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….

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I blame England

I sweat.  I sit up straight.  I focus so intently my eyeballs dry out.  I scan the 2-foot-high grass, lining each side of the road-with-no-shoulder, for the wildlife-with-no-sense-of-timing.  I remember the man we gave a ride to last year after a kudu kamikazied his semi-truck.

Am I on the right side of the road?

I check the engine temperature.  I turn off the radio because I think I hear something dragging under the car.  I move into the oncoming traffic lane to pass the jalopy going 40 km/h on the 2 lane, 120 km/h road.  I think of the near-weekly newspaper headline: Family killed in head-on collision.

Should the tires be wobbling so much? 

It begins to rain.  I turn on the blinker.

Dammit blinker!

I turn off the blinker, and turn on the wipers.

Am I driving too fast?  Is the parking brake still on?

It begins to pour.  I turn on the super-speed wipers.  I slow down.  I peer through the river cascading down the windshield.  Suddenly, a warthog darts across the road followed by four wartlets.  I brake with as much force as possible without sending the car careening through the bush.

Dammit warthog!

I return to bolt-upright position, eyes wide, and continue on.

Ten minutes later, the rain has stopped, I’m in town and wondering that I make it anywhere at all navigating the most dangerous part of all Namibia: the roads.

Namibian road signs

First off, whoever’s idea it was to have different countries drive on different sides of the road should be excommunicated from Earth.  They can take the person who made different outlets for every continent with them.  This was a terribly stupid, not to mention dangerous, idea.  Tourism is big in Namibia, and as there are no passenger trains, all of those tourists drive.  So, unless those tourists are from the UK, or a country that the UK managed to convince of their left-side driving idea, they are solid contenders for driving on the wrong side of the road and creating havoc.

I’ve done it, and it was rather terrifying.  I fumbled frantically with the stick shift, also new to me, trying to reverse and/or get myself out of the path of the oncoming, honking car.  (I believe that he felt the honking was necessary to inform me of my mistake that I hadn’t noticed, and to help keep everyone calm.)  Then, after acclimation to left-side driving, I returned to the States, and terrified everyone over there.  To offset these grievances, I consistently amuse folks in both countries when I attempt to get in on the wrong side of the car, regardless of whether I’m passenger or driver.  I do it all the time, to this very day.  There’s really no playing it off.

Drive on the left...avoid the oblivious people...ignore the billboard suggesting a drink...

These days, although I have not what one would call “mastered” the stick, or the driving side, I at least appear to be someone who has (until I try to get in on the passenger side again).  And so, I earned myself a simple assignment: follow Jay into town in the car as he drives a friend’s car so the friend can pick it up.

Simple; and yet not ten minutes into the expedition, I drive full on into a ditch.  Actually three ditches.  That sounds like a hard thing to do but, to my credit, the ditches were not always there.  See, around here we have these seasonal rivers created by the torrential rains mentioned earlier.  The purebred Namibian driver, i.e. Jay, can drive full speed down a dirt road and somehow always know where those rivers have flowed and thus, avoid their subsequent trenches.  The falsely confident imported driver, i.e. me, turns a corner by the first neighbor’s house and hits three of them consecutively.

I managed not to flatten the tires but I bent something called the tire rod.  This left me with an upside-down steering wheel, even less steering on a car with no power steering, and a constant, horrendous squealing for the next hour into town.  No matter how many times I got out of the car to look, I could not see what was causing the squealing.  But I did entertain (or worry, I couldn’t tell) the many road construction workers.  I waved as if all was well while praying the tires would not explode and that Jay would, one day, trust me again with his car. 

Of course, he did, this past Monday, granting me the solo adventure with the dry eyeballs, the downpour, and the wartlets.  I made it to my destination and back without breaking anything, hitting anyone, or forgetting the parking brake.  Maybe someday soon I’ll be able to do it without the anxiety, too.  And without running a circle around the car, looking for the driver’s side.

An ode to rain

Rain is a precious thing in Namibia.  It’s precious in a lot of places.  But I grew up surrounded by water; every season was a rainy one.  Sunny days were the golden nuggets in the world of the perma-cloud.  However, here it is the sun, the sun after sun after sunny day that makes one depressed.

Crap

In case it’s not obvious, we’ve been stuck in a dry spell.  It gets hot early, before we’ve even had breakfast.  The plants wilt although I water them everyday and Jay’s horde of chocolate turns to goo, that is if it even had the chance overnight to solidify.

It becomes the first question folks ask in greeting: “Hi, had any rain?  How’s the wife?”

Then, they compare measurements: “Yeah, we’ve had 100 mms so far.”  They COUNT.  They have little books in which they record and date each precipitation, no matter how small.  I saw such a book not one time in my American years.

We always wished for a white Christmas back then, now it’s a wet one.  But we didn’t get a wet one.  We got a scorching hot, dry one.  It made for good swimming but with the whole farm staff on vacation, our thirsty orchard of citrus, papaya, and olive trees ensured ours was not a restful and relaxing holiday season.

But no matter how merciless the sun may be in its spotless blue sky, I never give up hope.  I check, maybe too often, for those cumulus clouds and whether they are up to something.  I look for other clues like a bullfrog chorus at night or if the flowers don’t open in the morning.  Maybe if the sugar pot has declumped or if the moon is near full or if the tortoises are on the move.  But nothing is a promise and it seems more like luck than anything if yours is the sky to fall.  The neighbor can be flooded and you can still be Farm Death.

Please, please, please, please…

So, I calm my heart when the thunder in the distance turns out to be an old truck lumbering by.  Or that first raindrop on my head was only a bird with a lame sense of humor.  I wait patiently(ish) for the temps to fall, the plants to perk up, and the wild mushroom scavenger hunt.  I look forward to the coziness when the cats huddle around or hide under the blankets when the thunder is overhead.  And the feeling of being small, which is unusual for me, and the comfort that nature is taking care of things for a while.

The rain never lasts long here and you never know when it’ll be back so I always try not to piss it off.  I don’t turn my back on it, but rather watch the land drink.  I hold in my sarcastic remarks and try not to curse the laundry I left on the line.  I even try to accept the consequential mosquitoes.  Which does not mean I cannot still squish them, it just means I accept them as nature’s worst idea ever.  I also try not to get too excited, as if I were gloating.  I wouldn’t want to be rude.

So when the drops finally graced our parched life today, I simply joined the lumps under the blankets, watched it fall, and hoped this year will be a wet one.

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.

Eating Brain and Opening the Mind

*Please be warned that there are some graphic images in this post.  However, the post itself is aimed to enlighten and educate.*

 

In an attempt to experience all the Namibian cuisine has to offer, I did it.  I ate brain.

We shot an oryx yesterday.  Not my favorite part about farm life but it has to be done.  It’s either give the farm staff meat, or they take it.  And in a poacher’s trap is a brutal way to die.  So I remind myself as we load the carcass on the truck, it’s better this way.

Jay and I have tried other odd traditional foods.  Testicles and intestines come to mind, also both from an oryx.  But the fact is, they are only odd to some minds.  Some folks see it as food and not to be wasted.  I found this article about Indianans, that is citizens of the state of Indiana, who love their deep-fried cow brain sandwiches.  (The article is in reference to the mad cow scare in the States.  It is very rare for humans to get sick from eating sick cows.  And mom, the oryx here are brain-disease free.)  They say the practice dates back to European settlers who were “frugal with their slaughtered cattle”.  It is meat, after all. 

I, as a reform vegetarian, agree.  If the animal has to die, it should at least not be wasted.  So, let’s give the brain a try.

Traditionally, Namibians bake the head.  A hole is dug in the ground with hot coals lining the bottom of the pit.  The head is set in there and covered again for a few hours.  An old man on our farm lives for oryx heads.  Apparently, the cheeks are quite tasty as well. 

We took a more modern route.  We used a frying pan.  But first, we had to get the brain out, and for that we used a saw.  I have no idea how natives, without access to saws, get the skull open.

With a spoon we scooped out the organ.  It was much smaller than I had expected, compared to the size of the head.  It was certainly a very strange experience.

With onions, potatoes, garlic, and some spices we cooked it up.  It smelled like any other meat in a frying pan.

And then it was time for the first bite.  I was shocked.  It was good.  Actually, brain has little flavor on its own, it only tasted good because of the other stuff cooked with it.  It is more of a texture food; it is very creamy.  So I wondered then, is it loaded with fat?  A little research shows beef brain (there is little info even on beef brain, much less oryx brain) is loaded with protein, vitamins, and minerals without much fat or carbohydrates.  However, deep-fried sandwiches are probably a little higher in calories. 

It just goes to show you, fear keeps us from many things we may very well enjoy.  I urge you to try something new, food or otherwise, and keep your mind open.

A very Namibian dinner: oryx brain with green salad from our garden (which, by the way, really balances the richness of the meat), and the favorite local beer, Tafel lager. Complete with leopard-print tablecloth.

 

Saturday afternoon poo spitting

Jay introduced this sport to me this weekend.  Really, it’s a sport.  There is a world championship in South Africa every year.  You can even find it on wikipedia listed under the categories “feces” and “sport in africa”. 

In Afrikaans, they call it “Bokdrol Spoeg”, basically “antelope pellet spit”.  It seems you can use any type of antelope poo, the professionals use kudu.  We went for eland.

Eland are the largest antelope around here, they are about the size of a horse but look more like a cow.  Despite their enormity, they excrete relatively small pellets that weigh nearly nothing. 

When in Rome?

So, Jay walks up with two bokdrols in his hand and challenges me to a Spoeg.  Winner gets to commence the traditional post-Spoeg imbibition.  I get to choose my drol and whether I want to go first or second.  I choose first, I don’t want to be intimidated by Jay’s probable lengthy shot.  As I prepare to stick the poo in my mouth, a red flag goes up in my head. 

“This is a trick.  They say this is a game they play just to get stupid foreigners to put shit in their mouth and then they laugh at them”, I thought.

So I make Jay go first and, no, it’s not a trick, this is actually what they do for fun.  They get really drunk and spit poo and then drink some more.  I suppose that’s the best way to do it.  Unfortunately, we were not really drunk.

Jay leans his head back, takes a running jump, and launches his pellet about 3 meters, or almost 10 feet.  I, hesitantly, put mine in my mouth, am horrified, try to mimic his motions, but quickly and spastically spit, just to get it out.  It flies about a meter, a pathetic 3 feet in front of me, and plops on the ground. 

Wikipedia says the record is 15.56 meters.  That’s like a school bus and a half.  Do people sit around and practice?  Jay says the trick is to moisten the pellet slightly in your mouth first.  With moisture comes momentum.  I’ll try to remember that if I am ever in a life-and-death poo-spitting situation.  I can’t imagine why else I would do this again.

                      Yep.