Text and photographs Marita van Rooyen
Text and photographs Marita van Rooyen
The road to Rundu from Grootfontein is lined with local homesteads, smoking fires, grazing goats, lively shebeens, churches, and displays of woodcarvings and clay pots. Abel Ngongo is one of the locals who have used this location to his best advantage, constructing a clay-pot selling outlet right next to the main road, about 10 km outside Rundu. He is largely self-taught and has a great selection of colourful guinea-fowl-shaped pots to draw the curious eye.
Making these pots requires considerable time and effort. It can take anything from weeks to months for the final product to be ready for the market. He is also faced by challenges that include the problem of transporting fresh clay from the river. Like most people, he has many hopes and dreams for the future, the main ones being to construct a sink house to protect his pots from the elements, and to involve more people in the business.
A friendly man who generously explains his pot-production process to people who are interested, Abel summarises his journey as follows: “From August to December I look for transport to the Kavango River, to collect fresh clay.” He leaves the clay in the sun on the banks of the river for about an hour for some of the moisture to evaporate. The hardened clay is then put into plastic bags, and Abel looks for transport back to his homestead. This can be problematical. “It’s not easy to find transport from one rural area to the next, but I’m a persistent man who makes a plan, even if it means having to spend the entire day waiting to catch a ride.”
Back at home when his creative juices kick in, he removes the clay from the bags and puts it into containers with water to soften it to the desired consistency. This process takes about two days. When the clay is soft enough, he mixes it with crushed pots from a previous batch. This is where the creative process begins, and Abel uses his hands and imagination to shape the item. When done, it is put in the sun to dry. Special river stones from the Okahandja and Otjiwarongo surroundings are then used to smooth and polish the pot. When he has enough pots, he places them in a hole in the ground, covers them with sand and makes a large fire above them that burns for three to four hours. As soon as the pots have cooled down, they can be put on display with the others. “Ideas are born from customer demand.”
Abel is the only breadwinner in his family; supports a wife and seven children. “This is my only source of income,” he says. His products are bought mostly by local clientele, who seem to have taken a liking to the colourful guinea-fowl pots.
The giant baobab is a popular attraction, but keep in mind that it is illegal to leave your vehicle while in the reserve
The only source of water in northern Kavango is the Okavango River, and people depend heavily on it. Women and children collect water for livestock, cooking, washing and domestic use, for which they have to walk for many kilometres to the river and back every day. It’s a tough life, but in 2009 a possible solution presented itself in the shape of Joseph Mbamba, the little man with the big dreams. “I wanted to help the people in my community by bringing the water to them and lessening their burden.”
And so, with the help of the Southern Africa Regional Environmental Project and a German called Mike Hemming, the Mayana Community Water Project (MCWP) was born. Still in its beginning stages, the dynamite man admits that funding is a problem and educating the people is another. “But we hope and pray that miracles will happen, and that we’ll have the first phase done by the end of this year.”
Joseph and a team of 11 volunteers are in the process of constructing a jetty and installing solar panels for the pump to transport 300 000 litres of water every day through a 1.8 kilometre-long pipe to a communal collecting point. Phase two will see the pipelines extended and water points installed at every homestead.
Having worked at a local lodge for the past 12 years, Moses Sindamba has dealt with visitors from all over the globe on a daily basis. “I’ve met many people over the years, and they all had one thing in common: they wondered why no one was growing fruit or vegetables in the area.”
So Moses started his garden in 2005, and it is fast becoming a tourist attraction of the rural bundus. With a selection of mangoes (the first thing he planted), papayas, tomatoes, corn, mahangu, pomegranates, bananas, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, beetroot, beans, onions, carrots, chilli and lemons, Moses is a pioneer in the area.
He sells to the neighbouring lodge, and educates villagers about the benefits of growing your own fresh produce. Now even Woermann Brock in Rundu is interested in his white pumpkins. His future plans include extending his garden and creating more jobs by employing other gardeners. As he says, “It’s a life demand.”
Find his garden in the Mayana Community, right next to the winding gravel road. A pink bougainvillea will greet you at the gate, so you can’t miss it.
Located on the eastern border of the Okavango River, the Mahango Game Reserve is one of the most frequently visited park areas in our country. This is due to the vast numbers of game that roam within its 244 km2. Although the reserve is accessible by sedan, it is best to drive there in your 4×4, as there are special access roads that are negotiable only by the rugged kind of vehicle, allowing visits to the western edges. And less traffic means more game, needless to say. The giant baobab is a popular attraction, but keep in mind that it is illegal to leave your vehicle while in the reserve… all kinds of predators are on the lookout for a fresh bite. Photographs with you posing in the frame are thus a no-no.
Animals that grace the space are elephant, lion, leopard, wild dog, roan, both kinds of zebra, buffalo (be aware of the lone bull, it might look lonesome, but it definitely doesn’t need your sympathy), springbok, duiker, lechwe, impala, nyala, kudu, and springbok. Water animals such as hippo and crocodile are also found in the wetter areas. The sable – another specialty of the region – is traditionally reserved for the chief’s plate. With more than 380 to 400 bird species recorded here to date, the area is a birders’ paradise. It’s densely vegetated, so keep your eyes open for animals grazing between shrubs and trees. With the reserve now forming part of the greater Bwabwata National Park, the fences and roads were recently upgraded by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism.
The N//goabaca Community Campsite at Popa Falls has been up and running since 2005, but it is still a quiet spot with slow traffic. There are four campsites to choose from, all within a minute or two’s walking distance from the rapids (not too close for unexpected water surprises) and hidden amongst dense vegetation. Two of the sites have private wooden decks overlooking the river and the Popa Falls.
Have a chat with assistant manager Ali Ngonga about life in the area and the falls in general. He is from the local Khoesan community and has loads of stories to share. Day visits are N$10 per person, while camping costs N$80 per person per night. Each site is equipped with running water, a hot shower, flush toilet, fireplace and open thatched kitchen. The campsite is located next to Popa Falls, on the eastern bank of the Okavango River; about 4 km from the police check point at the Okavango Bridge.
“We are the Mafwe people and this is how we dance,” says Namvula Shinyanwe, who with her ready smile is the welcomer and translator for this living museum of the Mafwe. She says she loves her people and traditions so much that she can’t wait for tourists to come in their busloads to visit her village.
There are 28 people living here, most of whom attend school during the day. However, those who are at home put up quite a show. Grannies shake their behinds to the rhythm of others clapping in unison, and the men hit their drums to the beat. They also show you how their animal traps work, how women make crafts, reed mats and skirts, and explain traditions through song and dance. The money made from visitors’ fees is used to keep orphans at school and to buy food for the villagers.
The well-off add fresh cow milk to the formula, but unfortunately meat is out of the question, as no homestead has the luxury of a fridge. “This is not an organised tour where locals perform for tourists,” says Moses Sindamba. “It’s a casual walk through the local homesteads to meet the locals and see how they go about their everyday lives.” Visits to one of six rural churches in Mayana are another possibility.
Walking through rural villages also allows plenty of exercise for car-affected muscles, especially since one homestead leads to the next, and the next. Visits to the Subian tribes on Impalila Island with guide Robert Muyoba Pelepele are most informative. With 35 villages and more than 2 000 interesting people, you might come across others such as Tommy Nchindo, who makes beds for a living. The walk includes a visit to the giant baobab (more than 2 000 years old), from where you can see the exact point where four countries meet; a stopover at the Impalila Combined School; and craft time in Mathilda Sihope’s shop.
You can take a break next to any of the public roads and embark on an unguided stroll through the first village you come across. Just keep in mind that it’s polite (and recommended) to ask first before entering someone’s homestead, or taking photos. And greet the locals. They are friendly and appreciate being acknowledged!
Katima Craft Centre is officially the oldest craft centre in the whole of the Zambezi Region
During winter months, the rivers still have high levels due to the rainy season, making it a great period for river cruises. Early mornings and late afternoons are the best times for bird viewing. There are between 80 and 400 species in the different areas.
Some boats on the Okavango environs even afford you the excitement of having an ‘illegal’ Cola in Angola. There’s not much to fear should you slip and hit the water after one too many cold ones, as crocodiles apparently don’t like deep and fast-moving water. You might have to be careful of the tiger-fish though, as attacks occur from time to time.
The Zambezi, on the other hand, has the added scenario of houseboats rocking gently with the swell, and hippos in large numbers. The only conservation office on water is also found on the Zambezi, at the tip of Impalila Island. Most lodges in the area offer the option of a river cruise. June to October is the best time for game viewing and photographing elephants that cool off in the rivers.
Opened in 1986, the Katima Craft Centre is officially the oldest craft centre in the whole of Zambezi. Having enriched locals for the past 31 years, all crafters are encouraged to bring their products to manager Olgar Hlungwe Monde for judgement and possible sales. Filled to the brim with a substantial collection of woven baskets, woodcarvings, clay pots, bracelets, necklaces, and stone carvings, the centre is located right on the edge of the open market.
Future plans include the extension of the centre to include an area for cultural performances and exhibitions. Olgar admits that tourists are their biggest supporters, but that locals also buy the occasional basket used for traditional marriages.
THE ZAMBEZI REGION: A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY
How did the Zambezie region (former Caprivi Strip) come to be part of Namibia? In 1890 a treaty was signed between Germany and Great Britain, with which Germany was hoping to gain access to its land properties in East Africa via the Zambezi River. Although the main concern of the treaty was the exchange of the British island Helgoland and German territorial claims on Zanzibar, Germany also acquired the area between the Okavango and Zambezi rivers, initially calling it the German Zambezi Region. It was later renamed Caprivi, after the then German Imperial Chancellor, Georg Leo Count von Caprivi. It was then renamed to the current Zambezi Region in 2012. Germany delayed the opening up and development of this area until 1909, when Captain Kurt Streitwolf built the Schuckmannsburg police station. Thus Namibia’s boundaries, as we know them today, were created under German rule.
This article was first published in the Travel News Namibia Winter 2012 issue.