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Shooing Away Hunger: Fighting the World Food Crisis in the Caprivi Strip

By GRIFFIN VANZE

As I open the door to my thatched hut, a shrill, guttural caw calls out into the virgin morning air. It is an unfamiliar sound, undoubtedly a new bird in the village. I look and almost immediately identify it: a pied crow. A harrowing creature, it perches on a Muhonono tree, peering at the students as they playfully wait for school to begin, oblivious to its presence.

Though the Caprivi Strip of Namibia is famous for its exotic and breathtaking birds, the pied crow is not one of them. This bird has greasy black feathers covering its entire body, except for a skull white vest that wraps around its chest and back. Despite the children’s nonchalant ignorance of the new bird, it makes its presence known swiftly, harassing other birds, cawing morosely into the silence, haunting the water pump. This bird is a conquistador of weakness. It has not shown up by chance; something has brought this omen here to my village.

I am the other new arrival here, though I hope I am not an omen. I first arrived in this village of 2,500 people about a year ago to begin my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher. Only 30 kilometers outside the regional center, my site is a rather modern village; there is electricity, spigots for water pumped from the ground, and cheerful (though sometimes repetitive) Zambian music blasting from the local bars at all hours of the day. However, there are many things lacking here, most critically a cheap and easy way to obtain nourishment.

At first I tried to ignore the shouts. While walking past bars, someone normally screams at me, “I’m hungry!” I disregard it. “They’re drunk,” I think to myself. Kids, even my own students, shout “Gimme ten dolla!” They want to buy cookies and sweets. It takes a while to fully grasp the dire shortage of food here.

The subtleties are telling: at 6-foot-2 and weighing 155 pounds, I am considered fat; there is not a single chubby student in the entire school. My good friend Matongo Likando, a dark, handsome 30-year-old man with hands like well-worn construction worker boots, jokes with me when he sees me giving one of my students an apple after school: “You know, they say that children are the future of tomorrow, so you must give me that apple today.”

This is not to say that Mubiza is utterly plagued by a “culture of dependency,” as the “experts” in their plush offices claim. All the villagers spend endless hours harvesting maize in their fields, but maize does not provide adequate nutrients. So Matongo heads a community garden that sells vegetables and, with any luck, will also have a poultry barn and fishpond in the coming months.

I am doing my part as well, starting a student-run vegetable garden in the next planting season. It is a simple idea: I provide the seeds, the kids plant and maintain the garden, and when the plants are ready, the kids will take them home and eat them with their families. The village next to me will help with manure, and Matongo will give us advice on gardening. The plants will all be cultivated in the community garden next to the school, which the elders on the school board manage, alongside other community gardening projects, including Matongo’s. We will plant vegetables with which the community is familiar and normally include in their traditional meals: tomatoes, carrots, spinach, cabbage, onions, and as a special treat, watermelons.

But the pied crow will stalk the fields, stealing crops at will and mocking us with its menacing call.

I remember what first compelled me to finally help with the food crisis. It was a Saturday, and my friend Kaitlin, another Peace Corps Volunteer working in a neighboring village, was visiting. We decided to walk to a village where Mukawa and Masake, two particularly emaciated students of mine, live because we wanted to ask permission from their mother to invite the girls to lunch.

After about a 40-minute walk, we encountered the scattered grouping of mud huts. Mukawa and Masake were playing in the shade of a tree. They had attached a rope to one of its branches and were using it as a swing. When they saw us, they eagerly smiled and ran to find us some chairs. We sat down, and their mother approached with a baby strapped to her back with a long piece of cloth called a sitenge. We greeted her, crouching on the ground and, clapping right hand over left, as is the custom, and attempted to make small talk before explaining why we had come. As we sat there, attempting disgracefully to say something coherent in Silozi, the baby began to cry. The mother slung him around to her front side and presented her breast. He attached himself to her bosom, then ceased and started wailing again. Undaunted, the mother took hold of her breast and shoved it back into the infant’s mouth. Now he suckled while whimpering softly. Kaitlin glanced at me and whispered, “There’s no milk.”

I lock my hut and trudge in the sand toward the school, thinking about hunger in the village as I eye the pied crow. With initiatives like my village’s community garden and my student-run garden, we can improve upon the suffering that the community has experienced. Even so, due to the rising oil prices, the cost of getting into town has risen significantly, and food in the markets and grocery stores are more expensive as well. We can do our best to provide affordable food relief locally, but we also pray that the responsibility will not be ours alone forever.

Some boys have spotted the bird. They pick up stones and hurl them at the winged bully, shooing it angrily away into the bush. Those kids deserve an apple.

(Griffin Vanze is an education Volunteer in Namibia.)

Last updated Jan 30 2014

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