Pictures: Jim Freeman
The people who call Cape Town home – specifically those who were born here – lack an African identity: they are from Africa but not of it. The two places I call home are the Eastern Cape and Namibia.
To call the majority of Namibians and inhabitants of the Eastern Cape’s country districts “down to earth” is to dramatically downplay their connection to the soil and everything that relies on the land’s wellbeing for its existence.
The Western Cape has suffered serious drought for much of the past decade and, until the rains fell last year, there was much talk of “Day Zero”. People bragged about showering only three times a week and were driven to petulant fury by Constantia homeowners watering their lawns despite water restrictions. When hard-scrabble farmers – both commercial and subsistence – talk about drought, it’s while they’re watching their crops and livestock wither to dust or shrivelled skeletons. Religious or not, they pray for rain. Rain brings life … and life brings joy.
Owamboland culvert seining. Picture: Jim Freeman
Namibians don’t dream of a white Christmas, they dream of a green one and, for most of them, 2019 was a festive season indeed (though arable land accounts for only one percent of Namibia’s surface area, nearly half the population is employed in agriculture). I’ve spent the past two months revelling in the Facebook posts of my old friend and erstwhile Windhoek colleague Gert Jacobie. Gert comes from farming stock and has worked as a news and agriculture reporter for 40 years.
People throughout the country send Gert their rain pictures – even if they merely depict gathering clouds. In one of the driest countries in the world, a column of cumulonimbus is a rare vision of hope. There are few natural phenomena as spectacular and awe-inspiring as a Namibian downpour, regardless whether it falls in the desert or on the central plateau. Showers often commence with high winds and dust-storms that quickly degenerate into deluges of mud: God help you if you’re driving.
Once dust is purged from the air, the rain begins; often falling almost diagonally and with the fury of machinegun-fire. And then it’s gone – leaving in its wake (if the downpour lasted as long as half an hour) puddles the size of Zoo Lake that reach the bonnet of your vehicle and a myriad streams that flow furiously before quickly abating. One week later, the veld shimmers with green and farmers and livestock rejoice alike.
In northern Namibia, the word is efundja. Owamboland is barren and flat, with the horizon broken only by makalane palms and occasional water-towers that doubled as observation posts during the “border war” of 1966-89. The landscape is startlingly white and men of my generation recall the misery of trudging kilometre after kilometre in ankledeep sand with only corporals and swarms of infuriatingly persistent mopani flies for company. But when it rains – if it rains… The floodplains the Wambo people call oshona transform into shallow lakes.
Grass shoots poke through the ground almost overnight and sprout as long as there’s surface water. Fully grown frogs emerge from where they’ve lain in subterranean suspension, sometimes for years if the previous seasons’ rains did not materialise, and spawn almost immediately. Frogs are a delicacy for the local population. Efundja, Gert explains, is the rainfall multiplying factor that means the dietary difference between frogs and fish for the Wambo.
Owambo fish market. Picture: Jim Freeman
“Rain that falls in the Cuvelai region of southern Angola drains into the Kunene River. When the river floods, the overflow pours into the oshona system as well as the Etosha Pans (in exceptional seasons).”
The shallow lakes become a giant swamp – neck-deep in places for people and cattle – teeming with freshwater fish that have been swept down from Angola. It has to be one of the weirdest experiences of my travel-writing life; returning to the arid stomping grounds (literally) of my formative years to encounter locals purseseining highway culverts for perch and tilapia.
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