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.
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….