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Namibia, the land of meat lovers

The cultural equivalent of the American hot dog, grilled beef – kapana – is the street food of this cow-revering nation's rich and poor.

By Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 21, 2008

Fanning the flames: Victor Joseph, a kapana griller outside Namibia's capital, Windhoek, sells the national snack of cubed beef and fat in newspaper cups at 50 cents a pile.

Stephanie Hanes


Katutura, Namibia

By the time the sun rises over this desert township, Benjamin Cornelius is already getting the grill good and ready. He's bought wood elsewhere in Katutura, the settlement formed when apartheid-era leaders moved the capital's black residents here in the 1960s, and has started up his fire. After dawn, he browses the carcasses splayed out on the stalls behind him, looking for the right cuts of beef at the cheapest price.

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Then, just before the market opens at 7 a.m. and the crowd starts clamoring for its breakfast, Mr. Cornelius – along with a dozen other grillers – begins to cook.

"I've been selling kapana for three years," he says as he jabs at a pile of meat and fat, beads of sweat on his forehead visible through the smoke. "It's hard work."

This vast, arid country is a land of meat lovers, and proud of it: The ministry of trade and industry announces on its website that "the quality of Namibian meat is globally unrivaled." One ethnic group, the Herero, believes cows are so beautiful that their matrons should try to resemble them – they wear wide, fabric-heavy dresses and stuffed, triangular-shaped hats that are supposed to resemble horns.

Although cows are often seen as a type of currency – a rich man might boast a herd of a few hundred animals – there is no prohibition against eating them. Quite the contrary. "Bring your own meat" is this country's form of potluck. As in neighboring South Africa – the country that ruled over Namibia during apartheid and is still considered a sort of cultural big brother here – the braai, or barbecue, could be considered Namibia's national pastime.

"There is no meal without meat – eish!" exclaims Philly Hukura, a Katutura resident who gives tours of the township. "And if you're talking about meat, you're not talking about chicken or fish. You're talking about red meat."

Indeed, in this nation where it is estimated that there are almost a million more cattle than people, beef consumption is not only high for Africa, but ranks with the developed world. Data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization show that per capita daily calorie intake from beef in Namibia is twice as much as Kenya's, nine times as much as Nigeria's, and almost equal to Canada's.

Meat is considered a luxury in many developing countries like Namibia, where the UN estimates that 55 percent of the nation lives on less than $2 a day. But even lower socio-economic groups here eat meat regularly, says Uschi Ramakhutra, a spokeswoman for the Meat Corporation of Namibia (Meatco), one of the largest beef exporters here. She explains that this is because of the high percentage of the population involved in agriculture and small stock ranching. There are few places where this carnivorous inclination is on better display than the Oshetu municipal market in Katutura, and at other kapana stalls throughout the township.

Depending on one's ethnic group and how long one has lived in Windhoek, Namibia's capital, there are different definitions of the word kapana. Some people say it is the actual food – the slices of beef and fat grilled together on the open stoves, served rolled up in a newspaper with the option of salt, chili flakes, or peri-peri seasoning. Others disagree (sometimes vehemently) and say that the actual food is called "otete," and that kapana is the market place – or the act of turning raw, red meat into the area's favorite snack food.