|Commelina sp, Mongo wa Mono, March 2011|
|Different Commelina sp, from Ethan...|
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?
Elliot Fratkin (1996). Traditional medicine and concepts of healing among Samburu Pastoralists of Kenya Journal of Ethnobotany, 16 (1), 63-9