Namibia is purported to have some of the most beautiful postage stamps in the world. But what’s more fascinating are the stories behind the artful images they depict—plant and animal life, traditional cultures, history, and landmark events. Many people are unfamiliar with Namibia—until they visit on our motorcycle safaris and fall in love with her.
Here we taste a rare culinary delicacy and get lulled by an ancient musical instrument.
A symbiotic relationship between termites and a rare fungus produces a Namibian culinary delicacy referred to by the Herero as the Omajova mushroom. They’re generally very expensive and you won’t find them on the grocery store shelf.
Omajova mushrooms grow on termite mounds and only during the rainy season. With a diameter of 25 cm or more, roots up to 50 cm. long, and a weight of up to one kilogram, they’re heavyweights of the mushroom world.
Following the first rains, termites emerge from their nest to start their own colonies. When the royal pair has found a suitable site for themselves and their entourage of soldiers and workers, they lose their wings, mate, and lay eggs. The nests are built from mud and saliva, with tall ventilation shafts to maintain a constant temperature in the living quarters.
The top of the nest becomes a fungus garden for the Omajova mushrooms, made from chewed up grass and wood. As the spores germinate, they break down cellulose, making it easier for termites to digest. Everyone wins!
When picking the mushrooms, it’s important to leave a few behind for the termites and next year’s crop.
Omajova mushrooms taste a little like mild meat and can be fried in butter, made into soup or dried and used later in stews. They’re also popular fried with asparagus and cherry tomatoes, in an omelet, or crumbled or wrapped in slivers of salmon. Animals, especially cattle, are also quite fond of them.
Music is indigenous to every culture and the instruments used to produce it are distinctive artifacts. The mouth bow is one of the world’s oldest instruments, shown in Stone Age cave paintings in France. Played around the world, it’s now common mainly in Africa.
Its origins are likely the hunting bow. In Namibia, a curved branch taken from the omuhongo tree is strung with one sinew or wire string. A resonator, usually a hollow calabash (gourd), is fastened in the center of the bow or off to one side.
The okambulumbumbwa is commonly held with the string facing away from the player and the bow stave and the open end of the resonator held firmly against the player’s chest. The player produces sounds by touching the string with a finger, striking it with a stalk of omaoloolo grass or a small wooden stick, or plucking it. Increasing or decreasing the pressure against the chest modulates the tones.
It’s played by men only and always used singly. Most players usually add a deep vocal drone, making changes to their lips, gums, and oral cavity to produce different sounds. The soft and melodic sound is used mainly for meditation. Surprisingly, it can be heard for quite a distance.
Highly prized musical bows are often handed down from one generation to the next.
- Stamps and Stories, Vol. 1, 50 Stories on Namibia’s Postal Stamps, Gondwana Collection Namibia, & NamPost, 2012.