A Blessing in Disguise

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By Chrispin Inambao

OSHAKATI

On a sad note floods from the overflowing Cuvelai system displaced thousands, inundating many homes in northern Namibia, but on the other hand they are a rich source of much-sought-after catfish.

They would also serve as the most unlikely promotional tool for the Namibia Fish Consumption Trust in its quest to promote fish consumption locally.

Namibia, despite its abundance of marine resources, has one of the lowest fish consumptions per capita in Africa partly because in the past only the then low-value fish such as horse-mackerel and dentex fish were supplied locally.

One of the main reasons why Namibians consume merely ten percent of fish caught offshore is that the local traditional diet is mostly meat based.

It is much easier to find open-air stands where roasted chunks of delicious meat are sliced into small pieces and sold, unlike fried fish that in most cases has to be bought at pricey restaurants.

But with the floods in the north people selling slowly coal-roasted beef called ‘kapana’ are said to be losing out because many of their consumers are buying bundles of catfish freshly caught from nearby oshanas.

From sunrise to sunset Okanjengedi Bridge between Oshakati and Ongwediva and the Suicide Bridge that has gained notoriety for its high suicide rate, provide a good representative example of fishing activities in the northern regions of Oshikoto, Oshana, Omusati and Ohangwena.

Some of the more intrepid part-time fishermen have pitched up makeshift tents along the water canal that supplies the four regions with water from Angola, and now also a rich source for the Oshanas alongside it.

School children when not attending classes can be seen dangling neatly tied bundles of fresh or dry catfish for sale to motorists and to pedestrians alongside roads, more so along the main road from Oshakati to Outapi.

And the odd dried frog is also thrown into this mix of entrepreneurial spirit, while a few fishmongers could be seen going from house to house.

A kilogramme of this fish sells for as little as N$5 or N$10, unlike beef that would set back a consumer some N$20, prompting many to opt for fish that apart from its affordability also has nutritional benefits that far outweigh meat

This fish is mainly caught with hooks baited with smaller fry while others use mosquito nets and a wide array of fishing baskets strategically placed at a place where fish-rich water gushes from one oshana to another through culverts. It merely takes a few minutes to catch one fish.

After the fish are landed they are tied together and left to bob limply on a wet surface to ensure they are as fresh as possible when sold to motorists.

The mahangu harvest this year has been exceptionally low leaving many granaries almost empty and the income from the sale of catfish is used to buy millet flour, sugar, salt, cooking oil, candles and other essentials.

One of the reasons for the poor yield is an outbreak of armyworms that stripped many millet fields bare, leaving farmers high and dry.

But the floodwater teem with an extraordinary quantity of shoals of catfish that tempt men, women and children to fully seize this rare moment to cash in on this easy to catch water-dwelling manna.

Literally speaking, catfish are everywhere and hundreds of people have been transformed into fishermen who every day catch sizable amounts of fish from the oshanas and from culverts and bridges along the main roads.

Okanjengedi and Ogongo bridges that resemble a fisherman’s paradise with fish being caught with all manner of improvised tools, mosquito nets and sacks is a nice representative example of the happenings in the north.

The central areas of the north comprise the lower drainage of the Cuvelai river system, which rises in southern Angola and drains through Owambo to the Etosha Pan.

The amount of annual water flow through this area of the Cuvelai depends on the level of rainfall in the headwaters and the size of the resulting floods.
The floods, known locally as efundjas, are variable: in some years the floods reach Owambo and in some they don’t and three times since 1941 the floods have been large enough to reach the Etosha Pan.

In the northern regions with its flat terrain and impermeable soil, the Cuvelai system forms oshanas, which are shallow often vegetated interconnected channels and pans with very low gradients in which water accumulates, moves or stands. Young fish from the Cuvelai headwaters colonise oshanas during the annual floods.

The size of the annual harvest always varies in size and though there have been no systematic surveys of these catches, it appears this year’s harvest is above average as could be attested by the substantial fish catches.

Though data is hard to come by there has been an estimated catch of 250 tons from seven oshanas over a period of 60 days and this happened during a small efundja. Some villagers said the last time they witnessed flooding of this magnitude was in 1968 when there was a record fish catch.

Her head covered with a baby pink doek and clad in a green T-shirt and a blue jeans-trousers folded at the knees, Monica Sam a 26-year-old single parent of two school-going children typifies the fishing activities in the north. She seems representative of this seasonal group of fishers.

Each morning at 10h00 or so this sole breadwinner treks briskly to the oshana nearby her village at Omuhozu near Outapi in Omusati Region.

Her fishing shift lasts until 16h00 by which time she would have sold an average of N$100 of fish and gutted and cleaned a bagful of newly caught fish.

“We started catching fish over a month ago. We have been fishing seasonally from these efundjas but this year’s amount of fish is exceptional – it is just too much fish,” she told New Era.

She and her children eat some of the fish and the surplus she guts, cuts it in the middle and soaks it in vinegar before drying it for leaner times. While the other dried fish she says she packs into sacks ready to be sold to people from Oshakati, Ondangwa, Ongwediva and even Windhoek.

Monica says with the money from fish sales she has been able to buy millet flour, soap, cooking oil and to pay for her children’s school fees.

Though the efundjas are teeming with bountiful fish, the same cannot be said when it comes to the harvesting of giant, edible frogs that used flood waters to escape from being caught by expectant villagers, she said.

Namibia’s arid climate means that inland freshwater fisheries is relatively small. Only in the north-eastern and north-western regions of Caprivi, Okavango, Omusati, Ohangwena, Oshikoto and Oshana are sizeable freshwater fisheries found.

Inland fisheries are mainly subsistence based and typically labour intensive, with low catch per unit effort, and catches are mainly consumed by the fishers, their immediate families and extended families or within their communities, with very little surplus sold.

In Kavango and Caprivi more than 100 000 people depend on this resource for their daily protein needs.

Fish consumption in Caprivi ranks over beef, game and poultry and has economic significance for communities. The key fish species are silver catfish, squeaker, bulldog, tiger fish, tilapia, silver robber, dash tail barb and sharp tooth catfish.

Both seawater and freshwater fish are a superior source of nutrients vital to growth and good health. Fish yields high amounts of protein, vitamins, minerals and polyunsaturated fats. It is also a valuable source of vitamins A and D necessary for healthy skin and the development of bones. It plays an important role in growth and the repair of body tissue.

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