In the face of recurring droughts, Namibia’s government intervenes to assist livestock farmers in the northwestern Kunene region.
Christofine Mombura reminisces about the past. She tells of a time when the rains fell abundantly, and the land was rich with grass for grazing. The animals had plenty to eat, and the humans did too. Now, she says, everything is dead.
The view from her home atop a hill paints a similar picture. Except for a few resilient trees and small patches of greenery, the land is coated in a thick layer of gray-brown dust, and her yard is carpeted with jagged rocks and loose soil. Aesthetically, the terrain is pleasing to the eye—the sprawling brown mountains against the clear blue-gray sky could be a postcard in any gift shop—but the earth no longer readily produces enough for Mombura to sustain herself.
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It has been a decade since substantial rains fell in the Kunene region in northwestern Namibia, where droughts are recurring. The arid to semi-arid region is delineated by the Kunene River and Epupa Falls to the north and the Skeleton Coast to the west. Here, the Ovaherero, like Mombura’s lineage, and Ovahimba tribes, who are traditionally pastoralists or subsistence livestock farmers, have been practicing animal husbandry since before the 16th century, as per the earliest records kept by Portuguese mariners.
In the past, these tribes were wealthy cattle herders, with some families owning upwards of 500-animal herds, but that changed in the 20th century when farmers experienced dramatic livestock losses due to drought. No rain meant no grass, and no grass meant nowhere for cows to graze.
While the farmers recovered, continued land degradation and frequent droughts have made cattle farming difficult. Seven years ago in 2016, the Ministry of Agriculture, Water, and Land Reform stepped in to assist farmers, proposing a project titled Improving Rangeland and Ecosystem Management (IREMA) to the Environmental Investment Fund of Namibia and the Green Climate Fund, a United Nations-operated fund that partners with developing countries on climate-related projects.
IREMA would award 21 goats—one bull and 20 does—to a select group of farmers in parts of Kunene, namely Sesfontein, Fransfontein, and Warmquelle. Once given the livestock, the farmers would not be allowed to sell the goats. Instead, they would have to rear the goats, using them only for their milk. Once their goats had reproduced, the farmers would also be encouraged to return between 5-20 goats to the government to be given to another farmer. This is called a “revolving scheme.”
When IREMA began in 2019, its goal was to “address the vulnerabilities of small-scale farmers” in response to the devastating livestock losses of 2016 that prompted the government to declare a state of emergency. According to Daniel Hakweenda, the senior agricultural scientific officer for the Ministry of Agriculture, Water, and Land Reform, over 50 farmers in Kunene have benefited from IREMA’s goat distribution program so far. But the ever-frequent droughts and the government’s limited resources have proven to be obstacles in the project’s implementation.
The Drought That Killed the Baboon
The word for drought in Otjiherero is ourumbu, signifying “a world that becomes dry and colorless, shorn of green, and devoid of life,” writes Michael Bollig, an anthropologist and professor at the University of Cologne in Germany. The drought of 1980 was dubbed otjita, or "The Great Dying," called so because of the extent to which it decimated the region’s herds, killing 90% of all livestock. Mombura was only six years old at the time. She’s 49 now and remembers only the lush grasses and green trees of years past. The drought of 1980 is “too far,” she says, a distant memory.
The recent ones have been worse, especially during 2016-2019 which have been more than just drought. What Mombura experienced during those years was ourumbu wa nanguise ouzepa ndjima, “the drought that kills the baboon,” which is not a creature that dies easily, she explains. A drought that kills a baboon is mighty. Sure enough, during those years, it wasn’t just her livestock that perished; the wildlife did too. Sitting on a small black crate outside her home, Mombura gestures down the hill, where she says you can still see the carcasses of the animals that died from the big droughts, their bones a vestige of some of the hardest years for livestock farmers like her.
Mombura's home of Warmquelle—147 km from the region’s capital of Opuwo—doesn’t get a lot of rain. And where rains fail, hunger is imminent. “It touches us a lot,” she says of the drought.
Whatever income Mombura gets, she puts it towards food. She doesn’t have the luxury to think about her health or that of her 12 children, their children, and her sister’s children, all of whom she looks after. For Mombura, it’s all about survival. Some days she has nothing to eat; other days she eats the same thing for every meal, either maize meal porridge or pap, a paste made by boiling and mixing maize meal with water until it becomes thick enough to handle with one’s fingers. Typically, pap is eaten with meat and vegetables, but that’s not currently an option for Mombura.
Things shifted somewhat for Mombura in 2021 when she was the beneficiary of IREMA, which was created in part to help farmers get back on their feet. The administrators partnered with researchers and scientists from the University of Namibia and Namibia University of Science and Technology to determine how to best assist struggling farmers. Since its inception, IREMA has given out livestock (a total of over 1,000 goats) to 56 Kunene residents, according to Hakweenda. The project is part of a push to encourage “climate-smart agriculture,” which University of Namibia Professor Cecil Togarepi defines as “technologies and techniques that minimize the impact of climate change.”
By giving out goats, IREMA is not only aiding the upkeep of the farmers’ livelihoods, but it is also encouraging small-stock farming. Because goats and other small livestock such as sheep require little pasture to stay alive—much less than cattle—land degradation due to overgrazing is less likely to occur. The does are also indigenous to the area, increasing their ability to adapt to and survive in drought conditions.
Mombura applied and was selected as one of the IREMA beneficiaries. She says she felt prepared to take care of the goats, especially after receiving training on how to make the most of her livestock. But 2021, the year she received the goats, was a drought year in Namibia. The lack of rain and subsequent lack of foliage and grass made caring for the animals especially challenging. Most of them died, and when the surviving does fell pregnant, they gave birth to stillborn kids. Without the necessary nutrients, the goats aborted.
This year, the government is supposed to collect goats from Mombura, but she has only 18 left, fewer than she started with. “When there’s no drought, you can kill a goat and use it for a month to eat with porridge. But now, we have nothing,” she says. “We’re not ready for this.”
“Masters of Drought”
In the 2000s, the first detailed reports on climate change in Namibia emerged. The subject has since gained popularity amongst Namibian scholars and researchers, with some choosing to focus on northwestern Namibia, a region that will see “a projected rise in temperatures of up to 7°C, partial collapse of rain-fed agriculture, and significant changes in vegetation by the second half of the 21st century,” according to Bollig. These are grim estimates for a region with the highest poverty rate in the country.
In 2018, a team of researchers traveled to Epupa in northern Kunene to speak with livestock farmers who had been affected by recurring droughts. There, the Kunene River, for which the region is named, flows generously, nourishing the surrounding land into a green oasis that stands in stark contrast to the drier, dustier sections of the region. In Epupa, 77% of residents depend primarily on farming, so the team wanted to better “understand how affected communities live, their perceptions of and how they respond to climate change, and the biophysical impacts of climate change in their communities.”
The team interviewed 60 households in the villages surrounding the river, asking questions about their perception of climate change and Indigenous knowledge about weather. Their main findings: A third of households had never heard of climate change and almost half of them didn’t know what caused it. Based on their research, the team recommended, among other things, “instituting climate change awareness campaigns at the community level to disseminate climate change information.”
“With no interventions,” they wrote in their research paper, “Kunene will continue to experience the effects of persistent drought and erratic rainfall” which would be especially detrimental for livestock farmers, whom they called “one of the most vulnerable groups to climate change.”
Bollig, who has been studying the Ovahimba and Ovaherero tribes for over four decades, disagrees with the characterization of livestock farmers in Kunene as “the most vulnerable” population. Since before the country gained independence from South Africa, Bollig has spent time with residents of Kunene, studying community resource management, namely the administration of water points, and community-based conservation on communal land.
“It's not fair, and I think also not adequate, to always call them the most vulnerable people or the victims of climate change, as if they do not have any means and strategies on their side,” he says. “In fact, they have very clever means: how to go about, how to dig for food in one-meter depth. And they do know their environment up and down, and they do know how this environment reacts to fluctuations in rainfall.”
In the face of climate change, “there will be no way around the decline of agricultural production” in Kunene, Bollig says, but it’s the farmers’ “preparedness to accept hardship” that makes them “masters of droughts” with significant adaptive capacity. “They survive them all,” he says, with relatively low human mortality.
In his research, Bollig has documented the extent of the Ovahimba people’s in-depth knowledge of their land and thus, their ability to adapt to the driest of conditions. He writes about people nibbling at bits of omukange (Commiphora africana) wood to stop themselves from thinking of hunger. He writes of tubers, nuts, berries, and herbs that they relied on during food shortages.
Nowadays, many people depend on drought relief food provided by the government, products such as imported maize and cooking oil. And then there are the myriad of methods used by farmers to predict rainfall. When bird movements lessen or trees release unripe fruit, drought is impending. The secretion of sugar from a mopane leaf and the bearing of fruit by the marula (Sclerocarya birrea) tree foretell the coming of good rains.
“Today, this in-depth knowledge has the role of a marker of the social identity of an Indigenous community,” Bollig says, “marking the difference between savvy, drought-hardened survivors, and unknowledgeable outsiders.” But there is some uncertainty about the accuracy of these methods, especially as the weather changes from what pastoralists knew it to be in the past.
The Rains Will Come
Tutjiwee Koruhama, a livestock farmer, says it’s going to rain soon. He knows because the ground shakes when it’s going to rain, and recently, the ground shook. It wasn’t an earthquake, no. It was something smaller, a tremor. He says traditional methods for forecasting weather are just guesses, but shortly after, he points to the omutindi or Moringa tree to explain how he uses it to predict rainfall. The trees are drought-tolerant and abound in this area, Otjikondavirongo, 68 km northwest of Warmquelle. They are short and stubby with a yellow-brown bark that flakes off, like thin sheets of dead skin pulling away from a dry hand. Koruhama says when the tree produces leaves, which it has, the rain will come.
Koruhama sits in a camping chair on a mountain, a few kilometers away from his permanent homestead, just down the hill. He swats flies away from his face—a face that, with its hollow cheeks and defined jaw, makes him look years older than the 36-year-old he is. Up here, he and his family—his wife, three kids, and two dogs—have set up a temporary shelter using a camping tent. This is where they stay when they bring their goats up the mountain to graze. Koruhama heard about IREMA after reading a poster at the councilor’s office in Sesfontein, 46 kilometers away. He applied and received 21 goats, which he has turned into a healthy herd of 49 with only seven deaths.
Back in the day, Koruhama kept 200 goats, but the droughts from 2017-2019 laid waste to his flock, leaving him with just 50. These days his 99-goat herd would be considered rich. Koruhama says he’s ready to return 20 goats to IREMA, which he says he’s contacted and has been waiting on. A shortcoming of the project is the insufficient means of transportation for the goat collections, so, in the meantime, the onus is on Koruhama to feed and look after the 20.
“When I was young, rains were raining. But since 2011, it has stopped raining heavily,” he says. “It starts raining and then not raining.” In the backyard of his permanent homestead, he installed a garden to supplement his goat farming. There he grows fodder for his goats as well as green peppers, onion, butternut, pumpkin, and watermelon.
Koruhama says his people are adapting in some ways but not in others. “Every year we are waiting for rain, but if rain doesn't come, we have to take our animals to the next place for grazing, which is a lot of work,” he says. “We find some things or some alternatives [for] what we can do [with] our animals for the next year, even if we are hoping that rain will come every year.” They never give up.
Bollig expressed concerns about government-proposed adaptation schemes that ignore Indigenous knowledge and farming practices, but Hakweenda says IREMA doesn’t interfere with traditional methods. Instead, the project tries to “boost” them.
Hakweenda is on the IREMA team working to “improve the resilient capacity of the farmers towards climate change.” He acknowledges that some things have had to change in Kunene as people tried to survive the stretches of dry spells, and some things will continue to change. The Ovahimba and Ovaherero are historically nomadic people groups, but now, people are settling in places such as Sesfontein and Fransfontein, where they have access to borehole water and community gardens.
“It's not a matter of the situation getting better, but we have to adapt to the situation. We cannot go to town. We are pastoralists,” Hakweenda says. “We have to survive. We have to manage.”
“Everything Is Dying”
On a cool morning in Sesfontein, Jod Awob’s wife rattles a bottle filled with stones, a makeshift bell to let the goats know it’s time to go. Awob, who learned how to goatherd from his grandfather, will then walk about six kilometers with his herd until the goats have found a spot to graze. How long he stays out “depends on my stomach,” he says, laughing that mischievous laugh that punctuates many of his sentences.
Awob has benefited from IREMA. Before he received his 21 goats, he had lost most of his herd between 2019-2021, leaving him with less than 15. While eight of his IREMA goats died, he now has a herd of more than 20 and will be able to give five goats when the collectors come and another five each time they come after.
Every day he wakes up before the sun rises, around 6:00am, to get his children ready for school. When the sun finally rises, he heads to the kraal. Even when he’s had nothing to eat—because there is nothing to eat—he goes out. While goatherding, Awob thinks about life as a livestock farmer amidst recurring droughts. He asks himself: Can we survive? What will happen in the future?
A lot has changed, Awob has noticed. The seasons aren’t what they used to be. For example, it’s cold when it’s not supposed to be. The area continues to dry up, leaving little food for him and his goats. He also doesn’t see as many wild animals as he used to. “Everything is dying,” he repeats. “Dying, dying.” Awob believes people should also learn to adapt on their own, even if the government is willing to help. It’s good to have a plan just in case, he says, which is why he applied for IREMA even when he owned a dozen or so goats. He says he couldn’t “sit and wait” with the few he had because “life goes on.”
The 56 farmers IREMA has assisted in Kunene in its four years of operation represent a sand-grain-sized portion of the population that depends on farming. Amon Kapi, the chairperson of Ngatuwane Farmers Union says IREMA has been very effective but that it needs to expand to other parts of the region. The union is a nonprofit organization that represents and advocates for the needs of communal farmers on a grassroots level.
Kapi says the grass that grows after the rains fall can last for even a year, but where there may be grass, people still experience water scarcity. This is what Kapi identifies as one of two droughts. The second drought is limited market access, another challenge livestock farmers face. People are struggling and the government has a social responsibility, he says, which is why he’d like to see IREMA do more. He says the program is “motivating some people just to become self-sustainable,” even encouraging some to start backyard gardens.
Clinging To Hope
Mombura holds onto the ends of her ohorokova to prevent the rim of the Victorian-style dress from brushing the dirt as she saunters through her garden. The flamboyant blue hues of the garment stand out against the monochromatic landscape. She points to the cabbages, onions, spinach, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and carrots sprouting. She singles out the beginnings of a banana tree and a patch of land dedicated to potatoes whose widespread stems grow underground.
In the past, Mombura says, people could depend solely on animal farming. That’s not the case anymore. With the help of her two sons, Mombura set up the garden in 2020. Luckily, there’s a waterfall nearby that serves as a constant water source for the residents of Warmquelle.
The droughts have made Mombura dependent on external forces. She depends on the government for drought relief food, and she depends on the tourists who visit the famed Ongongo Waterfall just down the road. In her free time, she fashions souvenirs out of wood and puts them up on a table for tourists to see and buy as they drive past. The garden, small as it may be, is a source of autonomy for her. She tills the soil and waters the plants so she can feed her family because she must.
When life gets hard, which it consistently has been, she cleaves to her Christian beliefs which give her hope that “the rain might come.” And when it finally does, she will feel good. She will feel grateful.