I was recently privileged to spend two weeks in Opuwo, Namibia with the Wycliffe Bible translators. It is at the end of the tarmac road and gravel roads lead further in to the interior from Opuwo. The Himba are a semi-nomadic pastoralist people group. Traditionally they have an oral culture but primary education via mobile schools means that about half of the young people are literate. Wycliffe Bible translators are involved with producing oral stories and an oral translation of Mark’s gospel.
This was an exploratory trip to investigate the possibility of sharing Christ’s love through veterinary medicine. Cattle form an important part of the Himba culture. The land is semi-arid with bush and trees. The soil is good but dry. There are dry river courses which cut through the land from the rainy season. The lowlands are surrounded by hills and a high plateau. The Himba people live in homesteads which consist of a number of dwellings. Usually an extended family with the eldest brother acting as chief. There can be 3 to 15 families based in the homestead. Some may be working away in the town or be semi-nomadic with the cattle.
The homesteads I visited had solar powered wells with a water tower. The wells produce enough water for the people but not the animals. There are then usually several different waterholes which the animals are taken to depending on the grazing availability.
The animals are range fed. In the wet season the cattle are grazed on low ground surrounding the homestead. As the grazing deteriorates in the dry season the animals are taken to the high plateau to find grazing. The cows are only milked for a few weeks post calving. When the cows are on the high plateau in the dry season, then the goats are milked to provide food. Milk is not processed or sold. Maize and pumpkins are grown on low lying areas that catch the water in the rainy season.
These are not generally poor people. While some may own just a few goats when asking about average herd sizes, numbers were usually around 200-300 head of cattle. Cattle are sold if someone comes and asks. However, they are mostly just bred and used as required, for instance, at weddings, funerals and special events. If they need money to buy materials, they will sell animals.
One comment was that keeping cattle for a business was not second or third but a sixth or seventh reason.
As Opuwo is the regional capital there is a veterinary office. There are holding pens and handling facilities set up around the region. Here animals are inspected for disease and there is government paid for compulsory vaccination for Contagious Bovine Pleuropneumonia (CBPP). (Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreaks are uncommon). Farmers have to pay for annual vaccination against Clostridial diseases with various vaccines being available. But take up is reportedly poor.
The major issue in this semi-arid land was the lack of water. All ruminants, but especially cattle, require water both for body maintenance and also for fermentation of their food in the rumen. For cows in milk or under heat stress or on dry diets the demand for water increases markedly. Where water is not freely available water is taken from the rumen which means fermentation is impaired, so forage is poorly digested. Cattle water troughs are not routinely used. The waterholes in the valleys off the plateau do not run dry. Water is available but requires either to be piped from waterholes or for boreholes to be sunk to access it.
The costing is difficult to establish on a short-term visit, but the cost of a borehole is 5-10 cattle. In a herd of 200-300 cattle that is not a significant outlay. There was a lot of discussion on the use of hay and drought resistant crops.
The making of fodder crops and use of hay is currently not practiced but the concept was not new. Training and model demonstrations would be able to make this a possibility. Napier grass, fodder Sorghum, Blue Buffalo grass and Lucerne were all discussed.
There are Napier grass plants at the Ministry of Agriculture Water and Forestry by the entrance to the Farmers Union. These are presumably from a previous project that has not succeeded. The Ministry have a nursery producing a large number of plants including chilli plants, mango and papaya trees. This means they have the horticultural expertise. As Napier slips are fairly easy to establish, it would be easy to multiply up large numbers of plants. There was a farm which is irrigating, growing and harvesting lucerne.
As well as FMD and CBPP, two specific local conditions were brought up repeatedly. The first was Plateau Stiffness. In the dry season when the cattle are on the high plateau, this is a condition where they become stiff in the front quarters. It effects 2 or 3 out of 20 animals every year. Those that go stiff do not breed that year. Half of affected animals die after a week or so. It disappears as soon as they get good grazing. There is no scour, cough or fever. Several animals will develop a red coat tinge and brown spectacles. As recovery is quick when returned to normal grazing the most likely cause is a mineral metabolic deficiency. Night blindness (Vitamin A deficiency) is common in dry season, as is phosphate deficiency. However, there are no lab results to confirm. The local vets use Vitamin A and phosphorus supplementation.
Secondly there was Clostridial disease which occurs again in the dry season. Cattle will get a fever, their ears drop and they will die. Usually several individuals are affected towards the end of the dry season. The meat from such animals is rotten. Where the local vet can be reached in time and the animal injected it gets better quickly. These signs are typical of clostridial diseases that are routinely diagnosed by the local vets. They are easily prevented by annual vaccination. On the way back from Opuwo, we spent a day at the Etosha Game Park which was a fantastic safari experience. There are birds and all the different types of antelope in groups, in the distance, alongside the road and on the road. The Springbok are beautiful. There are the ugly, odd shaped wildebeest, the elegant long-horned oryx and the hartebeest, in their red coated elegance. We frequently saw ostriches in their family groups pecking at the ground.
You can turn off to the waterholes and watch the herds coming to drink. We saw the zebras with their foals running around like teenagers; the giraffes awkwardly spreading their legs and stooping down to the water while water fowl swim past them; the elephants drinking and covering themselves in mud. It is not just the Himba that wear mud!
Unfortunately, about halfway through, on one of the gravel tracks the driver lost control of our pickup rolling it completely over. We were rescued by a party of Chinese tourists who were very concerned as they had just seen lions up the road! They drove us to the main centre. I then had to return to the car with a ranger to pull the car back on to the road and to rescue our luggage. The drive back was amazing as the sun was setting in a beautiful display of African colours with giraffes silhouetted against the sky. Bat eared foxes, chasing the evening insects, blocked our path. Jackals trotted along the road looking for prey. As we drove a golden eagle swooped alongside us, and kept track with the pickup. A vulture looked down from a dead tree.
The last of the tourist visitors had either departed the gate or were now safely locked in the camp or hotel compounds. The lack of vehicles meant more animals were on the track, slowing our progress but I was not complaining.
The slowest to move were a group of bull elephants, ejected from the family group by the matriarchal rulers, wandering from the waterhole to their night time halt, grazing and pulling bushes and branches as they went. A fantastic experience only slightly marred by the further five-hour car journey to the capital at an extortionate fee. We arrived in Windhoek at 1am for a few hours’ sleep before departing to the airport.