Walk into any classroom in a Zimbabwean town or city and ask, ‘have you ever seen a jacaranda tree?’ As sure as politicians will continue to make promises when campaigning, all hands will shoot up. The hands will remain straight as a well tended gum tree. All town kids know the jacaranda.
Then ask the learners how many of them have ever seen a marula tree. Most will quickly put down their hands and give each other looks that say, ‘what’s this dud talking about?’
Why is this? The marula is an indigenous tree found in every African country south of the Sahara. It has graced the land for over twelve thousand years. On the other hand the jacaranda was hauled across the Atlantic from South America less than one hundred and fifty years ago.
Ask city kids to state uses of the jacaranda. Again you will get the confused looks. Then ask any rural child uses of the marula. For the child to do your request justice, you will have to set aside the time it takes to watch a whole movie.
The juicy white fibrous flesh of its fruit is sour but thirst quenching. Both humans and animals love it. Like grapes the fruits can be fermented into wine (umkumbi). There is archaeological evidence near the banks of the Limpopo River that marula wine was brewed over a thousand years back.
While admittedly the kernels (inkelo) are hard to extract, they are as valuable as the flesh. Rich in oil and proteins, children and adults love eating them raw. The kernels can also be ground into powder to be used for flavouring soups and other foods. Not to mention the oil’s use as a cosmetic.
The bark is used medicinally to treat diarrhoea, diabetes, fever and malaria and the roots are used to treat sore eyes. The wood is often used for making carved articles, troughs, kitchen utensils and musical drums. Little wonder the Ndebele word for marula and dish/plate is the same – umganu.
In the modern commercial world the uses of the wood include making tomato boxes and toilet seats. How then has this versatile African tree been driven out of our towns by a mafikizolo (Johnny-come- lately) called jacaranda?
I suppose it could be argued that the jacaranda is a beautiful tree. With its purple flowers and its oppositely paired compound leaves the tree is pleasing to the eye. It has an edge over the plain marula with its rough bark and ordinary looking leaves. Really?
I believe it is not just because of its fruit and wood that the marula has been respected and revered in traditional Africa. Its beauty and elegance played a major role in endearing it to those who know it well. The tree has a straight trunk that often branches off in all directions to form a graceful crown of dense leaves. This shape, coupled with the considerable height of the tree results in shelter and shade loved by humans and animals.
From a distance, the marula makes an impressive sight. In a beauty contest the tree can at least equal the jacaranda. However because of its fruits and wood, the marula can be judged to be the top beauty with brains tree. What then must be the way forward?
We are a Third World country still struggling to feed itself. The planting and rearing of trees to maturity is an expensive and lengthy undertaking. We must carefully think about the benefits we aim to harvest from the trees we spend our limited resources on.
Food is as necessary as the air we breathe. Our streets ought to be lined with food producing trees like the marula instead of the jacaranda and other ornamental trees.
I anticipate objections to this. Some may argue that for all the listed uses of the kernel, the stone it is housed in is hard to crack. It entails considerable labour to extract it.
This view overlooks the fact that kernel extraction is just as tedious and time consuming as the daily sweeping and disposal of the fallen flowers of the jacaranda. But with kernel extraction there is much needed food as the prize at the end.
Another objection to the promotion of the marula could be the fear of how the fruits, nuts and wood would be shared. This newly found wealth could lead to quarrels. Some selfish people may want all the bounty for themselves.
In my view people act irresponsibly if they have nothing to gain from a given venture. Should civic organisations like residents and school development associations be given the responsibility of growing fruit trees they would rise to the challenge. Instead of endless reading and correcting of minutes, civic bodies would use meeting times to arrange for the processing and sharing of the bounty.
From this activity, old African traditions like the Nguni annual festival inxwala (First Fruit Ceremonies) could be revived and updated. These were ceremonies performed before the population was allowed to taste the season’s new crops and fruits.
The first ceremonies were local affairs presided over by local indunas. The second ceremony was a bigger and more colourful event presided over by the king. In the updated version, councillors, members of parliament and finally mayors would preside over the ceremonies.
I’m not suggesting that the existing ornamental trees be uprooted and replaced with fruit trees. Rather, all new plants must be fruit trees. New suburbs, streets, beer halls and schools are constantly coming up. These must have fruit trees only. Because of past neglect, at first we concentrate on indigenous ones before planting imported varieties.
So dear reader, when next a would be councillor or MP makes promises about what he or she will do when elected, don’t rush to part with your valuable vote. Quiz her whether she is a Marulaist or a Jacarandaist. Only a Marulaist deserves your precious vote.