The Cactus Patch
Volume 8       March 2005      Number 3

A Letter From Bruce
by Bruce Hargreaves

After the holiday lull, things have started up with a bang! First the choir, which had been advertising to get needed members, attracted double the usual numbers. The tenors are still the smallest voice, but they are more than ever.

Then the film club started a Cuban festival which has attracted a full house. The first week the Cuban Ambassador came and they served Cuba Libras. The next week they raffled off a box of cigars and a bottle of rum. The third week (at a showing of "Fresa y Chocolate", deservedly the best-known Cuban film and an Oscar nominee) they served two flavours of ice cream.

On the 15th Feb. the museum had a packed opening for an exhibit "Closed spaces" with baskets from Scotland, Japan, India and, of course, Botswana. The first two countries had modernistic baskets and the latter traditional.

Capital Players had a poor turnout for a "Club Night" on the 29th Jan. Polly & I performed "Baby, It's Cold Outside" again. There was a much better turnout for the play "Run for your Wife" which we saw on the 11th Feb. This was partly because it featured Warona who had represented Botswana on the TV (un)Reality Show "Big Brother".

The bird club has been trying to attract more members, but, so far, the result is poor. We had a moderate turnout for a hike in the Kapong Hills (NW of Gaborone) on the 6th of Feb. The walk started out dull (except for a plant of Orbea lutea) but right at the turn-around point we ran into a huge variety of birds including a knob-billed duck and lots of paradise whydahs with long streaming tails. The meeting on 18th Jan. was yet another report on the Delta bird count and we skipped the meeting on the 15th Feb. as it was on self defense which I think is more dangerous to the defender. (Several birders have been attacked while in the bush.)

It hasn't all been clubs & crowds. On 21st Jan. the Natural History and Archaeology Divisions surveyed a site proposed for a Youth Center. We objected as this was not procedural (we evaluate Environmental Impact Assessments so we should not do them) but we were ordered to do so. The eastern side of the plot is covered with rock outcrops which had the tuberous cucumber Trochomeria coming out of crevices and lilies of the species Anthericum whytei on flat areas next to the out crops. At first I thought this latter was a non-succulent with fibrous roots, but then I dug deeper and found that some of the roots were longer with fleshy tubers at the end!

The western side of the plot was very waterlogged and had masses of wild garlic (Tulbaghia leucantha). This pale-flowered succulent was described by the late Marta Schmitz in Lesotho as "Sefotha-fotha - that which is smelled from a distance." It is used to strengthen tobacco. It has such a strong smell of garlic that it is not eaten as is Tulbaghia acultiloba, another species which ranges from Botswana to Lesotho.

I was interested in the comments in the Cactus Patch on the splitting of the Lily family. We now have 13 families in our herbarium which were formerly lilies. The above-mentioned Anthericum is in the family Asphodelaceae which contains several succulent genera and Tulbaghia is in the Alliaceae which includes onions and garlic.

On the 22nd of Jan. the two older Cook boys came to our house (after taking SATís) and put up shelves. We'd forgotten how convenient it is to have tall, strong, young men around. We now have a compact area with TV/ VCR, Computer & accessories, and even a few books.

Finally, to continue with another historic account, I read some of the reprints in the African Hunting Series. James Sutherland, who wrote The Adventures of an Elephant Hunter (originally 1912, McMillan, London), fought with the Germans in the Maji-maji rebellion in what is now Tanzania in 1905 to 1906. In World War I he fought against the Germans there!

I was interested to learn that people from New Guinea and neighboring Pacific Islands were imported to fight in the Maji-maji rebellion. This may explain why the same belief that bullets can be turned to water (maji) is found in Africa and the Pacific. Luxun Chabidzambo III Mlenga, son of a herbalist just across the border from Tanzania in Northern Malawi assured me that John Chilembwe who led a rebellion against the British in Southern Malawi in 1915 had similar medicine and was still alive (despite the body produced by the British). Luxun assured me that Chilembwe had escaped by turning invisible.

Returning to Sutherland, his book describes a lot of plants and animals in addition to the elephants he seems to have killed in enormous numbers. He concentrates on poisonous ones such as the vine which he calls "combe". This is Strophanthus kombe which grows from Malawi down to Botswana. Malawi exported this to Europe as a heart stimulant similar to digitalis. Once in a radio interview in Malawi I mentioned Strophanthus kombe as a commercial medicine and was asked the local name. My mind went blank, although in the Chewa spoken there it is "kombe"!

Another book in the series is Arthur H. Neuman's Elephant Hunting in East Africa (originally 1898, Rowland Ward, London). Again, it is mostly an account of slaughtering elephants, but there is a mention of Euphorbias or "Cactus-tree" bush. He was not the first or last to confuse African euphorbias with American cacti. This theme was elaborated further in the book with an account of an elephant actually eating the tree euphorbia! Neuman notes, "The thick milky juice of this tree is excessively pungent, the least spurt of it in the eye causing irritation. I should imagine the effect of swallowing any on the human stomach would be very serious; but an elephant's mucous membrane must be less sensitive." Actually rhinos have also been recorded eating this and baboons get high on the latex. Luxun even said his father drank the latex!

A third book is Owen Letcher's The Bonds of Africa (originally 1913, John Long, London). This is a travelogue going from Cape to Cairo. It ends with this quote:

Africa, where the women have no beauty, the birds no song, the flowers no scent and the rivers no water.

Then he adds:

How often have I listened to that elaborate condemnation! But with the flight of years there has come to me an appreciation of the beauty of the ill-fated women, I can hear music in the cry of the Lourie, even the thorny aloe contains a perfume, and I think a dried-up stream-bed can float for me more charming fancies than the soot-stained waters of the Thames.

Thus have I learned my Africa.

Wild Garlic Tulbaghia leucantha

Anthericum whytei

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