A brief history of compost in Namibia

The relationship between Namibians and compost goes back a long way and has not always run smoothly.

There is not much on record concerning pre-colonial composting. Although no doubt it happened, the modern compost era began in the nineteenth century in and around the harbour of Lüderitz. At the heart of the era were pelicans, flying compost heaps that took in fish at one end and produced an ideal mix of nitrates and phosphates at the other.

They, and a host of other composters had been doing this century in, century out on the barren desert islands off the coast for as long and anyone could remember. So it was that Germans arrived in their boats, always keeping a sharp eye open for commercial opportunities back home, and filled them full of the piles of birdshit which was there for the taking, metres deep on Halifax and other islands.

Sadly, there is no record of the conversation that must have, at some time taken place between them and the local Nama chief when they explained what they were up to.. 

That we know such a conversation did place is now part of history. We know that the Headman agreed, for a small payment, that such activities could continue and that the area around Lüderitz could be used as a landing station coming under German ownership and control. What use was Lüderitz anyway?

It was shortly after this that a railwayman, crawling around on the ground for some reason unspecified, picked up a rather interesting bright little pebble. But it was not diamonds that laid the foundation for the colonial occupation of Namibia, but birdshit. 

These days we tend to take for granted the ready availability of fertiliser and we cannot imagine what it was like before the heroic work of Fritz Haber who taught the world, at the time of the first world war, how to make it from air. In particular, we underestimate the importance of the fertiliser routes from India and Chile and Namibia to the European ports (and the importance of securing those routes in time of war).

After this introductory period, nothing of great significance has happened in the field of Namibian composting that I’m aware of. Indeed, although the philosophy and procedures of composting are studied in some detail as part of the junior secondary programme, they are studied in an abstract theoretical manner as a process that might happen, perhaps, more appropriately on the Moon rather than here in this corner of Africa. It is not a process that has held any relevance for daily life.

There is a problem, however, that seriously afflicts composting in Africa which is not widely appreciated and that tends to deter amateur or startup composters. It is a very simple one; the bugs that break down the compost tend to work harder than the ones that make it above about 20ºC, which is preety much most of teh time. They break it down into soluble salts that then wash off with the topsoil into the South Atlantic.

And here in Namibia, Acts of Bugs are not easy to distinguish from Acts of God so serious composting has not really become part of the prevailing culture of post-independence Namibia. 

Except in my garden.

Flying compost heaps. Fish in at one end. A nicely balanced nitrate-phosphate mix out at the other
Halifax Island
Halifax Island. A derelict guano miner's house. The owner now appears to be a little Jackass penguin, a descendent of the illustious defecators whose work inspired the original building
Its still going on. Night soil from this platform off the coast at Langstrand is carefully sun-dried and packed and exported to Germany to meet the needs of the top end of the European fertiliser market.