Something new for dinner

My explorations into Namibian cuisine have taken another step.  You may not want to hear about it, but hey, if you read my oryx brain story, this one should go down easy. Ready?

Jay and I ate deep-fried zebra snake.

Seriously.

It went like this:

Our chickens were in a major brooding mood.  A few of them were just desperate to sit on some eggs, and we wanted more chickens, so we let them.  The first hen hatched 13 eggs, and with that we doubled our chicken herd.

The second clutch was a bit of an accident.  The hen hid her eggs in tall grass and before we knew it, she disappeared to sit on them.  In time, we found her and her eggs, and with a bit more time, 10 chicks hatched.

Back in the coop, we could hardly keep the hens from sitting so we let one more have a chance.  Eventually, 8 more chicks were born.

Doing the maths, we now had 31 baby chickens running around.

No matter where in the world they were, these helpless balls of meat would attract predators.  I knew better than to expect them all to survive to adulthood, but nevertheless, when they began to disappear, it was depressing.

The original thirteen stayed strong.  Either their mom was tough and kicked some ass whenever something tried to grab one, or they just got lucky.  The second batch of ten, though, had a newbie, slightly air-headed, mom, and within a week, they were whittled down to five.

Then, the third batch began to dwindle – one or two at a time, every few days.  We had a repeat offender on our hands; a nocturnal snake who knew he’d found the jackpot.

When a python took one of the thirteen, who were now pretty big, he was too fat to escape.  So we hauled him out the next morning and transported him far from the house.  But the chicks kept disappearing.

One morning, I found another of the thirteen unable to walk.  His leg had a clear snake bite on it, and he died soon after.  Now we knew we had a venomous snake – that ruled out another python.  And mambas being day snakes left only one other suspect: the zebra snake.

http://lh6.ggpht.com/4bg4hIj9USj_Bg2m3vXYujHdaZjILZaxrUtNn2dht0fFbzewxiqquaYLkKRJFCNd7lQ0fo-nQkihkCE3MfTcDA=s1200

Zebra snake. Photo courtesy projectnoah.org

We began fortifying our coops.  Normally, we use just one, but with all these new animals, we were using two old, non-snake-proof ones.  We fixed holes, cemented around the bases, put up extra mesh fencing, and rested better once they were done, thinking the chickens were safe.

Yet the next morning, two more of the oldest chicks were dead but not eaten, a third paralyzed, and one of the younger chicks gone and another half-eaten and then regurgitated.  It was frustrating enough having my chickens become snake food, but to have them killed and not be anyone’s food was even worse.

I declared war.

My grand plan of attack, as told to Jay: hang bells around the coop wherever a snake might enter and then sleep outside.  “Whenever a bell rings”, I told him, “I’m going out there, and I’m taking the shotgun.”

Jay assured me this wasn’t necessary (kindly brushing aside the fact that we own approximately two bells, one being strapped to a goat’s neck, and I have only a slim idea of how to work the shotgun which is a bit overkill, anyway).  His much more realistic plan: attach a spotlight to a car battery and set it near the coop.  We then set the alarm for 3 a.m. and go out there, well-lit, in search of a snake.

Right on schedule, the snake turned up the second night.  And we didn’t even have to set the alarm, he was in the coop before we went to bed.  Jay took the appropriate-sized rifle, I held the light, and a minute later we had a dead, meter-long zebra snake.

Doing my maths again, this one snake had killed 14 chicks.  To ensure that they didn’t die in vain, in my mind, there was only one thing to do: we had to eat the snake.

Our farm staff was as clueless as we were about how to prepare a snake, not to mention completely revolted by the whole idea.  So, we briefly consulted the internet, then grabbed a knife and chopped off its head.

headlessThe head contains the venom, so headless venomous snakes are safe to eat.  The next task was to remove the skin.  First, we cut the bits holding it to the muscle,

skin be goneand after that, the skin peeled right off.

skin removalThen, out came the guts,

gutsthat contained the last of the last baby chicken,

my chickand just like that we had innards to toss, meat to eat, and a skin to . . . do something with.

3 of a kindIn the kitchen, the meat was chopped up,

filetsbattered up,

bread crumbin'and fried up.

deep fryMost people say that snake meat, ironically, tastes like chicken.  Not being a big meat eater myself, that’s the best comparison I have for you.  Jay constructively noted that it tasted like snake. In any case, there was about as much meat as there was bone, making for a tedious meal.  I’m certainly interested in trying other, fatter species, though.

So, ye legless varmints beware, there be snake eaters on this here farm.

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Bees battle more than just pesticides

When news of the struggle bees are up against worldwide with neonicotinoid pesticides and colony collapse reached us down here in Namibia, we were grateful that the bees around us seemed healthy, happy and populous.  Here on our farm we had 15 swarms living in boxes with an extra one always strategically placed for a house-hunting swarm to pass by.  But this year our bees had their own struggle and, sadly, lost.

We should’ve known – last year was just too good.  Although Namibia was sick with drought, our bees scrounged up food from somewhere and produced a miraculous 150 kilograms of honey.  It was ridiculous, but we were delighted, nonetheless.

This year, we prayed for rain, dreading the thought of another dry year and what it would do to the farm.  Luckily, the rain came – over double what fell last year.  That rain awakened all the bugs which had stuck it out underground, waiting for humid conditions to return.  And the skies went black.

Well, not really, but the bee boxes did.  Big, black beetles called chafers, began swarming, bullying their way into any hole they could fit their fat butts through, to get to the juicy bee larvae inside.  We tried our best to plug any holes, leaving only enough room for the bees to pass, but the beetles bulldozed through anyway.  We’d try to bat them out of the air and squish the prowlers on the outside of the box, but that often ended in getting stung by a pissed-off bee.  During subsequent box inspections, we’d find 50+ beetles lumbering around.  And no honey.  The bees were spending more time fighting them off then collecting food.

The beetles...

The beetles…

...ready for squishing

…ready for squishing.

Later in the season, the death’s head moths came, so called because of the skull image on their back.  Clearly, an unfun bug.  They are big as far as moths go, but fairly flat, and so can squeeze through narrower holes that the beetles wouldn’t fit through.  Sometimes they did us a favor and got stuck in one of them and died, effectively plugging that hole against future invaders.  But when duty called to smush them manually, they made an awful, alien screeching sound – a new sound effect for my nightmares.

The jerks, next to my pocketknife for comparison.

The jerks, next to my pocketknife for comparison.

As if that weren’t enough for our bees to battle, then the wax moths showed up.  These are much smaller, about the size of a blueberry, but white and dull.  They lay their eggs in the box which hatch into equally bland worms.  The worms, however, grow big and plump, eating and pooping their way through the beeswax.  It is not uncommon to find a box deserted by the swarm, yet full of worms, their poop, and their cocoons.  On our last inspection, that’s exactly what happened.

Inside a bee box, showing the frames upon which they build their combs, covered in cocoons and tiny worm poops

Inside a bee box, showing the frames upon which they build their combs, covered in cocoons and tiny worm poops…

...and the butterballs themselves, whom I take great pleasure in feeding to the chickens.

…and the butterballs themselves, whom I take great pleasure in feeding to the chickens.

Box after box was silent and empty.  We had checked on them only a few weeks before, and they were still strong, but the parasite triumvirate was too much.  From 15, we are now down to 5.

Even from the surviving boxes, beetles, moths, and worms were hauled out and stomped.  Though, with cooler weather upon us, they seem to be slowing down – hopefully, the worst is over.  The swarms that are left now have a few weeks to stock up for winter.  If they do manage a bit of honey, it will be well earned and they’ll get to keep it.  Our dwindling supplies will have to hold until spring.

As with many things, we can now only wait and see if the bugs exhausted their forces this year and if whatever comes next season is a load that the bees can handle.  Otherwise, we’ll need a serious consultation in pest control; pesticides clearly not an option.  Any advice from fellow bee folk out there is most welcome.

Sweepings from just one room of the three-room bee house - beetles, moths, and the bees who gave their lives to fight them.

Sweepings from just one room of the three-room bee house – beetles, moths, and the bees who gave their lives to fight them.

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.

That’s one way to learn

Sitting down for my daily dose of language study (it was an Afrikaans day, the day before was German), I wanted something more than the basics: Piet will die boek koop, Hy kan nie die boek koop nie.  I didn’t care if Piet wanted to buy the book, or if he could buy the book, or anything at all about Piet and the stupid book.  I wanted something more complex, sentences with conjunctions, things that real people say.

And just as I was searching for the “intermediate” Afrikaans lessons, I heard a car coming down our dirt road.  Since it was moving at a healthy pace, I figured it was just a neighbor cruising by.  But then the motor slowed and the wheels bounced over the cattle grid at the entrance to our farm.

Could it be Jay?, I wondered.  That was a fast trip to town, it’s not even noon yet.  But soon I saw it was not Jay; it was his right-hand man, Zacka, in the old rattlebox farm pick-up back from checking if any of the pregnant cattle had given birth.  A minute later he was at my door.

I came outside.  “Alles OK?”, I asked.

This was a stupid question; he only comes to get me if he needs something or something is wrong.  But it was the question that launched my Afrikaans lesson of the day from easy, right past intermediate, straight into holy shit.

Zacka proceeded to inform me in far too many words that one of our cows had died while giving birth.  At least I caught the main part and responded with the appropriate shocked facial expression and repeated the crucial word back to him.

“Dood?” Um, that’s not good.  What do I do now?

“Ja, dood.  Kan jy Jay bel?

Yes, call Jay.  Good idea.  Let’s do that.

Naturally, when I’m in a situation where I don’t know what to do and need some input from the guy who does all the cow stuff, the guy has his cell phone turned off.  All that crap about “Call me if you need anything.  Let me know if there’s any problems, etc. etc.”, only applies when everything is running smoothly.  After the third try, I swore at the automated “this number cannot be reached” woman and slammed the phone down.  Zacka and I were on our own.

He asked me if we should just leave the cow where she was.

“Miskien”, I replied.  Maybe was a safe answer while I searched my brain for a solution.

What would Jay do?

But then Zacka went into a ramble how the vultures were coming and vultures were bad, though I couldn’t understand why.

Should we bring it in to the vulture restaurant then? (The clearing by our house where all the leftovers from slaughtering go).  Or are those vultures bad too?

Then I realized there was a smarter option.

“Kan ons die vleis verkoop?”, I asked, using the Piet-and-his-book sentence structure.  If we could sell the meat, the death of a calf-producing cow and her (female, Zacka told me) calf would not be a total loss.

That is what Jay would do.

“Ja”, Zacka said, but not very confidently.

Well, we’ll see how good the meat is when they bring it in.  At least we have a plan.

Zacka then asked if I would come with.

Um….

“Ek kan”, I said, more like a question than an answer.  I had hoped my role in the ordeal was over, but Zacka was already suggesting we take the other pick-up along so that we could load the cow onto it.  Then, he said, I could bring it back home and the other farm guy could slaughter it while he continued the search for newborn calves.  Admittedly, this sounded like the best way to go about it, so as soon as I pulled the word for ‘shoes’ out of my head, I ran to get them and a hat and off we went, Zacka leading the way.

At least I don’t have to make small talk in Afrikaans (a task I prefer not to do in any language).  But why are we in such a hurry?  It’s already dead.  Oh, there’s the cattle guy.  Wave!  Maybe he’s worried the vultures will start in on the carcass.  Great, now he’s stopping to wait for my pokey ass to catch up.  What is this, normally Africans don’t move so fast.  Oooh, baby warthogs!

When we got to the camp where the pregnant cattle roamed, a glance around revealed no dead animals.  Zacka casually opened the gate and puttered forth, so I, now confused, followed as he drove deeper and deeper into the bush.  Finally, he got out of the truck, and just as I went to do the same, he climbed onto the roof.

Oh good, he’s lost the cow.

I climbed up there with him while he muttered something about how he just needed to find the other guy who was standing with the body, but we saw nothing and hollering his name only scared a few birds out of the bushes.  So, bumbling over my words, I offered to come with him; I’d ride on the back for a better chance at finding the missing cow and her human guardian.  And once more, we were off through the bush, bouncing in and out of warthog holes, sun pouring down.

This is not what I thought I’d be doing today.

Eventually, a man appeared through the herds of acacias and I leaned around to Zacka’s window and directed him “links”, left.  Once through another few craters, we turned around and backed into the small clearing where the cow had taken shelter.  I immediately felt sorry for her.  She had died under a tree, all alone, and probably in a lot of pain.  The calf’s head was out and partially eaten by something, along with its two front legs.

Well, you suck at languages, but at least you aren’t suffering in the bush by yourself.  Note to self: It could always be worse. 

Yet, it would be another Afrikaans-filled hour until we had her loaded.

We hauled out the winches, plural, two, because she was so big, and had the extra weight of a calf inside of her.  I tried to help where I could but it’s a man’s world in Namibia.  I realized I didn’t know how to use the idiosyncratic winches, because the men always do it and even when I could do something, like hoist the cow by her leg up onto the metal ramp we’d brought along, the guy who’d been standing guard grabbed the leg a little higher up, effectively pushing me out of the way.  This is a very common occurrence on the farm.  I don’t know if it is because they think I can’t do it, or that I shouldn’t be doing it, or if their manliness is challenged and they have to do it.  Regardless, I didn’t want to argue, I just wanted to get the cow on the truck.  I moved to the other side and hauled her up by the tail.

Luckily, with this sort of work, there was no need for conversation; we knew what needed to be done.  The winching, however, wasn’t working, the truck was too high and the cow too heavy.  Zacka offered a new plan.

Ok, gathering by his hand gestures, he wants to move one of the winches to the front of her body and flip her up and over.  That’s…um…not going to work.

But I couldn’t get words out fast enough to say that, nor did I have a better idea.  So twenty minutes later she was still on the ground, clasped tightly to the bed of the truck via her head and hind legs.

Zacka already had a new plan; something about driving her like this back to my truck still waiting on the road and we could then use both trucks to lift her up.  I didn’t understand how we would do this, but at least I knew the other truck was lower to the ground.  So Zacka motored off in that direction while the other guy and I walked behind, watching cow and calf bounce through every hole.

As the process unfolded, I realized Zacka was going to use his truck to pull her onto mine, forgetting the winches altogether.  I felt bad that I hadn’t been contributing to the plan-making lately, though winching and flipping cows onto trucks was not yet part of my Afrikaans vocabulary, and I scoured my brain again for anything that might help us succeed this time.

What would Jay do?  Well, there was that time last year…with those huge oil drums…and no winch…

It took time for me to find the words but Zacka nodded his head and made affirmative vocalizations.  If we backed my truck into one of those many warthog holes, its bed would be tilted low to the ground, making it much easier to load our heavy girl.  But, seemingly having understood nothing of my idea, he dropped the cow right there onto the road.

Wait…we have to…a hole…

Then with a pick ax from the back of the truck, he started chopping up the dirt road.

Well, he understood something.  Maybe this is just how he prefers it. 

So I grabbed a shovel, which was promptly taken from me by the other guy, then grabbed another one, and scooped out what had been chopped.  After a couple of tries the holes were big enough to get the two rear wheels into and the bed of the truck was only about a foot off the ground.  With a rope as thick as a cucumber around the two hind legs, strung up over the roof of my truck and tied to the hitch of Zacka’s, we slowly inched the cow onto the bed.  Although, I could not get out of the way fast enough and ended up with a bloody carcass smeared across my legs and feet, she was on the truck.

Thank god. 

I made sure Zacka was good to continue on with his original job and thanked him. “Baie dankie vir jou help.  Sien jou by die huis”.  I’m going home now.

In the end, the cow was slaughtered and the meat sold.  Jay turned his phone on again (he’d been in a meeting) and thanked us for our efforts.  We had done the right thing.  And I had survived the best and worst language lesson, sunburned and covered in dead cow blood, ever.  It was certainly better than the last fiasco.  Maybe, some far away day, I’ll actually get the hang of these tortuous languages.

Winter with a bang

That line sure is fine sometimes.  Summer, winter.  Warm, cold.  Life, death.  One day, we’re wearing shorts and all is well.  The next we’re sheltering sick and struggling animals from near-freezing temperatures, as if Namibia was looking for a snack in the fridge and then someone shoved it in from behind and slammed the door.  It’s been a roller coaster week here on the farm.

The cats and Sniffel are unfazed.  They’ve been packing on extra hair for a while and the cold hasn’t interrupted their schedule of sleeping.  But four newly hatched chickens got a rough welcome to the world.  At least they have a fat and fluffy mom who takes pride in sitting on them.  The other six eggs were worse off – abandoned when they took too long to hatch.  Jay and I went in and rescued the two that were still alive, keeping them warm with a hot water bottle.  Only one chick survived the first night and though she’s wobbly, she seems eager to get going with life.  At first, I’d hoped her mom would take her in but her little legs don’t work too well (earning her the name Rollie, as in she rolls more than walks).  She couldn’t keep up with her siblings and would end up sleeping in the cold.  Now she’s living with us and eating infant bird food from a syringe multiple times a day.  Without a mom to teach her, she took the plate of corn meal mush I gave her as a new, very wet, napping spot.

Rollie, the one in the middle, hanging with her family.  Her mom accepted her at first then began pecking her on the head.  She stays in the living room now. 

The cows are giving birth as well and like every year, we’ve lost one or two or six newborn calves to predators.  The worst though is when they’re only bitten and not killed.  That means we have a calf on the yard, weak with infection from a leopard bite, like this week.  The holes in his neck made just breathing a struggle.  So to drink milk from the bottle I offered we’d have to stop often so he could haul in some more oxygen.  The rest of his body was rather helpless as well, he even needed help pooping (don’t ask).  But when he saw me coming with a bottle of milk, his ears, the only part he could move on his own, perked right up, as if ready to take flight.  But the little bit of food in his belly and the blanket over top of him wasn’t enough when the cold came.  Although I greeted him yesterday morning, rubbed his head and told him I’d bring him some milk, he left us before I returned.  The next calf has already taken his place.  Not because of a leopard; he’s just too weak to stand.  He’s now inside in the laundry room and sleeps with two blankets.  Luckily, he’s still a champ at drinking milk and hopefully we’ll get him out in the corral with the others in due time.

Calf number two enjoying the waning afternoon sun – assuming that’s a face of enjoyment.

Amongst the chaos, however, was an unprecedented event on the farm.  Jay’s cattleman flagged us down as we drove by the corral the other day.  He and Jay then commenced a conversation in Herero about something obviously exciting; the old, reserved cattleman was smiling.  A little later, Jay translated for me saying, “he’s never seen anything like it in all his years.”  With only that to work with, I was left hanging while they continued on for a few more minutes.  Finally I got another word and it was all I needed: twins.  One of the cows plunked down two heads, two hearts and eight legs, a lot to get out of a little hole.  Lucky for us they’re doing well.  Reading up on twin calves taught me that often one of them is neglected by the mom and has to be bottle-fed or one or both are underdeveloped and weak, also requiring a bottle, or a load of medicine when they get sick.  These guys though, both male, seem to be ok, relieving us of overtime bottle duty.

As the mom was not available for the photo, readers will have to take my word that these are in fact twins and not just two calves sitting next to each other.

I’m hoping from here on out we’ll all stay on the right side of the line, the warm and alive side, the all is well side.  But that’s a lot to ask of life, no matter where you are in the world.  At least we know Namibia will warm up again someday, returning to her blazing-hot ways.  And someday, surely, little Rollie will discover that the plate I give her is food, not a bed, and I will once again have that elusive thing on a farm called spare time.

Rain or death: in pictures

The rainy season in Namibia, roughly November through March, is by far the best time of the whole year.  The otherwise dead and dry land, with just a bit of water, suddenly turns into a lush, green (almost) rainforest.  When the clouds hang low over the hills, I half expect to meet a mountain gorilla out there.

waterberg

When it rains, work out on the farm becomes something to look forward to.  Not only do the clouds give us a break from the heat, but once out of the front gate, life turns into one big treasure hunt.  For the rainy season is omajova season – the termite mushrooms are out.

omajovas

I could write a short book about the joy that is the omajova, one of the most peculiar yet fantastic things about this country.  And I might.  But for now it will have to suffice to say that searching for omajovas makes every day more interesting and finding them, spotting that bit of white through the green, is like Christmas; a feast is sure to follow.

truly namibian feast

Once infected with omajova fever, you are always on the lookout.  Trips into the bush become devoid of conversation; everyone is far too busy looking for mushrooms.  And with this heightened awareness, you see much more than termite mounds.  You fall into a trance of the life that rain created.

rain road

You’ll see the oryx, hartebeest, and eland have given birth to fuzzy and awkward calves.  The warthogs too, have their wartlets at their side, all of them covered in a fresh layer of mud.  And with newborns come predators.

leopard!

The flowers are out; fire lilies creeping through the bush, their charm belying their fatal poison.

Fire lily

For me, it’s as if all the plants and animals are saying exactly what I am thinking, it’s a great time to be alive in Namibia.

Or it was.  Before the rain disappeared.

At first, I thought it was maybe my fault, that I had pissed old mama Namibia off with my recent post about the garden.  But we were actually the lucky ones.  Most parts of the country look as though they skipped the summer entirely and went straight back into winter.

crispy namibia

With the new year, the sun that Namibia is famous for, so characteristic that it’s on the nation’s flag, that ball of fire insistent on baking us all to raisins, came back.  For days, and days, and days, only sun.

SUN

With time, the clouds began to pop up again and there was hope.  We’d talk about very little except the latest development in the sky.

“The clouds are pretty fluffy today.”

“Yeah, but it’s a west wind.  No good.”

“It’s almost new moon, maybe that’ll bring rain.”

But it didn’t.

moon 'n clouds

Then came the army worms.  Appropriately named, these inch-or-so-long worms moved through the fields like soldiers, systematically eating each blade of grass down to the nub as they went.  Thousands of them filling their ever-hungry stomachs.  All the grass we watched so happily spring up after the rain, the thick, green grass we were saving for the winter, turned into a horde of worms.

worms, worms everywhere

Word on the street said the only way to get rid of them was rain.  Buckets of rain to wash them away.  The one thing we didn’t have.  And so we regressed into the dead brown phase just like everyone else, reminded of it with every step.

goo shoes

But the clouds kept coming.  Every afternoon we watched with utmost anticipation as they grew thicker and darker.  A few droplets, prayers that they wouldn’t stop, but they always did and the sun returned and the worms ate on.  Eventually, hope conceded to the sun.

dark vs. light

Yesterday brought blue skies and the same old story.  By late afternoon, the same puffy clouds.  As they grew bigger and bigger, hope bubbled up again, but I did my best to ignore it.  And then just before sunset, this:

rain art

Not just water, but a painting.  As if to reward our patience, and remind us all is not lost.

No one can say if it’ll stick around, relieve us of worms, return us to green, but I do know one thing: whoever wrote that “rain, rain go away” song never lived in Namibia.

The world of chickens

Chicken-wise, the past couple of months have been a roller coaster here on the farm.  I never would’ve expected so much from such goofy birds.  But after the births and deaths, love, hate, and turmoil that came out of our coop recently, I have to say, I’ve grown rather fond of them all.

It began with the eggs.  Our chickens have worked out a system where only one lays eggs at a time so the others can focus on other important tasks, like, I don’t know, walking around.  This does not result in many eggs.  What’s more, if the on-duty chicken decides to abandon the coop altogether, we have to search for the eggs, as if every day were Easter.

In the recent case, the egg chicken hid herself and her eggs in some leaf litter beneath a low-hanging palm frond.  By the time we found her, we had no way to know how old the eggs were and so we let her keep them.  Everyday we fed her there as she warmed her clutch of 10 or so. Through rain and wind, night and day, diligently she sat.

Then one day, she was gone.  All that remained was a few unfertilized eggs, many broken shells, and three lifeless chicks.  What happened, we could only speculate.  Perhaps one of Namibia’s wild cats, maybe a civet.  It was a sizable loss; a new generation of chicks and a dedicated mother.  I realized how excited I had become to see those eggs hatch.

But on the way back to the house, movement in the old, abandoned chicken stall nearby caught my eye.  There was our chicken with two yellow fluffballs running circles around her.  Whatever had happened, she successfully defended two of her chicks and moved them to the shelter of the old stall.  It was truly heart-warming to see and I was probably more excited than I should have been.  We set them up with food and water and the stall became their new home.

A little later we got another new addition to the chicken herd.  A friend needed to get rid of a rooster and thought of us.  We figured we could use some new genes in the pool so we accepted it.  But this was no ordinary rooster.  It was the biggest, manliest, most spectacularly decorated rooster I had ever seen.  He made our old roosters look like pansies which they did not appreciate.  Retaliation ensued.

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New rooster finally came in out of the rain for a game of pool.  He was not at his manliest for the photo.

We had kept the new rooster separated from the flock for a few days to allow for acclimation.  So he roamed the yard alone, standing pathetically in the rain to emphasize his solitude.  Eventually, thinking all would be alright, we gave him a night with the others.  But when the door to the coop was opened the next morning, new rooster came shooting out, in a barrage of squawks and feathers with one of the old roosters right on his heels.  When the old caught up to the new, he leapt promptly onto his back and began pulling out more of his long, luxurious feathers.  The new, big, strong, manly rooster responded by attempting to hide in a patch of aloes.  I finally managed to break them up and the new rooster was again separated.

A farm worker advised that we should give the new guy a couple of his own ladies so that he could find a niche and regain his self-esteem.  So the two youngest hens were moved in to his bachelor nook.  One was indifferent, but one was in love.  From then on, they’ve cruised the yard as the new couple, eating, drinking, and sleeping together.  The old roosters still had their admirers and gave up their bullying.  Peace returned to the coop.  But not for long.

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The couple during an afternoon nap.

Mama chicken, still over in the old stall with her two chicks was found one night unable to stand up.  I picked her up and tried stretching out her legs but it only upset her.  Beyond that, one chick had disappeared.  Again, we could only guess as to what happened, but it looked like a snake had come for one of her chicks and she was bitten while defending them once again.  Not only did she lose the chick, but she lost her life as well.  She died that night in a box in our kitchen, her last chick still nestled under her wing the next morning.

As orphaned animals tend to do on the farm, the chick moved in with us.  She deserved whatever shot at life we could give her.  In honor of our last bird visitor, Spicy Chicken the owl, she was named after another popular Namibian spice, and became Barbecue the chicken.

Understandably, Barbecue was not terribly fond of us at first.  But being the trooper that she is, she came around.  In a few days, she discovered she could get free rides on our shoulders.  Shortly thereafter, she was eating with us, literally, straight from our plates.

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We’re hoping she won’t attempt to do this when she’s bigger.

Barbecue has now exchanged almost all of her baby fluff for feathers.  She is quite independent, yet doesn’t like to be alone.  Eventually, she’ll be big enough to join the tumultuous world of chickens.  It won’t be easy, but assuming that she is the woman we think she is, one day not long from now, she’ll be a mom herself, a very fine one, and bring in a whole new crew of these bizarre and charming creatures.