Earlier this month I spent time in northern Namibia. I was there at first with my teammates on a Media Committee assignment. That’s when I produced the Ovambo Commute video, which was my own side project. After that I met up with my supervisor who was in the area to review two projects. I tagged along with him, feeling a bit useless because, while the projects had ran into snags (not uncommon here) they were well established and there wasn’t much I could have added even if I could speak Oshivambo. Nevertheless I tried to make the best of the situation. I had been in the area before, but the last time I visited the area was much wetter. Vast flood plains were lakes and even larger areas sported patchy green as grass, brush and trees drank up the recently fallen rain and the seemingly ever present sunshine. This is the area many Black Namibians call home, and during the holiday season this is where they gravitate to, leaving whatever employment they might have in the towns and cities to the south to spend time “on the farm”. It can seem an idyllic life, following the ebb and flow of the seasons, living close to how their ancestors lived for a millennia. But even back when I first visited things were not as good as it seemed.
I remember commenting to my supervisor about the amount of water that seemed to be everywhere and him looking at me with a hint of sadness in his eyes and saying that it was not enough. He tried to explain to me that the pools of water that I saw was literally a drop in a proverbial bucket compared to the rains of his childhood. He said the livestock was suffering and the wild game suffered even more. In O-Land, livestock is wealth. In normal times livestock took care of themselves. They ate, drank and reproduced with little intervention from their owners. A heard of ten cows this year might grow to 13 next year, and 15 the following year. Where else can you get a ten to thirty percent per year return on your investment?
That was in 2017.
Raining season here normally starts in October. The north and eastern areas of Namibia are usually the dampest with places like Grootfontein, Rundu and Katima Mulilo becoming almost subtropical with amount of rainfall they receive. In recent years, however, Namibia, in general, has been seeing increasingly less rainfall. Areas that once would turn from brown to green by late October now stay parched until late November or early December. And even when the rains do come, it tends to be light and sporadic instead of widespread and heavy.
This latest visit to O-Land was like I was visiting another place altogether different than where I was in 2017. Vast areas that was once and should now be wet were dry and dusty. As I sat in the passenger side of the our bakkie (local term for a pickup truck) I couldn’t help but see the devastation the ongoing drought has wrought. The first thing I noticed was that there were fewer animals about. In O-Land, cows, goats, donkeys, and horses are free to graze wherever they can. In better times that’s not a problem. The open rain-fed wetlands were surrounded by seas of grass and scrub, plenty of fodder for livestock and wild animals alike and you could see countless herds lazily grazing as you drove by. Now, however, grass and other edible plants are nearly as rare as waterholes. The larger animals suffer most. The few cows and donkeys that amble by display ribcages and boney hips. Goats are less picky about what they eat, yet even they are far skinnier than normal. The herds I did see have been reduced to scrawny packs that search endlessly for anything edible and water to drink.
As we drove across what would normally be under a meter or two of water I saw carcasses of cows and donkeys half buried by the blowing sand dotting the landscape. We passed several bakkies with emaciated animals lying in the bed, too weak to stand. They were heading to slaughter. The owners attempting salvage what little they could from their herds.
For a few days, I stayed at the farm where my supervisor grew up. It was a typical Ovambo homestead with walls surrounding the core houses. This one was a more modern, instead of mud walls and thatched roofs, dwelling there were concrete block with metal roofs. We had power too, though that was erratic. The cooking house had a gas stove fed by a tank. Water came from a tap within the compound and was carried by buckets to wherever it was needed. Even here the signs of how abnormally dry it was could be seen. Chickens hung out near the water tap waiting for spillage to quench their thirst. Even the cats lapped up water from the puddles the tap made.
My supervisor’s family owns cows and sheep. They appeared to be slightly better off than others I’ve seen. While there I filled a trough with water and watched the goats eagerly slurp it up.
We were there to observe the progress made by local farming projects. The farms gets water from a concrete canal that connects to a large reservoir to the east. Just as in most places, if you have a reliable supply of water you can pretty much grow anything. One farm had rows of beets, spinach and onions., meager by American standards, but they made a beautiful sight here.
With our primary mission completed my supervisor decided to take a ‘short cut’ through Etosha National Park, a reserve famous for its herds of wildlife. As we entered the park we could see more signs of how hard the drought as been on the land. It was my first time actually going through the park. On my last visit to the north we drove along a section of the perimeter. During that time the area was green and a large herd of zebra rushed across the road in front of us.
This time, however, we drove maybe 30km into the park before we saw any wildlife. My supervisor pointed out vast dry areas where water would normally pool this time of year. The only thing that reminded us of water the how the heat made the air shimmer in the distance, as if water was just a bit further away.
When we finally did come upon wildlife what we saw made our hearts drop. Small heads of zebra is what we saw first. The normally stocky animals were the thinnest specimens I’d ever seen. The same could be said for giraffes, gnus, and springboks. We eventually came upon a gathering of elephants that were huddled under some trees in a dry riverbed. Even these huge beasts looked baggy and worn. In fact, the only animals that didn’t seem too bad off were ostriches. We saw several flocks of them, a few appeared to be nesting, a behavior that likely wouldn’t happen if resources weren’t around to support a larger flock.
And everywhere it was dry. What little green we saw was muted by a patina of dust.
I remember watching a National Geographic program that focused on the hardship animals face while living in the African drylands. In normal times, after suffering and surviving much of the year on dwindling resources, animals struggle to hang on until the seasonal rains came. First to quench their thirst, then to eat. Plants, especially grasses, seemed to literally leap from the soil and within a week or two after the first hard rains, fields of grass appear and the wildlife settle into a period of abundance. It’s a cycle that appears to be changing as the rains come later and amount to less.
Here’s a brief video of the wildlife in Etosha. Note how brown everything is.
As I’m writing this, about 3 weeks after my visit to O-Land, the rains have finally come. I’ve been watching the weather reports and global radars.
All across the north heavy, frequent storms are filling reservoirs and flood plains, washing through streams and rivers, and dousing the dryness. How long it will last is anyone’s guess, but for now, it’s welcomed relief.