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….

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.