In the deep north of Southern Africa’s driest country, Namibia, about 10km from the Angolan border, live an elderly farming couple and their 10 adopted children, who watch the sky every day for rain. If the heavens do not open in another three weeks, they will not have enough food this year.
Pearl millet, the staple grain in northern Namibia and known as mahangu in the local language, is a drought-tolerant grain grown in semi-arid and arid areas.
But Evard Haukongo, 67, wants just the right amount of rain. In the past four years, he and other farmers in the Omsati region have struggled with floods. In the years before 2007, dry spells claimed their precious millet and many of their livestock.
“Farming is very hard now, it is a tough job - they say the climate is changing,” he said, wiping the sweat off his forehead as he pulled weeds from the sandy soil of his five-hectare smallholding.
It is early in the morning but you can almost bake a loaf of bread in the heat. The tender green millet plants, only 60cm high, growing out of the dry ground do not really stand a chance.
“Me and my wife are the last of the farmers in our family - this will die with us,” he said. Their own five children have all grown up and “found their own ways”, as his wife, Mirjam, put it, and settled in towns.
“Maybe if they [the adopted children] want to farm they will divide our land into 10 pieces and grow vegetables,” he said, laughing.
He looked on fondly as five of his adopted children set off for school. Despite not being related by blood, the children are close and share everything - from wild berries picked after school to every slice of bread.
Evard and Mirjam converse in English because they trained as teachers.
The goal was to return to their village to farm their land, and teach in the neighbouring school.
“We are farmers by birth - it is what we are - but we also loved to teach. We were teachers for some hours every morning [for two decades] and then farmers for the rest of the day,” said Mirjam, digging her spade into the ground. “If we did not plant we did not eat.”
The money they earned as teachers was not enough to feed and clothe their five children. Now, retired and living on a monthly pension of about US$137, they barely have enough to cover the needs of 10 children.
All the children - from the eldest, who is 20 years old, to the youngest, just three years old - spend most of their day tending the millet plants. “When we have mahangu we feel we are rich, even if we do not have money,” Evard said.
The subsistence farmers gave a home to the 10 children, passed on by dying or poor parents who were either friends or distant relatives. They also opened their home to me for a day and a night.
“Maybe it was HIV [that claimed some of the parents], I am not sure, but there are many children in our village [Ohendjeno]. Every house has many children - you do not leave them like that [orphaned].”
Namibia has an HIV prevalence rate of about 13 percent among adults aged 15 to 49 years, according to 2009 figures from UNAIDS.
The children either want to be nurses, teachers or doctors. Rachel, their eldest daughter, who works part-time as a shop assistant, loves farming. “When you see the mahangu on the field it is very beautiful,”
Things might be looking up for small-scale farmers. The Namibian government, with the help of a pilot climate change adaptation project run by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), is providing improved millet seeds that fruit earlier, and teaching water conservation farming techniques. Evard’s family is among 3,200 households who have been targeted.
He has tested the techniques on a small patch of his land, where the millet started fruiting within a month. “You can see the difference - the millet was planted in the furrows, so the roots have better access to the moisture and can survive in the heat.”
He was also given fertilizer, which he used to enrich the barren soil in the test patch. “I have no money to buy fertilizer for all the plants - but any little help is good,” he commented
Andreas Shimbolweni, manager of the UNDP project said the government provided subsidized fertilizer and seeds, but "The rains are extremely variable in this part of the world and the climate change trends predict they will continue to become even more variable."
Weather is king, said Kaunapawa Shapenga, the government’s agricultural extension officer for the region, on a visit to the Haukongo smallholding. “We never know what to expect - we have tried so many things… but we are giving out [seeds for] faster maturing varieties of millet, so at least the farmer does manage to grow something.”
Farmers have also experimented with cultivating rice in the some of the flood plains, or oshanas, found in the midst of the arid land, which remain flush with water for most of the year. “You cannot grow anything else in these plains but rice,” Shapenga said.
However, many of these farmers faced opposition from communities because the oshanas were communal land used for grazing, so “very few continue to grow rice.”
Evard and Mirjam said a solution would have to be found, if not for them then for their children, and perhaps rice was an option. “We will need to barricade the oshanas, protect them from animals, convince communities,” Shapenga suggested.
“But we cannot live without mahangu,” Mirjam said. Later that night, after a dinner of mahangu and a chicken killed in this reporter's honour, Evard pointed to a group of stars, the position of which tells them when to plant. “The stars are midway in the sky, which means half the rainy season is over and we just have two more months.”
Everyone looks up at the night sky in silence. The next morning an excited Evard wakes me up at the crack of dawn. “I saw a dark line in the sky above Angola, which means the rains will be here soon - maybe another three weeks." He took a deep breath. "Maybe we will be okay.”