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Garden Project Grants Modest Independence

 IPS 04 June 2019

Life in Omaruru? Put it this way: even the river that gives the town its name doesn’t always make it down. In this semi-desert part of Namibia, existence is a daily battle against poverty. A women’s gardening project is trying to change this. Once a missionary settlement, Omaruru - population 6,500 - now serves mainly as a hub for surrounding game farms and as a popular tourist stopover. Hakahana, in turn, is the area’s reservoir of cheap labour. (898 words) - By Servaas van den Bosch

OMARURU, Namibia - Life in Omaruru? Put it this way: even the river that gives the town its name doesn't always make it down. In this semi-desert part of Namibia, existence is a daily battle against poverty. A women's gardening project is trying to change this.

The Omaruru River runs down from its source in central Namibia, high up in Mount Etjo, for only three months a year, or - in a particularly bad rain season - not at all. But even when the water is absent, the dry riverbed is a sharp demarcation between the 'haves' in Omaruru proper on the north bank, and the have-nots in Hakahana, its shantytown on the other side.

Once a missionary settlement, Omaruru - population 6,500 - now serves mainly as a hub for surrounding game farms and as a popular tourist stopover. Hakahana, in turn, is the area's reservoir of cheap labour.

In a part of town that is referred to as 'single quarters' by virtue of its dwellings that are one room affairs, a group of women and men is gathered under a tree for a SWAPO party rally. Music streaming from an unseen radio guides their singing about Sam Nujoma and the war, punctuated by intermittent cries of "A luta continua!"

The struggle on this August Sunday afternoon has continued well beyond the official end of the programme judging by the number of empty bottles on the table in the middle of the gathering.

For SWAPO district coordinator Philip Nghipandulwa it is a welcome break from his work as manager of a women's gardening scheme on the banks of the mostly dry river.

The Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah project - named after a SWAPO stalwart who was minister of women's affairs and child welfare at the inception of the project in 2001 - started with 20 women. "There are 16 left now," says Nghipandulwa en route to the garden. "In this world diseases take people away from us."

Elina Elago is one of those who remain and secretary of the six-member committee that is the women's voice on the project.

"The committee meets with the management on a regular basis and we discuss the way forward," she says sitting on a low bench in front of her house. "Like what we want to plant that season, or how we deal with water issues."

Water is a key concern. The grounds look dry at this time of year. In the middle of the cultivated area is the communal garden that generates income for the project, about half a hectare of green where carrots, sweet potatoes, garlic, onions and other vegetables fight a losing battle against rabbits, birds and drought.

The surrounding plots, the women's private gardens, look barren and sandy. "We lost a lot of crops and new seedlings due to frost this year," says Elago. She estimates that in the best months, just after harvest, she makes about 25 U.S. dollars a month from the project.

"I put the vegetables on the table in my garden and neighbours come and buy them." In itself it's not enough to sustain her five children aged 10, 6 (twins), 5 and 3.

"So we make money where we can," adds fellow committee member Claudia Mumbwangela, herself mother of four kids between 16 and 23. "If the garden is quiet, we sell wood."

She points to the tree the two ladies are sitting under: "Or we collect the seeds of this tree and sell them as cattle feed."

In the rainy season, Mumbwangela spends up to half the day in the garden, whereas now she is there for an hour or two at most. Both women have been with the project from the start.

"I like it. The garden not only puts food on the table, but it gives me independence," says Elago. "It beats begging."

During downtimes, she teaches the other women to read and write. "Many are illiterate. I went to school up till grade ten and would have loved to finish, but my mother and father both were out of work, so I couldn't go."

According to Rachel Coomer of the Gender Research and Advocacy Desk at the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) in Windhoek this is not unusual. "The dropout rate of Namibian girls compared to that of boys increases significantly after grade 7."

Education is one of many factors that contribute to gender inequality in Namibia, like most countries in the region still a deeply patriarchal society.

"We are supposed to lead," says Nghipandulwa. "Although the women are motivated, they need a man there as the driving force."

"To change such entrenched views it is important that female role models are identified and upheld," emphasises Coomer. "There are some great female politicians in this country. Naming the project after one of them is a good thing."

For one, it has gotten the women much-needed exposure. As part of a Southern African Development Community (SADC) regional water project, the scheme received a solar pump and a two thousand litre storage tank.

"But when it's dry, it's dry," exclaims Nghipandulwa looking at the river bed. "Every time we pump up water we need to wait a while before the groundwater level is restored. What we really need is a dam so we can irrigate all year round."

He puts the cost of cementing a single well at around $6,200 U.S., money the project doesn't have.

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