Hoping and Waiting
The desperate situation of Kaokoland
Opuwo ‑ Frequent droughts are such a common occurrence in Namibia that above-average rainfall in the Southern African country is considered a plus.
With dwindling rains every year, Namibian communal farmers have learnt to cope with recurring droughts that have for many years threatened the livelihoods of many communities.
The scale of drought this year surpasses anything seen in the country in the past three decades.
Namibia received little rain during the October and March rainy season, which has resulted in total crop failure and poor grazing across the country. A comprehensive inter-governmental emergency food security assessment conducted earlier this year has warned of the worst drought in 30 years.
Some parts of the country, especially in the north, have received little or no rain in the past two years.
The prolonged drought has raised fears among communal farmers, especially pastoralists in the Kaokoland area.
Hopelessness is written all over the face of 38-year-old Kakuzeho Mbendura when she talks about the hardships they are experiencing due to the two failed rainy seasons.
Mbendura and her family of 10 used to be able to grow enough food by growing maize and other crops in their garden. Milk used to be plentiful for their children and their livestock used to fetch good prices at the markets.
But with no rain for the past two years, the garden has yielded nothing – their food storages stand empty. And to compound the situation, their animal-based livelihood is under threat from famine with some cattle already dying from hunger.
When The Southern Times visited Omuaipanga village ‑ about 30 kilometres north-east of Opuwo in Kunene region ‑ this past week, Mbendura was sitting in the shade outside her one-roomed house stitching together a headdress made out of straw.
Just less than an hour earlier, she and other women in the village had returned from the nearby mountains to collect wild food.
Women in this Himba village are forced to trek for several kilometres into the mountains to collect wild berries and tea to avoid starvation.
Mbendura related the hardship they have to endure due to the prevailing drought situation in the area.
“We usually have a garden in which we plant maize and other produce, but since last year we got nothing due to lack of rain. All our food storages are empty; we got nothing to eat.
“If we don’t go into the mountains to collect wild berries and tea, we will sleep on empty stomachs,” she said with a weary smile, while pointing to empty granaries.
They cannot milk the cows, because the animals are too weak due to lack of grazing.
Her family of 10 has already lost 10 head of cattle (including three calves) to the famine. They now have five remaining.
Omuaipanga village is a cluster of one-roomed houses made of mud mixed with cow dung and corrugated iron rooftops.
The village is situated along the Opuwo-Sesfontein gravel road, which is a blessing of sorts to the villagers.
“We occasionally get handouts like food and water from passersby, mostly tourists,” Mbendura said pointing to tyre tracks on the ground.
About 100 metres from the village is a borehole, which she says produces unpalatable water.
“The water is too salty – we cannot drink it. We get diarrhoea from drinking that water,” she said.
Meanwhile, males were notably absent from the Omuaipanga village, as they were away looking for good pastures for their cattle.
In Otjahorovara village ‑ some 80 kilometres north-east of Opuwo ‑ 81-year-old Tjongora Hamu (who is also the village headman) tells of similar hardships.
As a Herero, the elderly man is contemplating about the bleak future ahead due to the drought, as his livelihood and that of his community is entirely based on livestock breading.
“It has been dry like this for the past two years; we did not receive much rain. As you can see, animals are getting thinner by day due to lack of grazing.
“Famine is upon us. We are just waiting for its effect. There is nothing we can do,” Hamu says.
“There is no grazing, we have nowhere to go. If you leave here, there is no water where you’re supposed to go. So, for us here it’s a wait and hope situation”.
Hamu’s brother Muheua has contemplated driving his herd in search for good pastures but the situation is the same in the whole of Kunene region.
“At least here we have water (a borehole just 200 metres away) but there is no grazing. People in other places are trekking long distances in search for water and grazing.
“The problem with this drought is that the whole country is affected, so we have nowhere else to go,” Muheua said.
An untold number of people in other regions are said to be trekking with their animals in search of grazing.
It is reported that some cattle owners have fled their villages in Ohangwena region and migrated hundreds of kilometres to areas in Oshana and Omusati regions. This migration is likely to raise tensions over grazing land across the country.
Cattle price plummeted
The Namibian government has recognised the severity of the prevailing drought across the country, prompting President Hifikepunye Pohamba to declare it a national emergency.
The government has already begun distributing food relief to the affected population – a move applauded by villagers of Otjahorovara and Omuaipanga.
But they are yet to receive food aid, though the last time they received food relief was in January 2013.
Pastoralists like elderly Hamu are sceptical about the government’s advice for them to sell some of their livestock to avoid losing them to the famine.
They believe they are not getting value for their precious animals.
“We are selling to Meatco and other private buyers but we are not getting enough money for our animals,” says Hamu’s neighbour, 64-year-old Tjetuvaza Muhenje.
Due to the drought, cattle price in the Kaokoland area have dropped dramatically with cattle areas around Omuaipanga sold for as little as R400.
According to Muhenje, a cow that normally sells for R8 000, now cost as little as R1 800.
President Pohamba has on several occasions called on farmers to sell off their livestock now and restock once the situation improves.
But with people like Hamu and Muhenje spending the money they get from selling cattle on food from the market, where prices are steep – they are likely to permanently lose their only source of livelihood forever.
Those without money, like Mbendura, have to resort to collecting wild food while hoping for good rains in the next rainy season.