They can’t Count

The recipe – Pickled Kambro

They were seated at a table next to mine. From their accents I could tell two were foreign, one was local. Initially, they were just three people having coffee and a conversation. Nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary.

At some stage I noticed that their conversation had become more intense. The volume had increased somewhat and their gestures grew a little more deliberate.

“They would not be able to answer these questions”, said the one lady with her foreign accent.

Digging for veldkos (nature produce) in Namibia's south - kambro.
Digging for veldkos (nature produce) in Namibia’s south – kambro.

“What do you mean they would not be able to answer our questions?” The man with his foreign accent sounded a little irritated.

“They can’t count”, she replied.

“What do you mean, they can’t count?” He moved forward in his chair and rested his elbows on the table. “Everyone can count”.

“No they can’t”, she said, leaning forward to accept his challenge.

“They can’t go 1-2-3-4”. She flicked her fingers in unison with her count.

“It is true, they can’t”, said the lady with the local accent, putting her cup back onto the table. “They can’t go 1-2-3-4”, and with that she stretched her arms above her head, yawned and settled back into her chair.

I noticed she was much younger that her two companions.

“Let me get this straight.” The man voice was loaded with disbelief. He lifted his hand with all five fingers extended. “If you were to cut one of their fingers off, they would not be able to tell that one is missing?” Five extended fingers became four.

“Are you saying they do not know how many children they have? Or how many goats or cattle? They have been parents and livestock farmers since time immemorial, and now you are telling me, they would not be able to tell us how many children or cattle they have? You can’t be serious, everyone can count!” His face had turned a slight shade of crimson.

“ No”, replied the local lady. “They are able to tell their children apart, and distinguish between them based on each one’s unique features, but they can’t count. It is a fact, I know I grew up among them”. She appeared calm as she lifted her cup to take another sip.

“Yes, I am afraid these questions must go, we are expecting too much from these people” concluded the lady with the foreign accent and reached down to pick up her handbag. Their meeting was over.

“Can you believe these people?” the man asked me, well aware that I had been eavesdropping.

Edible treasure ...
Edible treasure …

I offered to buy him another cup of coffee.

The man was a consultant on a foreign funded development project that is currently being implemented throughout the rural parts of the country. The two ladies are part of the local networks that implement and oversee that program. The “offending” questions dealt with the number of live stock units owned by the various communities targeted by the program, and the income generated through the selling of these units (and various other commodities).

All the way back from the coffee shop I pondered their conversation. My own grandfather went to school for a single day and spend his life farming sheep and goats.

As a seven-year-old boy, in the days before farms were fenced in, it was his job to take the flock to the grazing fields for a day or two and then return them to the homestead. If any were lost or left behind, the punishment would be severe. How did he know that they were all there, or that one or more got lost? Simple really, he could count, even though he could not read or write.

During the very first years of my life Anna worked in our home. Anna sometimes spoke to me in her native tongue Khoekhoegowab (Nama) in the hope that I would one day converse with her in her own language.

If I close my eyes, even now, I could still see the two of us sitting under the shade of the fig tree, with her hand stretched out in front of her, flicking her fingers as she spoke: ǀuí (1), ǀam (2), ǃnona (3), haka (4), koro (5), before switching hands to continue.

Like my grandfather, Anna probably did not go to school either. But Anna could count. Moreover, she counted in a language that predates the arrival of Western influence by many centuries. But they did not stop at counting; Anna’s people also developed a decimal system.[1]


At the hart of international development, is the notion of inequality. Some nations or people are poorer than others. They are also less healthy, less educated, and generally have lesser quality of life and die sooner than their rich counterparts. Development aid is the instrument that is used to facilitate the flow of resources, experience and skills from those who have a lot to those who have less or very little.

But the conversation made me think that sometimes there is something more. Something a little more sinister that is deeply embedded in the system that seems very benevolent. That something is a mindset and has to do with how we perceive the “less fortunate” ones. The people we deem most in need of development. The ones our development workers referred to as “they” – the ones who cannot count.

Pickled Kambro.
Pickled Kambro.

The social distinction between “us” and “them” is not only artificial; it is loaded with prejudice; based on notions of socio-cultural superiority (if you are part of “us”) and inferiority (if you are one of “them). In this context, “developed” is perceived, as the antithesis of “traditional” and development becomes the tool by which to convert the latter into the former.

To paraphrase Paolo Freire: [Development] is not neutral; it also functions as an instrument, which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it.

It is not surprising that those deemed unable to count, are also those who, for most part, have resisted full integration into the “modern” economic system; those who prefer their traditional ways of eating, farming, hunting and living; those who choose not sell their labour for wages or their brothers and sisters for profit; those who do not queue up for the latest fashion sales or mobile devices. They are always just a little different, difficult to control.

I am not surprised that the two development workers were frustrated, for working with traditional people must be difficult. Especially if you are ignorant or arrogant enough to think they can’t count.

Pickled Kombro.
Pickled Kambro.

Today’s recipe is based on a plant that should be familiar to those who know something about our traditional veldkos. Kambro (Fockea angustifolia) or gxòá can be eaten raw or cooked. I took a different route and pickled mine. It is quite simply something deliciously different.

[1] Dr. Gertie Hoymann, Max-Planck Institut fur Psycholinguistik, the Netherlands, May 27, 2011

One Comment Add yours

  1. Povonte says:

    Wow! I love sharing a glimpse into your creative perspective!

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