Under the searing August sun, the women of the Fransfontein community garden in northwestern Namibia walk between rows of tomato vines, lowering themselves every few steps to place a fistful of fertilizer near the stems. Days before, the women had harvested the tomatoes, plucking the ovular fruit off the vines in preparation for a new round of planting. The frost from the year’s particularly cold winter had ravaged the produce, leaving behind a partially damaged, undesirable yield. The women formed make-shift pockets with the bottoms of their t-shirts to collect the tomatoes as they made their way through the field, before releasing the harvest into a slowly growing multicolored pile on the ground.
That day, a Tuesday, they fed the newly naked vines. The women themselves had had nothing to eat. Two of the women, Rosalia Seibes and Helency Somses, paused in between rows, using the back of their palms to wipe away sweat from their foreheads. Seibes, Somses and their friends come to the garden every day except Sunday to till the land in community. While working, they share stories—stories about their children, their husbands and what they’re going to cook. They listen and give advice and laugh. In those moments, they allow themselves to forget that looming over them is an ever-present drought.
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Namibia has experienced recurring and frequent droughts over the last decade or so. Drought itself is not unusual in the country, but the dry season continues to extend itself beyond seasonal boundaries, especially in the Kunene region in northwestern Namibia which has been hardest hit. The Ovahimba and Ovaherero tribes who are Indigenous to the area have been practicing animal husbandry, primarily with cattle, for as long as can be shown by historical records, the earliest of those dating back to the 16thcentury.
But as minimum rainfall has lessened, stunting the growth of the grasses that cattle feed on, farming has become more challenging, sometimes resulting in crushing livestock losses. Now, some residents of Kunene are supplementing their livestock farming or replacing it altogether with gardening and small-scale crop farming. This has allowed farmers to fight food insecurity by growing their own food, but making a living through the sale of their produce has been much more challenging.
The Fransfontein community garden has been a fixture in Kunene for many years—some residents don’t know the exact timeline. A few years ago, the garden, 343 kilometers from Opuwo, the capital of the Kunene Region, was in a poor state, harried by land degradation and overgrown grass until a government-supported program, Improving Rangeland and Ecosystem Management (IREMA), stepped in to rehabilitate the drying land.
IREMA was proposed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Land Reform to the Environmental Investment Fund of Namibia with the backing of the Green Climate Fund, a fund established in 2010 under the United Nations to assist developing countries with their climate-related projects. IREMA kicked off in 2019, aiming to improve the livelihoods of livestock farmers in the Kunene Region. This involved restoring two community gardens: one in Fransfontein, the other 300 kilometers away in Sesfontein. IREMA’s efforts have transformed the garden, but it’s hard to quantify the project’s success just yet.
Over the last four years, at the Fransfontein community garden, the IREMA team has installed boreholes for easier and regular water access, a drip irrigation system to limit water waste and a storage space where the gardeners keep tools and fertilizers. The team also installed a fence around the perimeter to prevent wildlife from entering.
Seibes and Somses both started working at the garden in 2022 after IREMA had completed its improvement project. The flat stretch of land is set in a quiet location whose backdrop is a range of dusty mountains accompanied by the occasional squawking of birds and the distant hum of muffled voices. Young lemon trees freckle the garden, which is primarily covered in cabbages, onions and beetroot that sprout resiliently despite harsh drought conditions.
At one end, an enclosed nursery houses carrots and onions. “We just want the garden to grow so that we can get something from it,” Somses says, walking through the rows of tomatoes. Somses, whose shy smile and round baby face easily knock a good 10 years off her 43, loves the garden. “This is our family, our babies,” she says of the produce, her wide-brim hat shielding her face from the blistering sun, “that’s why we’re feeding them.” She says the garden has helped them tremendously, but while she’s grateful, it’s not enough.
Somses is waiting. She’s waiting on government relief food, waiting on the vegetables and fruit in the garden to grow so they can have something to eat, waiting for things to get better. “There’s no work and we’re struggling,” she says, a deep frustration masked beneath her gentle voice.
The gardeners don’t earn a fixed salary. Instead, they make a living based on what they can sell, but with limited market access and high costs of transportation into nearby towns, selling the produce has proven challenging. Somses wants the government to take over the garden so they can get paid regularly. Seibes, a Damara/Nama woman like Somses, also wants the government to take over. She would like to be able to give leftover produce to the elders in the community, but right now, their only options are to sell or eat the produce, because that’s all they have. Seibes says if she got paid, she would use the money to buy food for her family and toiletries so they can wash themselves.
“We can’t be dirty after gardening,” she says. Seibes is 41 and married with four kids, and she says looking after them during a drought is difficult. Unlike Somses, Seibes doesn’t enjoy gardening. She’s a proud livestock farmer. That’s what she wants to do, but she has no other options.
People in Crisis
During drought years, the Namibian government and local branches of international NGOs hand out drought relief foods, such as maize, cooking oil, and salt. Cecil Togarepi, a professor at the University of Namibia, says this type of government intervention can be like giving a man fish.
“It’s counterproductive, in as much as we'd want people to survive the effects of drought. Because what it does is that the majority of people become dependent,” he says. “It introduces the dependency syndrome in such a way that people are not proactive or [don’t take] initiative to see what they can actually do in order to adapt to the changing climate.”
Community gardens such as the one in Fransfontein are different. They give people a sense of ownership over their food, and the climate-smart agricultural practices—which Togarepi defines as “technologies and techniques that minimize the impact of climate change”—they promote are better for the land. Some of these methods, such as the mapping of fields, even come from traditional knowledge.
Togarepi compliments the climate-smart practices put into place by programs such as IREMA, but he also criticizes the ministries in Namibia for operating separately. A collaboration between the ministries would make a greater impact, he says. When it comes to government processes, Togarepi says aid can also be bogged down by bureaucratic procedures that prevent Namibians from getting the help they need right when they need it.
In Namibia, more than 350,000 people face food insecurity, according to a February 2023 report by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). The IPC Acute Food Insecurity (AFI) classification analyzes the levels of food insecurity in a country, placing its divisions into one of five phases of food insecurity, with Phase 1 being “people in food security” and Phase 5 being “people in catastrophe.”
Based on the IPC AFI’s analysis, from Sept-Dec 2022, Kunene was in Phase 3, “people in crisis,” due to “climate and price shocks.” Kunene’s changing climate creates the perfect storm for food insecurity: Low rainfall, rising temperatures, and degraded land, among other factors, meant 43% of households in the region were food insecure during the period the analysis was completed. While Kunene’s soil is fertile, its ability to bear fruit depends on the rains.
A Bitter Thing
Drought is all-consuming. It eats away at the grasses, trees and animals, and it gnaws steadily at the people’s spirits. The day the women harvested the tomatoes, Sarah Jod had been almost jolly. She is 73—which is perhaps why some of the gardeners call her granny, or ouma, the Afrikaans equivalent—with rich, darkened skin and wrinkles running across her face. That day she smiled and worked energetically, chatting at intervals with the other women. But five days later, she has an air about her that signals more than just fatigue, like the weight of the mountains is on her shoulders and she has nowhere to set it down.
Jod weeds an unused part of the garden with some other community members and volunteers, preparing it for whatever they choose to plant next. She uses a yellow rake to break ground and gathers long strands of grass before tossing them onto one of the many piles that has taken shape since they started working at 8am.
Jod is strong. You can see it in how she lifts the rake and then lodges it forcefully into the earth. But her body droops slightly, perhaps clobbered by the drought and the violence of the midday sun.
Jod scrunches up her face and rubs her fingers together as though she has sunken her teeth into a ripe lemon, rind and all. She’s explaining that ikurub, the word for drought in Damara/Nama, signifies something bitter, unpleasant. The acidity hangs over her as she recounts the shift in weather. “Everything has changed,” she says, gesturing with her hands. “Everything has changed.” They don’t know this weather; it’s unfamiliar, and it’s affecting everyone, she says, rich and poor. There are days when she has nothing to eat, even when her work demands much of her. She worries constantly about her children, her grandchildren, and her neighbors. What will they eat? Will the drought last a long time?
But there is sweetness in her life too, like the friendliness of the people in Kunene and the opportunity to share her harvest with the older people in the community and the way she and the other women come together to pray for the rain. She loves “being part of something positive.”
As Jod weeds the garden, a tall, lanky young man jogs leisurely towards her.
“Ouma! Ouma! How’s the work going?” he says, a wide grin stretched across his face. It’s Paulos Ashipala, the stern but respectful 30-year-old garden manager who listens to reggae and Lucky Dube while he works.
“How’s it looking?” She replies. It’s almost noon, and the sun hasn’t let up.
“Clean, clean. But don’t kill yourself. We need you.” He says, teasing her.
“We’re together. We’re together,” she replies, somberly.
The Year of Revival
2023 is the Year of Revival for Namibia. The country’s president, Hage Geingob, assigns a theme to each new year, and for 2023, the theme is revival, “which is about reigniting the strength of a resurgent nation, a nation that looks into the future with renewed hope and optimism,” he said in a broadcast at the end of 2022.
Marius Sheya, the governor of the Kunene region, believes strongly in this vision, but revival amidst increasingly frequent droughts comes at a price that some researchers such as Togarepi believe the government won’t be able to pay. Sheya knows that the resources are “never enough” and that in the face of a changing climate, the region “needs assistance.”
He says, “The livelihoods of the people depend on us mitigating and fighting climate change.” His office has worked with the administrators of the IREMA project, which has provided NAD 137 million, about $7 million, to rehabilitate more than a dozen community gardens in the region, a large sum but insignificant in the face of the people's suffering.
“What gave us hope and sustained us is the belief in the people. Our people are adaptable. They adapt. They grow more in the challenges that they face, and they find new ways to deal with challenges at that particular time,” Sheya says. “That gave us hope. That gave us that light to say we need to continue pushing on what we're doing.”
At the Sesfontein community garden, things look a little different than at the one in Fransfontein. Date palms tower over the land here, where conflicts about access to the water pipes have arisen, the kind of conflicts that arise when people are desperate—when the rains stay away and water is scarce. Currently, the garden has solar-powered pumps that transport water from two natural springs to the plots, but the pipes installed by IREMA aren’t long enough to supply water to every corner of the garden.
There are other issues too, like the way the contracted engineers laid out the plots. The improvement project at the Sesfontein community garden was supposed to be completed by August 2023, but IREMA chose to extend the project to give the team more time to install a borehole.
In Sesfontein, the farmers grow tobacco, wheat, and maize, all of which they sell. “We make not too good money, but we make something for a living,” says Rosalia Mbomboro, a Sesfontein native and one of the patrons of the garden. She’s weeding one of the tobacco plots before she takes a break. She kneels on her haunches, her feet and hands caked in mud, beads of sweat dripping down her forehead as she yanks unwanted grass out of the ground. She says the grass must be removed or the tobacco won’t grow and points to the plot across from her where the tobacco plants have started to sprout pale yellow flowers.
This indicates that it’s ready to be harvested, Mbomboro explains, the intermittent crows of a nearby rooster interrupting her. Once they’ve harvested the tobacco, they will dry it in the sun for one week before crushing it and preparing it for sale, perhaps in Opuwo. The mealies (maize) will be harvested in October.
Mbomboro says her family has been using the garden for generations. She inherited her plots from the Damara/Nama women before her. Now she comes here every day, even on Sundays, when she makes her way here after church. “It’s hard work. It would be easier if I had better tools,” she says. She’d especially like a hoe, but she can’t afford to buy one. She’s happy with some of the work IREMA has done, such as putting up a fence to stop goats and donkeys from entering the garden.
Like many farmers in Kunene, some days Mbomboro has nothing to eat. Other days she eats pap with no accompaniments. She also worries about the future of her 10 living children but works hard to secure it. “We're uneducated, so we grow this because we have kids in school,” she says. “So, when we grow this, we sell it to pay [for] their school.”
Once upon a time, everything worked “smoothly.” Mbomboro says the animals birthed copiously and the harvests were bountiful. Now, it’s hot and dry, the worst conditions for gardening. If the drought doesn’t end, she says, “everything will just die slowly but surely,” but she knows the day will come when it will rain because “God is not going to throw us away.”