Saturday, 25 February 2012

Commelina, the Maasai Reconciliation Grass

Commelina sp, Mongo wa Mono, March 2011
It's surprisingly easy these days to find information on the medicinal use of plants (there's a great list for the Samuru people here, for example), such as the Commiphora uses we covered last week, but many plants have cultural significance beyond the simple medicinal uses and it's often much harder to find information about these uses. One of the 10 things I like to get people talking about when there are no lions is all to do with people, and talking about cultural uses of plants is often quite interesting. I was seriously impressed when one of the guides on our training course in November said that in 'circumcisim school' he'd had to learn to identify about 200 plant species and know their cultural and medicinal uses, so this knowledge is still very much alive out here - though he did confess to having forgotten many (before going on to hive an example of a rather harrowing use for one of the Euphorbia species that really isn't suitable for polite company...). So it's rather surprising how shy people can be about sharing the information, perhaps thinking it's not interesting, or somehow backward.

Different Commelina sp, from Ethan...
My favourite example is Commelina, a very common set of species that grow in a range of habitats from hedges in town to montane forests and dry savanna. This plant (there are around 170 species) has a very wide distribution from East Asia across Europe and Africa to North America, where they're commonly called dayflowers as the flowers don't last long. There are several species here in East Africa that I'm not too certain about identifying, so although I think the two illustrated here are probably different species I'll not go further than that - which is probably fine for cultural use. (If anyone reading can help, please do! I'd love to learn...) Like orchids and grasses, they're monocots (come from a seed with just one seed-leaf), and when not flowering they look rather grass-like. Hence their common name around here, of the Maasai Reconciliation Grass. The cultural significance for some branches of the Maasai is as an act of reconciliation.

The story, as told to me with one or two variations by a number of Maasai from around Arusha is simple. If two people (particularly male relatives) get into a fight or simply have an argument that develops into a feud, things can get nasty. Usually the community will intervene if things are looking serious and may try and help agree a settlement. If, however, nothing works but one of the party - it doesn't matter which one - decides enough is enough and wants to end things he can make use of Commelina. He picks a fresh flower and takes and presents it to his 'brother', without saying anything, in the presence of others (usually including a tribal elder). The other protagonist must take the plant, also without saying anything, and that's the end of the matter - it's not referred to again and the feud is over. If, for some reason, one of the parties breaks this tradition it's a serious matter and village elders will impose some form of punishment on whoever has not accepted true reconciliation. I've had Maasai share this story with members of other tribes who frequently have a similar story, albeit with different plants. And, I have to say, to me this is an extremely elegant piece of social engineering. Anyone who's spent time in small communities can attest to the ease with which petty irritants or minor misdemeanours can develop into all out feuds that split the community (I've seen it some some small British islands!). Some community enforced conflict resolution option that, in this case, leave everyone with their pride intact is an excellent idea that could usefully be learnt elsewhere!

So, Commelina might not look much more than a small weedy thing, but it's pretty valuable hereabouts. [And it's much easier to find out about some of it's medicinal uses too - as a cough treatment or using the sticky sap to clean wounds (even, I'm told, traditionally to help seal the wounds post circumcision). It's also eaten by Black Rhino, so has some potential conservation benefits too!] Given how difficult I found it to find any published accounts of this or any other story of similar cultural use of plants, it would be great to get a little collection together. Any other good ones people can point me towards?

Main reference:

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgElliot Fratkin (1996). Traditional medicine and concepts of healing among Samburu Pastoralists of Kenya Journal of Ethnobotany, 16 (1), 63-9

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