He sold his bike after that and has never ridden since.

My best shot of a mamba

Despite the fact that the sight of them stops my heart, or maybe because of it, I am strangely fascinated by black mambas, especially when I can observe them from a healthy distance.  Jay and I have found them on the road before too, and we turn off the car for a couple of minutes to watch as they glide into a nearby tree and camouflage as just another branch.  We ran into one once on foot as well as we searched a field for mushrooms for dinner.  I think both species were surprised at how close we had unwittingly come to each other, but it didn’t charge us and we slowly retreated to the car.  We each had the capacity to kill the other but we rather went our separate ways.

And that’s the choice we have.  Black mambas and humans are never going to be roommates but we’re obliged to be neighbors.  Conflicts (i.e. shootings and/or injections of lethal neurotoxins) arise when we aren’t respectful of each other’s boundaries but, in general, Namibia has enough space for us to be those neighbors who simply avoid each other.  Greet politely when our paths inevitably cross, back away slowly, and then observe inconspicuously from behind the curtains.

A new chapter

It’s slightly ironic that I have finally escaped town/apartment life to live on a farm and have ample room to grow my own food but that farm happens to be in the driest part of Africa south of the Sahara.  I’ve struggled with gardening for a few years now, occasionally reaping harvests of tomatoes or zucchinis but my plants are often sabotaged by bugs or droughts or other such things.  I’ve not given up though.

This year I’m knuckling down.  Not only could our farm be more self-sustaining (like cutting loose the imported food and fuel), it could prove that even in a place as seemingly inhospitable as Namibia, people can provide for themselves.  Governments, the UN, NGOs and universities are in the news a lot these days making official statements from their plethora of conventions about how things such as food security, poverty eradication, combating desertification, and soil and water conservation should be at the top of our list of things to do.  But when I go to the websites of these organizations looking for info about what I can do in my own area, I find only mission statements and visions and proposals.  Where are the stories of feeding people, restoring land, and what’s actually being done?  It seems we have to make those stories ourselves.

So with Jay’s engineering-genius help, we’re going to make the farm our story, the story of what can be done in semi-desert country.  And I’m going to share what we find, learn, and royally muck up here.  I hope it will be a resource to others in dryland situations.  And to those other people, if you find me, please feel free to share your own ideas, tips, materials, successes and failures.  I know there’s an awful lot of people, in this country alone, who could benefit from it.

Namibia’s secret lakes

Don’t be fooled; Namibia really does have water.  It is not this dried-up-raisin of a country that it pretends to be.  That giant desert?  Just for show.  Check it out:

Apparently, this was the best picture I took of it.

Lake Guinas.  One of two, count ’em, TWO, natural lakes in Namibia.  I was astounded to hear of their existence (and a bit perturbed that no one told me about them earlier), but lo and behold, there they were on the map, practically neighbors.  As we were already in the region for a business excursion, it seemed sacrilegious not to visit.  Besides, it was hot, and we wanted to swim.  The time had come.  The girl from the Great Lakes state, the fresh water capital of the US, was going to see the oasis of her adopted desert home.

In the car on the way to the first one, Lake Otjikoto, Jay and I became as excited as two little kids talking about how we could camp there for the night, cook our dinner over the fire on the beach, go swimming under the stars, etc, etc.  It would be perfect.  Pulling into the parking lot was already a relief; big trees hung down low as if to take pity on us weary travelers.

As Jay approached the park-rangerly-dressed lady, I got sidetracked by the snakes-in-the-jars.  There, outside the gift shop, was a bench with five or six rather large snakes coiled up inside big glass bottles with some kind of yellow liquid preservative.  I must apologize, however, for the lack of photograph.  I was so excited to go swimming, I forgot I even owned a camera.

I then turned around and the ranger informed me that the dog had jumped out of the car.  “He’ll be ok,” I said and waved my hand like “no big deal”.

“No”, she said, “no dogs allowed”.

I looked around at this big, green, shady (and empty) park and then at Jay, hoping he would tell me this was a joke.

It wasn’t.

“No camping or swimming either”, he said.  I felt my heart implode.  The lady informed us that a man had drowned in the lake in 1927 and no one has been allowed in since.  Just to see the lake was N$25 a person.

So we respectfully declined, put our offensive dog back in the car and drove for the second lake, Guinas.

These two lakes are sinkholes, something like 110 meters deep, says a geophysicist friend of ours.  Rumor has it that they are actually connected underground- when a colored dye was put in one it eventually surfaced in the other.  What a trip that must be.  They even have their own endemic fish species, the Otjikoto tilapia, listed, not surprisingly, as critically endangered.

After a few long dusty roads we arrived and found a big white sign that said “Welcome to Lake Guinas.  No fishing, no swimming, no shooting.” So, it turns out, although Namibia has water, no one is allowed to use it for any sort of fun-inducing activity.  You just look at it.

Look, water.

At this point we were too hot to bother with frivolous things such as rules and since this lake was on private property, there were no rangers to scold us.  Besides, the sign was in Afrikaans and if asked, we decided, I would promptly reply in my best American accent that all I understood was the “Welcome to Lake Guinas” part.  So in we went.  At long last, relief from the heat.  Floating around, I envied the birds cheeping from the cliff edges.  How lucky they were to have this natural wonder as their home.

Sniffel, not a fan of swimming, wonders why we would do such a thing.

On our way out we brought with us a few of the many beverage bottles that littered the path down to the water.  Apparently, the rarity of this landscape in Namibia was not enough reason for people not to trash it.  We could only imagine how many had been chucked in and sunk forever.  And wondered if this was the reason all fun had been banned.

Visiting the lakes made us curious what else Namibia was hiding underground.  Once back home, we immediately began looking for cave entrances in the hills around our house.  I am quite determined to find our own massive body of water so we can go swimming whenever we want.  And the sign out front will read:

Welcome to Lake Scorpion.

Dogs and camping welcome.

Drowning and littering prohibited.

Violators will be fed to the tilapia.

Let’s compromise

This series of posts may periodically be updated as I think of more things to compromise on.  Please, visitors, add yours at the bottom.  I’m sure you could find one from your own life.

CATS

Good:  Coming home to cats lounging in the sun beams.

Bad:  Coming home to a present from the cats, a headless mouse which has actually been hiding there behind the chair for three days and is starting to smell and collect bugs and/or maggots.

Compromise:  Fewer mice = fewer cobras/puff adders/zebra snakes = safer cats and happy me.

DOGS

Good:  The dog likes to keep me company when I work on the computer.

Bad:  The dog has periods of toxic gas emissions that smell like a foot died inside a carton of milk that you forgot about in the trunk of your car last summer.

Compromise:  If I happen to be having a day of gas emissions myself and don’t want to take the blame….

 

WINTER

Good:  No mosquitoes.

Bad:  No moisture in my skin to the point it may just dry up and fall off.

Compromise:  I can use the fancy skin lotion that normally just sits in the cabinet and which, with its sweet smell, probably would attract more mosquitoes to me.  Oh, no wait, everything attracts mosquitoes to me.

FOREIGN LANGUAGES

Good:  I get to learn foreign languages.  Although, just one would have been ok.

Bad:  I get laughed at a lot.

Compromise:  I get to learn humility, patience, and sign language.

WILDLIFE CONSERVATION

Good:  When a wildlife conservation organization and a cattle ranch can be neighbors.

Bad:  When a cheetah released from the organization preys on the neighbor’s calves.

Compromise:  That’s the million Namibian dollar question.

This is my cow. I named her Cow. I managed to bring her back to health when she was much smaller after she was attacked by a cheetah. Most calves do not survive. This year, 2 years later, she’s going to be a mom!