Climate change, population growth, human settlement and the absence of a sustainable, long-term, land use management plan have contributed to the deforestation and near desertification of northern Namibia. An area historically occupied by the Oshiwambo speaking people collectively known as the Aawambo.
Unlike 28 years ago, when I first stepped foot in “Ovamboland”, the scorching sun and deadly heat has become somewhat unbearable to the point where I can only visit this land of my ancestors for either a wedding or a funeral.
Feudalism began to decline a couple of centuries ago in medieval Europe.
Agriculture based subsistence farming largely disappeared in Europe by the beginning of the First World War (1914).
Today, a considerable majority of the Aawambo people are still attached to using a hoe in the basking sun to ensure the cultivation of a rain fed crop until the next season’s rainfall. A 12 month cycle!
According to web-based sources, evapotranspiration, the recycling of moisture back into the atmosphere by leaves to create rainfall is severely hampered by deforestation and the cutting down of trees. This is exactly what has transpired in the former Ovamboland now known as the Oshikoto, Omusati, Ohangwena and Oshana regions of northern Namibia.
Early explorer, Charles John Anderson, in 1851 described the Owambo region as “entering a paradise, here there are, moreover, arose gigantic, wide spreading, and dark-foliaged timber and fruit trees, whilst innumerable fan-like palms, either singly or in groups, completed the picture….it was a perfect Elysium..”.
‘Refugees returning to Namibia after independence lamented that almost all the forests they remembered from their childhood had disappeared, their native home had changed, becoming barren and desert like’.
The only sustainable alternative is for the Aawambo to modernize.
The early Christianization of the Aawambo people made them buy into the concept of hard work to guarantee a meal.
During that period of colonization, Owambo men provided the intensive labour needed to operate the mines in the police zone south of the redline. Work which some men in the Southern part of Namibia found too physically daunting to even consider doing for the mere pittance the Aawambo were forced to accept.
The Aawambo men should now channel that same energy which they willingly gave to their colonial masters in order to industrialize in the modern era through cash crop based cultivation, processing, packaging and distribution.
Asparagus farming is a case in point where the Aawambo can diversify into in addition to Mahangu, a staple cereal with a limited market that relies on government’s Agricultural Marketing Trading Agency (AMTA) to buy surplus, only to be redistributed to the producer through drought relief. If ever there was such a superficial and fictitious market the mahangu market is it.
The application of science and technology is the basis of human development and industrialization. Northern businessman John Akapandi has began to diversify his business portfolio with a tourist cultural village supplemented with a lemon orchard.
Think lemons, think lemon juice. Water supply through Namwater can facilitate cabbage and tomato production.
Think tomatoes, think tomato sauce. Anything is possible when the environment is harnessed to suit the needs of the inhabitants in an area and not when the inhabitants of an area rely on the environment through rainmaking and prayers to ensure food production.
The history of the deforestation of the Owamboland reads like a tragedy. Author, Harri Siiskonen in a similarly titled Chapter in a book on Environment and History mentions that the crucial elements that have affected deforestation in northern Namibia are “population growth and settlement patterns, land use practices, the structure of production, consumption patterns of wood and valuations related to forests”.
Although not independent of the above mentioned, I will endeavor to add, mental strongholds and a failure to discard the old ideas and thinking patterns of their archaic ancestry.
To build a traditional Owambo homestead requires on average 600 wooden poles. This means the cutting down of at least 200 to 300 trees. At a workshop dealing with deforestation in Ovamboland, prominent businessman Shali Kamati said “In order to be seen as a really brave Owambo man, you have to build a big homestead consisting of many poles and a lot of wood”. It was not out of necessity that the Owambo contributed so severely to the depletion of the forests, but it was out of a cultural need to display grandiose, haughtiness misconstrued as pride and sheer pomposity. A man who did not display these characteristics was often scoffed at as being unmanly or undeserving of a mate.
“German missionary Hugo Hahn reported in 1866 that between the communities of Ondonga and Uukwanyama there existed a forest area about 60km wide. Fifty (50) years later the width of the forest between these communities, using the same route, had been reduced to 40km. In the 1950’s the wooded area was still about 10km wide but today there is no forest between Ondonga and Uukwaanyama.”
The environmental degradation of Owamboland cannot be undone. What is left for its inhabitants is only the option to innovate and modernize. An environmental reconstruction project can be pursued.
However, it may take the same amount of years, 200 and counting, to restore Ovamboland to a semblance of what it used to be. Such a project would serve symbolically as a message to humankind not to take Mother Nature for granted for what you sow you will eventually reap.
The persistent drought in the areas inhabited by the Aawambo people is a lived reality that will only get worse with time.
Poor mahangu yields will only get poorer. What will happen to the livelihood of the people?
The survival of the Awaambo people will to a larger extent depend on a new innovative way of life that requires a rethinking and restructuring of the entire society.
For example, sheep rearing as opposed to cattle farming; and horticulture as opposed to the cultivation of Mahangu are some of the options that are worth exploring for these majestic peoples who have found themselves victims of persistent drought, rising temperature, soil degradation and reluctance to innovate and to evolve along with the rest of the world.
Vitalio Angula is a socio-political-commentator and independent columnist.