Current Life Along The Okavango River

12 May 2020

By Daniela Diekmann and Dirk Heinrich 

Come rain or shine, whenever you venture to the Kavango region in the north-eastern part of Namibia, you are greeted with big, friendly smiles. And while the everyday is by no means without hardships, one cannot help to get the feeling that even amongst trying circumstances, the faces of Kavango’s people always tell of colourful and fulfilling lives lived within this evergreen utopia. 

The Kavango people, live along the mighty Okavango River that flows in a south-easterly direction, originating from Angola’s highlands, winding its way through a part of Namibia and finally ebbing into the Okavango Delta - an in-land delta located in Botswana’s north-west. The people mainly practice agriculture including fishing, farming of cattle as well as planting of sorghum, maize and most commonly, a form of pearl millet known as ‘omahangu’.  

While most Namibians find themselves still trying to navigate the ebbs and flows of the current nation-wide lockdown, life within the Kavango region is bound to continue. Needless to say, stark contrasts are revealed within this situation. Whereas for those living in urban areas, the lockdown rules may not pose extreme inconveniences, this does look quite different for the people living in the Kavango region. Adhering to lockdown rules is simply impossible for most, since they do not have the necessary resources to remain confined to their homes for a number of weeks. For example, many women need to collect wood on a daily basis in order to cook food for their families. Due to the heavy rainfalls, the river has peaked around Rundu at eight metres high very recently, making it hard to find dry wood next to the floodplains and possibly prolonging the usual walks to acquire wood.  

And this is not the only challenge that the everyday life here holds. For example, we came across a lady named Clementine, who was found doing her washing on the banks of the Okavango on a Sunday. A day she would rather have spent going to church, however. Instead she had to proceed to do the washing for her twins while water is available within these low-lying areas along the Okavango. 

The closing of churches has also led to many of the nuns at the Catholic mission at Tondoro that is located a few kilometers downstream from Nkurenkuru, to find other ways with which to stay occupied. From a Marula tree located on their premises, they were able to collect large amounts of its fruits, which they then pitted, leaving the pits to dry. From the seed kernels, an oil is extracted at a later stage which is then used for cooking and according to the nuns, is very delicious! 

During this time of the year, the omahangu harvest also usually begins and many families are found in the fields tending to the widely held crops that can grow up to three meters tall. The harvested crop heads are placed into carrier baskets, that are then taken back home by the women. A scene that is truly remarkable, as it constitutes a careful balancing act by the women, who from a very young age, learn to carry such heavy loads on their heads. After being spread out to dry near the homestead, the crops are then threshed. Eventually, the seeds obtained are then stamped within wooden mortars to produce the nutritious meal. However, the heavy rainfalls have also brought difficulties for some in harvesting this precious food source.  

And besides carrying heavy loads on their heads, there are also various other modes of transport that have become the preferred choice within the Kavango region. Every so often, one comes across creatively engineered V-shaped sledges drawn by oxen, on which firewood, reeds, bags of mielie meal and drums full of water are being transported. The white sand that covers much of the area makes it easy to use this African take on a sledge and when nothing is being transported, some people might even join for the ride! 

Even at Gondwana’s very own Hakusembe River Lodge, also located along the banks of the Okavango, the rain brought flooding of the campsites as well as in front of a few bungalows and the restaurant. The few guests who at the beginning of the flooding were still at the Lodge, were quite surprised when they had to park their cars nearby, only to be taken to the Lodge by boat. A remarkable site which unfortunately cannot be experienced by guests due to the lockdown. Especially within recent days, the flooding has luckily already subsided quite significantly.  

And so, the people and their lives along the Okavango are certainly to be admired in many ways. Even during times where there is no pandemic that is unsettling most of the world, the people at the Okavango often have to circumvent daily challenges. Yet throughout it all it seems as if their smiles seldom fade as they dance to a never-ending, upbeat and colourful rhythm of life. 

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