Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cultural experiment - the search for iPhamba


Well, this one is somewhat different and something I have been waiting to write briefly about for some time now. Most of you will be aware that South Africa is blessed with a beautiful diversity of orchids, both epiphytic and terrestrial (geophytic). I was born in the Eastern Cape and as such I was exposed to a little bit of the dominant Xhosa culture from that region in the first part of my life. The Xhosa culture has always been a sense of curiosity for me. I find the traditional medicinal aspects of the Xhosa culture very interesting. Traditional healers or Sangomas play an incredibly important role in traditional Xhosa culture. They are consulted for the treatment of the majority of daily ailments, ritual cleansing, ritual protection and divination. They are particularly highly respected in their communities and are incredibly knowledgeable of local fauna and flora which is used to make traditional medicine or muti. An apprentice of a Sangoma will often remain in humble servitute for several years, learning the aspects of traditional healing and gaining knowledge of the traditional plants and animals used in making muti. A true Sangoma will often "study" for up to six years I am told. It is this knowledge of local plants in particular that I was fascinated to learn more about. In particular, I was curious to talk to a Sangoma about the use of iPhamba (traditional Xhosa/Zulu word for orchids). After some searching on the internet I was able to work out that although the name iPhamba refers to a large diversity of orchids, there are usually only a few that are used for the traditional medicine. These, in particular are the Eulophias of which the pseudobulbs or underground tubers are used to treat stomach ache, and Polystachya species which are either used for the same purpose (the pseudobulbs) or crushed and smeared on kraal walls to serve as a deterrent to "bad things" and disease in domestic animals. The fine seeds of some orchids are also used as snuff and in the Zulu culture a fermented drink is made from the canes of Ansellia africana.

So, I was curious to see if I could find a Sangoma and ask her if I could request some iPhamba for my personal use, not knowing exactly what kind of reception I would receive as an Umlungu (white man). I spoke with a colleague of mine, a Xhosa woman who was returning to the Eastern Cape over the Christmas period for a short holiday. I asked if she could put me in touch with the Sangoma from her area so I might request iPhamba and discuss its uses in that community. After returning from the Eastern Cape, my colleague informed me that the Sangoma would come to see me personally as she was visiting in Cape Town in January. I was quite surprised one lunch time when my colleague took me to meet her in person. She was adorned with traditional white beads in her hair and was wearing several traditional beadwork bracelets and necklaces. She looked somewhat puzzled and surprised that I even knew what iPhamba was but when I spoke with her and introduced myself, giving her my history and background she seemed rather amused and even impressed that I would come to her for advice. I explained to her that I understood what the traditional uses were for iPhamba but that my uses were different and I wanted them for their flowers and not to use for muti.

After about a month she again paid me a surprise visit and handed me a small plastic bag containing three mature pseudobulbs from what look like a Eulophia sp. collected in Durban. Once potted up I will nurture them and see how they develop and eventually I should know what the mystery species will be. The whole experiece has been so interesting and I look forward to seeing these plants develop.

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