The information presented in the previous chapters as well as that summarized in
the Appendix illustrates clearly that the Vhavenda make extensive use of indigenous
plants. It is evident that the natural environment is an indispensable source of
food, medicine, firewood and building and art materials among other things.
Additional notes on the use of plants for selected purposes are given in this chapter.
5.1.1 Porridge
From time immemorial the staple food of the Vhavenda has been porridges made
from different cereals that they cultivated, including Zea mays, Andropogon spp.,
Sorghum spp. and Pennisetum spicatum. All these cereals could be cultivated only
during the rainy summer period and sometimes when rainfall was insufficient, they
produced nothing. Sometimes there was no rain at all and then they had to depend
on their meagre reserves. During periods of extreme drought they resorted to
indigenous plants for survival. It is reported that during the famine of around 1912,
the Vhavenda dug roots of Boscia albitrunca, cleaned and pounded it into fine
powder to be mixed with a little mealie meal and cooked into a porridge known as
vhuswa ha muthobi.
This famine appears to have resulted in untold loss of life and
is still remembered today as ndala ya mithobi. The same expression is found among
the Pedi and this may indicate that they also depended on this plant. The Vhapia of
the northern and north-eastern Transvaal gathered and stored substantial quantities
of the fruits of Adansonia digitata, Strychnos pungens and Berchemia discolor to make
provision for lean times. These fruits have good storage qualities and were either
stored as such or the pulp ground into a powder called nugumo. The powdered
fruit pulp was kept sealed in large clay pots until needed, to be consumed in powder
form (mugumo ). Powder from A. digitata and S. pungens was usually mixed with
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mealie meal and cooked into a sour porridge known as khwangwali or phwambwali.
This porridge is said to have been so palatable that it was rarely shared with
outsiders, including visitors. Quinn (1959) reports that the Pedi also dried fruits of
Ximenia caffra, Vangueria infausta and Strychnos innocoa for porridges. Porridge
made from indigenous fruits is now rare, probably due to industrialization which led
to improved production and storage facilities.
5.1.2 Starchy roots, stems, bark and gums
Roots of many plants are prepared and eaten in different ways, and for varying and
overlapping purposes. Some are taken for starch and water, others for refreshment,
medicinal purposes or thirst. For instance, consumption of storage roots of Vigna
vexillata and Manihot utilissima is basically to appease hunger, while the tuber of the
plant, known by the Vhavenda as khapha, is primarily used for its taste and to
quench thirst.
Tender and soft stems of most sedges (e.g. Cyperus esculentus, C. sexangularis
and C. latifolius) are chewed and the juice is swallowed mainly for the salty taste
which makes them palatable. On the other hand, the succulent roots of Wrightia
natalensis are a rich source of water and have aphrodisiac properties.
The root bark of Securindaca longepedunculata is nibbled for the sweet and
pleasant taste which is probably due to the presence of methyl salicylate, but it is
also liked for its aphrodisiac effects. Bark of some plants is chewed and the juice
swallowed with saliva for the refreshing taste, e.g. Acacia albida and Landolphia
kirkii. Fibre of the plant known as mukakate is used for making ox-whips. As the
only way of softening the inner bark of this plant is by chewing it, and it has a
palatable taste, the juice is swallowed. A fellow villager stressed the palatability of
gum from some acacias by saying that "it is like toffees" (Nemanashi, personal
communication), but he also admitted that gums are eaten mostly for medicinal
Although most tubers may be eaten raw, those of Manihot utilissima should
not only be properly cooked, but the central core must also be removed first. It is
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believed that this part is poisonous. Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk (1962) report that
the toxic effects of the tuber, and particularly the core, are due to the presence of a
cyanogenic glucoside. According to their report "... in Southern Rhodesia (the
present Zimbabwe) the Bantu does not eat the tuber unless driven to in times of
famine". The same source also suggests that drying and boiling destroy the toxicity
of the tuber. This supports claims by the Vhavenda that prolonged cooking reduces
the harmful effects of the tuber and explains the reason why it is commonly sliced
and dried for future use. Even when it is properly cooked or dried first, people who
do not know it, are warned of the danger of eating too much of it. Symptoms of
over-eating this tuber resemble those described by Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk (1962),
namely abdominal distention, nausea, vomiting, respiratory difficulty and collapse.
Despite extensive use of the tuber by the Tsonga of the lowveld in the eastern
Transvaal, Liengme ( 1981) appears to have only noted its cultivation in the Giyani
and Malamulele areas of Gazankulu. Tubers of Vigna vexillata are also usually
sliced and dried before use, but this appears to be for storage purposes only.
5 .1.3 Vegetables for relishing porridge
As in the case of cereals, the Vhavenda cultivate vegetable crops such as pumpkin,
Vigna sinensis (munawa),
Voandzeia subte"anea (phonda),
Phaseolus aureus (nawa),
Citrullus lanatus (habu ), Lagenaria vulgaris (maranga ), Arachis hypogea (nduhu) and
many others. These also being of seasonal availability and significance, the
Vhavenda rely heavily on wild growing vegetable plants as well.
Gathering of indigenous vegetables growing in the wild takes place almost
throughout the year.
Vegetable gathering is a cultural role of women and girls to
such an extent that it has become their culturally accepted and strongly
commendable hobby. It is a communal activity which is confined to one or more
peer groups, and it is usually combined with other tasks such as ploughing, weeding,
catching locusts,
fetching water or gathering wood. Men sometimes return home
with some vegetables which they find in the mountains. However, they often uproot
the herbs, lacking the patience and skill for fine picking. They sometimes gather
substantial quantities of common vegetables where they find them flourishing,
making them look very responsible to their wives in particular and families in
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general. Men and boys' tasks are to collect mushrooms and to provide venison from
the veld.
The gathering of certain wild vegetables is seasonal and, for most of them, it
reaches its peak during the rainy season. Quantities of vegetable leaves gathered
during a trip depends, to a large extent, on availability, distance and flavour
preference. Those that are most preferred are collected first, followed by the
unpalatable ones. Some are extensively gathered merely because they are readily
available as weeds in cultivated areas, along footpaths and around homesteads and
dumping sites.
Generally soft and tender leaves of the new growth are plucked. Flowers
are usually also gathered, but there are some species of which even accidental
inclusion of flowers or fruits is strictly avoided. For example, the flowers and fruits
of Cucumis zeyheri are deadly poisonous and therefore avoided. Vegetables that
can be cooked together are normally collected into one container, and in desirable
Gourds or calabashes are used for this purpose, but recently tin
containers came into fashion, probably because of their availability. Normally one
collecting trip will provide for both the afternoon and evening meal.
Almost all vegetables are cooked before they are served with porridge.
Combinations of vegetables depend on flavour, texture, availability and personal
preference. Soft-textured vegetables are commonly cooked together. Similarly,
the rough-textured ones are combined, but it is common to find the two types mixed
in order to improve edibility.
The following are some examples of common
combinations in Venda vegetable cooking:
Corchorus tridens + Amaranthus thunbergii
Corchorus tridens + Chenopodium album
Corchorus tridens + Cucumis zeyheri
Corchorus tridens + Obetia tenax
Corchorus tridens + Obetia tenax + Tragia sp. (Dzaluma)
Corchorus tridens + Obetia tenax + Tragia sp. + Pouzolzia mixta
Corchorus tridens + pumpkin leaves
Cleome monophylla + Cleome gynandra
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Bidens pilosa + Sonchus oleracea
B. pilosa + Sonchus oleracea + Cleome gynandra
B. pilosa + Sonchus oleracea + Cleome gynandra + Cleome monophylla
B. pilosa + Cleome gynandra
B. pilosa + Cleome monophylla
In case of combinations, the name of a relish is usually derived from the
vegetable used in a greater proportion, or the one that has the predominating
flavour. Thus, a relish may be called delele (Corchorus tridens) even when leaves of
any other vegetable are included. Some vegetables serve as piquants or spices and
are required to be added only in small quantities.
Some of the Venda piquants are M omordica foetida, M balsamina, Cucumis
zeyheri, Solanum nigrum and Sonchus oleracea. It is interesting to note that most of
these piquants have an acrid or bitter taste and that some are even poisonous, e.g.
Cucumis zeyheri. In his research on the edible wild plants of the Pedi, Quinn (1959)
gave reports on 18 vegetable plants, 12 of which are found to be also eaten by the
Vhavenda. With regard to the other six, it has been found that the Vhavenda eat
other species of the same genera, probably because the species used by the Pedi do
not grow in Venda, or have not been identified. In the same report it was also
indicated that most of these plants or related species are also used as vegetables in
other countries throughout the world, e.g. most of the Cucurbitaceae are found to
be popular in India, North America, West Africa, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia,
southern Africa, etc.
Gelfand et al. (1985) report that in Zimbabwe the
consumption of derere (Vend a: delele = Corhorus tridens) is forbidden for expectant
women. All plants reported by Liengme (1981) as vegetables of the Tsonga of
Gazankulu, viz. Amaranthus thunbergii, Bidens pilosa, Corchorus tridens and C.
confusus, are used by the Vhavenda, except the last-mentioned.
During favourable rainy seasons some of the vegetable plants mentioned
above are collected in abundance and the surplus is dried and stored for use during
lean times. When simply dried in the form of leaves, the vegetable is known as
Vegetables are sometimes cooked and moulded into small
cakes which are dried and used as mukusule.
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5.1.4 Condiments
With the exception of some soft-textured vegetables like Corchorus tridens, Tragia
sp., Pouzolzia mixta and Amaranthus thunbergii, all other vegetables of the
Vhavenda frequently need condiments to make them more palatable. The main
condiments include peanuts (Arachis hypogea) and seed kernels of Sclerocarya birrea
subsp. caffra (mufula). The kernels and peanuts are called thanga. The kernels
(seed) are crushed and ground into a pulp which is cooked with vegetables, or alone,
to make a delicious savoury. A popular cooking oil is sometimes extracted from
these seeds by heating and it is then stored for future use. In the northern and
north-eastern regions of Venda the fruit pulp of Trichilia dregeana is cooked with
vegetable leaves as a condiment.
An even wider use of mufula seed kernels is reported by Quinn (1959) in
relation to Pedi food: the kernels are used as condiments not only in vegetable
cooking, but also with dried kaffir-corn (Andropogon sorghum) stew to make Tsholo
le dikoko.
Liengme (1981) reports the use of mufula kernels as savoury by the
Tsonga. They also use the kernels as a condiment in vegetables. The Tsonga are
known to use peanuts as a condiment in chicken dishes, and there is no reason why
they may not use mufula kernels as substitute, especially because they exchange
these two condiments in vegetable cooking. Watt & ·Breyer-Brandwijk (1962) report
the use of seed kernels of Sclerocarya birrea subsp. caffra as a condiment among the
Zulu, Thonga and Pedi as well as in Madagascar. This is said to be very tasty,
especially when cooked. The same source also reports the extraction of edible oil
from the white fruit pulp of Trichilia dregeana in Gazaland. Condiments prepared
from indigenous plants are rapidly replaced by the commercially available spices
and cooking oils.
Salt is an ingredient of all vegetable dishes of the Vhavenda. This was
originally obtained by evaporating salt water on rocks and potsherds. Ash was
sometimes added to vegetables to expedite cooking, but this is now accomplished by
the commercially available bicarbonate of soda.
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5.1.5 Fruits and seeds as sources of food
As fruits of different species ripen at different times, the collection of any particular
type of fruit is seasonal, and fruit collection takes place throughout the year. Most
fruits are small and eaten in the veld by people of all ages, bringing home only a few
Some fruits require special
for those who cannot go out and collect them.
expeditions from villages to the areas where they are available, especially those that
grow on mountains. Three to four trips are undertaken each year to collect fruits of
Bequaertiodendron magalismontanum, Mimusops zeyheri, Syzygium legati, Strychnos
pungens and Adansonia digitata, to mention but a few. The collection of these fruits
is normally a communal affair and almost every family in a village sends a member.
This is one of the expeditions that usually include people of different peer groups.
During these trips people try to collect as much as they can carry in bags, twenty
litre tins, baskets or other containers. The purpose for collecting so much is to
ensure that there would be enough for those who remained at home, including
neighbours and relatives.
Consumption of some fruits, especially those of Sclerocarya birrea subsp.
catfra and those that are valued as famine foods, never takes place until the
"first-fruit" ceremonies are performed at the chiefs kraal. In some areas of Venda
this practice remains to this day. During these ceremonies mufula beer is brewed
and poured into sacred tombs and clay pots for the ancestral spirits to have their
share of the newly ripened fruit. Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk (1962) reports that the
Tsonga also celebrate the feast of the first fruits by pouring the juice of mufula fruit
on the tombs of deceased chiefs in the sacred wood.
Most fruits are eaten fresh, with milk or water, while others are dried and
stored for future use. Among those that can be dried, some are pounded into
powder and cooked as porridges or consumed as mugumo.
Seeds of a few species are valued as important sources of food. The seeds
of Sclerocarya birrea subsp. caffra are collected in large quantities during mukumbi
beer making and stored until needed.
Cattle, goats, sheep and pigs bring
considerable numbers of mufula seeds into their enclosures and resting places. Wild
animals also accumulate these seeds which are then easily collected.
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crack the seeds and eat the kernels raw while guarding cattle and goats. Many of
the seeds are cracked at home and the kernels (mainly the embryo) removed to be
used as condiments or savoury. Seeds of Berchemia discolor are sometimes pounded
together with fruit pulp and peel to make a powdered famine food known as
mugumo. However, some people remove the seeds in the preparation of mugumo.
5.1.6 Nectar from flowers
The most popular
Nectar is sucked or shaken from flowers of various plants.
source of edible nectar is Schotia brachypetala, but nectar is also obtained from
species of Leonotis and Aloe.
5.1.7 Beverages
Many types of beverages are made by the Vhavenda. Some are made from mealie
meal, millet and sorghum, while others are brewed from fruits of indigenous plants.
a) Attractive beverages
The most popular non-intoxicating beverages of Vhavenda had, for a long
time, been derived from boiled crops such as pumpkins (khobvu) and leaves
of various vegetable plants. Some of those made from leaves of vegetable
crops were sometimes taken for medicinal purposes. The introduction of
sugar into the Vhavenda diet enabled them to make beverages from many
other plants. For instance, leaves of Grewia flava and Pappea capensis are
boiled and sugar added to make teas with pleasant flavours.
Both the
branches and leaves of Athrixia phylicoides are crushed and boiled. With
sugar added, the tea produced is like the commercially available 'rooibos'tea,
but it is more yellowish.
Roasted roots of Boscia albitrunca make a
pleasantly flavoured tea with sugar. Most of these teas are rarely used today
as a result of the readily available commercial tea and coffee.
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b) Alcoholic beverages
Although most of the beverages of the Vhavenda are made from cultivated
cereals, a few of those from indigenous plants warrant some attention.
Alcoholic beverages are made to quench thirst (Mabundu and tshikoko ), to
entertain people at work parties, social, national and religious gatherings.
There are beverages made specifically for ritual purposes (e.g. mpambo ).
Only those made from indigenous plants are briefly discussed below.
Mukumbi is a wine (or beer) made from the fruit juice of Sclerocarya birrea
subsp. caffra. The peel is removed during the process known as u jhonda
mafula and the rest of the fruit is dropped into a large pot containing water.
When the pot is full, the seeds with pulp are stirred, wrung and squeezed to
leave as much of the juice in the water as possible.
The seed with the
remains of the pulp are then removed and given to children to suck as
The liquid is left to ferment for three to four days, depending on the
weather. On the second day it is already slightly fermented and may be
drunk as tuvhu, which is sweetish and much enjoyed by children, young men
and women. The fully fermented wine is termed mukumbi wa lutanda, and
is highly intoxicating.
Even though the making of mukumbi wine takes place throughout the
ripening period, three stages are particularly important to the Vhavenda.
These stages are marked by mukumbi presentations to the chiefs. The first
offering is made when few of the fruits are ripe and only a little wine has
been produced. This offering is termed mulumo. It is followed by gulu when
the ripe fruit is abundant and large quantities of mukumbi are made. The
Mukumbi has
offering brewed from the last fruit is termed zwivhungu.
recently entered the market as most people do not have time to collect the
fruit and make their own.
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Seeds accumulated during wine making are spread on rocks to dry out
and then later used to make condiments.
The use of mufula fruits is reported among the Pedi (Quinn 1959) and
by the Tsonga (Liengme 1981). According to Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk
(1962) the fruit of Sclerocarya bi"ea subsp. caffra is used by "... the African in
the Eastern Transvaal and Portugese East Africa for the brewing of beer and,
in some districts of the latter, a potent spirit is distilled from it". These
authors also noted that in Mozambique the fruit is used universally for the
making of a "national" fermented beverage. They report that the fruit juice
contains citric and malic acid, and that the fermented fruit juice when
prepared by the Pedi contains 1,74% citric acid. The fruit contains 54mg
vitamin C per 100g and 2.02% citric acid, while the fruit juice contains 2mg
vitamin C per millilitre. They also noted that the juice is used in some
Shangaan areas for religious ceremonies.
- Mutshema and mulala
It is
Mutshema is made from Phoenix reclinata and Hyphaene coriacea.
prepared by cutting off the stem, especially at the tip, and then collecting the
sap which is allowed to drip into a container for a few days. The leaves of the
plants are used as gutters to facilitate the flow of sap into the container until
it is full. The sap is then taken home and left to ferment into an intoxicating
beverage. When this practice was prohibited by law, the fermenting sap was
moved out of the homesteads and hidden, in large pots, in the bushes until
fully fermented. This beverage is not popular throughout Venda, but in
areas where it is known and enjoyed it is also brewed for sale. Large scale
brewing may affect a large proportion of the palm population.
- Other beverages
The Vhavenda, especially in the north and north-western regions, make a
distilled spirit from the fruit of a plant known as mutshato ( Xanthocercis
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zambesiaca (Bak.) Dumaz-le-grand ). The ripe fruit is soaked in water for a
week or more until a large quantity of foam has formed. The fruit pulp is
then separated from the seeds, which are removed. The resulting liquid is
boiled in a large clay pot, the mouth of which is sealed. The evaporating
alcohol is led out through a pipe which passes through a wooden trough
(known as mukoro) containing cold water which is regularly changed.
Nowadays half tires are used for this purpose. The condensate is collected
at the other end of the pipe and is graded according to strength, from
number one (strongest) to number three (diluted with water). The method
of testing strength is by pouring a little into the fire and checking the colour
and strength of the flame. It is reported that the strongest spirit can, and has
been used, to run motor engines. The number one spirit is mixed with
number three for consumption.
With the introduction of sugar, the
Vhavenda use the same apparatus to prepare the spirit called thothotho from
sugar and malt.
Beverages are also made of other of fruits such as those of Pappea capensis,
Bequaertiodendron magalismontanum, Mimusops zeyheri and Parinari curatellifolia, to
mention but a few.
5.1.8 Nutritional adequacy of Vhavenda foods
Plant products are an indispensable source of food for any healthy population. A
balanced diet should provide not only the quantity required, but also the necessary
quality. It must supply energy foods, proteins, vitamins and minerals. The most
important sources of energy are carbohydrates (sugars) as well as fats. Apart from
supplying energy upon oxidation, proteins also supply the essential amino acids
required to build the human body. Minerals and vitamins are needed for the
various metabolic processes in the living cell.
The bulk of Vhavenda foods comprise porridges. These are cooked from
meal basically obtained from the various cereals (mainly mealies) cultivated locally
or imported from other countries and sold at local shops. Consequently their food is
rich in carbohydrates. The incorporation of bread into the diet, although it is
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usually used as substitute for porridge, has further increased the carbohydrate
content of their food. All porridges are served with a relish of some kind, including
meat, vegetables, edible insects and caterpillars of various kinds.
Even though the Vhavenda keep cattle, goats and sheep, these are rarely
slaughtered for meat as they represent and protect the social status of the owners
and are valued as a medium of exchange, payments of fines and apologies, marriage
goods and thanksgiving to the chiefs.
The most important food product from
domestic animals is milk. Much of the meat used to be obtained by hunting and
trapping game and birds~ Venison, milk and insects, therefore, play an important
role in providing the protein requirements of the diet, and probably supply most of
the essential amino acids needed for the proper functioning and growth of the
human body. As the Vhavenda did not keep fowls for security reasons, they
depended on wild birds, particularly guinea- fowls, for eggs. The cultivation of
various leguminous crops provides an important boost to the protein content of the
carbohydrate-rich food and, in addition, they also supply considerable amounts of
vitamins and vegetable oils.
Fresh vegetables and fruits are significant sources of vitamins and minerals
that are frequently deficient in staple foods. For instance, the fruit of the baobab
(Adansonia digitata ), has a very high calcium and vitamin C content, in addition to
other minerals. Quinn (1959) analysed the wild vegetables and fruits of the Pedi,
most of which are also regularly used by the Vhavenda, and found that they contain
moderate amounts of protein, vitamin C and minerals. Condiments cooked with
vegetables, as well as nuts and seed kernels eaten raw, are undoubtedly good
sources of fats and oils in addition to proteins. This indicates that although the
staple food of the Vhavenda is carbohydrate-rich, they always have some way of
balancing their diet.
Civilization and the western way of living have brought many changes in the
dietary patterns of the Vhavenda. The nature conservation code that has recently
been introduced, is such that hunting and trapping of wild game is strictly prohibited
and collection of insects is not particularly encouraged. Population explosion,
industrialization, migrant labour and civil employment appear to have resulted in
diminished arable and non-arable lands, little time for the gathering of wild
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vegetables and fruits, and many other changes in the economic structure.
Consequently, most families now depend on the food supplied by the local shop and,
therefore, on food made in factories.
When money determines the nutritional status of any family unit, it becomes
important to realize the effect of unemployment and underemployment on the
provision of a balanced diet. This is particularly important when one realizes that
the children who used to make substantial contributions to the economic position of
their families, now spend much of their time at school in preparation for future
employment, and that most of their parents, who should keep them at school and
provide food, are not educated enough to secure any sound employment.
Furthermore, the social structure has become such that the parents can not spend
enough time with their children to pass on their knowledge about edible plants and
their preparation. As a result, the young rather tend to withdraw from the natural
environment and natural resources, despite the introduction of improved education
dealing with the natural environment and its resources.
Even though the Vhavenda mostly use animal fat, they still need vegetable oils for
certain purposes. A considerable proportion of vegetable oil is obtained from seeds
of plants. Apart from being used in cooking, the oil obtained from the seed kernels
of Sclerocarya bi"ea subsp. caffra has for long also been used as an important skin
emollient. Similarly the oily pulp of the fruit of Trichilia dregeana was used to
smear over the body.
Oil extracted from seed kernels of Ximenia caffra and X americana was
preferred for making mudo, used to polish leather clothes, especially those called
zwirivha, to keep them soft and give them a black colour. Mudo is prepared by
burning the seeds and then grinding them into a black polish with a characteristic
Although mudo is not particularly pleasant smelling, its smell was still
preferred because of the belief that it repels wild animals and thus keep them away
from women when they go out to collect wood and vegetables in the veld.
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All leather clothes worn by women should be made from hides of domestic
animals, and it was for this reason that they had to be polishied with mudo to hide
the smell which would otherwise attract beasts of prey. Mudo polishes are also
made from seeds of Cryptocarya liebertiana (Netshiungani et al. 1981 ), Ricinus
communis, Trichilia dregeana and other plants for the same purpose, as well as for
furniture polish. The oil of Ricinus communis was, and still is, extracted particularly
for use as a medium for mixing medicines, especially powdered and magical ones.
This oil is also an important purgative and an ingredient of ear drops.
Dyes for giving colour to articles made from fibre, grass culms and reeds are
obtained from barks, stems and leaves of indigenous plants. The use of certain
plants as sources of dyes depends on availability, colour preference and knowledge
of plants. Indigofera erecta is the most popular source of dye in the Vhuphani area,
giving light blue, blue, purple and brown colours to articles, depending on how long
they are boiled or soaked. In the Niani area most articles are decorated with red
colours through the use of the bark of Berchemia discolor. Sclerocarya birrea subsp.
caffra is popular for its reddish to dark brown colours on articles in the Vhulafuri
region of Venda.
Many other plants are used for dyes depending on their
availability and previous experience. All articles to be dyed must either be soaked
or boiled for a certain period with the source of the dye. In order to get a black
colour, the articles, or especially the materials from which they are made must be
burnt or soaked in mud for long periods.
From the evidence presented in this thesis it is clear that one of the most important
uses of indigenous plants is in medicine. Many of the medicines used by the
Vhavenda are either plant parts or their products, used for both medicinal and
magical treatments.
Medicinal treatment here refers to the direct and empirical application of
medicine to treat a particular disease with clearly observable or detectable
symptoms, when the success of the treatment is being attributed totally to the
effects of the medicine used.
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Magical practice on the other hand, deals with treatment matters related to,
or suspected to be caused by, supernatural forces such as witchcraft, sorcery or
ancestral curses. This involves the use of medicines and ritual cults in the treatment
of a person, family,. nation or a property, to ward off, neutralize, remove or protect
against the effects of such forces. There is, however, no clear distinction between
the two, as medicines used for one may be similarly used in connection with the
5.3.1 History and theories of origin of traditional medicine
The age of traditional medicine is quite difficult to determine, especially in Africa,
where there are no written records. The practice of medicine and magic among the
Vhavenda is probably as old as their culture. Their history clearly illustrates that
traditional medicinal practice and magic were more alive, being an important
guiding factor in the development of culture, in the past than at present. The
continued existence and survival of the Vhavenda as a nation is seen to have
depended on the active and loyal role of medicinal practitioners and magicians who,
apart from maintaining good health and peaceful co-existence within the nation by
supplying their effective medicines and discouraging evil deeds, also protected the
nation and their land against invaders.
They are thought to have influenced
rainfall, doctored the land and soldiers and made formidable magical weapons such
as the sacred drum, ngomalungundu, and the different flutes which protected large
and smaller groups in their hunting, trade and war missions throughout Africa.
Folk tales of the Vhavenda confirm the role of medicine and magic in the daily life
of the\r past.
Records of traditional medicine date as far back as between 2730 and 3000
B.C. (Sofowora 1982).
It is not clearly understood how traditional medicine
originated. Scholars and traditional practitioners have advanced some theories in
an attempt to clarify this mystery. Some of the theories are briefly discussed here:
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a) The information was communicated to some individuals by gods
This is the view maintained by some traditional practitioners who claim that
their ancestors visit them while in a trance and show them their clients,
Others claim to get the
complaints, causes and treatments needed.
information in dreams or visions. This involves "seeing" a plant that may be
known or unknown and then learning about its use.
Sometimes the
practitioner is shown the plant without being told how and for what purpose
it should be used. In such cases he will simply collect the medicine (mostly
leaves) from the plant, or make a note of it, and wait to be told about its use.
This is probably why traditional practitioners find it necessary to use certain
drugs that will help them dream about medicines (Letsoalo & Motimele,
personal communication).
In one case a baby boy who was very ill, was hospitalized at Siloam
Hospital. One night his mother dreamt about her suffering baby. In the
dream she noticed three very old women, one of whom was her grandmother,
collecting bark from Maerua angolensis. The bark was pounded, mixed with
some other medicine and then roasted in a potsherd. While she was still
wondering what they intend to do with the medicine, they disappeared,
leaving the medicine over the fire. The dream worried her so much that she
decided to ask for the discharge of her son from the hospital. On arrival
home she consulted a traditional practitioner who divined and advised her to
go to another practitioner, an old woman for the treatment of the baby. She
noticed that this plant was used with another mixture which she could not
recognize, and the baby recovered.
Traditional practitioners also claim that some information on herbal
cures is obtained from witches who offer to give it in exchange for not being
exposed when detected in their evil acts (Sofowora 1982).
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b) Knowledge on herbal cures was gained by chance
As early man was very close to nature, living in daily contact with
plants and animals of the forest, hills and valleys which were his inescapable
home and source of food and medicine, he was sensitive to the behaviour of
animals and the properties and powers of plants. "By copying from animals,
man soon learned how to use nature's healing powers for himself' (Thomson
Among Vend a traditional practitioners there are some who, in their
search for herbal cures, test the effects of plants known to be browsed by
animals by ingesting their parts (Ratshitanga, personal communication).
This originates from the view that some animals e.g. the porcupine, feed
only on plants that are medicinally important, and that certain animals resort
to eating parts of certain plants when injured or ill. Discovery by chance
could also have come as a result of curiosity or hunger. It is probable that
during periods of food scarcity, man could be forced to taste a number of
plants which he normally would not touch, particularly their fruits and seeds,
in an attempt to relieve hunger. Some of these plants would prove to be
edible, others toxic with fatal effects, while few others would have comforting
and remedial effects. Of the plants tasted and found to have medicinal
powers, some could be used again to produce healing effects in times of
disease. Those people with sufficient knowledge of plants with medicinal
powers would then help others (at first for free and later for a fee) and
acquire the status of traditional practitioners.
c) The doctrine of signatures
Later when man became sophisticated in his approach, he would look for
special features in plants, such as shapes, colours and flavours, which bear
resemblance to human organs and behaviour -- heart-shaped leaves for
treatment of heart diseases, plants with reddish sap for blood diseases. This
doctrine was first postulated by Paracelsus (1490--1541). He believed not
only that plants were put on earth for man's use, but also that many of those
plants not obviously valuable for food, were stamped by the Creator with a
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clear sign or signature, indicating their use (Thomson 1978, Sofowora 1982).
Even while adhering literally to this doctrine of signatures, "human beings by
trial and error accumulated a vast store of medical knowledge based on their
own observations and, above all, their experience" (Thomson 1978).
Therefore, from observing the behaviour of animals, from the shapes and
aroma of plants, and finally from empirical evidence, man learned how plants
could be of service to him not only as food, but also to keep him in sound
Whatever the origin, the interest in and progress of knowledge about curative
plant products were relentless, and gave birth to the various traditional and modern
systems of medicine encountered throughout the world today. The manufacture
and marketing of medicine remains a major industry.
5.3.2. Trends in Vhavenda traditional medicinal practice
a) The concept of disease
A patient is regarded as suffering from a "normal" or natural disease if he
shows familiar symptoms which can be treated with remedies that are
popularly known as active against complications. Injury and diseases such as,
colds, fevers, whooping cough, diarrhoea, measles, venereal diseases are
considered to be natural. The treatment of natural. or "normal" diseases is
purely medicinal. However, anyone of the conditions mentioned can be
associated with "abnormal" or supernatural diseases if it fails to respond to
popular treatments as expected. Such abnormal illnesses are believed to be
a result of witchcraft, sorcery or ancestral curses. For example, it is
commonly believed among the Vhavenda that a person could be bewitched
in such a way that he would be involved in an accident and get injured or
killed (a process known as u livhanya). The treatment of "abnormal" diseases
is both medicinal and magical.
As already mentioned, magical treatments involve an initial ritual
purification to remove or neutralize the effects of the supernatural force,
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followed by medicinal treatment of the physical symptoms.
practitioners usually try to ascertain the type of disease by divining for every
patient. For ancestral curses a ritual ceremony attended by all kin-group
members must be performed to communicate with the ancestors. During the
ceremony the patient is possessed by the ancestral spirit to become a
mudzimu or mukalanga who speaks tshikalanga, a language which is closely
related to the present Shona of Zimbabwe. Elderly people gather around
her (normally only women become possessed) to ask about his or her name
(the mudzimu ), the ancestral complaint, and what action would appease
them and thereby save the patient. The end of the ritual ceremony should
normally mark the beginning of a rapid recovery of the patient. It always
requires a diviner to determine whether the illness is magically caused or is a
result of ancestral complaints.
b) Collection of plant remedies
Even though most medicinal plants are collected and used throughout the
year, certain types are left aside for collection at specified periods of the
year. These include most of those medicines that are needed for magical
uses. Medicines used magically for treatment of persons, homesteads,
livestock and agricultural fields are normally collected during winter. There
are a number of reasons for this seasonality of collection. It is believed that
certain medicines cause heavy lightning sounds in the area if collected during
summer and that this may encourage more lightning strikes, especially at the
homestead where they are stored. Examples of such medicines are the roots
of Salacia rehmannii and Capparis tomentosa. Winter collection co-incides
with the period of resting, celebrations, immigrations and emigrations,
building of new homes and renovation of old ones, visits to relatives and
friends, and many other activities that are only possible when people are
temporarily free from agricultural tasks. It is also the period of abundant
food after harvesting. Traditional practitioners confirm that most medicinal
plants are past the period of vigorous growth and are "hardened and
matured" in winter. Traditional practitioners also have enough time to
wander about and collect the medicines they need when they are free from
agricultural activities.
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Some medicines are collected only during the night, because the
collector has to be be naked during collection and should perform certain
rituals to avoid nightmares and misfortunes.
Medicines may be collected anywhere except on other peoples
premises, i.e. their homesteads and fields. As everybody "doctors" his
premises, it is believed that plants growing in and around them have been
affected by his phamba and may not work properly for others, unless they are
given some treatment to remove such effects. If a person has to collect
medicines from other territories or homelands, he must first get permission
from the relevant headman or chief, who will give him some of his people to
accompany and protect him against possible tribal victimisation, show him
where to find his medicines, make sure that he collects properly and not too
much, and ascertain that he is not a spy sent to inspect the country. It is
customary that the collector takes something to the headman or chief as a
form of thanksgiving.
The part of the plant used varies from one species to another, from
practitioner to practitioner, and depends on the nature and state of disease,
but there are general tendencies. In the case of trees and shrubs the stem
and root bark are mostly used, whereas leaves, flowers and fruits are less
frequently needed. For herbs and grasses it is common practice to use the
whole plant including roots, leaves and stems as well as flowers and fruits if
present. Depending on the factors mentioned above, leaves, stems, roots or
flowers may be used alone or in combination.
Venda traditional practitioners stress the need to avoid killing the
plants from which the medicines are obtained. They believe that if a person
kills the plant as a result of collecting medicine from it, the medicine would
kill the patient instead of healing him. Leaving the rooting parts exposed
after obtaining medicine from the plant is strictly forbidden. This is said to
leave the plant dying of exposure of these parts which may then cause the
death of the patient treated. As a result of this belief the roots of the plant
from which the medicines have been obtained are always left covered with
soil. Another reason for this is the belief that jealous persons, who may have
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seen the collector taking medicines from the plant, may bewitch it in such a
way that his medicines would not work effectively.
It is common practice when collecting bark medicine from stems of
trees, that pieces from opposite sides of the trunk be obtained, i.e. east and
west or south and north, etc. The reason given for this is the fact that the
wind which carries all the healing magic from all parts of the globe, does not
blow from one direction only. This normally results in removal of bark all
around the stem when the plant is close to the village and within reach,
especially when only a few trees are found in the area. Collection of roots is
confined to the horizontally growing ones, probably because removal of these
roots normally does not kill the source of the medicine. The treatment of
some diseases may specifically require that only those roots that grow across
footpaths be used.
c) Preparation and application of plant medicines
A determined and responsible practitioner has the duty not only to know the
plants used to treat diseases, but also to know where to find them, how to
collect them as well as the way in which they should be processed for use. It
is also important that he or she should be able to understand and practice the
safest possible applications of the medicines, giving the patient the correct
dosage at the right time. One should also enjoy an appreciable degree of
flexibility when it comes to combination of drugs, diluting and choosing
The method of preparation and administration of any one drug
depends on the plant used, the part collected, disease to be treated and on
the practitioner's experience.
Some methods are quick, simple and
straightforward, while others, especially those related to some cultural,
religious or superstitious practices, are more complicated. Some of the most
popular ones are given below.
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This method is usually important in emergency cases such as when the
patient has swallowed a poison and needs to vomit it, or when he is still
waiting for treatment and his pain has to be stopped or minimized. The
resulting juice is commonly swallowed, but for a few medicines it is spat onto
the palms of the hands and rubbed over a painful part of the body. For
children who cannot chew, the mothers usually chew for them and spit the
resulting juice into their mouths.
- Crushing and sniffing:
This method is common for leaves and soft succulent stems, especially those
with strong aromatic flavours. It is mostly used for colds and related chest
complaints. Crushed medicines may also be soaked and used as a pressing or
dressing on wounds, burns, bruises and sprains. The infusion resulting from
soaking may be drunk.
- Dry pounding:
This method is particularly convenient for those medicines that should be
used or stored in powder form. Powdered medicines may be mixed with
animal fat or vegetable oils and be used as skin ointments, dressings on
inflammatious wounds, contusions, and incisions cut on the skin. Ointments
find many applications in external use and are particularly suitable for
smearing on hut poles, doors, gate poles and magical sticks in the doctoring
of homesteads and other property. Powdered medicines may be swallowed
with saliva, soaked or boiled in water and drunk, sprinkled over soft porridge
or taken in urine or beer. The use of powdered medicines for herbal baths is
quite common among the Vhavenda. Some magical powders are just blown
away to the accompaniment of incantations to have them register certain
magical effects at a distance. Others are tied in cloths and attached to a
girdle, necklace or anklet and carried along as a charm. Certain powders are
burnt around homesteads or business sites to drive away evil spirits or attract
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Soaked medicines are usually crushed or powdered first.
The resulting
infusion may be taken orally for internal complaints, e.g, as an emetic or
mouthwash for toothache. Some of the soaked medicines are used as
enemas or for external applications against burns, bruises and wounds, or as
herbal baths for ritual purifications. Infusions are generally also used to
prepare soft porridges and as eye or ear drops.
Burning is a popular method of preparation for those medicines in which
only the ash is needed. The resulting black powder or ash is usually mixed
with fat for external application, or licked for internal treatments.
- Heating and roasting:
These methods are common in the preparation of poultices from succulent
herbs. Such medicines are prepared mostly for external use on sprained
joints, inflammations, bruises and for backache.
- Fumigation:
Dried medicines (leaves or stems) are frequently burnt in the treatment of
diseases, especially fevers, colds and related chest complaints. The plant
portions are placed on hot coals and the patient is covered in a blanket to
inhale the smoke. Fumigations are also used for external treatments where
the affected parts are exposed to the smoke or heat. Adults usually smoke
some of these medicines wrapped in paper like tobacco. Fresh leaves of
aromatic plants are often boiled and the patient is covered in a blanket to
inhale the resulting steam. These two forms of treatment are also used for
external treatments of rheumatism, skin problems, general body pains, and
ulcers. The water used for steaming may be used as pressings over such
areas while still hot (hydrotherapy) or the decoction drunk thereafter.
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Barks, leaves and roots are commonly boiled to produce decoctions which
are either taken orally or used for external applications.
The resulting
decoction is frequently used to cook soft porridge and gruel.
It is interesting to note that the different methods of preparation of drugs
employed by the Vhavenda are basically similar to those encountered in
traditional medicinal practice in other parts of the world. Kokwaro (1974),
Sofowora (1982), Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk (1962), Gelfand et al. (1985) and
Arnold & Gulumian ( 1984), in their studies on African medicinal plants,
described methods of preparation that display great uniformity all over the
continent. It would appear that each method of preparation has, through
experience, been found suited to the extraction of the active principles in
desired proportions and chemical forms in relation to the treatments for
which they are needed. This is particularly important with drugs that may
become toxic or ineffective when improper methods are used.
d) Combinations of drugs
Medicines used in Venda traditional medicine are generally compounded for
effective or multiple treatment, the proportions differing from practitioner to
practitioner and from treatment to treatment. In general, the combinations
include the main remedies that are known to be effective for the treatment.
More often an adjuvant is added to complement or enhance the treatment.
It is also common practice to include other substances, the corrigents, to
improve the flavour, appearance or palatability. Some ingredients are
included for the sole purpose of minimizing the side effects associated with a
treatment. There are practitioners who sometimes mix drugs because they
are uncertain about the most effective ingredients. This is normally the case
with those mixtures that have simply been inherited from older generations,
who also had little knowldge of the main remedies, or did not inform their
successors properly. In case of diseases caused by supernatural forces, some
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of the medicines may be included to deal with the effects of witchcraft,
sorcery or ancestral curses, while others are for the physical symptoms. It is
also believed that some practitioners mix medicines with the purpose of
concealing the identity of the main remedies. In such cases it is reported
that they may mix the effective medicines with leaves, fruits or burnt grass, all
of which are known to be edible with no serious side effects. No evidence
has been found to support mixing of drugs or inclusion of accessory
substances to improve the keeping qualities of drugs.
Water, fats, oils and milk are important mediums in the mixing of
drugs. Mixing may involve boiling, soaking, burning or roasting medicines
together. Edible medicines are generally mixed separately from nonedible
ones and the two kinds may also need to be mixed on different days. A ready
made mixture is known as thevhele, phamba or lurtanga, the last two names
being more often applied to magical mixtures than to medicinal ones.
e) Dosage
In Venda medicinal practice, the dosage is generally a matter of personal
judgment and experience. The quantity of any medicine used at a time is
normally arbitrarily determined by indicating the minimum and maximum
limits for effective and safe use, and may be influenced by the type and state
of disease. The medicines are mostly measured as, for example, a pinch
using two fingers, a handful, or stating the amount as filling a standardized
and popular container. The patient also receives instructions to take the
crudely stipulated quantity either once, twice or three times a day, usually
before meals. As modern medicinal practice becomes popular, traditional
practitioners are starting to use spoons, teaspoons and cups as measuring
t) Storage of drugs
Medicines used by practitioners are collected from far and near, and it may
take a few minutes, days or even years to bring all the required medicines
together. Leaves, flowers, bark or branches may be collected from the veld
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Dedicated and
and brought home for treatment or further processing.
established practitioners normally have separate huts for storage and
preparation of their drugs. Such huts may also be used for consultations and
treatment of patients. Medicines awaiting further processing such as those
that must first be dried, and readily prepared ones are all kept in this hut,
which is normally placed at a distance from all the others.
Most Venda practitioners maintain that for quick drying, medicines
should not be exposed to direct sunlight. They believe that the medicinal
powers of the plant are destroyed by heat and exposure to wind. In some
cases drying medicines are covered even though they are inside the hut.
Medicines should also not be left outside for drying when there is nobody to
guard them against others who may bewitch the material. During storage
inside the hut edible medicines must be kept at a distance from the
nonedible ones because "they may absorb the poisonous or harmful
properties from them". Those medicines that are stored in powder form are
usually kept in pouches made from hides of a variety of animals. For the
edible ones the pouch must be made from the hide of an animal that is eaten
by people, while for the nonedible the pouch may be made from any other
animal. Some magical powders are stored strictly in pouches made from
hides of specific animals. Otherwise, it is believed they may lose their powers
to such an extent that they may become dangerous to the owner. Containers
made from wood, gourds, clay and iron as well as horns of small and large
stock are also widely used. Nowadays there is a tendency to keep medicines
in bottles of various sizes as they become readily and freely available.
Some medicines such as bark, roots or leaves are left unprocessed
until needed, while others are processed immediately and stored in powder
form. Venda medicines are rarely stored in liquid form, probably because
they become fermented if they remain dissolved for too long.
A few,
however, are gathered from the surrounding area and used fresh.
Stored medicines are identified by their colour, flavour, texture and
positions on the racks. It must also be appreciated that no information
regarding their identification, collection, preparation and application as well
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as storage properties is recorded anywhere and that the practitioner carries
the responsibility of remembering everything.
Such information is once
again transferred verbally from one practitioner to the other and from
generation to generation. This verbal transmission of medical information
may present problems when the practitioner becomes too old to cope, or dies
before passing all the necessary information to a young and able person.
g) The doctrine of signatures in Venda traditional medicine
(see also 5.3.1 c)
The following examples illustrate the possible contribution of the doctrine of
signatures towards the development of Venda traditional medicine:
- Plants containing a milky latex are frequently used to promote lactation in
humans and domestic animals, e.g. Sarcostemma viminale, Ficus spp.
- Owing to its profuse flowering, Dombeya rotundifolia is included as an
ingredient in medicines used to promote fertility in humans.
The same
appears to be the case with most other plants that produce abundant fruit,
e.g. Sclerocarya birrea subsp. caffra.
- Those plants that have a reddish sap or or give a reddish decoction when
boiled are found to be commonly used for blood diseases, e.g. Pterocarpus
angolensis, Cas sine transvaalensis are used as remedies against
dysmenorrhoea, menorrhagia, dysentery, piles (haemorrhoids) and related
- Plants with sharp-pointed thorns are medicines for pricking pains, e.g.
Ziziphus mucronata, Acacia spp.
- There is a common belief that plants with few or very thin horizontally
growing roots when compared to those growing straight downwards, are
medicines for stomach troubles e.g. Artabotrys monteiroae and some Acacia
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- Climbers and other small, soft and thin-stemmed plants are mostly used as
medicines for children, while large trees and shrubs are used for adults, e.g.
Sphedamnocarpus pruriens, Asparagus spp. and Hermannia glanduligera are
used as medicines for children and rarely for adults.
- The bark of the baobab tree, Adansonia digitata, is soaked, and the infusion
used to bathe babies to promote growth, particularly to increase their weight.
This is because the plant has a very thick trunk and the bark is as smooth as a
human skin when observed from a distance.
- Plants bearing drupes and berries are generally considered to be effective
medicines against ulcers, e.g. Sclerocarya birrea subsp. caffra, Cassine
transvaalensis, C. aethiopica and Solanum incanum.
- Owing to its regeneration capacity when the bark is damaged, the mufula
(Sclerocarya birrea subsp. caffra) is used to treat open wounds.
- The use of Myrothamnus flabellifolius in the treatment of epileptic fits is
related to its resurrection capacity.
- Plants with multiple longitudinal ribs on their stems are used as panaceas
and are termed mizwilaminzhi (many paths) to refer to their many uses in
medicine, e.g. Grewia occidentalis and Euphorbia ingens.
- The roots of Hermannia glanduligera have a network of spiral thickenings
and for this reason the infusion of the roots is used to bathe babies who, as a
result of poor health, develop a similar network of dilated veins over their
bodies, especially on the abdominal part.
- The bark of Combretum hereroense is covered by reddish fibres which form
a network resembling the capillary network around an animal heart. It is
probably for this reason that the plant is used for heart diseases.
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When related to animal behaviour, the doctrine of signatures appears to be
associated with magical practices. For instance, burrowing rodents such as
moles are used to treat cancerous ulcers that spread from one part of the
body to another, e.g. the ulcers that are commonly known as pfuko, which
means a mole, and are suspected to be caused by witchcraft.
It is not clear how this apparent relationship between Venda medicine
and the doctrine of signatures developed. It is also possible that after
realizing the medicinal uses of some plants and animals, people might have
tried to explain why such plants are effective, and then came up with this
doctrine. This may be particularly true in view of the fact that most of the
medicines used in this way are too effective against the diseases for which
they are used, to have been discovered as a result of speculation only. It is
possible that both approaches might have been used, one involving the
discovery of a medicine and then a search for plants with similar features to
be tried for the same disease, and the other one involving the observation of
certain structures in the plants that resemble human organs or behaviour. A
deductive/inductive approach to the development of this doctrine may
possibly give a better explanation.
5.3.3 The future of Venda traditional medicine
While Venda medicine, and traditional medicine in general, has served the African
population, without much complaint and competition, for many centuries before the
advent of modern medicine, it appears that much effort is now required to have it
introduced into the existing formal health structures. The biggest problem appears
to be the recognition and proper registration of traditional practitioners by the
various departments of health in most countries, especially those that are based on
Christian doctrines. The most important stumbling block is probably the intimate
relationship that exists between traditional medicine and the religious and magical
beliefs of the people, although this is rarely pointed out. It would appear that
modern medicine can use this important feature of traditional practice as one of the
reasons why the two approaches cannot be reconciled and combined to work as one
all-inclusive medical organization.
A number of disadvantages related to
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traditional medicine have been pointed out by some scientists and the proponents of
modern medicine as the only reason for the world population health problems.
Some of these are as follows:
a) Traditional medicine lacks scientific proof of efficacy:
This should, of course, be expected in a population with an underdeveloped
technology. The lack of scientific proof, however, does not necessarily mean
that the medicines used are not valuable, but only that much scientific work
is needed to expand the field of medicine.
b) The techniques of diagnosis are imprecise:
Even though traditional practitioners use divination to determine health
problems, in most cases they also use normal observable symptoms to
diagnose their patients' problems. Generally divination is used to ensure
that supernatural forces are not involved. This plays an important social
role among Africans as witchcraft and ancestral curses are always suspected.
In most cases the medicines used by traditional healers are compounded to
fight against all known causes of the symptoms observed, and here the
imprecise nature of diagnosis may play a minor role.
c) Imprecise dosage
This is one common feature of traditional medicine. According to Sofowora
(1982), the absence of exactness of doses in traditional medicine is not very
critical as the concentration of active principles in a potion is usually very
small and large volumes must be taken to obtain any response. The lack of
prescriptions related to the patient's age, weight and condition of illness has
also been pointed out. This is not always true as traditional practitioners do
specify doses for adults and for children.
In such cases they also use
different plants for the same diseases in children and adults. Dilution is used
as one method of prescription that differentiates between strong patients and
those weakened by serious conditions. This, however, does not mean that
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dosage in traditional medicinal practice is acceptable according to civilized
standards, and standardization is required in this regard.
d) Lack of hygiene
The fact that most practices in traditional medicine look unhygienic should
be seen as a result of a comparison between traditional and modem medical
standards. This can, however, be improved through retraining programmes.
e) Intangibility
The intangible aspects of traditional medicine such as occult practices, magic
and beliefs in witchcraft and ancestral spirits cannot be verified scientifically,
and are therefore regarded with suspicion by modern practitioners. This,
however, does not seem very different from praying for the rapid recovery of
a patient under treatment.
Apart from these and other disadvantages, it is a fact that traditional
medicine also has a number of advantages, perhaps even more than the
disadvantages, and still serves the greater proportion of the African population for
the following reasons:
a) Traditional medicine is cheaper compared to modem medicine. In a
country with rising figures of unemployment, underemployment and
inflation, it is more economical to go for cheaper treatment if the results are
the same or comparable.
Traditional practitioners· normally allow for
treatment on credit, leaving it to the patient to pay when able to do so. Also
local patients are sometimes treated free of charge out of good
One reason for cheap treatment might be that most
medicines are obtained locally and at very little, if any, cost.
b) Traditional medicine is more accessible to most of the population in the
Third World. Sofowora (1982) estimates that 60 to 85% of the population in
every country of the developing world has to rely on traditional or indigenous
forms of medicine.
This is possibly due to shortage of formal health
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institutions and professional staff. The cost of transport to these institutions
may also be contributory.
c) Traditional medicine is widely accepted among the African population.
According to Sofowora (1982), a major contributory factor may be that
traditional medicine is deeply rooted, and blends readily into the
sociocultural life of the African people. In this respect he gives examples of
people in Guatemala, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and Ethiopia, who consult
traditional healers as a first choice despite the fact that they live very close to
hospitals. In addition to the high cost of modem medical treatment which
keeps most people away, there are those who believe that certain types of
diseases can only be treated successfully only by traditional practitioners and
are reluctant to consult modern practitioners, especially with regard to those
diseases suspected to be caused by witchcraft and ancestral spirits, e.g.
Despite the recent introduction of
insanity, nwatela, pfuko and tshiliso.
antibiotic treatments for most sexually transmitted conditions such as
venereal disease, most people still believe that the treatment only suppresses
the symptoms and does not heal the disease completely. This is the reason
why most people prefer to receive traditional treatment for these diseases,
even though they may first go for antibiotic treatment.
Another reason, it is claimed, is that modem practitioners normally
do not wish to inform thei'r patients about the result of their diagnosis, the
prognosis and implications of further treatment or the side effects related to
the treatment. While this is not true for most practitioners, it remains a strict
rule in most hospitals that patients and their relatives are not allowed to read
their bed charts (medical files), let alone ask about the diagnosis and nature
of treatment.
d) Traditional practitioners may play an important role as sources of
additional manpower and expertise. This may, of course, require that they be
trained to meet the required standards in simple hygiene, general health care
concepts, health education (including nutrition), environmental sanitation,
epidemic diseases, emergencies and referrals, record-keeping, and general
diagnostic techniques.
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e) Traditional medicine is a potential source of new drugs. This source can
be used in the synthesis of known drugs or a direct inexpensive source of
these drugs. Research on the medicines used by traditional practitioners may
result in the discovery of new drugs for treating such diseases as diabetes,
cancer and AIDS. There is great fear at present that if AIDS is allowed to
spread, it may exterminate the human population. Some practitioners in
Uganda recently came forward with a mixture of herbs that is reported to
show improvement in the treatment of AIDS (Sunday Times, 4 October
1987, p. 4).
f) The red tape associated with consulting a modem practitioner involves two
queues for registration and payment of fees, a queue for a nurse to take
disease history (including blood pressure, temperature and weight), one more
to see a doctor, and possibly another one for diagnostic tests (including urine
tests, X-ray if necessary), coming back for a prescription and lastly a queue to
the dispensary. Even though a traditional practitioner may have more than
one patient at a time, this may happen only once in a while. Consulting a
practitioner of traditional medicine may also take a whole day, but this time
is spent while giving his patient treatments which he feels should be done by
himself, such as emetics, enemas or applications of medicines through
incisions made on the body. The patient may have to wait for a traditional
practitioner to go out and collect some of those medicines that must be used
fresh, but normally this does not take long as they are mostly obtained in
close proximity to his homestead.
g) Some parasites and micro-organisms are known to develop resistance to
synthetic chemotherapeutic agents, e.g. strains of malaria parasites
(Plasmodium falciparum or P. vivax) develop resistance to chloroquine,
whereas some micro-organisms develop resistance to antibiotics. No
resistance is known to develop as a result of treatment by traditional
medicines, but this may be due to the fact that traditional practitioners do
not keep medical files or records.
It is also possible that traditional
medicines may provide a solution to this problem as a result of their
multicomponent nature.
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The above account clearly indicates that neither of the two approaches is
without its shortcomings. It is also evident that traditional medicine, like modern
medicines, is in need of extensive scientific study. Such a study should demand that
effective and appropriate approaches be sought that would lead to the development
of suitable methods of research aimed at providing maximum utilization of the
positive aspects of traditional medicine, and the removal of negative and irrelevant
All such approaches will necessarily require that traditional drugs be
standardized. Sofowora (1982) points out that the problem of standardizing a crude
drug preparation is not only that of specifying the amount of the medicine to be
taken by the patient, but also that all stages leading to the preparation and
application of the drug should be standardized. The following are some of those
many aspects that should be considered in the process of standarization:
a) Identification and collection of the plants:
Firstly, the correct plant must be collected. This is particularly important in
Venda and other medicinal systems where one finds that there are many
plants with the same common name or where one plant may be known by
several such names. The lack of recorded data about the plants used and
their names adds to the confusion that may arise during collection. Secondly,
the right part of the plant must be collected as for most plants there is a
difference in the availability or concentration of active ingredients in
different parts of the plant. For instance, the collection of roots where leaves
should be used may result in negative, toxic or indifferent effects. Thirdly,
the drug must be collected at the appropriate season as the active
compounds of some plants vary from one season to another. The same also
applies to the developmental stage of the plant.
The yield of plant
constituents may even vary within the 24 hour period of the day, generally as
a result of the interconversion of compounds. Some plant drugs must be
obtained during the night, while others must be taken in bright sunlight, e.g.
Eupatorium odoratum loses its oil content in bright sunlight, but regains it
from sunset to midnight (Sofowora 1982).
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b) Post-harvest processing:
It is important that the keeping qualities of the plants are studied as there are
plants in which the constituents rapidly deteriorate soon after harvesting.
Deterioration may be a result of enzyme activity, volatilization or attacks by
moulds during damp storage, for example. Quick drying is suggested where
enzyme action and mould attacks are not desired (Sofowora 1982).
Harvested drugs must also be stored in such a way that, when dried, they
remain dry and the storage period must be kept to a minimum.
c) Preparation of galenicals:
This may also pose problems when no standardized method of preparation
exists. It may not only lead to varying results every time a new drug must be
prepared, but an incorrect method may also produce ineffective or toxic
d) Appropriate containers must be used:
The stored drug must be prevented from interacting with its container, just as
with atmospheric gases, moisture or any other substances. It is only when
these factors are considered that dosage can be standardized.
The study of traditional medicines will necessarily require that a
comprehensive vocabulary be compiled involving the terminology associated with
names of diseases, descriptions of symptoms and treatments, and names of plants
used. This can make the interpretation of diseases, associated diagnostic principles
and treatments easier before the necessary plants are subjected to scientific
Scientific research may take various forms. One of these is the screening of
plants for bioactive agents. This involves biological screening (i.e. searching for the
physiological effect which a plant or extract may produce) and phytochemical
screening (i.e. searching for the active compound). According to Sofowora (1982)
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these approaches have one problem in common, namely selection of material to be
screened, otherwise known as sampling.
Various sampling and screening
procedures have been discussed elsewhere and are not repeated here (Sofowora
1982). Kokwaro (1976) gives guidelines on the chemical constituents of plants as
well their possible medicinal effects. A very brief summary of these are given
a) Fats and oils
Fixed oils are good as emollients and ointment bases and are common in
species of Annona, Balanites and Trichilia. Unsaturated fatty acids which are
not readily absorbed or digested, are common in Ricinus communis and
species of Croton, the seeds of which are used as mild or strong purgatives.
Oils of both the latter species contain toxalbumins which must be destroyed
by heat before use. Species of Ximenia contain cathartic fixed oils.
Essential oils can regulate the intestinal movement, preventing or
controlling violent contractions and aiding the orderly flow of bowel content.
Plants with these oils are, therefore, widely used as condiments with food and
also to relieve colicky pain. Many essential oils have the power to hinder
bacterial growth and are, therefore, generally used for treating wound
infections. Species of Chenopodium (widely used as a vegetable) have oils
that are less well absorbed and were reported to be remedies for roundworm
and hookworms (vermifuges).
Sulphur oils are found In species of Boscia, Capparis, Cleome,
Capsicum, Salvadora and some members of the Brassicaceae.
containing them can be good as carminatives in small doses and emetics in
large doses.
b) Resins
The majority of resins are extremely irritating and cause vomiting and
purging if taken in large doses, e.g. gum resins found in species of Boswellia
and Commiphora.
Many resins resemble the essential oils in their drug
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actiVIties, e.g. species of Piper and Zingiber (used as carminatives), and
Albizia and Zanthoxylum (used as medicines for the urinary tract). Purgative
resins found in species of Ipomoea are considered very effective. It is also
reported that the adhesive quality of resins gives them value as
wound-dressing materials.
c) Glucosides
Tannins have the property of precipitating proteins and mucous, and also
constricting blood vessels.
This accounts for their medicinal value in
preventing diarrhoea, controlling haemorrhage and they may be applied to
wounds as a protective coating. These compounds are abundant in the bark
of many trees including species of Acacia, Diospyros, Kigelia, Pterocarpus and
Tannins are extracted by boiling the bark or soaking it in cold
water. Some of the plants containing tannins are also used as vermifuges.
Anthelmintic glucosides kill tapeworms and are all taenicides. Most
species of Albizia, Hugonia, M aesa, Myrsine and Phytolacca, contain
anthelmintic glucosides.
Cardiac glucosides are contained primarily in the Apocynaceae, e.g.
species of Acokanthera. These are often extremely poisonous.
d) Alkaloids
These are mostly used as poisons rather than drugs. They are found in
Datura stramonium, for example. The less toxic alkaloids such as caffeine
and sparteine would normally increase renal excretion either by increasing
the blood flow through the kidneys or by some direct action and are
therefore used as diuretics and in the treatment of dropsy. Most alkaloids
are characterised by a bitter taste.
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e) Toxalbumins
These are poisonous proteins, usually irritant in nature, and found mainly in
seeds. They can induce inflammation of the mucous membranes such as
those of the eye or nose, and can cause violent vomiting and purging when
swallowed since they are not digested. They are found in seeds of Abrus
precatorius, Cassia absus, Croton spp., Ricinus communis, Jatropha spp.
f) Anthraquinone cathartics
These are found in many groups, particularly species of Cassia and Aloe.
Species of these genera are used as cathartics, while others are used as
dressings for bums and other skin lesions.
The information given above can be used in two ways in the study of
traditional medicine. Firstly, all plants used as medicines and known to produce
similar effects can be screened for those chemical substances that are related to
their effects.
For instance, the fact that Cassine transvaalensis, Pterocarpus
angolensis, Pouzolzia mixta and some species of Aloe are used in Venda medicine to
treat piles (haemorrhoids) could mean that they all contain a common active
principle ( or group of chemicals), possibly tannin, which is responsible for the
healing effects. The same applies to plants that are used to treat dysmenorrhoea,
menorrhagia, scurvey and nose bleeding. Plants used for treating infectious diseases
such as venereal diseases may be screened for antibiotic properties. Those plants
found to have negative tests for known antibiotics, but known to be effective against
diseases known to be caused by bacteria or viruses, can be very interesting because
it could mean that they contain new compounds which combat bacterial or viral
infections. Some could probably be found to build up the immunity of the body and
this may provide some clues towards the future treatment of such problematic
diseases as AIDS.
Secondly, all plants screened and found to contain similar or related
chemical substances may be tried in the treatment of some diseases, e.g. all plants
known or found to contain cardiac glucosides may be tested for their effects on the
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various heart diseases. Some of these may be found to be so effective that heart
transplantations may no longer always be necessary. A combination of these two
approaches may leac:i to substantial contributions in the field of medicine. In fact,
previous research has proved that it does help to use either one or both of these
approaches (see also Sofowora 1982).
5.4.1 Fire-making
a) History
There is disagreement among the people of Venda about the way in which
fire-making became incorporated into their culture. The Vhalemba and
Vhasenzi claim that the other tribes who occupied what is now Vend a before
them did not use or did not even know anything about fire before their
arrival many years ago. On the other hand, there is evidence that the first
settlers of Venda such as the Vhangona and Vhambedzi used fire in many of
their domestic and outdoor activities. It is reported that when the Vhalemba
and Vhasenzi arrived in Venda, they found Vhangona and other
neighbouring tribes cultivating most of the cereals and other crops that the
Venda people still use today. Most of these crops have no history of being
eaten raw, not even in religious cults. It also became common practice if a
Mulemba or Musenzi man became ill after having had sexual intercourse
with a Mungona woman, to use ash from Vhangona ruins as an important
ingredient in the remedy - the existence of ash in their ruins indicating that
they must have made fires. Potsherds and pieces of iron which could not
have been made without the use of fire, unless they were bought from
neighbouring tribes, were unearthed from the ruins of the Vhangona.
Ritual and other sacrificial performances of these indigenous people
often required the making of bonfires. Fire-making is also reported to have
existed among the Zulu, Sotho, Tsonga and Swazi for a long time. Whether
these tribes initially depended on fire from lightning strikes, after which they
preserved it, or that made by friction which gave the initial spark, it is true
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that firemaking by friction developed at an early stage in the history of the
southern African peoples.
b) Method of firemaking and plants used
Two pieces of wood are required to make fire by friction. One of these is
relatively thin and hard, while the other may be thicker and softer. It is
important that both pieces should be dry. Holes are made in one surface of
the thicker one (the cow-stick) to receive the tip of the thinner stick (the
bull-stick) which is used to drill fire. The pointed end of the bull-stick is
inserted into one of the holes in the cow-stick and then twirled very fast. Dry
wood shavings and a little sand are normally added to the hole to create
more friction. A small quantity of combustible material such as dry donkey
dung or grass is heaped close to the hole so that it would catch fire easily
when a spark develops. Two or more people may take turns to drill before
enough heat is generated by the friction to start a fire. Drilling may take
from 45 minutes to an hour, or even more, depending on the plants used,
their dryness and the force exerted.
The Vhavenda use, amongst others, Grewia spp., Ehretia rigida,
Bequaertiodendron magalismontanum for bull-sticks, and Annona
senegalensis, Ficus spp. and Berchemia spp. for cow-sticks. For maximal
hardness, bull-sticks are carved mostly from the heartwood of stems. The use
of particular species of plants for making fire varies greatly between the
community groups living in geographically isolated regions, and is also
influenced by availability and previous experience.
The method of making fire as described above is gradually falling into
disuse as commercially available matches are becoming more and more
At present the traditional method of making fire remains a
practice of historical interest. The method is, however, still encountered in
ritual ceremonies and initiation schools when bonfires are made, but then
more as a formality than a necessity.
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5.4.2 Collection and use of plants as firewood
The division of labour among the Vhavenda is such that women and girls carry the
responsibility of gathering all the wood needed for domestic use.
Boys and young
men may only collect firewood for the khoro, a place outside the living quarters of
the homestead, where old men, young men and initiated boys spend most of the
A favourite spot for the khoro is next to the cattle kraal, where men can
discuss their matters and inspect, advise and discipline the boys in the absence of
women. Big fires are made here and large poles are needed to provide enough
warmth for everybody throughout the evening. Women are not expected to provide
wood for this purpose.
The gathering of wood by women is a communal activity and is usually done
by a group of two or more who may belong to the same or neighbouring families.
Depending on the quantity and type of wood required, gathering may take place
close to the homestead or far away in the mountains and valleys. Axes, hatchets and
other instruments are used for cutting wood which is then piled into headloads and
bound together by ropes. Normally one headload is gathered per trip, but more
wood may be collected. Long poles which are hooked at one end (govho) are
commonly used to pull dry branches off the canopies of tall trees. Wood gatherers
usually leave home very early in the morning and return around midday.
Mostly dry wood is gathered. These may be three to fifteen centimetres thick
and one to three metres long, splints chopped from fallen or standing logs and tree
stumps. Fallen twigs and bark are usually gathered around homesteads. Fallen logs
that are too big to be carried home are chopped and split longitudinally. When dry
wood becomes scarce near homesteads or villages, the collection is restricted to
small twigs and tree stumps that are split down to ground level. During extreme
shortages these stumps are completely uprooted and carried home in dishes, baskets
or bags.
As a consequence of the population explosion and the resulting
competition for firewood, trees and forests near villages are often depleted of dry
wood, and there is a growing tendency to cut down living trees and keep them until
they are dry. The Department of Nature Conservation discourages the cutting down
of living trees and a fine of not less than RlO is charged for this offence. As a result
of this, living wood is gathered and left in the bush to dry before it is brought home.
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Some is brought home before it is dry and then hidden in dwelling huts and storage
structures. Living trees known to provide good wood when dry, are ring-barked and
left to die.
Firewood is needed for purposes such as cooking, light and warmth, firing of
clay pots and preparation of medicine. The choice of any particular plant species
for use as firewood depends on the type of fire reqiured. Plants that produce good
coals with little smoke and little white ash are used for warmth and cooking, e.g.
Combretum spp., Colophospermum mopane, Burkea africana, and most Acacia spp.
Light wood that gives short-lived fire is needed for temporary fires to cook beer and
firing clay pots. Some wood is collected to provide light when cereals are pounded
during the night, and for this purpose plants that produce good flames are chosen.
Plants with cracking fire are avoided when firing pots or when making fire for
warmth. Those that produce bad or strong smelling smoke are not used as sources
of firewood. For example, Androstachys johnsonii is extensively harvested for
building and fencing, but never used for firewood. Most Apocynaceae and some
Euphorbiaceae that have a milky latex are strictly avoided for use as firewood.
Some of these produce smoke that irritates the eyes and nose, and could be
harmful. Such plants are allowed into the homestead only for medicinal purposes,
and then in very small quantities.
The use of plants as sources of firewood by the Vhavenda has always been
influenced by traditional laws and taboos. Traditional laws prohibited the use of
important medicinal and magical plants as well those known to be good sources of
famine foods. For example, Boscia albitrunca, Sclerocarya bi"ea subsp. caffra,
Adansonia digitata, Ximenia spp., Pleurostylia capensis, Brackenridgea zanguebarica,
Milletia stuhlmanii, Osyris lanceolata, Acokanthera oppositifolia and M aerua
angolensis are not used for firewood mainly because they are either conserved or
tabooed by traditional laws. Some families are prohibited from using certain plants
as firewood by traditional practitioners who have doctored their homesteads
because such plants are important ingredients of phambas used for this purpose.
The use of Acokanthera oppositifolia is said to induce menorrhagia in all women of
child-bearing age and branches and twigs of the plant are therefore inserted into the
fences around homesteads and livestock enclosures to discourage women from using
the fences as firewood. Young people who are unable to understand the magical
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and medicinal values of plants, are told frightening stories to discourage them from
using prohibited plants as firewood.
Some plants are used extensively for fuel simply because they are readily
available and this may cause deviations from the normal trends. For instance, as the
vegetation becomes sparser around heavily populated villages, and firewood
becomes scarce, it is not unusual to find a person carrying a whole headload of wood
from Euphorbia tirucalli, Sarcostemma viminale or Ximenia caffra, plants which, as
far as could be ascertained, have never been used as firewood by the Vhavenda.
Two main fires are made every day by each family in summer.
afternoon fire is made for cooking the daily meals. This is usually extinguished after
use to save wood. It is the evening fire that is maintained with additional wood to
provide warmth. In addition, a variety of foods are cooked and roasted in the
evening when women and children are gathered around the fireplace in the
tshitanga (dwelling hut), listening to folktales and fables. Morning fires are common
in winter when it is cold. Men may also make big morning fires in winter, but this is
not common.
During extremely cold winter nights fires are kept going to keep the huts
warm while people are asleep. Winter is a favourite period for most of the initiation
rituals of the Vhavenda. During this period large quantities of wood are gathered
for fires at the murundu initiation school, domba and vhusha.
Despite the fact that a large proportion of the Venda population is engaged
in some form of employment and therefore spend much of their time elsewhere, the
condition of the vegetation around their residential areas continues to deteriorate at
an alarming rate. Much of this can be attributed to the population explosion.
Almost every year new stands are established around existing ones,
occupying areas initially reserved for agriculture, grazing, sustainable utilization of
natural resources, recreation and education, and general appreciation of nature.
Invasion of these essential sites usually takes place without any compensation or
alternatives to the people concerned. It is primarily as a result of this expansion of
the settlement areas that most people find themselves in great competition for
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material resources. Plants that provide good firewood are the first to disappear
from the periphery of villages, followed by those with edible fruit and medicinals.
Ultimately, complete denudation occurs when it becomes impossible to select and
utilize plants wisely.
In a study on the use of wood for fuel and building material in Gazankulu,
Liengme (1983) estimated an annual consumption of 5,4 tons per family.
Unfortunately no such figures are available for the rural areas of Venda, but unless
the present condition receives the serious attention of the authorities, this valuable
natural resource will become completely depleted.
The material culture of the Vhavenda includes a host of articles or artifacts made
from a variety of raw materials. The most common of these are household utensils,
musical instruments, tools for agricultural production, collection and transport,
weapons, and objects related to ancestor worship. Material obtained from plants
make up the greatest proportion and include grasses, sedges, reeds, fibres of
different types, wood and leaves. Animal products such as hides, bones and horns
are also used. From the non-living world the Vhavenda obtained clay and metals
such as iron ore, copper and gold.
The materials obtained from plants are
discussed in more detail below.
5.5.1 Fibres
Fibre has always been a raw material needed for the Vhavenda's manufacturing art.
Soft (bast), hard (structural) and surface fibres are used, depending on the articles
to be made. In most cases a combination of two or all of three types are used.
a) Soft or bast fibres
This is fibre grouped outside the xylem tissue of the stem, and normally
includes everything from the cork to the vascular cambium. Among the
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indigenous plants of Venda, the most important sources of this fibre are
Adansonia digitata, Tenninalia sericea, Acacia spp., Obetia tenax, Annona
senegalensis, Grewia spp.: Ficus spp., Passerina montana, Peddiea africana,
Sida cordifolia, Rauvolfia caffra and many others.
Fibre is gathered in
autumn when it is still fresh, but already matured. Removal usually involves
stripping of the bark from the woody part of young branches by pulling or
beating such a branch between any two hard objects so that the bark
separates from the wood in two longitudinal portions. The bark may then be
used without further processing for binding, or it could be rolled into coils
and stored for future use. For weaving, the outer part of the bark (including
the cork tissue) is stripped off, leaving the inner fibrous material which is
then beaten and soaked in water until pliable. When little fibre is needed,
as in the making of ox-whips, chewing is found to be more convenient for
softening if the plant is known to be non-poisonous.
This method is
commonly used by boys in the field. Water, dew and rain retting are other
methods used to soften fibres when large quantities are involved. It may
sometimes be necessary to scorch the poles or branches before removal of
fibre to facilitate the process. Burning the fibre has an additional advantage
of rendering it repulsive to wood-borers and termites so that it lasts longer.
Immersing the fibres for long periods in water or mud is said to soften them
as well as give the black colour necessary for making decorative patterns on
baskets, mats and hats. It is also believed to make them stronger and more
durable by removing excess sap or latex that is palatable to wood-borers.
Rolls of fibres reserved for future use are hung on roof poles all
around huts and storage structures.
When it becomes time to use them,
they are put into a large pot with water and boiled or simply soaked. Fibres
that are needed to be dyed are boiled or soaked with colouring-matter (barks
or leaves), depending on the colour required. Excessive use of any plant
Nowadays it is
that produces dye is normally influenced by availability.
common to find people obtaining dyes from synthetic plastics.
Fibres obtained and processed as described above are used for a
variety of purposes. Unprocessed ones are usually preferred for cordage and
binding of thatch, laths, headloads of wood, or thatch grasses. Softened
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fibres are normally used for making ox-whips, strings for weaving, sewing and
plating. Coloured ones are usually included in patterns on articles such as
baskets, mats and hats. Soft fibres are commonly referred to as nnzi.
b) Hard or structural fibres and leaves
Also known as leaf or stem fibres, hard fibres include what the Vhavenda
collectively call Khumbe (climbers), mula/a (leaves of palms) and maluwa
(stripped stems of Acacia ataxacantha).
Leaves and stems of
monocotyledons such as Sansevieria spp., various species of grasses, sedges
and reeds are also some of the hard fibres used by the Vhavenda.
Flexible branches of some trees, Hanas and creepers are used as
wattles in the construction of roofs, thatching, for binding and mostly as
foundations in braided articles. The bark is commonly removed and the
wood smoothed when beautiful and braided articles such as baskets, hats and
mats are woven. For articles such as winnowing baskets, lidded baskets and
deep baskets used for storage, trimmed slivers of wood are Tequired. These
are mostly obtained from flexible stems of Acacia ataxacantha. While the
flexible branches mentioned above are needed for making foundations in
basketry, palm leaves are considered more suitable for weaving and plaiting
of these articles. The rachis of palm leaves is also sometimes used as
foundations in weaving. Palm leaves, and most other leaves used as "fibres",
are popular for making beer strainers, mats and pouches of various sizes and
shapes. Towards the closing of initiation schools for boys, usually one week
before, senior members make costumes from palm leaves and various sedges,
and masquerade as mannqaganana, imaginary characters popular at these
traditional institutions and meant to amuse crowds of women and children.
Sedges are preferred for sleeping and sitting mats. In this case stems
or leaves of sedges are cut to one size before they are plaited together using
strings made from soft or surface fibres. Two close plaits are commonly
made on each side for strength, while single ones are placed in between,
usually 60--80 mm apart. The distance between any two plaits is measured
by the number, and as such the width, of fingers: four for the middle ones
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and two or one for those at the ends. Generally the length of the leaves or
stems determines the width, and not the length, of the mat. Leaves of
Cyperus Zatifolius are preferred for sleeping mats, while stems of C.
sexangularis are commonly preferred for sitting mats and decorations, usually
on a temporary basis. Such mats are also used for closing entrances to huts
(like doors) as well as for spreading damp mealie meal.
In places where reeds (Phragmites spp.) are available, after they are
harvested and spread out to dry, they are plaited on the butt-end by strings of
fibre to form mats used as underthatch on roofs of huts (makhenya, sing.
Zikhenya ). Reeds are also good for making temporary courtyard walls
(mipfunda) erected to secure privacy and to protect against strong winds and
dust. In this construction the reeds may be laid close together or in bundles,
either vertically or horizontally, although the wattles keeping them together
must be at right angles to their longitudinal axis. Courtyard walls of reeds
are commonly made for the decoration of homesteads in anticipation of
some special visit, gathering or celebration. Instead of wooden doors, reed
doors (masase, sing. sase) have been used without shame. Wattles for this
type of door are usually made of wooden sapplings or bundles of reeds. The
sase have also been used as stretchers for carrying sick or injured people.
When used for carrying corpses from the homestead to the grave site, it is left
over the grave for the deceased to close his hut wherever he has gone.
These "trap doors", as they are sometimes called, have also been found handy
for laying slaughtered animals on.
Reeds are cut into short strips (slivers) and woven together by strings
or fibres to form small mats which are wrapped around legs and hands to
support bone fractures (zwi£anga, sing. tshifanga ). Zwi!anga are also used for
the same purpose in domestic animals. Some artists prefer to cut reeds into
long strips which are smoothed and decorated with dyes for weaving garden
baskets, or used as foundations for other articles. Reeds are often used for
making flutes, fishing rods, beads and as medicinal pipes for blowing in
enemas. A firm, thick bamboo reed was probably used as a mukoro pipe for
brewing distilled spirits before the acquisition of metallic pipes.
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The use of the culms of grasses for art has remained restricted to
small and temporary amulets such as bangles, anklets and necklaces. The
culms of some grasses such as Sporobolus africanus are cut into thin strips,
plaited into strings and woven into mats and hats, with bundles of others as
Hard fibres are decorated in the same way as soft ones by immersing
or soaking them in boiling water with a source of dye, or by soaking them in
mud to obtain a black colour.
5.5.2 Wood as a source of art material
Among the Vhavenda, wood carving is primarily an occupation for males. They use
a variety of tools such as hatchets and axes for cutting, gouges (bent blades) for
hollowing out of larger objects, knives and chisels for finer finishing. Initially most
of these instruments were bought or obtained as gifts from iron smelters. Types of
wood used are varied, depending upon the articles to be made.
The most common articles made by the Vhavenda include household utensils
such as spoons, plates, stirrers, knives, bowls, dishes, mortars, pestles, headrests,
chairs, doors, troughs for cooling distilled spirits (mikungwa, sing. mukungwa),
musical instruments including drums of different sizes (Ngoma, thungwa and
murnmba ), drum beaters, whistles, flutes, resonated xylophones and hand pianos, as
well as stringed musical bows. Tools and weapons such as hoe handles, hafts of
axes, spear handles, hunting clubs, bows and arrows, yokes and their accessory parts
as well as wooden boats (zwikwekwete) are also made from wood of different types
and strengths.
As mentioned above, the article to be made determines the plant from which
the wood should be obtained. Certain species are preferred for certain purposes
because of their structural features. Qualities such as density, durability (i.e. ability
to withstand the attacks of organisms of decay and certain insects), grain and figure,
lustre, moisture content, porosity, rigidity (i.e. ability to withstand bending and
distortion), strength, toughness, texture, odour and taste (which depends on volatile
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compounds), cleavability and workability are considered when a choice is made. In
general, plants known to be edible are preferred for making articles likely to come
into contact with food. Some species are totally avoided owing to their association
with magic, while others are tabooed or traditionally conserved.
A permit is
required for cutting wood for art from a traditionally conserved plant, and this is
obtainable from a headman or chief, or, nowadays, from an office of the
Department of Nature Conservation.
Decoration of articles carved from wood includes a series of grooves and
ridges, especially on spoons, stirrers, mortars, pestles and many others. Branding
with a hot iron over surfaces, and sometimes on grooves and ridges, adds beauty to
most articles.
The use of gourds to make calabashes and vessels of various sizes for serving
and holding water, beer or other foods seems to have originated with the
agricultural practices of the Vhavenda. These are also variously decorated by the
burning of artistic patterns on the outside, especially around the openings.
The art of the Vhavenda was primarily appreciated for providing articles for
home use as well as for making offers to chiefs and other respected people. Some
articles played important roles as measuring instruments in the sale of cereals and
other crops and were also exchanged for other commodities. Their exchange,
particularly vessels, pots and baskets, depended upon the type of material required.
For cereals, the most popular method was to fill the article needed.
Some articles such as drums, yokes and lidded baskets could be worth a
sheep or two, sometimes even an ox or bride. There is a tendency nowadays to
make a variety of articles for sale to tourists and museums. J:?emand by tourists has
led to the appearance of transitional art materials as customers demand various
shapes related to their own cultures. There is a general regionalization of art as a
direct consequence of availability of raw materials. Demand for certain articles
most probably encourages the production of those articles whereas others appear to
be rarely made.
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Today there is little encouragement for the young generation to make
traditional artefacts. Cultivation of this art is restricted to the primary schools, and
even there, it is often not taught with care. The recent resurgence of appreciation
of traditional artefacts could boost the economic position of many citizens if they
are sufficiently encouraged and sponsored, providing them with an opportunity to
earn a living.
The Vhavenda use a variety of plants to erect structures in and around their
homesteads and fields. These include huts, storage structures, animal enclosures
and fences.
The use of any particular spec1es for such purposes depends upon a
multitude of social, cultural, religious and environmental factors.
The kind of
structure also largely determines the type of plant that should be used. For
example, certain plants are avoided as firewood because of magical beliefs
associated with them. Some of these plants are, however, planted around the
homestead with the belief that they would protect it against evil forces. Mimosa
pudica is used magically in connection with prevention of witchcraft, and its planting
is believed to serve the same purpose. Other plants are not used for construction
purposes simply because they are tabooed. It is an offense carrying a heavy fine to
fell traditionally conserved plants, especially without a permit from a headman or
other authority. People therefore avoid using such traditionally conserved plants as
famine food, medicines and religiously or magically valued plants. Poisonous plants
are strictly avoided for obvious reasons, although some of them may be planted
around the homestead as windbreaks.
The physical features of the plant, such as shape and thickness of branches,
usually influence its use for construction purposes. Plants with rough bark are
particularly preferred for building hut walls since the plastering mud clings easily to
it. For use as laths or wattles, plants with long, flexible and tough branches are
preferred. Climbers and creepers with reasonably thick stems are popular for this
purpose. Thorny plants are particularly good for fencing.
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Fibre is an important material in building and plants with good, strong,
durable and easily removable fibre are preferred for bulk collection. It is common
to find one plant being excessively used merely because it is readily available, and
not because of its good qualities.
Collection of structural materials normally starts in early spring when fields
have to be fenced, and continues through summer to early winter when building and
art materials are collected. Branches and thorny bush are collected during clearing
of fields and preparation for tilling and planting. These are used to strengthen or
renovate fences around fields and animal enclosures. Poles and laths are gathered
and cut to required sizes in the field where they are left in stacks exposed to periodic
soaking and drying caused by rain or dew and high summer temperatures
respectively. This exposure is understood to remove excess latex and sap palatable
to wood-borers and other decomposers. Superficial burning before use is reported
to have the same effect on durability. To restore pliability, laths are normally
soaked in water for long periods before use.
Fibres, thatch grass, sedges and reeds are gathered towards the end of
summer to early winter when they are mature. These are also gathered and spread
in fields and along river banks, or carried home to dry inside the homestead.
Fibres, stored in rolls until needed, are commonly soaked or boiled in a large pot to
make them soft and pliable shortly before use.
Construction of huts and storage structures generally starts in winter for a
number of reasons. Firstly, it is the period when all people have much more time
than during the agricultural season. Secondly, it is difficult to build during the wet
summer because of the drenching and destructive effects of rain on mud plastering.
Thirdly, the Vhavenda believe in the doctoring of all newly built structures. Some
magical plants may not be collected during the rainy season and may not be
available in their fresh form if building was to take place at this time. Traditional
practitioners who have to doctor these structures may be hard to find, or may be too
busy in their fields at the time to move around and collect medicines. It also leads
to insecurity and discomfort if the valuable and expensive medicines are applied to
the homestead or agricultural land, only to be washed away immediately by rain.
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Winter is therefore a convenient time for migrations to new settlements where
building activities can then take place undisturbed.
The following examples of structures built by the Vhavenda illustrate the
significance of plant materials:
5.6.1 The dwelling hut
The hut is constructed from wall poles, roof poles, laths and thatch. Fibres are used
to bind both laths and thatch grass to the larger poles.
a) Wall poles
Wall poles are of two different types. One comprises the main wall poles
that are cut to the size of the wall. The upper ends should preferably be
Y -shaped to support the roof. Poles with rough-textured bark are favoured
for this purpose in order to hold the mud plaster. The poles are anchored in
the soil, forming the round shape characteristic of Venda huts. Straight poles
are usually carefully chosen for this purpose. The Vhavenda call them
thokha. The other type is called thoredza and are used to fill the spaces
between larger poles.
They should also have a rough bark but do not
necessarily have to be straight or durable and may therefore be obtained
from any source.
Main and subordinate wall poles are wattled together by flexible and
tough branches obtained from various climbers. The wall is normally wattled
at two places, at the top and the bottom, but middle wattling may sometimes
be necessary for strength. Both soft and hard fibres are used for binding the
poles to their wattles. When the pole wall is finished, it is plastered with mud
and left to dry.
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b) Roof poles and laths
The roof of Venda huts is typically conical in shape. Two types of poles are
used in the construction of the roof. There are long and straight ones which
form the main frame, and shorter ones which fill the spaces between the
former. The long poles are bound together at the top of the roof, preferably
all to one carved stump called mutumeri. The poles are usually fastened to
the mutumeri
by several coils of hard fibres, preferably whole stems of
climbers known as khumbe. Both the main and subordinate poles are joined
together by laths, usually not more than six centimeters thick, to produce and
maintain the conical shape of the roof. Withes or laths are fastened to roof
poles and to one another by soft, thin, flexible hard fibres. Wattling
commonly takes place from the top of the roof to the bottom, and the spacing
depends on the size of the thatch grass to be used. The roof may be
constructed separately and then lifted onto the walls, or constructed directly
on top of them. Two pieces of wood are placed perpendicularly to one
another and fastened to opposite roof poles to provide additional support.
This is usually done anywhere near the roof top.
c) Thatch
Thatching commences with the laying down of the underthatch, usually of
mats made from reed or sedge, depending on which is readily available.
Two overlapping layers of mats are laid down over the roof, one at the
bottom, and the other towards the middle. The tips of the underthatch may
face opposite directions with the top one facing down, but usually they are all
Two methods of thatching are
laid down with the free ends upwards.
practiced by the Vhavenda.
In the first one, dominant in the western and drier parts of Vend a, all
grass tips face upwards and bundles of grass are successively bound to the
roof poles or wattles by thinner and flexible laths. These laths are placed
near the but-end of each thatch layer in such a way that each next layer
covers the previous line of laths from bottom to top, leaving only the top one
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visible. The laths are fastened to roof poles and withes by fibres. An attempt
is made to conceal the existence of layers of thatch grass on the roof, with the
best thatch leaving the roof smooth and beautiful.
The other method, practised in the eastern and sometimes also the
southern and northern regions of Venda, involves plaiting of the thatch grass
into mats. The mats are then laid on the roof from the bottom to the top,
and then from top to bottom with the but-end of these mats fastened to roof
poles and withes. The thatch is then bound on the outside by laths that
remain visible all over the roof. These are fastened to roof poles by soft or
leaf fibres. This is the easiest, fastest and cheapest method of thatching and
may take only one·day to complete. It is also the least beautiful and durable
of the two methods. Paradoxically it is practised by people living in areas
with abundant thatch grass.
In both types of thatch, a woven mat is laid around the top of the roof
leaving its frills facing downwards and, in the former method, covering the
last laths that bind the thatch. This mat is also bound to the roof by laths,
fastened by fibres.
For decoration, the hut occupied by the head fo the family, the one
known as thondwana, may be given pillars all around to create a structure
rather like a veranda. Inside this hut, poles are placed across the top of the
wall to form a platform on which a variety of articles may be placed. These
include clothes, baskets, tools and weapons such as clubs, battle axes,
assagais and drums of varying sizes that may also be related to the religious
worship of the family. Medicines for doctoring the homestead as well as
other articles that must be kept out of reach of children and outsiders may
also be stored on this platform. Other features that may be visible in this hut
are wooden racks plastered with mud for keeping food, wooden blocks for
sitting on as well as mats, headrests and blankets. All the other huts may be
furnished differently even though they are similarly built and thatched. They
usually lack pillars and may not be so neatly thatched. On one side inside
the cooking hut one usually finds a platform of poles placed on Y-shaped
wooden blocks that are anchored on the floor. Bags of cereal and other
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foods may be placed on this platform. Some kitchen implements are usually
hung on the walls.
It is not uncommon to find goats and sheep also
accommodated in the cooking huts. The cooking hut is usually the first to be
erected and is usually bigger than all the others, including the thondwana,
and it is therefore also called themamudi.
5.6.2 The pounding hut
This is the hut in which all grain is pounded. It is usually termed goha and may also
be used as a resting place. The pounding hut is built like the dwelling hut but may
sometimes lack proper mud-plastered walls. When there are no walls, the roof is
simply supported by thick poles. The pounding hut is rare in most homesteads as
pounding may also be done in the cooking huts.
5.6.3 Storage structures
Three types of storage structures are encountered among the Vhavenda. These are
zwi£a£ari, granaries (matjulu) and grain pits (zwisiku). All are used to keep cereals.
They only differ with regard to the form in which cereals are stored inside them and
their degrees of permanency.
a) tshitatari
.... ....
This is a temporary storage structure built of wattled wall poles like a
dwelling hut. Maize straws, reeds or saplings are mostly also used. No mud
plastering is needed for tshi£a£ari and no roof is made. The floor may be
raised by laying down poles on Y-shaped stumps of wood in such a way that it
is only supported by main wall poles that are anchored on the ground. Maize
and millet cobs are stored in this structure before they are thrashed. The
shape varies from round to irregular.
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b) Granary (dulu)
The granary is a semi-permanent storage structure for cereals. It is used to
store maize and millet which is regularly removed for use and could last for
two or more seasons.
A granary is often built like a dwelling hut, except that it is smaller. Wall
poles and roofing resemble that of a dwelling hut, but the wall may not be
plastered. Very often the floor is raised -- being maintained in a raised
position by horizontally placed poles which are supported on Y-shaped
stumps anchored on the ground on two opposite sides of the walls. Maize
straws and saplings are often used to fill the spaces between the larger
horizontal poles. A small entrance, placed high on the wall, is made to allow
removal of grain.
c) The grain pit (tshisiku)
One or more grain pits are built in the homestead, depending on the average
annual harvest. A grain pit may be made anywhere in the homestead, but
cattle kraals are commonly preferred. This is probably because the site can
easily be concealed by covering it with loose kraal manure. Hiding grain
stores was particularly important during the periods of the "flights"
(mishavho ), when enemies could take all livestock and food reserves.
The size of the pit depends on the amount of grain to be stored, and may be
large enough to take twenty bags of maize. It is reported that one chief
Mphaphuli once had a grain pit which could accommodate his whole band of
Tshikona dance (Wessmann 1908). Several pits may be made in the same
The walls of the grain pit are supported by large poles and saplings, and they
are often plastered. After all work inside the the pit has been completed and
the grains poured, the mouth of the pit is closed by horizontally placed poles
which are plastered before being covered by kraal manure. The grain pit is a
relatively permanent structure and may remain closed for many years.
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5.6.4 Livestock enclosures
The largest animal enclosure of the Vhavenda is a cattle kraal. This is normally
erected to the side, towards the main entrance of the homestead, usually with the
outer wall against that surrounding the homestead.
Large poles are placed vertically around the enclosure. These poles must
have side branches to support horizontally placed ones which may be fastened to
the vertical ones by means of fibres. Smaller poles, saplings and brushwood are
then placed against the larger ones to close the spaces. Thorny branches are
generally preferred to make the kraal impenetrable. The entrance into the kraal is
often closed by large poles placed horizontally and obliquely.
A small enclosure for calves is often built against the larger one. This is
usually made of smaller poles, saplings and brushwood.
Two or more cattle kraals may be built in the same homestead to allow for
rainy seasons, when the one commonly used becomes too muddy. A number of
thick poles are often anchored inside the kraal and used for fastening cattle when
they are milked or treated against ticks or other diseases.
The enclosures for sheep and goats are made of thin vertical poles and
saplings, usually wattled together to form a rounded or irregularly shaped structure.
Saplings, reeds, grass or both may be placed on top for shade.
5.6.5 Fencing
A large number of poles are required for the fence around homesteads and fields.
These are used in the same way as for the cattle kraal. Saplings and brushwood
are often used to make these fences impenetrable.
People in the eastern and northern parts of Venda have a habit of building
courtyard walls of wattled poles and saplings, commonly known as mipfunda.
Various plants are used for this purpose, including among others, Bridelia spp.,
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Dichrostachys cinerea, Annona senegalensis, Faurea galpinii, Combretum spp., Pappea
capensis, Terminalia sericea, Grewia spp., Rothmania capensis, Tabemaemontana
elegans and Bauhinia galpinii. It seems as if most of these plants are selected only
for their shape and not for durability. This is not surprising as these walls are
usually temporary structures which are periodically renewed.
In general the plants required for fencing posts and wall poles of
semi-permanent structures such as huts are Androstachys johnsonii, Parinari
curatellifolia, Combretum glomeruliflorum, C. imberbe, C. hereroense, C. apiculatum,
C. erythrophyllum, C. collinum, Terminalia sericea, Colophospermum mopane,
Syzygium spp., Cussonia spp., Afzelia
Tarchonanthus spp. and many others.
guanzensis and some of those species mentioned above are most preferred for roof
poles. Nowadays there is a tendency to use commercially available poles and
wattles, especially in areas where there is access to supplies from plantations.
The use of most of the species mentioned above has also been noted by
Liengme (1983) and Malan & Owen-Smith (1974) in their studies on the use of
wood by the Tsonga people of Gazankulu and the ethnobotany of Kaokoland
respectively. The method used by the Tsonga for constructing huts and storage
structures is not different from that used by the Vhavenda. This is not surprising as
these two groups are neighbours, and even lived together before ethnic separation.
Most plants known to the Vhavenda have Venda names. These vernacular names
were derived in a number of ways, some of which are mentioned below:
a) Names based on functional significance
Such names are usually related to the utlization of the plants by people
inhabiting some or all regions of Venda. The name may indicate the purpose
for which the plant is used, e.g. muvhambangoma (Albizia versicolor),
gumululo (Elephanto"hiza burkei), lukandululo ( Cissampelos torulosa ),
mujhata (Brachylaena discolor), mutibammela (Maesa laneeo lata), bopha
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(Adenia gummifera ), muluwa (Acacia ataxacantha) and mualigatsibi (Idigofera
arecta ), the taste or effect when used, e.g. mukuvhazwivhi( Cassine
transvaalensis) and gokodzalulimi, the name of the disease for which it is used
in medicine, e.g. vhulungwane (Equisetum ramosissmum) and mafa-vuka
(Myrothamnus flabelifolius ), or the method of medicinal or magical
application, e.g. mummelelwa (Pleurostylia capensis) and mutambapfunda
(Albizia versicolor). As a result of this method of naming, some plants with
similar uses have the same vernacular name.
For instance, the name
muhatu is used for baths Tabemaemontana elegans and Rauvolfia caffra,
for Mundulea sericea and Ormocarpum tricocarpum.
b) Names derived from morphological and anatomical features
Examples include, muelela and muhashaphande (spreading branches),
museri (in woven stands of wood), mudzwiri and muvundambado (very hard),
munnamutswu (black colour of roots), delele and mupupuma (leaf texture).
c) Names based on the morphological, utilitarian, behavioural or nutritional
relationship of the plant with others or with animals
Examples include Muangasese (leaves similar to those of Peltophomm
africanum, known as musese), tshitoni (flower head appears like the hair on
the body of a hedgehog) and mulanotshi (always swarmed by bees when in
d) Names based on the chemistry of the plant
Names are often derived from the presence of aromatic compounds in the
plant, e.g. munukhatshilongwe.
e) Names based on the response of the plant to environmental factors or
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Examples include mulambatshipalo (never loses all its leaves at the same
time), tshiteaduvha (follows the direction of sun rays) and munalu (it is shy,
for Mimosa pudica).
f) Names based on the habitat
Examples include muendanathavha (grows on mountain sides), mutumadi
(grows along river banks or in moist places) and musalamarubini (it remains
growing in abandoned settlements).
g) Names with an onomatopoeic derivation
Examples include muunga (sound made by wind against its bark),
muthethenyua (breaks crackingly when dry), murera-vhusiku (rustling sound
of leaves, especially during the night when blown by wind) and
mushushaphombwe (the rustling sound of leaves frightens adulterers during
the night).
The classification of plants by the Vhavenda is both utilitarian and natural.
Utilitarian systems tend to classify plants into food plants (e.g. vegetables or
potherbs, famine foods, beverage plants and fruit plants), medicinal plants (e.g.
medicines for venereal diseases, medicines related to pregnancy, treatments for
colds and fevers, medicines for children's diseases, magical mixtures and mixtures
for ritual purposes) and plants that are utilized for building purposes, firewood or
fibres, among other things.
In the natural system of the Vhavenda one can sometimes deduce some
relationship with the genus concept of modern classifications, since plants that are
closely related are mostly called by the same name -- the only distinction being the
addition of an adjective or adverb that explains the minor differences between any
two or more species. Generally such minor differences include stem and leaf size
or shape, colour of bark, size or colour of ripe fruit, robustness and thickness of
stem or root bark and habitat. For instance, species of Euclea are all known as
mutangule but a distinction is made between mutangule-thavha (growing on
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mountains and hills), mutangule-musekene (stem and leaves are thin), dangula (the
largest species with thick stem and broad leaves). Similarly, Tribulus zeyheri has
been given the name tseto whereas Tribulus terrestris is called tsetwana.
Names such as tshisesana (Elephantorrhiza elephantina) and muangasese
(Mimosa pudica) have been derived from musese (Peltophorum africanum) and
appears to have been based on the possession of compound leaves by all these
species. Names that differentiate species by describing their habitats are, among
others, damba, as compared to Damba-la-mulamboni
(the latter being described as
one that prefers to grow along river banks and valleys), mukundandouthavha for
Mundulea sericea (growing on hills and mountains) and mukundandou-wa-jhasi for
Ormocarpum trichocarpum (growing in the valleys), both of which are legumes and
also have the same medicinal use. Another example is nduhu (Arachis hypogea, the
peanut) and nquhushango (Crotalaria sp.); the name n1uhushango indicates that the
latter species is considered to be a wild peanut plant. In some cases two species
given the same vernacular name are distinguished from one another by treating one
of them as male and the other as female. For instance, Salacia rehmannii and
M aytenus tenuispina are both known as ntsatshilambe and used medicinally for the
same purpose, but the former is considered to be female because it has a thicker
and more robust root bark, than the latter which is treated as male.
Fruit-bearing is another feature that is used for classifying closely related
species as male and female. Even though these are vernacular names, the whole
system of naming and classifying plants (ethnosystematics ), by virtue of its practice
of giving a plant a name plus a description of its other features or habitat (similar to
the specific epithet), shows some similarity to the binomial (or older polynomial)
system that had long been used by earlier botanists such as Linnaeus. Some names
even reflect "phylogenetic" relationships, e.g. makhulu-wa-mu~tucJo (from makhulu =
grandparent + wa = of + mutuqo = the herb Sida cordifolia),
makhulu-wa-mu£angule (Vepris lanceolata) treated as a grandparent to mu1angule
(Euclea spp. ).
Indigenous plants are also classified according to habit in which case a
distinction is made between trees (miri) shrubs (zwitaka ), grasses (hatsi) and vines
(khumbe ). There is no Venda term that relates to herbs. The distinction between
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plants of different habit is achieved by putting the names in different noun classes,
such as mu- (mi-) for trees, tshi- (zwi-) for shrubs, lu- (vhu-) for grasses and n- (dzi-)
or lu-(vhu-) for vines. There is no prefix for the names of herbs, and these may fall
under any of the mentioned groups depending on their uses, for example, when used
as vegetables herbs take the prefix mu- for muroho.
The classification of vegetation types is very general and loose. A distinction
is made between ,.daka (forest), vuvhu (a field lying fallow and overgrown by a few
shrubs and abundant grass), bulu (a forest on sandy soil with isolated patches of
grass and undershrubs ), dzunga (dominated by sedges, reeds and grass, especially
Sporobolus spp., on clayey, salty soils with poor drainage), tshijhale (with dark,
clayey and salty soils usually dominated by prostrately growing grasses such as
Cynodon dactylon, and palms as well as a characteristic type of locust generally
known as nzie-tshajhale ), tshikhwa (with thorny shrubs and trees on dry and rocky
It should be emphasized, however, that the naming and classification of
plants as described above is usually of local significance. A plant known by a
specific vernacular name in one region may be called by a different name in
For instance, plants called murabva (Grewia flava ), murodololo or
muvunda1nbado (Papea capensis) and mulimakhoda (Canthium spp.) in Nzhelele,
are called muhwana, muborane or muthodoli and muokhwane respectively, in the
Nthabalala/Mpofu areas of Venda.
Albizia versicolor, which is known as
mutambapfunda in Nzhelele, is called muvhambangoma in areas of Sibasa.
Traditional practitioners also have a tendency to give plants names that are known
only between them, and reflect their uses or methods of medicinal preparation and
application. For instance, the plant commonly known as mupharatsheni (Grewia
occidenta/is) is known as mizwilaminzhi among traditional practitioners to indicate
the multitude of its medicinal uses. Similarly, the name mavhelematshena (white
cereal grains) and mukuvhazwivhi (cleanser of dirt) is used in the place of the
popular names of mu£angauma (Securinega virosa) and muluma~amana (Cassine
transvaalensis) respectively.
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5.8.1 Conservation methods
In Venda there is a traditional conservation system which is enforced by chiefs and
headmen. This system was primarily aimed at protection and preservation of those
plants that are important as sources of food or medicine, but certain species are
more strictly protected than others. Most of these are important sources of famine
food and beverage and have reputedly saved the nation during periods of drought
and food scarcity, e.g. Sclerocarya birrea subsp. caffra(marula), Parinari curatellifolia,
Adansonia digitata, Strychnos spp. and Boscia albitrunca.
The protection of the marula has been the most popular in most regions of
Venda, probably because of its significance as a source of food, beverage, medicine,
shade and also its wide range of distribution in Venda. It has, for a long time, been
an offence to fell a marula tree, and the maximum fine could be as much as an ox.
The chiefs delegate the powers to control the use of protected plants to their
headmen who, in turn, allocate the marula trees in their villages (a headman must
know all the marula trees in his village) to heads of homesteads to guard and use.
From these trees they obtain beer and medicine and the trees provide shade in and
around their homesteads and in their fields. As the wood of the marula is also used
for wood-carving, permission is needed from the relevant headman or chief, who
usually gives permission to use those plants that do not produce fruit (males). A
sound reason is needed to obtain permission to fell a tree for its wood. Acceptable
reasons, for example, would be to carve a drum for use at initiation schools such as
domba, vhusha, for religious ceremonies as well as for carving mortars. All marula
trees are doctored before the fruiting season in order to increase the crop. The
responsibility of headmen for the protection of marula trees has led to their
popularity as zwilindamifula (guardians of marula trees).
Important medicinal and magical plants are also protected, and permission
from the headman is required, especially when medicines have to be collected in an
area under another headman's jurisdiction. Such plants include Milletia stuhlmannii,
Salacia rehmannii and Brackenridgea zanguebarica. Some plants remain protected
because their use is tabooed. Such plants have been known as prohibited for a
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long time and people simply continue to avoid using them for construction and
firewood purposes. Among these are plants that are tabooed by the whole nation
because they are used to doctor the country to protect it against invasion by other
tribes and against natural disasters. Some plants are tabooed by some families for
the same reason with respect to their homesteads. Plants such as Celtis africana,
Acokanthera oppositifolia, Maerua angolensis, Ximenia spp., Bolusanthus speciosus
and Osyris lanceolata are generally tabooed.
Some plants escape use by humans because of their morphological and
biochemical properties. Such plants may remain untouched for long periods even if
they are not tabooed. These include thorny plants, plants with milky latex which
are considered poisonous, those that cause irritation of eyes or nose when burnt as
firewood, plants giving too much smoke when used as firewood, unpleasant smelling
plants (for wood-carving), those suspected to have magical powers, and some
important medicinal plants that people simply feel should be preserved. Species
reported to cause problems when used as firewood include Boscia albitrunca,
Sarcostemma viminale, Synadenium cupulare, Jatropa sp. (all cause eye irritation),
Androstachys johnsonii (too much bad-smelling smoke), Acacia spp., .Ziziphus
mucronata, some Combretum spp. (thorny and difficult to collect), Acokanthera
spp., Trichilia spp. (medicinal plants with undesirable effects when burnt).
The consevation of plants which used to be under the sole control of chiefs
and headmen has now largely been taken over by the Division of Nature
Conservation of the Department of Agriculture and Forestry in Venda. The policy
of this Division includes restrictions on the collection of live wood, indiscriminate
felling of trees, gathering of any live animals (including catching and trapping of
birds, game hunting and trapping, but excluding collection of insects). Provision
has been made for the issuing of a permit to collect firewood and hedges for fencing.
People in need of a constant supply of wood, such as for wood-carving or sale of
firewood, can obtain a licence from either a local tribal authority office or the
offices of the Division of Nature Conservation. At present there is no specific
regulations controlling the gathering of wild-growing vegetables, locusts or other
A paid permit can also be obtained for fishing in certain dams, e.g.
Nzhelele. No fishing is allowed in local rivers and irrigation dams.
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At present there is no provision for citizens of Venda to obtain a permit to
hunt and trap game as a source of food, for heroism or as a sport.
permission is, however, granted to trophy hunters, most of whom come from outside
Venda. Tribal authority policemen are the most conspicuous people enforcing the
nature conservation regulations in the rural areas. As a result of this they have
been given the name vha ha '}ama a i liwi, which means that they are hand in glove
with those people who forbid others to eat meat. There is currently no system to
expose the greater part of the rural population to appreciation of the aims of nature
conservation. They are merely informed, through their authority offices, of what
they should not do.
5 .8.2 Effects of plant utilization on the natural environment
No quantitative study of the effects of the interaction between the people and their
natural environment has been done, but evidence based on visual observation
indicates that there is an urgent need for such a study. These effects are more
conspicuous in the drier areas of the western regions of the country, especially in the
highly populated settlement areas of Nzhelele, Sinthumele and Kutama. Personal
experience and historical evidence indicates that there has been a rapid
deterioration of the vegetation in these areas.
The originally dense and floristically rich forests were first subjected to
deforestation through clearing for new settlements and agriculture when people
changed from their original settlement patterns to the new patterns of blocks of
stands, which were started during the late nineteen fifties and sixties. During this
period large trees were felled to obtain fencing posts, with only a few left for shade.
This created large open spaces which allowed, among other things, high surface
wind speeds and rapid drying of the soil surface.
As more people were brought to these settlement areas from neighbouring
white farms and other regions that were either declared white areas or development
sites, competition for firewood and other natural resources ensued, and continued to
This decreased land areas available for grazing, agriculture and general
gathering of natural materials. It is the gathering of firewood that appears to have
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contributed more to the present environmental degradation than any other factor.
In most villages there is a total removal of all woody material from the area, this
becoming more intensive closer to the villages. The areas around most villages are
not only devoid of dead trees, but all the fallen branches and brushwood have also
been removed from the soil surface. It is common to find people carrying dishes
and baskets to collect whatever small fragment of wood that may still be available
(called thasana) -- this includes bark and uprooted stumps of trees and shrubs that
would otherwise resprout if given the opportunity As Malan & Owen-Smith (1974)
also pointed out, this has an effect of exposing even the young seedlings and
perennial grasses to browsing animals, to such an extent that they fail to grow and
reach a stage where they can withstand browsing and trampling. This total removal
accelerates soil erosion as there is nothing left to hold the soil and debris during
rainy seasons, especially the during first rains after a dry period.
The resurgence of interest in traditional art, particularly wood-carving and
basketry, with the resultant establishment of small business industries for this
purpose, may threaten large trees and fibre plants such as palms. While there is a
great encouragement for growth and development in the field of art, there are
clearly insufficient measures aimed at controlling the harvest on a sustainable basis,
or improving the production of the raw materials needed. As these industries and
markets grow, there is certainly going to be increasing competition for the resources.
In fact, there are already complaints about the scarcity of palms needed for
basketry, as a result of the increasing demand for baskets, both in traditional and
transitional craft industries.
It appears that the gathering of food and medicine from the veld does not
have serious negative effects on the local vegetation. Gathering of vegetables is
usually restricted to the soft and tender leaves, and this practice, according to Malan
& Owen-Smith (1974), may stimulate development of new growth in the species
affected, with having beneficial consequences. Accidental or purposeful gathering
of seeds with vegetable leaves is responsible for the abundance of most vegetable
plants around homesteads and dumping sites. This obviously has an important
beneficial effect, not only in promoting seed dispersal, but also in widening the
distribution range of the species concerned. This also applies to the wild fruit
plants, the fruits of some of which are gathered far from the villages.
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Under normal conditions of habitation by a traditional Vhavenda society, the
collection of plant medicines is unlikely to upset the natural environment for a
number of reasons. Firstly, few people are engaged in medicinal practice and, in
most cases, only enough for immediate use is collected at a time. Secondly, the
traditional norms are such that only horizontally growing roots are taken, after
which the exposed parts of the plant have to be covered again. The fact that most
Vend a traditional practitioners believe that killing the plant from which the
medicine has been obtained, has negative effects on the use of the medicine, may
discourage them from harvesting all the roots of a plant. It is also for this reason
that most collectors prefer not to take their medicines from roots that display signs
of having previously been dug. Thirdly, various traditional practitioners generally
do not depend on the same plants for their medicines, even for treatment of similar
diseases, so that any particular species is only used by a few people at a time. As
mentioned before, the extraction of medicine from the bark involves removal of
portions of bark from opposite sides of the trunk. This usually affects the lower part
of the trunk which is within reach and, consequently, continued use of one or a few
trees may lead to complete girdling of the trunk, ultimately resulting in the death of
the tree. It is the sale of traditional medicines in newly established herbal shops as
well as competition resulting from growing rural populations that may demand
closer attention in the immediate future.
As a result of the disappearance of most predators, improved supply of
watering points and veterinary services, the numbers of livestock are likely to grow
considerably. This increase, coupled with the stabilization of territorial boundaries
which restrict nomadic movements, would intensify the impact of domestic animals
on natural vegetation.
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It is evident from the information recorded in this study that the Vhavenda
depended, and still depend, on indigenous plants for most of their material
requirements. Apart from the significance of indigenous plants as sources of food,
medicine, firewood and material for art and building, they are also considered
useful for shade, fencing, shelter against winds, as sources of oils, and dyes, and as
The dependence of the Vhavenda on their natural environment is typical of a
pre-industrial society where the relationship is governed by such cultural factors as
magical beliefs, superstition, myths, taboos, and religion. The ethnobotany of the
Vhavenda, is therefore intertwined with and hardly separable from their cultural
norms and values.
For the purpose of communication, plants are given names and classified into
groups. Most names are related to the functional significance of the respective
plants, while others are derived from morphology, anatomy, habitat relations,
presence of chemical substances, or responses to natural factors. Plants are
Occasionally named after the sounds they produce, especially those caused by
blowing wind and falling or fallen leaves. It would also appear that only those plants
with some cultural significance are given names.
A utilitarian system of
classification of plants is the most important in the ethnosystematics of the
Vhavenda, and plants are classified into groups of plants with related uses: food
plants, beverage plants, medicinals, sources of fibre, firewood, dyes, oils, building
materials, wood-carving and basketry. Within each of these groups, plants are
divided further into subgroups. For instance, the medicinal group comprises
purgatives, carminatives, those for adult diseases, children's diseases, pregnancy,
coughs and fevers, sexually transmitted diseases and magicals. Other features such
as morphology, anatomy or presumed evolutionary relationships are also used in
classification. Furthermore, plants are arbitrarily recognized as trees, shrubs,
climbers and grasses.
There is a broad classification of groups of plants into
vegetation types.
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A traditional system of conservation exists among the Vhavenda. A study of
this system indicates that it was primarily intended to protect the most important
plants such as food plants, medicinals, and shade plants against indiscriminate use as
firewood, art and building materials, and against other cultural practices. The
conservation of plants takes the form of restrictions by chiefs and their headmen,
taboos and other cultural prohibitions.
During the course of this research a number of other features of. the
ethnobotany of the Vhavenda were identified. One of the most important is that
the cultural significance of indigenous plants is largely localized. Certain species
that are considered to be indispensable in some areas of Vend a, are virtually unused
in other parts of the country. It is also common to find the same species being used
for totally different, and perhaps even unrelated, purposes. This regional
significance of plants also affects other aspects of the ethnobotany of the people,
including nomenclature, classification and conservation. For instance, it would be
culturally unsound to make an effort to give a name to, or conserve, a plant that is
not important in any way.
Another feature is that when subcultural groups move from one region to
another, they tend to find substitutes for plants that do not occur in their new area,
or for practices that are not popular or feasible under the changed circumstances.
This similarly applies to contacts with other cultural groups, introduction of new
regulations, environmental changes brought about by population explosions,
competition, droughts or over-abundance. According to Malan & Owen-Smith
(1974), "the exploitation of natural resources results in a process of reciprocity, or
dialogue, between cultures and environments", and according to Sahlins ( 1968),
"there is an interchange between culture and environment, perhaps continuous
dialectic interchange, if in adapting the culture transforms its landscape and so must
respond anew to changes that it had set in motion". In view of this, future studies
should not be confined to the recording of ethnobotanical information and the
effects of cultural views, but should also take cognisance of regional differences and
changes brought about by population changes, civilization in the form of
industrialization, religion, introduction of new systems of nomenclature and
conservation, medical development and resettlements, for example.
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Although still far from being complete, this information on the uses of plants
by the Vhavenda, is a good starting point for a multitude of scientific research
programmes aimed at improving and developing the positive aspects of their
ethnobotany, and removing the negative ones. Furthermore, there is great
uncertainty regarding the value and efficacy of most plants used as food and
medicines, while at the same time the African continent is rich in indigenous plants,
both in abundance of individuals and variety of species. It is an established fact that
most medicines used by the Vhavenda in particular, and by traditional medicinal
practitioners in general, have positive physiological effects. Some of them have
proved to be more effective than their equivalents in modem medicine and, in most
cases, are far cheaper to acquire. Also, most plants used by traditional practitioners
as food plants of medicinal value, or as medicines for serious diseases, can easily be
cultivated and, therefore, become available for experimentation.
Properly planned and well co-ordinated research projects may not only boost
the food and medical industries, but may also make provision for other material
needs, particularly firewood, among people who cannot afford alternative sources of
energy such as electricity, in a way that blends well with the cultural backgrounds,
aspirations, and associated changes among the various groups of people.
Lastly, it is recommended that future ethnobotanical studies should also
concentrate on obtaining the appropriate cultural interpretations of the relevant
people. For instance, there is evidence to suggest that concepts such as dambi,
nanga, pfuko, midzimu, duxwane,
and many others, are likely to have been
misinterpreted by previous researchers and missionaries who worked among the
Vhavenda, possibly as a result of difficulty in communication, ethnocentricity, or
both. These concepts were interpreted or translated, as magic, witch-doctor,
cancerous ulcer, gods, and zombi respectively. However, their original meanings do
not always convey the same message as their vernacular equivalents. It could well
be that the use of these terms was not intended specifically for the Venda concepts
as mentioned above, but for other African concepts considered to convey similar
meanings. Also, even if they were used for some Venda terms, it is doubtful
whether dialectical differences have been sufficiently considered. In view of this, it
is not be surprising that most African cultural practices have been, and continue to
be, dismissed as superstition by most research workers.
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