At the T-junction where the exit lane from Hosea Kutako International Airport extending left and right seemed almost too slender to be the main national artery connecting the coast and airport and capital, I turned right, obeying the signboard which insisted this was the way to Windhoek. The landscape around me offered the type of scenery venerated by professional photographers–thorn trees permanently twisted by prevailing winds, golden-beige savanna grass waltzing in the rhythmic breeze, a rocky hill in the distance visible through the haze of dust and hot air.
It was my first time in Namibia, although my job in development research had taken me to other sub-Saharan countries and so the scenery on the way to Windhoek seemed familiar and subtly welcoming. I felt myself relaxing, anticipating tranquil, scenic hour’s drive to the city.
This was the moment a family of Springbokschose to ramble onto the road, casting mere sideways glances at my tiny rental car screeching to a stop. It was a reminder that when you found yourself in Africa, Mother Nature retained right of way.
I’d been in Africa long enough to know it was far from the generic place many foreigners perceived it to be, that individual countries boasted countless unique characteristics. I was about to find out how well Namibia illustrated this point. Before securing a research assignment in the country, I’d done my background reading. I knew Namibia’s situation on the world map, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, South Africa south, Botswana east, Angola north. I’d read about the country’s two deserts, the Kalahari and the Namib, and that the capital sat just about at the country’s geographical midpoint.
But figures and statistics and maps tend to hide the true narrative. After arriving I learned about the real Namibia and how it differed from the neighbours. For one, the country boasts the only true desert in Southern Africa, thus presenting a different climate than that of surrounding countries. Also, since independence Namibia had enjoyed uninterrupted peace and stability, another conspicuous variance from the neighbours. And it presented the second-lowest population density in the world – three people per square kilometer as compared to the continent’s average of 45 people per square kilometer.
How do you get familiar with a country of 318,772 square miles? Coming from a family of cooks and caterers, I tended to start country explorations by acquainting myself with regional comestibles. Other than offering an excuse to revel in new flavours, eating habits align to regional practices, thus offering insight into country trends. We eat to celebrate but also to mourn. Our job arrangements allow time for eating, as do our gossip sessions, our family gatherings, our sports activities. Studying how food is included or excluded in such life events tells us much about different cultures.
When I asked Shay, a local team member, about food to try out, she advised, ‘Definitely visit the local eateries rather than restaurants. Try places where we eat, not those aiming at tourists. We support street vendors and market hawkers because they make proper food, the kind even Bushmen would eat if they ever visited the towns.’
The Bushmen – or San as they’re called in international reports –featured often in locals’ conversations with me. The 35,000 Namibian San, from six different tribes speaking separate languages, are amongst few remaining truly Southern African indigenous groups. They continue to lead the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of their ancestors, their days dominated by searching for food. Hunters read animal movements from tracks, broken stalks and dung, which indicate where prey could be headed. The family camps where the prey goes down, finishing off every morsel before moving on to the next hunt. They offer the ultimate real-life example of using only what you need and wasting nothing, with an engrained awareness about sustainability which we members of so-called advanced nations still seem to lack.
The San would surely know better than most of us the influence of local climate on food availability, and therefore on consumption options. For someone from Scotland, Namibia’s300 sunshine days per year makes it sound like Wonderland. Until you realise there are downsides to having far more sunshine days than rainy days. It means water is an extremely scarce resource. It means that gravel-and-pebble gardens dominate, not lush lawns and green woodlands. And it means that vegetarianism is not a Namibian concept, because most fruits and vegetables must be imported and are absurdly expensive. Here, meat in its various forms is the ‘buy local’ produce.
Windhoek, where my research team was based, became the starting point for my explorations. The city origins date to the early 1800s, with communities attracted by the areas natural hot springs. Modern-day Windhoek offered all the buzz, clamour and dynamism of a flamboyant African city. Old colonial buildings competed for space with new-fangled glass and steel erections, yet a distinctive local architecture had come to the fore, incorporating raw local rock and adding tones of fawn, apricot and muddy orange.
My first food lesson entailed a visit to the Namibia Craft Centre, recommended by Shay. Past art and craft stalls, the wooden animal artifacts and paintings of the deserts, I followed an aroma of meat protein scorching and caramelising amongst acrid coal ash. I was introduced to Kapana, a Namibian street food of fire-flashed meat slivers, slightly underdone, served with chopped chillies in a doughy deep-fried roll called vetkoek (fat cake).
Lesson two in Windhoek came from the sole restaurant on Shay’s list of recommendations: Joe’s Beerhouse, or Joe’s to locals. Situated in the suburbs, Joe’swasone of those worldwide rarities, a restaurant still going strong six decades after it opened. Roughly the size of the generous Co-Op near my house in Scotland, Joe’s décor could be described as a showcase for recycled junk. Arusty engineless truck, mingling with leafy bushes, stood next to the heavy entrance doors adorned by sun-bleached Kudu skulls. Once through the doors, the outside and inside mingled borderless. Rope-bound branches served as room dividers and seating ranged from weathered picnic benches to non-matching dining chairs. Joe’s echoed something of Windhoek’s mixed architecture, and of the national ethos of us what you can find and adapt it to your needs; confirmation that there was much to learn about a country by studying how people deal with and in food.
Joe’s was busy whenever I visited. Sitting and waiting formed part of the experience, encouraging mingling and sharing. The kitchen stuck with local ingredients and long-held traditions. At my first visit, accompanied by Shay,I tasted crocodile fillet for the first time. At later meals I became acquainted with boerewors(farmer’s sausage),and Potjiekos(one-pot stew) done slooooowly in three-legged cast-iron pots over open fires, and Namibia’s unofficial national dish, pap and meat –pap being a maize meal porridge, the African cousin of polenta. The pertinent local choice,krummel pap, looked like couscous but unlike couscous required a paltry blob of water to cook, another example of heeding environmental realities.
The next excursion involved eight passengers on a minibus taxi, commissioned to take us southwards.
The driver singled me out to assure, ‘It’s not far.’
By then I was familiar with the ‘not far’ refrain, often heard in Africa only to find out you’re on a seven-hour trip there and another seven hours back. But in a country of thousands and thousands of square miles, seven-hour trips not far.
A visit to the south of Namibiaought to be prescribed viewing.The Sossusvlei dunes,with names such as Big Daddy Dune, Big Mama Dune and Deadvlei Dune, presented hues of ochre and burnt mustard that my camera failed to adequately capture. And 400 miles away from Windhoekcame Etosha National Park, sanctuary for hundreds of bird and animal species. I came within spitting distance of some members of the famous big five. I heard the yodelling yelps of fish eagles and the ‘gloob-gloob-gloob’ calls of hornbills, and I stood under some of the oldest trees known to man. The Dorsland Baobab Tree, the oldest tree in the country, is a mind-bogglingly estimated 2,100 years old.
I blame this trip for my biltong addiction. The woman sitting next to me pulled from her oversized handbag vacuum-packed packets of survival type air-dried meat – somewhat like Jerky but tastier and, unlike the American version, sugar-free. She generously shared, and since then I’d been carrying a ready supply.
Next came my visit to Swakopmund, originally the main harbour town established by the country’s German colonisers. Because of the ruthless Skeleton Coast, the harbour soon moved to Walvis Bay, while Swakopmund settled in as holiday destination, the renovated remains of the old harbour turned into cafes and gift shops.
Around Swakopmund, the landscape appeared a seamless, off-whites and stretch from beach to desert, nature’s colours here quite different from the Sossusvlei pinks and reds.
One of my most memorable experiences hailed from my first Swakopmund visit. On a day trip into the Namib, I met the Little Five. Nothing but sand showed as far as my eye could see, until the guide pointed out subtle tracks and gently uncovered the borrowers: diminutive rolling spiders, sand-diving lizards, sidewinder snakes, Tok-tokkie(knocking) beetles, and petite chameleons, all escaping the worst of the desert heat by hiding under the sand.
An authentic Namibian dinner concluded the day. We sat on tree stumps at the edge of the desert, salivating at the smell of potjiekosste wing amidst glowing coals in a circle of rocks. As appetizer, the cook served a rare local vegetable:Omajowa,plate-sized mushrooms growing only outside Otjiwarongo, at termite hills for a few weeks per year; roadside vendors were the primary outlet of Omajowa. We ate it pizza style, topped with marog (wild spinach) and sizzling cheese, the mushroom bottoms crispened by fire.
Ourdesertdinner mimicked somewhat the San’s example of following the food, cooking and eating it under the African night sky. While pop-up restaurants had in recent years become all the rage in the UK and elsewhere, in Africa it had been a way of life for centuries, if not millennia.
My Namibian project came to an end all too soon, but I have returned for holidays. I got around to popular sightseeing spots – firm favourites include the National Art Gallery and the two locations of the National Museum. But my best experiences came from following Shay’s advice to frequent locals’ food hangouts.
At my home in Scotland, I now offer on special occasions my own Namibian menu. In summer if the weather allows, I cook in the garden over a slow fire a potjiekos full of Scottish produce, served with a winter barley variation of krummelpap. On days when the weather is more Scottish and unpredictable, I offer Kapana instead, fried quickly and stuffed in my vetkoek which, I dare say, are nearly as good as those Shay shared with me. This is my homage to the San’s principles of using only ingredients that didn’t travel far, and of sharing food with the people we value as part of our extended family.