Baboons + dogs + drought = not good

It was Saturday afternoon.  Hot, but we cooled off with a dip in the pool.  We read a bit, then laid down for a nap, minds relaxed because it was Saturday – we knew we didn’t have to get up for work, no farm staff until Monday.

Yet, our eyes weren’t closed long, when I felt Jay climb out of bed.  I didn’t concern myself at first, sometimes he gets ideas and gets up, and it was a quick thing – he’s one of those people who can get up in a flash.  I’m one of those who has to flop around for ten minutes then force my eyes open and drag myself out.  I began this process when I realized he wasn’t coming back.  Something was up.  I had managed to roll over, not yet gotten my eyes open, when a gun shot rang out.

And with that, I was on my feet.

A random shot in the afternoon usually means one of two things: rabid kudu at the gate or baboon in the garden.  In the case of a kudu, it’s meant to kill.  For baboons, it’s meant to scare away.  This afternoon, I knew it was for baboons because they’d been after our fruit trees for a while now.

A rainy season that doesn’t rain is hard on everyone, for many reasons, but at least we humans still manage to eat.  The wildlife, after the long dry season, depends on rain – no rain means no food and no food means visiting the humans, even if they have to dodge a bullet on the way.

But that’s usually all it is, a bullet.  Singular.  So, I got dressed, but not in any particular hurry.  Not until I heard Jay’s voice, “Sniiiffffeeeelllll!”, followed by our little dog’s incessant barking disappearing into the distance, and then another gun shot.

And then the stomach dropped.

Our doofy little dog, Sniffel, rarely deems something worthy of barking at.  He’s a pretty live-and-let-live kind of guy.  But something in his terrier brain snaps when he hears a gun shot.  He must, under any circumstance, be a part of the hunt.  He doesn’t know what the prey is, he doesn’t know where it is, but no matter, he’s off at top speed to find it.  Which is exactly what he did on this Saturday afternoon.

SniffdogThere were two things wrong with this.  One: baboons can be dangerous if provoked, say by doofy little barking dogs.  They are big, strong, and have some serious teeth.  Two: one baboon might not take on a doofy little dog, but a whole troop might just tear it apart.  Especially if they’re all hungry.  And as Sniffel ran after the one baboon that took off up the hill, Jay watched as it stopped, turned around, and ran back in the direction of the dog, with its whole troop behind him.

babsThis is when Jay yelled, fired the second shot, and I got my pants on and my ass out the door.

I ran in the direction of the barking, both dog and baboon – out the front gate, toward the main road.  I couldn’t see Jay or Sniff, but a second later he fired a third shot and cloud of smoke rose from half way up the hill.  What it meant, I didn’t know, but then all was quiet.

I think I would’ve kept running, oblivious to the whizzing bullets or hungry, pissed off baboons, but then Jay popped out of the brush, rifle in one hand, little dog in the other.  Sniff was panting wildly, tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth, enormous grin on his face.  He was obviously very proud of himself.

Jay spilled the whole story once down from the hill, explaining how Sniffel hadn’t originally followed him outside, he must’ve slipped through the gate after the first shot.  All he saw was a bolt of white tearing up the hill and he couldn’t stop it.  And we had both been afraid that we’d lost our dog.

The drought continues, as does the battle with the baboons.  There is a degree of sympathy for hungry wildlife, but wildlife that can eat your dog is not something to welcome onto the yard.

We wonder what the rest of the year will be like, when the chance of rain disappears for another six months and the animals still haven’t eaten.  All we can do is now though is watch the sky and keep the gun nearby.

Oh my Africa – February 2015

It’s just over a week into February and already there are three unique and remarkable competitors for this post.

Mugabe almost won with his complete denial of tripping over a red carpet and the resulting memes that have swept the internet.

Also tempting was the riot at the Africa Cup football semi-finals.  Equatorial Guinea fans were pissed that their team was losing and started throwing stuff.  Apparently, police tried to quell the uprising but we viewers at home could only see the helicopter they sent in three separate times which didn’t accomplish anything.  I think they just wanted to show off and/or play with, their whirlybird.

I’m going with the local story though, this compelling read from the Namibian, an English-language newspaper over here:

As far as I can tell, a newspaper’s job is to inform its readers; tell them stuff they do not already know.
One thing all Namibians are very well aware of is that it is not raining.
Yet, in the first paragraph, readers were informed that a new bulletin “indicated that rainfall was generally low in the north-west and north-central parts of Namibia in November and December”.  And that satellite images of vegetation also indicated below-average grazing conditions in some of the northern areas.
Surely, this million-dollar satellite could be put to better use.
The article goes on to tell us that the rest of the season could bring normal or below normal rains.  Which could reduce crop yields and delay harvests.  It all depends on an El Niño event that might occur in the 2014/2015 season.

But, it concludes, “not all El Niño events have resulted in low rainfall in the region, with some areas being more regularly affected than others”.
Thank goodness for the falling dictators and rioting soccer fans to fill the rest of the newspaper.

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.

No, really. I’m making a pledge this time.

Well, poetry month is upon us again. Last year at this time I said I was going to periodically spout off a haiku or two for, hopefully, your entertainment. A year later, I have only written the one I started with. Therefore, I make a pledge. At least one poem a month. Maybe biweekly?!? Can a girl with sketchy internet reception and days full of farm chores stick to such a schedule? We’re going to find out. Everyone needs goals.

I even have another one, to up the ante. The Oh My Africa, or OMA for short. (Like OMG, but Africanized.  Clever, huh?) Funny, ridiculous, and entertaining things from around the continent. I’ll try to focus on Namibia, but sometimes other countries do really funny stuff.

So, this year’s inaugural haiku:

It is still raining

Even though it is April

Please stay forever

Look for the first ever OMA – coming soon!  OMG, so exciting!

 

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.

Use it or lose it: a novel concept

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

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

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

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

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

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAinto this:

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

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

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