Strangers In A Dry Land

It was the tail end of a very long day, sweltering and dusty, and 100 angry villagers in tiny Omuthiya, Namibia, many wielding ceremonial clubs, others guns or bows and arrows, were crowding us up against our pickup. Our interpreter was negotiating fast and hard in Oshivambo, the local tongue, but the people weren't getting any happier. Clearly, we had a problem.

We had a bunch of problems, actually. My fiancee, Jackie Dyer, and I are here to start an emergency food-distribution program as volunteers for the Rossing Foundation, a local nonprofit organization. But the project has reached an impasse. A lack of foresight stymied some good intentions, leaving us at this moment between a hostile throng and a hard place in the desert of Ovamboland in northern Namibia.

VOLUNTEERS. Jackie and I arrived in Africa last January to start a year of volunteer service, taking breaks from our careers as options trader and journalist, respectively. We came because we love the place, having worked and traveled in the region before. More important, we wanted to do something identifiably good for others--"part Catholic guilt and part noblesse oblige," Jackie says. Never mind that we had no directly relevant experience: We thought we could use our skills to help people in need.

The need certainly exists. Namibia won its independence from South Africa two years ago. Along with most of its neighbors, it is now trapped in its worst drought in decades. This is a dry land in the best of times, its stark desert topography and climate much like that of Ethiopia. And, as in that country, overpopulation and overgrazing have strained the region's sandy soil and limited freshwater supply.

This year, the rains began too early, then ended abruptly, and crops in the villages have been wiped out. Like other subsistence farmers hereabouts, Melania Shinefima usually harvests 1,000 pounds of pearl millet from her two acres of communal land--just enough to feed her household of eight. Her crop in April was just 100 pounds, which the family has already consumed. "It is uncertain," she says. "We don't plan for next week, or even tomorrow. Maybe today, a neighbor gives us food."

Multiply Shinefima by several million, and you get the picture. Famine is close at hand, and the next rains won't arrive until December, at best. Still, this is not Somalia. No one in Omuthiya has starved yet--in fact, many adults appear robust--but some young children already display the thin limbs, skin ulcers, and swollen bellies of malnutrition.

At first, our job seemed fairly straightforward: Deliver food to families who need it most. Each day, we visited tiny villages of thatched huts, bringing truckloads of cornmeal and beans supplied by the World Food Program, a U. N. agency. Hundreds of people walked the dirt paths from neighboring settlements and sat in a circle as we called out their complex Oshivambo names--typically to no reaction whatsoever except laughter at our mispronunciations--then doled out the rations.

What began simply, though, soon was complicated by the dynamics of village politics. We worked with a committee of village representatives charged with deciding who should get food first. But no one had set criteria for the selection process. Committee members had the power to choose who got the cornmeal and beans--but had no concrete reasons for turning anyone away.

Those who were excluded got mad. The crowd outside our truck that afternoon in Omuthiya went away foodless, but only after 90 minutes of argument. In hindsight, it was predictable that no villagers would want to miss out on free food--rural Africans being no more selfless than anyone else. And no one really wanted to tell them "no." Our nervous committee members backed down quickly after contentious neighbors chased one terrified representative into her home. And the headmen, tribal leaders who govern each village, wouldn't risk political capital by confronting the anger, either. Overnight, our list of eligible "emergency" cases more than doubled.

The root of this evil lurks inside the chest-high baskets, that may or may not contain food reserves, in each household compound. Many families here--perhaps one-half--keep enough surplus millet in their granaries to keep them fed for a year or more. But they won't tell us that, and it's nearly impossible to find out. Ask how much grain she has on hand, and Elizabeth Haufiku, 68, looks at the ground and chuckles to herself. Even her late husband wouldn't have asked this question. "Even God, he is not permitted to look," jokes Immanuel Anderk, a headman from Omulingi-Etegameno, a village to the north.

MICROWAVEABLE. Cultures clash at every turn. We warehouse tons of U. S. Army rations left over from the gulf war. That includes 1,000 cans of Spam. But we're also stocking 15,000 Nature Valley granola bars, Canadian pickled herring, and microwave-only Chef Boy-ar-dee lasagna. This last item is something of an anomaly in a place where most buildings lack electricity. "Some of this food is very strange," says Thomas Uutoni, a local school inspector who personally finds Spam to be too salty.

Yet despite all the blundering, people who might not otherwise eat are getting something. And we're slowly coming to terms with the chaos before the real crisis arrives. Now, at least, the government has settled on reasonable criteria for food recipients, and it is starting to consider important logistical questions. Regional committees are planning work projects that will employ drought-stricken farmers, paying them in food, in an effort to relieve the stigma attached to free handouts. To its credit, indeed, this brand-new democracy with scant resources has confronted the drought energetically. We've seen none of the corruption that has blocked similar efforts in Somalia and other countries.

But the tumult, no doubt, will continue: The thing about emergencies is you don't get much time to practice. Over the next few weeks, we will expand our operation from some 40 villages nearby to an area of 15,000 square miles stretching north all the way to the Angola border. The local committees we work with are poorly organized and have no phones. To communicate, we must drive several hours each day over deep-sand tracks. Despite the new guidelines, confusion and argument still reign over who merits food: Over half the region's people have registered for handouts, far more than truly need them. And no one knows how to deliver water to places where wells have gone dry.

Some people will suffer. "My cattle are losing weight," says Petrus Nghishekwa, a local farmer. "The ground wells, most are dry. There is no work to be found. There is no certainty for the next months." Well, there's one certainty, actually: We won't get any rain.


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