The Mucubal and Climate Change

24 Sep 2015

Southern Angola, between the Huíla plateau and the Cunene River, is home to various ethnic groups who descend from the Herero, a group that migrated from the Ethiopian plateau and Kenya about 600 years ago.


The groups present in the area include the Muhimba, Mumwila and Ndendelengo, but the largest community is called Mucubal, a group of wandering pastors or semi-nomads who raise cattle, sheep and goats. The cattle, all the Mucubal breed, are seen as a sign of wealth: the more of them one owns, the higher they are on the social scale. They are a source of pride among families, but can often also be a source of friction. It is not infrequent for the animals to be stolen from the large pens where they are kept at night, known as kimbo. If the person who was stolen from recognizes an animal that was stolen from him, the thief must give back the stolen property and in addition must add three more oxen!


Another example of the importance of cattle is tied to the rights of passage from adolescence to adulthood for young Mucubal boys, who must manage to steal one of these animals – known as ngombe – from another farm. Untouchable and nearly sacred, an ox can only be sacrificed for important religious ceremonies, which is why the Mucubal mainly eat goat and sheep meat. The most popular comes from the carneiro, a sheep that descends from the Damara breed but which has been crossbred over the years with other local breeds.  Large, tough and resistant, the carneiro is able to survive in very hot and hostile climates where there is little food, thanks to a store of fat found in the thick, fatty plaque at the base of their tails.


The meat, which is often eaten dried out, prepared with corn and milk, is the staple food of the Mucubal people. Their typical dish, mahíne, consists of pirão¸ which is a corn flour polenta, and leite azedo (sour milk in Portuguese), which is preserved in this steamy environment thanks to an ancient conservation system for milk: it is collected in a pumpkin that is cut open and emptied, thus becoming a receptacle that is never washed. After sitting for a few hours, the fermented milk is then shaken for a good half an hour by the village’s women.


As is so often the case, even though the soba (village chief) must be a man, it is the women who act as the true pillars of work and the tribal society. Flamboyantly and interestingly dressed, their clothing must consist also of a headpiece known as ompota, a sort of large and colorful bandana that flows down the back and that is held in place by a small internal frame that keeps it open and spread out, so as to protect the shoulders from the sun. With elegance and nonchalance they wear iron jewelry, bracelets and charms, but the distinctive and evident sign of a Mucubal woman is the oyonduthi: a strip of cloth that encircles the bust and covers their breasts, like a bra. The women also have the duty of turning mumpeke (yellow plums) into mumpeke oil, a multi-purpose cosmetic that is also a source of income, as it is in demand in the informal markets, even those in Luanda. This oil is dense, dark brown in color, with a toasted scent, like roasted hazelnuts. To make it, the women pick the fruit during the rainy season – from December to April – remove the seeds and let them dry out on a stone in the sun for two or three days, before crushing and grinding the seeds by hand. The oil is known throughout the country for its soothing and nutritional properties and for its use in skin protection and as a hair balsam. 


Slow Food met the Mucubal who live in the areas around Cavelocamue, Virei and Bibala, in the Namibe province. These are the communities with the greatest hardships, as the desert savanna where they live has a truly prohibitive temperament, and the conditions have been made worse with climate change: since 2011 rain has become increasingly rare. The Mucubal have been forced to reconsider the lifestyle that they have always had. The gaunt and distant pastures have made it impossible for the group to survive strictly on their ancient semi-nomadic system, which is why their animal breeding has begun to be integrated with agriculture. Since 2012, the government of Namibe, the FAO, COSPE (Cooperation for the Development of Emerging Countries) and, more recently, Slow Food’s 10,000 Gardens in Africa project have been working to make this “social integration” as painless and fruitful as possible.


The soil is rendered cultivatable through a series of holes in the dried Beiro River, a large and arid riverbed that fills with water two or three times per year due to the excessive rains in the area around Huíla, about 150 km away from Cavelocamue. When this takes place, the bed is full of water for a few hours before turning back to its “dried out normalcy”. At the bottom of the riverbed there is still some water; though not abundant, it is enough to cultivate crops. Once a furo – or hole – is dug with shovels and pickaxes, a tube is inserted that is connected to a gas-powered pump, which extracts the water.


In 2015 the dry spell was terrible, the mumpeke trees gave no fruit to make the oil, and not even the maungo was present; this larval insect is usually dried out by the Mucubal to be either eaten or sold. Apart from agriculture, which obviously suffers the lack of water, the only economic support that remains to the group is the sale of vegetal coal – which is actually illegal – that destroys the dry savanna ecosystem of Virei and Bibala.


The history and future projects of the Mucubal people will be explained by a delegation at Indigenous Terra Madre, taking place from 3 – 7 November in Meghalaya, India. 

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