Daughters of the Great Depression

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Women from the Omamas farming community nostalgically remember the years of great suffering, but also their lives imbued in the area’s history.

By Catherine Sasman

KALKRAND

A gravel road turns off from the B1 national main road about 10 kilometres north of Kalkrand. Another 17 kilometres or so brings one to the Omamas farmland, where an extended family has been farming for generations.

The area forms part of the Rehoboth Rural Constituency in the heart of the Hardap Region. It is characterised by dry flat ridges of yellow grass and short thorn shrubs. But this has always particularly been a small livestock farming area, however difficult the circumstances in an unforgiving environment.

Intrinsic to the character of the place is the resilience of its inhabitants. These are robust people who carry the ravages of a past rich in anecdotes. They carry the sun and wind on their faces, the work of farming in harsh climatic conditions on their faces, their postures and their language.

Reminders of the years gone by are particularly the area’s numerous women who have lived on, and on, generation after generation, to tell the stories of the farming community. Today, their lives and stories form a thread of a world gone by and the brave new and uncertain reality of their community.

“God must have forgotten about me,” says a 97-year-old Jeanetta Jansen.

“I have grown so old; I already look like an insect [‘n gogga’],” she quips.

Jansen is still lucid for most part, but feels her age is fast catching up with her.

“Sometimes I forget even the names of my children. It is as if I am becoming deranged,” she says as she tries to remember the sequence of events of her long and eventful life. Many events she tries to recall through a thick and belaboured voice, however, she remembers with amazing clarity and detail.

And although her body has grown weak and wrinkled, she still feels strong.

But she has developed a hearing problem and her eyes and legs are troublesome.

“But I do not feel any pain in my body. Today I feel like I could still get up and do some work,” she says while shielding her eyes from the glare of the morning sun.

“It is God’s wonder that I am still alive today, it would have been difficult if I were sick.”

Jansen’s grandmother was 92 when she died and her great-grandmother reached the ripe age of 105 and could still read and sew without using of spectacles before her death.

In part, she says she regrets having grown so old, but is happy that she can see her offspring.

She bore seven children but raised nine. She counts “a bag full” of 37 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren and four great-great grandchildren.
“I must have been a very profitable old cow,” she jokes as she traces her offspring of four generations.

Born on January 14, 1911, Jansen has lived through the effects of both World Wars on Namibia, she remembers the German colonial period through close and personal losses, she has lived through the Great Depression and devastating drought and subsequent great flood of the 1930s, the South African apartheid regime and all of Namibia’s independence.

During the German/Herero War at the start of the 20th century, her grandfather, a trader, was killed with six other men, on his way to Waterberg.

Her father and mother, Charles and Anna McNab, left the town of Rehoboth where they initially settled for the Omamas farmland in 1914 before the Sam Khubis uprising in 1915 when the Basters fought against the German Schutztruppe.

Her father was held captive as a prisoner of war of the Germans at Waterberg, together with other men from the Rehoboth area.

“My father and other men were supposed to go before a firing squad,” she remembers. They were held in a thorn pen, surrounded by German officers.

One night, she relates, a fellow prisoner, a certain Neels van Wyk, told her father that he had heard the cry of a jackal.

Van Wyk apparently responded to the jackals cry with a: “Yes, you can go now, I got the message.” He then told the other prisoners that they would be freed the next day.

“Early the next morning my father and the other prisoners heard the beating of a horse’s hooves. A young German officer came with the news that the war had been won and that they were free.”

All the prisoners started running away, leaving whatever possession they had behind. They went on foot, covering roughly a 500-kilometre stretch in 14 days before they got back to Rehoboth.

At Omamas, the McNab family started farming with cattle and small livestock.
But life was hard, recalls Jansen. She was taken out off school by the age of 15 to help her mother who had fallen sick at home.

In those days, says Jansen, school taught them to read and write, the Bible mostly. “And if the Bible studies were finished, so was schooling,” she says.

Life on the farm was hard, remembers Jansen. She helped her mother work hides of their small stock to sell to white farmers in a nearby village, Kub.

“My mother woke up before daybreak and carried the hides to Kub. In return, she would get some coffee, sugar, fat, or some meat. Sometimes she would get old clothes as payment.”

On one of these excursions, her mother fell into a hole. According to Jansen, her mother never fully recovered from the injury and subsequently succumbed.

Her father, she says, shamefully got half a crown (about a shilling or 25 cents) per month for work at a white-owned farm.

“Many of the white folk were heedless in their dealings with us,” she now says. “But in those days we had no say.”

The Great Depression of 1929 to 1933 brought about by a dramatic and worldwide economic slump, and concomitant drought that persisted for years in Namibia, brought untold suffering to the fragile farming community.

“That was a hard life, an impoverished life,” remembers Jansen.

Their housing was made of thorn bushes. Their staple food consisted of ‘veldkos’ (food gathered in the veldt) like berries gathered from plants and roots dug out of the hard and barren soil.

They would drink cows milk and have small rations of maize meal. They would often go hungry and thirsty, with a meagre meal at the end of a long and hard day.

“We had just enough to wet our tongues,” says Jansen.

Two sisters also living at Omamas, Annemarie Lemke (88) and Emmy Madjiedt (82) remember digging for the root of a tree (the ‘witgat’ tree) to make coffee and search for truffle (!naba), which ironically has become an expensive commodity since.

“Life was hard, but also very nice,” says Lemke. “There were no fences and people could put up camp wherever they wanted.”

In those days, she says, one head of cattle would take about 25 cents and a sheep or goat five cents.

Big rains broke the melancholy of the depression in 1934, swelling the fierce Fish River and its tributaries in the area.

“The rains in that year did not come in thunderous storms,” says Jansen. “The rains were soft and incessant, going on for weeks and weeks. I still remember how we would fall knee-deep into the mud, how donkey carts had to be pulled out of the mud.”

Lemke remembers how the good rains meant that her family started their own vegetable gardens once the rain started to feed the family in a time when work was scant.

Jansen got married at the age of 24 and left her family to cross the length and breadth of the southern parts of Namibia with her husband, Jan, who dug water wells with heavy, iron-cast machinery pulled by oxen.

She would later return with her husband to Omamas, where she offered her services as a midwife to the surrounding community for nearly 30 years.

According to her 63-year-old daughter, Sannie, Jansen never lost a mother or child as a midwife.

“I have lived a full life,” says Jansen, her voice breaking after a long conversation. “In my long life I have learnt that every day comes with the mercy of God. I am completely at peace.”

And so agree sisters Lemke and Madjiedt, as they sit on their veranda that looks out on an outstretched yellow field as rain clouds start a feeble rumbling in the lateness of the day.

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