Life along the mighty Okavango river

okavango river sunset
Okavango Sunsets

Let me begin by wishing everyone a wonderful new year! May 2012 bring you closer to your dreams and to just being.

We concluded last year with a short trip to the far north-eastern parts of Namibia. To the banks of the mighty Okavango river we traveled looking only for quiet rest and a few  tiger fish. And as is often the case, we found so much more.

namibia tree okavango river
Trees along the Okavango river

Every morning at about seven o’clock we got into the boat to start the day fishing. In doing so we had to get past a small bush with two small green mambas. The first to pass the bush always had to confirm that he or she could see both snakes before the rest would pass. These snakes are not only deadly, but also fiercely territorial and aggressive, and that bush was called home to them. So go figure, with no other launching place for the boat, we had to made peace with our daily conundrum. At least we were all pumped up for fishing by the time we got into the boat.

Drifting up and down the river provided ample time for observation and reflection. The scenery was amazing. Trees provided clear reflections against the sun, water lilies  provided a purple spectacle floating gently on the green water, and the clouds were nothing short of magnificent.

namibia food okavango
Okavango sunsets

Life here, has an ancient, slow rhythm. There seems to be no haste and no stress. Children play freely without the fear of being run over by a car, and most large shady trees provide an excuse for people to congregate for a chat, a few cups of oshikundu (a non-alcoholic drink made from fermented millet) and laughter.

In anticipation of the rainy season, fields are being tilled using oxen and hand-held ploughs. Hard work, but slow work. With no deadlines other than the first rains, no one here runs the risk of working themselves to death. Or having to face the wrath of stress-out manager scolding about optimum productivity.

Ploughing fields

In the absence of mechanization, the production of food is intensely personal and intimate. Oxen have names. Some might reflect the aspirations and dreams of the owners, others are named after some random event or item brought here via the radio. Here Japan is not a country, but the name of an ox. And although the owner will never come get to experience the real Japan, here he has daily conversations with it. Yes, here owners speak to their oxen. Tell them where to go, when to turn, and praise them for their efforts.

I met Moses along the road. He travelled with eight oxen and four ploughs. Like everyone here he was extremely friendly and we chatted about his oxen and his business. For Moses is an entrepreneur, he ploughs peoples’ fields for a fee. For less than US$10 per day, Moses and his team will plough your field. The average field here is about 4 hectares or about 9 acres. It takes on average three days for one team of two oxen and a plough to finish one field. Because most people here have little cash, the demand for Moses’ services is low, but for him it is enough, or so he said.

Moses’s commercial ploughing services

Although life is slow for everyone, it appeared to be a little less slow for women. Aside from ploughing, there are few chores not performed by women: fetching water, doing the washing, weeding fields, cooking, looking after children and pounding the millet and maize. Many men, so it seemed, preferred the company of tombo sellers. This traditional beer is often sold from big plastic buckets by the cup. And telling from the way the patrons walked home, it kicks like the proverbial mule.

I wanted to take a closer look at the processing of one the local staple grains, pearl millet or as it is called locally, mahangu. So when I saw two ladies busy pounding grain, we stopped and approached them. It turned out that they were busy with the remains of last season’s harvest, so the seeds were already fermented, cleaned and de-husked. All that remained was to pound it all into fine powder for porridge.

My offer to help them caused much amusement. In no time we had a crowd that included not-so-sober men, and just about every single child we’d seen along the road. And they were laughing and pointing and chattering away at a frantic pace. With no knowledge of the Rukwangali language, I had no idea what they were saying, but I knew it had nothing to do with the latest crocodile sighting or the onset of the raining season.

Women pounding Mahangu

Pounding grain at midday is hard work. When the humidity is in the upper eighties, its even harder. On the positive side, it builds great upper-body strength and constitutes a great cardiovascular workout. No wonder the metabolism-related modern diseases are almost completely absent here.

All along the road children were selling varieties of local fruit. I have not seen or tasted these before, so I had to get some. All you have to do is drive until you see the neat little stacks of fruit under a tree. Stop, and as you get out, the young owners of the stash will appear out of nowhere and from all directions. Armed with a smile and ready to negotiate.

Two types of local fruits were in season. The monkey-orange (locally called “Maguni”) and the Kavango litchi (called “Makwevo”). Both are dirt cheap and delicious.

The larger of the two, the monkey orange, is the size and colour of a regular orange. It skin is smooth and thick and quite hard to remove. The flesh is brown and if removed whole, resembles a the brain of some small animal. It even consists of two halves or lobes! It has a great number of seeds, much the same size and shape of that of a prune.

Monkey Oranges

Their taste is quite unique: sweet and tart at the same time. And although they are messy and great fun to eat as is, I found they make great ice-cream. First, infuse your  ice-cream mixture with a mashed-up monkey orange over a slow heat to just under boiling point. Turn off the heat and let the fruit steep for a further 20 minutes in the mixture as it cools down. Strain, and if needed, add a few tablespoons of juice to add more kick. Cool the mixture and continue to make your ice-cream as usual.

The Kavango litchi is much smaller than the monkey orange (about the size of a normal litchi). It has a smooth yellow skin that is quite easy to remove. The inside consists of three large seeds each covered with a thin layer of flesh that tastes just like the litchi although less intense and less sweet.

Kavango litchi

They are also great candidates for ice-cream but to get the flesh off the seeds is quite a mission and the returns are quite meagre so you’ll need a lot of fruit and a lot of patience. Be careful though as the pith has a strong bitter after-taste that should best be avoided.

Another favourite snack food along the river is fat-cakes. Here they make them by the bucket. Flour, yeast, water, sugar and salt are the basic ingredients for a rather stiff dough that is rolled into little round balls slightly larger than a golf ball. These are deep-fried in sunflower oil until a deep golden crust is formed. They are quite chewy and sweet and are almost always eaten on the run. I bought some from Ruth in Rundu and at NAD 1.00 (about 12 US cents) per fat-cake she has to sell hundreds to make ends meet.

Ruth the fat-cake seller

I wanted to know more about her business so I sat down and offered to help with rolling fat-cakes. Before long a number of her friends joined to learn more about her new assistant. So we chatted and giggled and exchanged views on the world here and elsewhere.

As ever, I was amazed at the ease with which they allowed a stranger to enter their world. How easy it was for them to share, despite the fact that they have so little (Ruth gave me two fat-cakes to taste even though I just bought a dozen), and unpretentiousness of their interactions. Just about every action is taken with a smile and a confident, warm one at that.  When I asked if I could take a photograph of her fat-cakes, she insisted that she be included. “That way”, she said, “you’ll remember me for much longer”. And remember her, I will. If you ever get to Rundu, go buy some fat-cakes from Ruth. Her stall is along the main street, just opposite the hardware store. She’s the one with the biggest smile.

I had never cooked or eaten tiger fish before so when the opportunity presented itself I was quite keen. I have heard a lot about the sporting qualities of this ferocious game fish from anglers but sadly no-one could tell me much about its qualities as table fish.

Tiger fish

Without doubt this was one of the most ferocious looking fish I ever cooked. Yet it was fresh and fatty, but oh, so bony. So, should you ever cook one, get a pair of pliers and take your time. Believe me the tiger fish is a ferocious fighter, even after death. It does not part easily with its bones.

But it is so worth it. Leave the skin on or else you’ll rip the flesh to pieces. And then, if it is really fresh just like this one, you’ll need nothing more than a simple beer batter and double-fried french fries to produce fish-and-chips fit for the Queen.

Then, for the best part of the day, take your plate outside to the river bank, pour yourself a cold beer and watch the sun set over this mighty river and its incredibly warm and generous people. I am still smiling. This is my Africa.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Matt says:

    Great post! I used to live in Rundu, and this definitely brought back memories. And thank you for reminding me of the word Maguni. I couldn’t think of the word for the life of me. It seems my Rukwangali is evaporating faster than the Kavango in dry season…

Did your mouth water? Did you laugh or cry? Let me know!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s