Posted on August 19th, 2013
Dust, red and yellow and all shades of tan. Heat, outside the windows of the car. We have been driving for a long time, on an unwavering road through an unbroken vista of thorn trees, warthogs dodging across the tarmac, a lone gemsbok watching us with doleful eyes from the bush. The sky is huge and blue and unending. This is Africa, this is Namibia, the land fenced and quartered but still open, still empty.
At a crossroads, we turn past a petrol station and suddenly are in the thick of Rundu on payday, the streets teeming with people buying, selling, walking to buy or sell, or standing in the long line at the ATM in order to do either. It is noon, and everyone is out. We drive slowly, looking to do our own buying: food, lunch, a cold drink and a hot meal. Perhaps with a view? We see a tiny silver slice of water down the hill in the distance: the Okavango River, with Angola on the far banks. The air smells like cooking meat and sounds like Bob Marley playing from the radio in the doorway of the shebeen where payday money goes to Windhoek Lager and oshikundu, millet beer. Everyone is smiling.
We drive through town, double back, re-cross roads looking for somewhere to eat. There is a bumpy dirt lane down to a lodge by the river, but the gate is closed and the parking lot is empty and a dog under a planted palm tree cocks his head at us, lazy and curious about the strangers in the midday heat. We pull into the bricked courtyard of another inn, where an open restaurant patio beckons us, but there is no view of the water, and that is wanted. So we continue on down the hill, on another long empty road, leaving bustling Rundu at our backs until we find what we are looking for.
What we are looking for is unexpected. A deserted resort on the banks of the Okavango, where herds of fat helmeted guineafowl dash across the cut grass lawns that spread out to empty cottages. The pool is empty, the tree branches above it bare. It is hot June summer where we came from but winter here in Namibia, and the tourists are elsewhere, if they ever came to Rundu to begin with. The restaurant by the office door is empty too, but there is chatter from a loft above the bar, where a football match plays itself out on the television. It is too dark inside to see the river, but we are too hungry now to care.
A waitress appears with the menus, and we expect the usual Afrikaaner fare: boerewors sausage, Greek salad, fried potatoes, bitter lemon soda. A passable meal and what we are willing to eat but also a variation on the theme of every meal we’ve yet had in Namibia. We have been eating the white man’s Africa, and it tastes like Germany and cold winter nights, not the red dust that stains your shoes and sunsets that stain the sky and birds the color of malachite and crimson and hippos that bark in the depths of the river at twilight.
But there are two words, neither English nor Afrikaans, above the grilled cheeses and the pizzas and the salamis. Mahango and mutete. Mashed millet porridge and cabbage stewed with green tomatoes, chilies, and onions. Everywhere we have gone in this small piece of Africa, we have asked what grows here and what is eaten and the answer is always the same: millet, dried greens, dried meat, all flavored and mixed with this stew of greens, tomatoes, chilies, and onions. In a market in Zambia, the raw ingredients surrounded us by the basketful, flies buzzing in the late afternoon heat. In the Caprivi Strip, we passed a village garden full of what we would have called collard greens, the huge fan-like leaves startling against the barren dust, the women picking them straightening up to watch us as we drove on by. We are Americans, tourists, and not of this place, that is clear. Yet we wonder, and we wish that we could taste it, just a little.
Here, at this table in the far, dusty north of Namibia, off a road that goes to nowhere, in a tourist resort without tourists, next to a bar stocked with bottles of South African beer, we eat like Namibians. The mahango is thick and creamy and slightly sweet. The mutete has a sour tang that is leavened by butter and matched by the spice of chili. We wolf it down, eyes wide, because it is so good and so right. It settles us, this meal, and we relax a little, shrug the road weariness out of our shoulders, begin to talk quietly, begin to think about the next destination instead of the one we’ve just left. All of Namibia is down that highway heading south, and we don’t have to go home for a while yet. We eat with pleasure and the guineafowl strut outside the door as the fan whirs and the red dust settles against the car doors and the insects sing in the bare, black trees and someone laughs behind the kitchen door.