One of the first things people notice about Namibia is how clean and orderly it can look compared to other developing countries. But if you go far enough in certain directions, you’ll see people living in extreme conditions that belie the seeming prosperity. On paper, Namibia is an upper-middle income country, but the reality is that the riches don’t trickle down and its income disparity is among the highest in the world.
In the desert, we’d pass through tiny remote villages with houses made of scrap metal where people lived in the kind of limbo that’s played out all over the global south: having one foot barely reaching the edge of the modern world and the other in a more earth-grounded world of the past, with no way to fully get to one side or the other. Their original way of life has been significantly stripped down or wiped out, yet there is little opportunity to advance in the “modern” world.
In these Namibian villages where it appeared that the only option was subsistence living, I wondered what people survived on in the harsh desert environment.
On our day in Sossusvlei, I spotted a plant that has been essential to the survival of a group of native Namibians called the Topnaars, a subsection of the Nama ethnic group.
The land the Topnaars exist on is a tiny fraction of the land they once used before the colonists arrived. And now, because the area they inhabit is part of Namib-Naukluft National Park, they are no longer allowed to hunt on it. How ironic is it that a way of life that once worked in harmony with the environment has been further shut down in order to protect the environment?
Now this thorny plant is the main thing that keeps them going. It’s called the !nara plant (in languages that use tongue clicking, the exclamation point denotes a click) and various parts of the melon it produces are prepared and eaten in many ways by the Topnaar. The seeds are roasted, the pulp is mashed to make a porridge, the oil is extracted from it, and more.
While it’s incredible that this one plant can provide a wealth of nutrients for an impoverished group of people, the fact that it cannot be cultivated means that it can still be an unreliable source of food or income. And decreasing groundwater levels have begun to impact its availability in the areas near Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. But for now, it continues to keep the Topnaar going, surviving if not thriving.