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A true desert bloom crowned in the springtime by large disc-shaped crimson flowers, Hoodia has received much attention over the years, not for its ability to store moisture and thrive in arid areas or for its exquisite blooms but rather for its use as an appetite suppressant. In the last decade it has been universally acknowledged that the San/Bushmen, the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa, own the rights to the indigenous knowledge of the plant, but that has not always been the case.

hoodia-red

hoodia-red

The plant was used by the San for millennia as an appetite suppressant and thirst quencher (also as a treatment for high blood-pressure, diabetes and as a cure for abdominal cramps, haemorrhoids, tuberculosis, indigestion and hypertension), long before it was sought after in a western world in its battle with obesity.

The species of most interest in the family Apocynaceae for its appetite-suppressing qualities is Hoodia gordonii found predominantly in southern Namibia and north-western South Africa. The spiny-stemmed succulent grows in gravel or shale plains, Kalahari sands or on dry stony slopes. It can tolerate temperatures exceeding 40˚C and as low as -4˚C. Incredibly, a single plant can have as many as fifty branches growing from its base, can grow up to a metre high and weigh as much as thirty kilograms. Although eye-catching, the flowers referred to as stapeliads, are only attractive to its pollinators – flies and blowflies – with their strong carrion-like odour.

Hoodia with yellow flowers in the Gondwana Cañon Park.  Photo: Mannfred Goldbeck

Hoodia with yellow flowers in the Gondwana Cañon Park. Photo: Mannfred Goldbeck

The first Europeans to encounter Hoodia gordonii were Paterson and Col RF Gordon, who in December 1778 found specimens in the Upington area. Botanist, Francis Masson, recorded the use of Stapelia gordonii on his visits to the Cape around the same period. It was later transferred into the Hoodia genus, so named after dedicated succulent grower, Van Hood.

Hoodia is a protected plant in Namibia and a permit is required from the  for cultivation or harvesting, relocation or trade. It is also listed on the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), Appendix 2, regulating international trade.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa began to include Hoodia in its projects as early as 1963 and in 1995 it filed for a patent application for use of the active components (it had isolated the active compound – P57) responsible for appetite suppression. It later signed licensing agreements with UK pharmaceutical company Phytopharm that in turn sub-licensed the rights.

Hoodia bainii, issued in 1973, artist: Dick Findley

Hoodia bainii, issued in 1973, artist: Dick Findley

In June 2001, a South African-based NGO, Biowatch South Africa, with assistance from the international NGO, Action Aid, alerted the foreign media to the fact that the San had not been involved in the development or commercialisation of the Hoodia products, leading CSIR to enter into negotiations with the San. They were represented by the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA), the South African San Council and the San Institute of South Africa (SASI). This culminated in the CSIR and the South African San Council signing a benefit-sharing agreement in March 2003 with the San receiving a percentage of the royalties.

In August 2004, the San Trust, formally named the San Hoodia Benefit Sharing Trust, was registered, with 75 percent of all Trust income to be equally distributed to the San Councils of Namibia, Botswana and South Africa.

The bottles of weight-loss products lining pharmacy shelves have little resemblance to the hardy desert plant that survives in the Namib Desert, its soft sensual bloom belying its tough existence, and its recent history is far removed from the time when the San still freely lived off the land and roamed the southern sands of Africa.

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The designer’s and builder’s name is Siegfried Schnebel. “This is a windmill which I designed and built myself”, he explains in an interview in his house near Brakwater north of Windhoek. “There is an unusually strong supply of water there, just 30 m below the surface. I wanted to utilize it for irrigating orchards and fodder plants.”

There is farm Neiseb which Siegfried Schnebel took over from his father, Wilhelm, in 1985. The fact that Neiseb has a lavish supply of water was already known during colonial times. “Wells for ox-wagon transports were sunk in this area in those days. The lower one of the two cisterns on my tower was part of the former drinking trough for the oxen. It is made of 5 mm steel plates.” While his father owned the farm, 60 cubic metres of water could easily be pumped per hour without any noticeable effect on the water table. It seemed obvious that this abundance of water should be put to good use. Wilhelm Schnebel had already planted 400 citrus trees, 50 sultana vines, 700 prickly pears (ideal fodder) and a little lucerne. “Date palms also thrived like weeds”, Siegfried Schnebel recalls.

Gigantic windmill on a massive tower

“The problem is that you need a powerful engine for pumping the water to the surface, and it wouldn’t have been worth it to install smaller windmills at several smaller boreholes.” The largest windmills on the market, however, weren’t sturdy enough to hold out against the high winds in the area, he says. “So I came up with a construction of my own, specially designed for the requirements of my farm.”

A large wheel was necessary for the high output of the pump. “But the larger the wheel the bigger the problems in very windy conditions”, Siegfried Schnebel explains. A standard wheel with metal blades was not an option. Too rigid, says Schnebel. “All is well as long as there is just a light wind. But in order to cope with high winds one needs to be able to adjust the angle of the blades to the direction of the wind, to reduce the pressure on the tower.” What is more, metal blades would have made the large wheel too heavy. “Therefore I used steel tubes for the wheel’s rim and axle only; the spokes are made from light wire rope and canvas is attached to the rope. This reduced the wheel’s weight to about 100 kg only, despite its diameter of 9.5 metres”, Schnebel points out with a hint of pride in his voice.

Resourceful handyman: Siegfried Schnebel

To make the sails equally suitable for strong and light wind they were arranged in two circles. In the inner circle their angle to the wind direction is 10 degrees, in the outer circle it is 45 degrees. Siegfried Schnebel explains: “Due to the higher leverage of the sails in the inner circle they push the wheel when the wind is blowing strongly, while the outer circle keeps it moving when the wind is light.” The blades of customary windmills are set at a 10 degree angle, Schnebel says, and turn out of the wind when it becomes too strong. The unusually long axle of his construction also serves a purpose: joined to the rim at the top with wire rope, it maintains stability and prevents the sail-covered wheel from turning inside out like an umbrella in heavy gusts of wind.

As for the rest of the construction, stability is the most important criterion as well. “The foundation is 10 m square and 2 m deep, made of carefully packed stones and diagonal iron struts which support the vertical steel pillars”, says Schnebel. “After all, the whole tower has a total weight of some 50 tons when both cisterns are full.” According to his estimate the total height of his windmill is a little less than 25 m: “The wheel’s axle is about 20 m above ground.”

Axle and rim are linked by a mesh of wire rope

Costs were also an important consideration when building the windmill. “Since the farm didn’t yield much I tried to get hold of construction material as cheaply as possible”, Schnebel recalls. “I got most of it from my brother’s scrapyard; Fritz ran a locksmith’s workshop in Lüderitz and later in Windhoek.” Building and constructing, by the way, was done without drawings or model calculations. “I simply experimented a bit, trial and error”, Schnebel says. But the experimenting wasn’t altogether by chance. Schnebel studied mathematics at the University of Stellenbosch and completed a Master of Science degree. He taught mathematics, physics and chemistry at the German School in Lüderitz for years.

In 1997 the work was almost complete. Only the irrigation system had to be installed. But at that point Siegfried Schnebel felt compelled to sell the farm. “It just didn’t yield enough”, he says. And so the giant windmill was never really in operation. He once got it going for the camera crew of NBC television. The documentary was aired in 2001.

Today the tower, citrus trees and prickly pears are all that remains of the plantation which was once envisaged at the foot of the Tiras Mountains on the fringe of the Namib. And a small café, closed down again since then, on the neighbouring farm on the opposite side of the road, overlooking the striking structure. Many a traveller stops and reaches for his camera. Small wonder. In the grassy plain the colossal contraption, welded together from pieces of scrap metal, looks like the futuristic work of an off-beat artist. Who knows, it might still turn into a tourist attraction one day – as the Peculiar Tower of Tiras.

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A large variety of basketry has always formed part of the material culture of the sedentary Bantu-speaking people of Namibia, e.g. the AaWambo, VaKavango and inhabitants of the East Caprivi. Nomadic hunter-gatherers and herders, who had to limit their material possessions to what they could transport, could not afford to have such a wide variety of basketry. With the exception of the Khwe, who manufactured their own baskets, most San groups traded their baskets from Bantu-speaking neighbours.

Collecting Bag, Kxoe [Khwe], 50 Cent, issued in 1997, artist: Johan van Niekerk

The Khwe, who live in the eastern section of the Hambukushu area of Kavango, in the West-Caprivi and areas bordering the Kwando River, are generally classified as San, although their language, their physical appearance (they were sometimes referred to as ‘black Bushmen’) and their history differ distinctly from e.g. the !Xun, who live further south. Long before the Khwe moved to their present area, they lived in close contact with Bantu-speaking neighbours, e.g. the Luyi-Balozi in a region east of the Zambezi River, which resulted in their dark complexion and their stronger body structure. More recently, they mixed by marriage with the Nyemba and HaMbukushu in southeast Angola and the Kavango area and until the early 20th century they often acted as their servants. As a result of the historical contact with Bantu-speaking tribes some objects of the material culture and agricultural practices, as well as the acquaintance with stock penetrated the life sphere of the hunter-gathering Khwe.

In former times, the Khwe made flat winnowing trays, cone-shaped pópò-baskets and bag-shaped /oámà-baskets. They were made according to the coiled technique and a type of vertical coil. During the process of manufacture the makers, who were women, used bundles of strong Aristida grass stalks, which formed the core of the coil, and the middle leaf of the makalani palm (Hyphaene petersiana). If these were not obtainable, the leaf of the Phoenix reclinata palm was used instead. In order to make the palm leaves soft and flexible, they were soaked in warm water before the basket making process commenced. Sometimes the palm leaves were also coloured in different shades of brown by boiling them with the pounded bark of Berchemia discolor. Women made /oámà-baskets until the early 1960s. They were also regarded as their owners. Their height varied between 12 and 30 cm and they always had a handle of skin or fiber. They were primarily used as collecting baskets and for storing berries and other bush crops. When wild fruits were collected these were first collected into smaller pópò-baskets and poured from there into the /oámà-baskets. Popo-baskets were also used for winnowing grain.

Basket of the Khwe (Collection National Museum). Photo: Antje Otto

The ethnological collection of the National Museum of Namibia is in possession of several /oámà-baskets, as well as a pópò-basket, which were collected in 1932 in the West-Caprivi and finally made their way into the museum’s collection in 1948. According to Professor Dr Oswin Köhler, who started with the documentation of the culture and language of the Khwe as from the early 1960s, the making of /oámà-baskets had died out during those years although he still found some examples, which were used. He was able to photograph them and record some interesting information on basket making from his informants. Older people still had the knowledge to make /oámà-baskets although they did no longer produce them. Pópò-baskets were still made.

In 1996, Khwe basket making was revived with the support of a national craft promoter looking for marketable crafts to advance income generation. Since then, the Khwe again make /oámà-baskets not only for their own use, but primarily for the tourist market. Modern /oámà-baskets are sold at a local craft outlet at Kongola and various other Craft Centres in the country. The manufacturing technique and shape of the baskets are similar to the traditional ones although they are generally smaller and have more elaborate designs and more robust handles.

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