Droughts are part of Namibian history


Oshakati- Normally, when entering the northern central region of Namibia at this time of the year, one will be greeted by lush Mahangu (pearl millet) fields.  But this time around, there are no lush fields of Mahangu readying for harvesting, as most fields are barren.

With the whole of Namibia suffering from the lack of rain, most subsistence farmers have long given up hope of a bumper harvest as most crops failed.

The Mahangu crop is grown under the rain fed conditions and is well adapted to the dry climatic conditions in the region, characterised by poor soil fertility.

Mahangu, which is intercropped with groundnuts, green beans, water melons and pumpkins, is the main crop in the region, which is sub-divided into four political regions of Oshana, Ohangwena, Oshikoto and Omusati. It is normally harvested between May and June.

“By this time, we will be eating green beans, ground nuts and squash while preparing for harvest. But as you can see, there is nothing in the fields. We are faced with a crisis. The fluctuation of rainfall has been common throughout the ages, therefore this year is part of the cycle. It has been difficult but people have always survived,” says 80-year old Felix Shikongo from the Ondangwa Village in the Elim Constituency of Omusati region.  

In 2013, Namibia went through one of the most severe droughts in 30 years – which affected one third of the population.

The drought also wiped out a large number of livestock belonging to communal farmers. Due to its severe impact, former President Hifikepunye Pohamba was forced to declare the drought a national emergency.

And just over a year later, history is about to repeat itself after Namibia experienced yet another dry spell during this rainy season.

But to old-man Shikongo and his peers in the region, drought has been a regular visitor in this Southern African country of just over 2 million people, where the above average rainfall is considered a plus.

They said communal farmers have learned to cope with recurring droughts that have for many generations threatened their livelihood, and in some cases their very existence.

History has it that the northern region was hit by severe droughts during different periods of great famines that still linger in the memories of elders like Lahja Nangolo (98) of Ekamba Village in Okatana Constituency of Oshana region.

There is the severe drought that occurred between 1914 to 1916 and is known as the ‘Sweeping Famine’ due to its devastating impact on the human and animal population. Other major droughts were also recorded during the years 1946 and 1992.

“Droughts are a common phenomenon. It has been part of human history here in this country (region),” Nangolo has remarked in many occasions to this reporter. She was born at the time when people were just emerging from the Sweeping Famine in 1917.

“From what we have been told by elders, the sweeping famine was a period of great suffering. That famine killed many people, and wiped out livestock including wild animals. People were so weak they had no strength to bury the dead – so they would just drag them behind the bush and wait for their turn,” she narrated.

Even the former colonial Resident Commissioner in the north, formerly known as Ovamboland was shocked by the devastation.

Dr Vaino Nambala, wrote in the February 2011 issue of Insight Magazine that in 1916, Major C. N. Manning in his correspondence to the Native Commissioner in Windhoek reported that since his arrival into the region, “skeletons were everywhere and as a result of the terrible famine and influx of starving natives, people were dying along the roadside, near water holes, etc. where their bodies lay.

“Those dying at kraals (homesteads) were generally thrown out and left (with the exception of Ondonga area where burials of some sort generally occurred). By the beginning of 1916, some rains came, but most starving people had died.

“The survivors held out until they were able to gather green food to augment what the Government could assist them with.”  

The headman of Ondangwa Village, Lazarus Nambinga (85) relives memories of the 1946 drought.

“Droughts have been regular in this region and probably the whole country. Over time rains have been either not enough or there will be no rain at all, which results in poor harvests and loss of livestock as there will be no pasture and water for them.

“In 1946 many people survived from Mahangu that was stored in the silos around here. And when Mahangu was finished, the government –brought maize meal for people to supplement their diet,” he said.

According to historical records, the 1946 drought was preceded by consecutive years of bumper harvests. And due to the plentiful harvests, the colonial administration introduced household taxes.

As a result, senior headmen in Uukwambi District were ordered to construct silos (granaries) to store Mahangu that was paid as tax – since the majority of the people did not have money.

Climate change has been blamed for worsening droughts in Namibia. But elders like Eliaser Endjala (85) of Onenongo Village in Okatana Constituency believes that the population increase and the dwindling of grazing land for livestock exacerbate the impact of droughts. “Nowadays, the grazing land is being swallowed up by homesteads. People and animals are now competing for land, which is not available. The communal areas are too congested,” he said.

“This year when you look at the situation, it is going to be difficult especially for the livestock. People can survive because the Government will assist us through the drought relief programme and buy food from the market.”

Farmers like Endjala have also been sceptic about the Government advice for them to sell some of their livestock to avoid losing them to the famine.

“In theory it is a good proposal to sell early, but in reality it is impossible. Where are we going to get good prices for our animals that will allow you to restock in future? Selling to Meatco and private buyers is not a win-win situation,” he said.

Shikongo concurred arguing that: “Livestock to us is a sign of prestige and wealth, so to sell my cattle at cheaper prices, that little money cannot enable me to replenish my stock.

Headman Nambinga believes that food security in the region is threatened by the decrease in food production.

“Many households deplete their food stock early, because people are no more producing enough food. 

Agriculture is decreasing in communal areas because the able bodied people – young people are migrating to cities. I cannot cultivate the land, even my wife – we are old. And the grandchildren are going to school, so its poverty all over,” said the headman.


April 2015
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