Who Will Save the !Nara?

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By Surihe Gaomas WALVIS BAY Rooibank – It is a natural fruit that has been passed on from one generation to the next running, deep in the cultural roots of the Topnaar community. With its crackling sound when you open the pit, the savoury taste of the nutty inside is what draws many Namibians to come and buy this delicacy. The !Nara fruit as it is known by the locals has for many years generated much needed income to the poverty stricken Topnaar community in the desert terrain of Rooibank in the Naukluft Park area near Walvis Bay. “This is our only life survival,” said one Topnaar grandmother, 61-year-old Anna Engelbrecht showing us the green melon shaped fruits of the !Nara that she had collected earlier that day. “Without it we would not be alive,” she added solemnly suggesting the vital importance that this plant has in the history and tradition of the Topnaar people. The !Nara, a cucurbit which grows abundantly in the sand dunes near Walvis Bay in the Kuiseb River at Rooibank, is endemic to the coast of Namibia and provides food and water to the Topnaar community. It has been their staple for years. However, New Era discovered during a recent trip that the lack of water especially at Aarm Street in Rooibank is driving people to hunger and thirst. Much of the underground water has been tapped into boreholes of the major coastal towns of Walvis Bay, Swakopmund, Arandis and Henties Bay, leaving very little water for the !Nara plant to thrive in the desert. Furthermore, a dam wall built in the 1960s to redirect the flow of the Kuiseb River has cut off most of the water supply to the nearby communities. Just like the name “Aarm Street” means “Poverty Street”, the Topnaar community have been without water for the past four months now, as the ugly face of poverty is rapidly settling in. “Our only problem here is that we don’t get a single drop of water from Namwater since November last year. We now have to resort to buying bottles of water from nearby communities in the area,” said 58-year-old Carolina Beukes who resides in a corrugated iron shack. New Era discovered that the community sits with an N$25 000 water debt with Namwater, which they have failed to pay over a long period of time. “Without water how can we survive, what can we do,” said another unemployed young man in frustration. Without any goats or sheep, donkeys seem to be the only means of survival, as they use donkey-drawn carts to transport the little water they get from nearby communities. The history of the Topnaar community, which is closely tied with the !Nara fruit, appears to be fading and some elders fear that their culture is dying. “The tradition of sitting around a fire and telling stories about our past life is gone. If you ask a young Topnaar to tell you about their history they probably will not be able to answer you,” said one elder. While the Topnaar community of Aarm Street suffer in poverty, for those who live just a couple of kilometres away in Ururas area one can notice that life is progressing well, especially with the harvesting of the !Nara fruit. This is mainly because this area has got enough water supply. Plucking out the melon shaped fruits covered with small thorny protuberances, a long-time !Nara harvester Emma Cloete was not so much bothered about the bleeding scratch marks on her hands and ankles. She was glad that she managed to harvest close to 40 !Nara melons that day. “It is very hard work, but someone has to do it because it is our only source of food here out in the desert,” said the old lady, disturbed by that many young people have avoided becoming involved in this worthwhile tradition and income-generating project. The harvesting season of the !Nara lasts from November until May. The fruit is processed in such a way that it can be stored for several years. “It can be dangerous for us when we collect these fruits near the Delta area, because there are snakes and black scorpions, but I believe the job has to be done,” she said, settling herself down on a metal drum to start cutting open the !Nara melon fruit with a sharp knife and revealing the cream coloured seeds in an orange-yellow protein rich pulp. The !Nara is said to be highly nutritious. It contains up to 58 percent oil compared to peanuts that have only between 42 and 52 percent oil. As she throws the peels of the fruit on the ground, some cackling chickens gather around as they scramble for the tasty left over seeds, leaving the peels behind for the donkeys. That entire week of hard work paid off for 56-year-old Lina //Gowases as she managed to make a 25 kg sack of !Nara fruits ready for sale at retail supermarkets in the coastal towns. Such a bag earns her between N$200 and N$400. However since there is no formal market for the sale of seeds, the buyer can negotiate the price to a much lower amount, to the detriment of the Topnaar community. Not much is known as to how these !Nara seeds are actually prepared. Another profound harvester, //Gowases took us to her fireplace on which a huge steel drum was boiling with the cooked !Nara seeds inside. In the traditional preparation, the !Nara melons are peeled and boiled for 4-5 hours. The seeds are released from the fibre-ike pulp by sieving. The seeds are then dried in the sun on rooftops and thereafter stored in bags ready for sale. Besides that the !Nara fruit has many other uses for the Topnaar community, it being not only nutritious to eat with porridge, the bitter !Nara root called life elixir is also a cure for venereal diseases, stomach pains, nausea, kidney problems and chest pains. “As small children we were never found without a piece of the !Nara root in our pockets. The children were required to chew the root as the elders believed that it cured all diseases,” said one woman remembering her younger days. However, in an effort to address the plight of the desert community, Chief of the Topnaar Traditional Authority Chief Seth Kootjie told New Era that the issues concerning the lack of water and poverty are being scrutinised. “The community must organise themselves and plan for their future. We are planning to start different tourism community projects, while at the same time addressing the water situation,” explained Chief Koot- jie. He added that the traditional council together with other stakeholders in both the public and private sectors are trying to find ways of empowering the Topnaar community to make maximum use of the !Nara fruit for their further benefit. Such a move is hoped will go a long way in the efficient harvesting and marketing of the !Nara seeds in order to uplift the lives of the Topnaar community.