Monty's Year at Gobabeb Training and Research Centre, Namibia

Happy Holidays from Gobabeb!

It’s December 27th at 2:00 pm.  The temperature in the shade of my open-air office is a pleasant 80 degrees F.  Red-eyed bulbuls and cape sparrows chatter in the branches of the greenery in the courtyard, but other than that the station is quiet.  Everyone (save two interns and myself) has shipped out to spend the week with family, yet Gobabeb’s predictable cycle of morning fog, intense daytime sun, and cool evening breezes continues as it has since I arrived.  Despite the disappointing addition of new security lights at the main complex, one does not have to walk far to find an inspiring number of stars.

The last month has been filled with many great experiences, most of which I haven’t found time to write about: a trip to the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho for an American Thanksgiving with other Grinnellians, the start of the a summer course on land use in northern Namibia with university students, and a backpacking trip through the Kuiseb Canyon.  More on all that later!

I’ll use this entry to describe the !nara plant (Acanthosicyos horrida), upon which many of the Topnaar people living this region of Namibia depend.  Saying the word !nara correctly is difficult things for foreigners, but is usually forgiven by locals.  The exclamation point indicates one of the four clicks used in Nama (! = alveolar click).  You can work on it…  my strategy is to ignore the “n” completely.

!nara survive in large numbers in the loose sand, especially in the dunes and in the delta of the Kuiseb River.  Accessing groundwater via  long tap-roots (>30 meters), they are able to thrive where very few plants can.  Separate male and female plants sprawl over many hundreds of square meters, each individual causes the creation small hummock dunes around their base.  It is considered a keystone species, and many types of beetles, snakes, lizards, and rodents depend on the spiny protection at the base for shelter.

While not planted or cultivated, melons from wild plants are harvested by Topnaars.  The harvesting of the plant used to be part and parcel of their nomadic lifestyle, but now people have settled around water points and boreholes.  Thus, smaller parties have to travel hundreds of kilometers via donkey carts for week or month long harvesting trips in order to collect the fruit.

From the !nara melon (think: big, round, spiky cucumber), the pips (seeds) can be extracted, and the pulp is spread into sheets to make a delicious fruit leather (called !nara chocolate).  According to my conversations with harvesters, only the sweetest melons are used for this purpose.  Recently, a company based out of Swakopmund has been pressing the seeds to extract oil from which cooking oil and body lotion are produced.  Some of my family and friends should be enjoying this soon!

For many people in the Kuiseb, sale of dried !nara pips forms their only source of cash income.  A recent study by Masaaki Ito suggest annual profits from this sale of these pips average around $300 U.S per person.

Here are some pictures I took in mid-November when some anthropology graduate students from Kyoto University in Japan came to Gobabeb to learn more about harvesting and processing techniques.

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