Oh my Africa – January 2015

Maybe my mind is in the gutter here, but perhaps this is not the best name for something you want people to eat.  It’s a good example of how snappy abbreviations and misspellings for product names, though extraordinarily popular for some reason, aren’t always a good idea.  Yet, the commonality of this product in stores around the country, and probably southern Africa, suggests I’m alone in my opinion.  Any thoughts?

Crackers anyone?

Cracker anyone?

 

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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.

The mushroom bugs

I’m not a big fan of bugs.  It’s not because they’re creepy or gross (though they certainly can be), it’s mainly because they eat my vegetables and sting me all the live long day.   My mortal enemy, the mosquito, is a bug.  But some are good, like ladybugs, who eat other bugs.  And the honey bee is amazing and the bumblebee is adorable.  But termites, well, termites are in a class by themselves.

I wrote this other post over here about them, so I won’t go into all the helpful things they do.  Instead, this post is about the glory that is the omajowa (oh-ma-yo-va), the giant edible mushroom that these tiny termites grow this time of year.

“Omajowa” is Herero for “mushroom” and is the name most Namibians use for these things.  In Latin, it’sTermitomyces schimperi.  In German, Termitenpilz.  In English, extraordinary.  A termite mound will sprout only once a year, if at all, but often with legions of these fungi, enough to feed the foraging folks who find them, and their family, all for free.  Only rain is needed.  And those crazy little termites.  They actually cultivate them, in an underground fungus garden from which they feed.  And for some reason, between December and February, the fungus gets out of control and shoots skyward.

So when a “weather expert” told us shortly after New Year’s that the rain was gone – what we got til then was all we were going to get – I wanted to punch him.  Instead, with memories of last year’s long days of drought and the realization that we hadn’t found a single omajowa this year, I cried.  No joke.  I take the rainy season just that seriously.  But someone took pity on us, and after three dry and depressing weeks the rain came back, and that is when I found this:

It may not look like much, but after a few years of rainy seasons in this country, I’ve learned to pick out white blobs at the bottom of termite mounds, no matter how obscure they might be.  If you want mushrooms, you learn.  And that wee white bit at the bottom left of the mound, turned out to be this little dude, not even open yet:

And around the back, these guys were pushing up through dirt so hard we needed a shovel to get them out:

All in all, we found 13 mushrooms on this mound.  I was so terribly excited that I ripped my shirt on the acacia trees while running back and forth from mound to car – first to get my camera, then to put it back and get a shovel, then back to get the camera again, then once more to load the booty.  Due to my bumbling, I’m afraid Jay ended up doing most of the work. He didn’t seem to mind though, omajowa are worth it.

Since we had more work to do on the farm, lunch had to wait, but still I searched for mushrooms.  The hunt is half the fun – your senses, along with your heartbeat, pick up a notch knowing that they could be lurking around any corner.  So about an hour later, when more were spotted, we scooped them up in triumph.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERABut these aren’t just pick-and-run mushrooms; you have to carefully wiggle them out.  Beneath the ground is a chunky, yet fragile, stem that’s perfect for battering and frying.  And bonus points if you get the tail, too.  It’s too hard to be palatable, but it’s weird and, therefore, worthy of acknowledgement.

the tailAnd so with another 8 loaded onto the truck, enough for a feast for us and the entire farm staff, the world felt right again.

The rain has continued on and off since then, at least enough to keep the mushrooms growing.  When we found the record for this year, 25 on one mound, we had to lay some of them out to dry.  Two meals a day of mushrooms (incomprehensibly, Jay draws the line at breakfast) was not enough to eat them all before they expired.  The all-time record though, was a couple of years ago.  One mound, 36 mushrooms.

And here’s probably the biggest I’ve ever found:

So the termites have confirmed their spot on my acceptable bug list, and though they would improve their rating should they start eating mosquitoes, there they will remain as long as they keep making mushrooms.  Because without the omajowa, life in Namibia just wouldn’t be as much fun.

The unexpected harvests

Jay always says “Namibia is full of surprises”.  While it’s true, they tend not to be surprises one would appreciate (like this).  Now and then, though, this country comes through with something pretty cool.

It started with the oranges; a significant happening for us because last year we got to eat exactly zero oranges, thanks to one of Namibia’s plagues that it periodically inflicts upon people.  Some sort of citrus fruit fly stung each and every fruit on our ten trees, causing them to rot from the inside out before they ripened.  So this year fly traps were constructed out of old two liter soda bottles collected from the dump.  These were then filled with cow poop, spoiled milk, moldy meat, and other smelly things and hung amongst the baby fruits.  I never found many bugs inside them but there were lots of maggots.  Don’t know whose maggots, but certainly it was better to have them in there than anywhere out here.  And it seemed to have worked.  Though a few fruits are still lost, many more hang on the branches awaiting our stomachs.  We eat armfuls everyday which I plan to continue until we, or something else, have consumed them all.

Then there’s the honey, which is a small chunk of miracle.  The drought this year didn’t do great things for our bees’ pollen supply.  Every time we checked on them the combs were nearly empty.  As a result, we’ve been safeguarding our last bucket of honey, expecting no more until November when things begin to bloom again.  The bees, however, have defied the lack of rain and suddenly found a mysterious yet plentiful source of food and filled their boxes up anyway.  Leaving a bit behind for their winter reserves, we’ve harvested over 100kg from our 13 swarms.  Everything in the kitchen- the floor, the counters, the stove, all the silverware, the refrigerator, the dog- was covered in honey for about a week, but it was worth it.  And only one sting in the entire operation, on my foot, when I stepped on a little guy roaming the floor for spillages.

Strangely, the last harvest came at the same time as the other two, and though it was more of my own doing, it contributed greatly to my bewilderment.  For a while now I’ve been trying to wrangle mycelium, the parent organism of fungus, into growing oyster mushrooms for me.  I took a class at the University of Namibia back in November and have been bumbling through the process ever since with very little success.  Until this week, we’ve reaped a total of 5 mushrooms from my efforts.  Somehow, my temperature, humidity, water, nutrients, light, oxygen, hairdo, or facial expression just wasn’t right.  Eventually, the mushrooms got tired of waiting for me to figure it out and just went ahead and grew without me.  Normally, I would need to open the bag of mycelium and the surge of light, water and air would stimulate the oysters to sprout.  Mine, however, sprouted inside the closed bag which I didn’t know was possible.  When I finally caught up and got them opened and watered, they provided Jay and I with three scrumptious meals with more still on the way.

It’s been a crazy week with not a small amount of work, but well rewarded.  And delicious.  It seems Namibia either took pity on us after the past few months she put us through and thought we deserved it, or she’s busy plaguing someone else at the moment and will be back with us at her earliest convenience.

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….

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.

Grocery shopping in Smalltown, Namibia

I think I utterly confused a few folks last Friday while working on this story.  The looks on the faces of the local supermarket customers asked “Why is this really tall white girl taking pictures of our corn flakes?”  I smiled and nodded and tried to act as though I was a professional and this was completely normal.  A writer’s got stories to tell and stories need pictures.  So I set aside my self-consciousness to introduce the world to our Pick-N-Pay supermarket.

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I grabbed a cart on the way in.  The carts, called trolleys, are not the mammoths from home that can flatten small children.  These are much daintier and more practical.   Whoever decided to make trolleys simply double-decker basket holders was a genius. 

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First stop is always the produce, as it is in many food shops.  One will find the usual fare; squash, taters, apples.  But nowhere else have I seen robot peppers.

It took some brain power to figure out this moniker.  Then I remembered that in South African English, traffic lights are called robots, supposedly because they are the robotic form of policemen who used to direct traffic.  In any case, I find them quite entertaining.

Another South African vegetable specialty are baby marrows.

You say they look like zucchinis.  Yes, yes they do.  They are zucchinis.  South Africans, however, prefer their zucchinis to be miniature and so harvest them early and call them something no one else does (except, you know, Namibians).  It doesn’t affect the tenderness or flavor, nor have I found any other reason to do this.  Nor do I know what a marrow is.

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After the produce comes the meat.  I never spend much time in this section.  But it also has some regional flair.  Boerewors.

Afrikaans for “farmer’s sausage”, this is a staple around these parts.   A braai (a barbecue) is not a braai without them.  Bring this if you’re invited to one and you’ll make friends.

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Into the packaged foods next.  First aisle: jams, jellies, Nutella (even in Namibia), and just below that, the fish paste.

One even has multiple fish paste options.  Anchovies, unidentified, or tomato flavored unidentified.  I have to try it before I can say anything but it’s said to be a popular breakfast smear.  Available online for South African expats worldwide.

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One will be hard-pressed to find a bakery or sandwich shop in this country that does not offer broetchens, German “little breads”.

They are cheap, versatile, and tasty.  What more can one ask of their bread?  Healthy?  Whole wheat/grain broetchens, while less common, do exist.

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I regret to report that the Namibian markets have been corrupted by American corporations.  Shelves are stuffed with such products as Kellogg’s corn flakes, Doritos, Coca-Cola, Tampax tampons, and Colgate toothpaste, of which there was enough to paste our town’s teeth for years.

And the Christmas fruitcake tradition was, unfortunately, not lost in Namibia.

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Then, you’ve got your chunks of dog which never cease to amuse me.  Note that any size dog can be a cannibal.

And specials signs which could be considered discriminatory against tall people.

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In the end, I will embrace all of Pick-N-Pay’s wide variety of products and cultures represented, and I’ll make an effort to try those still foreign to me just as long as they continue to carry my one trip-to-town treat, the all-important, ever-delicious cheese flavored maize snacks.