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.


“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.


More than it seems

A bit of home maintenance the other day made me realize that I may not be giving Namibia as much credit as it deserves.  Sure, it likes to make life difficult by not raining or sabotaging attempts to grow food, but maybe it’s all just an effort to make us humans a little more resourceful.

See, I’m trying to grow mushrooms – a possibly futile venture to grow something in this country that is not meat. The old building I’m using as the growing room was exactly that, old.  It had a few holes between the cement walls and the tin roofing which were allowing my crucial humidity to be sucked out into the black hole of water that is Namibia.  But rather than using plaster to plug them up, I decided to go natural and brought in some termite dirt.

Indigenous folks around here have long used it to build houses, and still do today.  Mixed with water, the dirt from termite mounds turns into a paste.  Sometimes, cow patties are added for stability and then they pack this stuff around a wooden frame.

The walls of old house on the farm, not used for 14 years, still has some termite dirt standing strong.

So I packed it, sans cow patties, into the holes in my mushroom house.  It was free, took about ten minutes, and seems to be holding the moisture in.

Amidst the packing, I became rather impressed with the termite dirt and what a wonderful job it was doing.  My curiosity about what made it sticky prompted a bit of research.  Surprisingly, the information was not readily available and required digging, but the extra effort was worth it, uncovering much more than what I was seeking.

It seems mound-building termites, such as our local Macrotermes genus, have an “adhesive secretion” which binds the dirt together, allowing them to build their impressive mounds, some reaching more than 3 meters (over 9 feet) high.  It is this secretion which makes the paste, allowing us to build houses or plug holes in walls.

What’s more, this termite dirt, compared to surrounding soil, is loaded with nitrogen, an essential element for plants to grow.  Farmers throughout Africa have figured this out and use termite dirt for fertilizer or simply grow their crops on the mounds.  It can boost production by as much as 5 times that of average harvests.

The dirt is high in other nutrients as well, including calcium, and pregnant women in rural areas have been known to consume this dirt, a process called geophagy, helping with milk production and bone formation of their child.  It is a common practice for undernourished children as well.  So not only do people consume the termites and the mushrooms they grow, but they eat the mound itself.

For me, that is the essence of Namibia; one species providing food, shelter, and medicine.  It’s not really an abundance kind of place, you just need to know where to look.

So it seems I have a lot of learning to do.  But still, I think a little rain wouldn’t hurt….

Afrikaans and I

The day was going smoothly (always a bad sign) and I just had one more errand to do before hitting the road for home – fill those two diesel barrels on the back of the pick-up.  Not a complicated task.

It was off to a bad start when I pulled up to the front gate and it was locked.  Yet, I noticed the jockeys were filling up barrels on two other trucks.  I caught one man’s eye and gave him a look like “what’s the story?” with an upturned palm of my hand for emphasis.  He motioned to come around the side. Of course! The side door! The secret side door that they never use except when I am sent to get the diesel!  Yes, I’ll be right there.  Thank you, sir.

Once through the secret side door, I pulled the pick-up around to the only open spot at the pump and stepped out of the car to greet a short, old, black man in a red and yellow Shell Oil T-shirt.  Although it was not his, nor my, first language, Afrikaans is what we spoke to each other.  It is the language most of Namibia speaks to each other, unfortunately, it is the second, and therefore more neglected, language I have learned here.

Then the nice fuel station man asked me what I wanted.  I pointed to the two barrels on the back and said “diesel, asseblief”.  (Luckily, diesel is ‘diesel’ in Afrikaans.  ‘Asseblief’ is ‘please’.)  The man then informed me in a slew of non-understood words that I needed to move the car forward.  His arm gestures plus the fact that I caught the word for ‘forward’ helped me figure out his message.

After that task, I climbed out of the car to help unscrew the barrel caps.  They were well-tightened so the man went off in search of a tool to loosen them.  I grabbed the pliers out of the front seat and quickly twisted the first one off.  He came back with a big smile and said something in a tone like ‘very clever’.  I smiled in response.

As the barrels filled, I watched the other men waiting and how they joked and chatted with their diesel guys.  I envied their ability to do so.  It is times like that that I remember when I return to the States and start chatting with every cashier I get; enjoying conversations I previously had taken for granted.

Soon, my guy came over and handed me a little slip of paper detailing my purchase.  He pointed to the office.

“Mevrou”, he started.

Miss, yep, got that part.

“Mumble mumble mumble toe, mumble mumble mumble ander kant”, he said.

Ok, the office is closed, I have to pay on the other side.  “By Caltex?”, I asked, pointing to the Caltex station around the corner. (‘By’ is also an Afrikaans word though pronounced ‘bay’).

“Ja,” he nodded.

“Ok, dankie”, I said, my confidence in communication growing.

A little bit later the drums were full and he poked his head around to the front seat where I was sitting. “Tank, asseblief”, he said, and pointed toward the floor of the car, toward the lever to pop the gas tank.

Tank? Why the tank?  I guess I get a free fill-up with my diesel.  Cool, dude, thanks!  And so, I popped the tank.

He repeated himself, “tank, asseblief”.  So, I pulled the lever again, twice, just to be sure.

“Tank”, he said, thrusting his finger toward the floor.  “Die tank!”

Yes, the tank is open!  Fill ‘er up, man!, thought my frustrated brain, pulling repeatedly at the lever.

Meanwhile, my logical brain ruminated over what else this poor man might be trying to tell me.  Tank……. tank…….tang!  Die tang!  He wants the pliers!  There, on the floor next to the gas tank lever, was the pair of pliers I had used earlier to open the diesel drums.  He now wanted to close them.

I damn near threw the pliers at him in my anxiousness to let him know I finally understood and smiled and chuckled a little bit.  He did not.  Then I walked around the other side of the car and closed the wide-open door to the gas tank.

A short minute after that, I was pulling out of the secret side door again.  The diesel man was surely glad to see me leave.

Telling the story to Jay later that evening, at least I could laugh about it.  I only worry that the people in our small town will begin to recognize me as that girl who says ‘3’ when they ask what day it is or hands them an apple when they inquire about the dog’s name.  Everyone will warn their friends not to speak to me.

And then I’ll never learn Afrikaans.

Stupid pliers.

Remember to appreciate your ears

I never lived on a farm in the States.  Can’t say what it’s like there.  Here, death is not unusual, be it a great kudu or a teeny tomato plant.  This morning, 5 am, a civet ate the head off of our only egg-producing chicken, mama Huhn (huhn = chicken in German).  And yesterday, I watched a two-week-old calf take his last breath.

Jay and the farm staff all took it in stride; schlepped the body away and continued with life.  I had a harder time.  I understand death but I don’t understand suffering at all.  How could they handle it so nonchalantly?

The calf had sweating sickness.  Not the kind from medieval England that killed dukes and lords, the kind in Africa that comes from a toxin produced by ticks and has many awful consequences, including the following listed in the Merck veterinary manual: The skin becomes extremely sensitive and emits a sour odor. Later, the hair and epidermis can be readily pulled off, exposing red, raw wounds. The tips of the ears and the tail may slough. Eventually, the skin becomes hard and cracked and predisposed to secondary infection or screwworm infestation.

These all were beginning to appear when we brought him in but he was eating grass and drinking water from mud puddles while tromping behind his mother, also on the yard, who was tromping through the freshly planted garden.  He wouldn’t drink her milk but he would drink warmed milk out of a bottle.  “You’re doing a great job”, I said.  It felt necessary to offer encouragement.

The next morning I already had my doubts about his survival.  The best treatment for the disease is prevention, of course, and the antibiotics we injected into his rump weren’t doing anything.  He wouldn’t drink at all perhaps due to misery of the maggots swarming in his eyes, ears, groin, and other miscellaneous places.  Two spoonfuls came out of each ear which were then flushed out with medicated water along with everything else.  Then a thorough spritzing of fly spray which turned him blue.  He had no energy to care.

In the afternoon, I revisited him in the rocky patch of grass in the corner of the yard.   Together, we managed half a bottle of milk into his belly.  Holding his chin up for extra support, chunks of fur came off in my hand.  I ignored the rotten sweat smell he emitted as well as the insects deflected off him that were now biting me.  Hands are washable, I reminded myself.  It was not his fault that he was really quite gross, he needed compassion.  Nearby, momcow glared at me with huge, apprehensive eyeballs.

Without any of us around, that evening he picked himself up for a cruise around the yard with mom.  When we found him he had the “what?” look on his face with a sprig of grass hanging lopsided out of his mouth.  He hobbled along with stiff legs, almost dragging his feet, but he seemed to enjoy moving and that he may yet beat this thing.  He had whole bottle of milk for dinner without any extra help from me.

Whatever he’d found the night before he’d lost by morning.  I found him flat on the ground, appearing to be dead, until I saw his chest rise slowly.  I propped him up with logs behind his back, he murmured a pathetic argument.  His head was too heavy for him to hold up and drinking was too much of an effort.  The side of his head that had been on the ground was nearly bald now.  Same maggots, same procedure as the day before.  The earful of water was all that got him to sit upright.  A fresh coat of fly spray and we let him sleep.

At the afternoon bottle attempt, I found him flat again.  The number of flies ignoring the fly spray told me they knew what was coming.  His chest rose again but it was clearly more difficult.  His mouth was open, tongue nearly on the ground.  He would not sit up.  The relentless flies laughed at my extra spraying.  His ears were already full of eggs again.  I scratched his head and muttered the most comforting words I could find, then went to get Jay.

He wasn’t ready to let him go yet.  Normally I would be all for that mentality but this guy was clearly suffering.  To make the decision to end a life, though, is not easy.  When Jay went to fetch the wheelbarrow to haul him inside away from the flies, I could see we wouldn’t need to make the decision after all.  His breathing slowed to the point of stopping until he could gather enough strength to inhale once more.  By the time we loaded him in the wheelbarrow, he had no strength left.  I watched for the mouth to open, the chest to rise, but they didn’t.  Momcow seemed to be expecting it.  She left the yard soon after.

Watching a life leave a body was strange for me and I was the only one sad about this calf.  Thinking about it at 5 am this morning, I realized maybe that was because death hasn’t been a big part of my life.  It doesn’t affect these Africans because it IS a big part of theirs.  It’s not to say they aren’t respectful or sad if it’s one of their own, but the disease, the suffering, the inevitable; it just isn’t an issue.  It’s the way life goes.  And perhaps they know better than someone like me that you have to enjoy what you’ve got while you’ve got it before the other stuff shows up.

Poolsharkdom awaits

I’d been playing pool for a few years before moving here.  Unfortunately, despite this lengthy opportunity, I did not build my skills to a sufficient level to avoid having my self-esteem smeared across the green felt from time to time.  Thus, it was good news when I discovered the wealth of pool tables in Namibia.  My relocation did not mean the end of my pool-sharking dreams.  But the road to reach them is not a smooth one.

It began one day in Windhoek.  Running errands in the nation’s capital meant the usual traffic, crowds, and exhaustion.  We needed a lunch break and Jay had a faint memory of a little pizza place with a few tables.  Out of this memory he pulled the route to a wee side road and cold beer, pizza, and pool.  It was here that I was introduced to the African pool table.

Although Africa is 6 million square kilometers bigger than North America, they did not have enough room for American tables and had to shrink them.  They smushed in all four sides along with the holes and deflated the balls by about a third.  Then they made one-size-fits-all-children cue sticks that I feel I might break with one hard shot.  Not optimal for us tall people but out of our control.

American cue left, African cue right. Don’t sneeze, you may splinter it.


The fun continued on a trip to Rundu, a town on Namibia’s northern border.  In an attempt to mingle with the locals, Jay and I went off in search for a bar with a pool table.  We found the curiously named:

But instead settled on the more traditional Free Town:

This place had all a bar really needs:  walls (sheet metal), floor (dirt), bar (wood) with a few stools and beer (cold), and, of course, a table (pool).  The few patrons plunked upon the few stools were not shy to stare at the two whiteys that just walked in.  We may have been the only ones to ever have done so.  No one spoke English or any of the other languages from our area of the country but we did manage to order two bottles of beer and communicate that we wanted to use the table.  The patrons whirled around on their stools to watch what would surely be a spectacle.

I was now used to the miniature tables but I had not yet played on one which had more duct tape than felt.  That wasn’t so much an obstacle as the cue ball that disappeared in the table depths every time we scratched.

The patrons were very helpful though.  The men would lift the table and shake the ball out when it stuck and the women shared, in Kavango, their version of the rules.  The two words I did understand were “two times”.  This was in reference to the two shots a player got if their opponent scratched.  When we scratched, everyone would yell “TWO TIMES!”, we’d fish out the ball, and play on.

I had many supporters since I was the woman.  The men gathered around me each shot and, after discussing it amongst themselves, point to the ball they recommended.  Free Town erupted in cheers when I won and I received many handshakes.

Then the bartender wanted to play.

She was about half my height but glared at me like a bull sizing up a naked matador; no challenge.

She snatched the cue from Jay and roughly ground the tip with the chalk hanging from the ceiling above the table.  I broke.  A blink of an eye later, she catapulted the cue ball off the table and out the door.  This happened more than once; she shot impulsively and missed often.  I didn’t win so much as she lost.

Skills, 0,  interesting African experience, 92.


After playing many lopsided, coin-eating tables throughout Namibia, into Botswana and even Zimbabwe we finally decided to settle down and have a uniquely quirky table of our own.  Ours has different sized holes and will eat any ball at any time.  For extra skill-building, Africa occasionally sends in her jillion-strong army of bugs to change at will the course of our balls.

“11 ball, corner pocket, off the dung beetle.”

Alas, it is through this cruel world I must plod fate-ward.  As Muhammed Ali once said: “Suffer now and live the rest of your life a champion.”

I’m sure I’ll only need another 50 years or so.