Words by Francois Lottering
WINDHOEK, APRIL 8 – Everyday, thousands of cars tear down the dual carriage-way north of the City of Windhoek; oblivious to the scores of women who try to sell their grass, seed pods and other fodder in order to make a living. It is a mammoth task as they not only compete against one another, but when the dry season is upon them, they have hardly any products to sell.
In a recent visit to the area in the vicinity of the van Eck power station, Namibia Daily News found a small army of women busy packing, displaying and trying to sell their wares to passing motorists.
Clad in a boiler suite was Loide Hamukoto – one of the vendors who ply their trade on the side of the road – distinguishable by a only a green cloth draped over her head to shield her from the elements.
“It is not easy but we have to do what we do to provide for our children,” she said in a sombre tone. She gets up hours before sunrise to take care of her family, before she makes the two hour journey to her “office” where she has no guarantee of going back home with a dollar in her pocket.
Undeterred, Hamukoto walks and keeps on praying to the Almighty God, that their bales of grass and seed pods – sourced from nearby Camelthorn trees – were not stolen during the night as there is no overnight storage space. Her troubles are compounded by ‘enterprising’ criminals or “botsotso’s” who lurk in the camouflage of the bushes, waiting to pounce on these women.
Hell-bent on defending what little income earned, Hamukoto outlines that although the troubles exist, those criminals would have bit more than they can chew.
“These criminals hide in the bushes and once they see a customer depart after a deal, they will come and rob us. This often leads to small skirmishes as we have to protect what is ours!”
Speaking via an interpreter, she said there were countless occasions where she and her counterparts had fallen prey at the hands of these particular criminals.
However, the women banded together and decided to stand their ground; some 15 women determined to keep what is theirs by wielding machetes and other sharp objects.
The presence of the thugs were evident, as this reporter spotted some suspicious men lurking in the vicinity, evidently conducting surveillance to see what they could steal. However, their efforts proved shortsighted as they fled into the surrounding bushes upon realising that they had been spotted – evident once the group of women had begun to mobilise themselves.
Regarding the most basic needs like ablution facilities or clean drinking water, Hamukoto said they had no choice but to relieve themselves in the bushes and hope they will not be attacked or even raped.
“We are fortunate as we get drinking water from the TransNamib container depot on the other side of the busy highway. Even then we have to walk about half a mile carrying the heavy water containers,” Hamukoto explained.
While sharing her story, a farmer stopped by and ordered the vendors to bring their best grass to his truck.
“This is another problem,” said her fellow vendor Lina Mushimba. She added: “We are not experienced people, so sometimes the grass is not suitable for their livestock, and we loose out on sales, or the farmers select the best quality leaving us with the sub standard fodder and hopefully someone will buy that at a lower price.”
Mushimba added that often, farmers would negotiate a lower price as they are also suffer at the hands of the drought, and so a compromise is reached because “we need the money to feed and cloth our children.”
A single bale of grass barely the size of two shopping bags costs between five and ten Namibian dollars.
“That isn’t even enough to buy a loaf of brown bread, but what can we do? We need the money and we will suffer if we don’t get any money at all for the day,” an emotional Mushimba explained.
The seed pods are a bit more expensive, but still they have to sell at least 20 bags of about 5 kilograms to make a few dollars profit.
“The packing materials are expensive and we have to travel to a local company in town to buy the bag. We struggle to get a taxi, then he wants his money. The shops wants cash for the packing material, and then we still walk miles collecting the pods and packing them – making it labor intensive,” she added.
Another sobering factor, is that the pods are seasonal, and once the trees drop the pods at the end of the season, a waiting game begins until the next, or a journey awaits to nearby farms, where they might find some seeds. And even there they face some resistance from some commercial farmers who are protective and skeptical of allowing people on their property.
“Though we get the grass for free from surrounding plots and farms, we still have to cut it and walk miles back carrying it to our informal open market. This still must be packed, and since we do not have any scales to measure the weight, we estimate and pack accordingly.”
After the farmer bought a considerable amount of grass with the promise that he will return the next day with a bigger truck as he needs the grass, the women were excited and happy as the sale was not only substantial, but at least they know they have made a few extra dollars in the pocket to sustain them the next few days. But again, with money their concerns grow, as the brazen criminals are sure to have witnessed the transaction and are probably lying in wait in the bushes.
Lunchtime is another story as they often carry their food from home. During the hot summer days where temperatures reach up to 40 degrees centigrade, they have to improvise to keep the perishables like milk, porridge and rice fresh, as they do not enjoy the luxury of electricity or fridges.
As the sun sets to the West, it is time to pack their merchandise away in the hope that it will not be stolen during the night. A two hour walk lies ahead; the routine is monotonous; the term ‘rest’ does not exist in their vocabulary; these are the mothers determined to make a living within the confines of the law.