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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
I found Akeake, a New Zealand shrub growing in Africa!

Submitted: January 31, 2017

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Submitted: January 31, 2017



Gale force winds caused damage to a few of my trees, and it took me about three days on the end of my chainsaw to tidy up. The last tree – I shouldn’t ever say, ‘last’ –I doctored was a Dodonea. That’s its genera name, which I use the name as a common name, but the Maori name for it is Akeake. It is indigenous to New Zealand, and curiously enough – well maybe not curiously if you don’t care a fig about the planet – the same species is indigenous to parts of Australia, Africa and South America. Curious because the little black seed does not float, and the wing does not allow the seed to fly very far. So that means the species must have been around when all that continental drifting was going on and that’s a long, long time ago.

The wood of Dodonaea viscosa is very heavy and strong, so Maori found it ideal for weaponry and walking staves. Chewing the leaves relieves the pain of toothache and the cooled boiled leaves were used to treat burns and scalds as well as to stop bleeding. Twigs were used as toothbrushes by Maori, Incas and Maasai and probably many other tribes. I used to grow it in the nursery here in New Zealand because the species tolerates harsh coastal conditions, where a lot of other plants do not thrive well. The experts have put another ‘a’ in the spelling, it was Dodonea when I went to school, now it’s Dodonaea, someone must have thought that was an important thing to do.

Among the joys of working with the Maasai and Arusha tribes, is their generosity when they host you. Staples outside meal times are loshoro and sour milk. Sour milk is self-explanatory, although it needs a shake-up when the water and solids separate. Loshoro is cooked maize kernels with sour milk. Traditionally both of these stapes were stored in calabashes, made from hollowed out gourds. To line the calabash so that the milk does not taint it, and to add flavour to the contents, the ash of ol getinai is used. Ol getinai is none other than Dodonaea viscosa, or good old Akeake!

On our way to the Ngorongoro Conservation Reserve and the Serengeti, I recognised the scrub on the side of the road, there was not much of it and there was no seed on it, but I knew I could find it elsewhere. A few weeks later, Mo my snail-hunting buddy, wanted to spend a Sunday afternoon in the Arusha National Park, checking out the gastropod molluscs. There is a wide variety of vegetation zones in the park but he was keen to look in the rainforest areas.

It was an exciting day for me because it was the first time I had been in the park, which is well-known for its lack of big cats, making walking less hazardous. Mind, there are a lot of buffalo, and they are about as hazardous as the big cats, but never mind! Anyone would be excited to see their first colobus monkey with his bushy black and white tail! And the clouds of iridescent blue butterflies that lapped on the edges of puddles. Or the smallest of antelope of all, the dik dik, always in pairs but oh so secretive. I noticed the Dodonea bushes had seed that was nearly ripe, but the snails took present priority, but the next week, I intended to return!

The road through the park was rough, with corrugations and sharp-edged rocks. There was never much traffic, just a couple of Landrovers morning and evening, which were loaded to the gunnels with standing passengers on a caged deck. They were top-heavy and would tip over easily, so the driver kept to his path – any other vehicles just had to get out of the way! People also walked the thirty odd kilometre route, sometimes with donkeys laden with goods for the market. There are likely to be giraffe, buffalo, zebra, baboons and warthogs along the way, elephants too, but while I saw plenty of droppings I only saw one elephant during seven years of using the road.

We puttered up the road in the little Maruti and stopped by a good clump of Dodonea. I listened for other traffic and checked for buffalo sign. The vegetation was high, so I could not see much but figured if buffalo were around, I would see droppings or at least smell them. They are only glorified cattle and I know mine poo on a regular basis. I’ve also tracked deer and wild pigs, so had a fair idea what to look for. All appeared clear.

We picked seed for about half an hour, and I reckoned we had enough, at least for the present. There came a sudden crashing in the undergrowth! I wasn’t prepared to move, running blindly wouldn’t be a good thing because whatever it was could have mates! But where! The crashing stopped as suddenly as it began and I looked around for the danger – on my level. It was the wrong place to look, because far above me was the neck and head of a giraffe. She was looking down her long nose at me flashing her eyelashes like a latter-day Dame Edna! With a, ‘What are you doing?’ look in her eye!

We just backed away as quietly as we could and returned to the vehicle. I think she just came to check us out! Perhaps she had been snoozing in the heat of the day. Who knows? But she showed no intent to chase us!

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