Maasailand In Black & White

desert date mulului tree 001

I do not think of Africa in black and white, and when we lived there during the 1990s it was still in the days of conventional photography, and only colour film was readily available. So I am rather intrigued by these monochrome edits from the old Africa photo file.

They were taken in August – in the cool, dry, gloomy season, and the time of the wildebeest migration. We had driven down to the Maasai Mara from Nairobi under lowering skies, taking our visitors, Chris and Les, on safari. The roads were dusty and the bush country parched and dreary looking for mile after mile.

Amongst other things, the first photo shows how empty the landscape can be of wildlife,  or indeed of people. In the distance is the Oloololo Escarpment which forms  the north west boundary of the Mara Triangle. The tented camp where we were staying was on the Mara River outside the park, and part of the Mara Conservancy, a reserve managed by the Maasai themselves.

The lone tree is a Desert Date (Balanites  aegyptiaca ), and is typical of the open savannah where its presence is highly valued by humans and grazing animals alike. It fruits under the driest conditions. The tree has also long provided traditional healers with remedies; like the baobab, Balanites is one of Africa’s tree pharmacies. The fruit’s outer flesh was used for treating skin diseases, and preparations of the root and bark were used to combat malaria.

The oil within the fruit in fact has a host of remarkable properties. It has long been known that it kills the freshwater snails that carry bilharzia and the water fleas that are vectors of guinea-worm disease  (Trees of Kenya  Tim Noad and Ann Birnie). It has also been studied more recently by Egyptian scientists who reported their findings in the the 2010 Journal of Ethnopharmacology.  Their laboratory tests revealed anticancer properties for certain human carcinoma cell lines, as well as demonstrating selected antimicrobial, anthelmintic, and antiviral activity.

An all round useful tree then.

The shape of the trees in the photos is also typical. The result of having their canopies nibbled by passing giraffes, although there are none in sight here – only wildebeest and Thomson’s gazelle.



Black & White Sunday: typical

Xanthophloea ~ Acacia, that is


Fever trees, Acacia xanthophloea, and waterbuck at Elmenteita, Kenya


For those of you who follow Frizztext’s alphabet prompts, the tail end is always a challenge. What the devil begins with ‘X’? So here, yet again, I am cheating a bit, but at the same time introducing you to a tree I fell in love with while we lived in Kenya. It is well worth getting to know. It has a velvety golden bark, and feathery foliage, and it smells of…I don’t know what it smells of…perhaps something warm and faintly spicy, and a bit like gorse.

It  acquired its English name ‘fever tree’ from early explorers who thought it actually caused malaria, rather than the mosquitos that infested the water sources near which it was often found growing. It is also known as the Naivasha Thorn because the shores of this Kenyan lake (still much occupied by the descendants of white settler families) are characteristically populated by these graceful trees.

Its botanical name comes from xanthos  meaning yellow, and phloios  meaning bark or skin. A golden skinned acacia: I think that sums it up. I read somewhere, too, that it is one of the few trees where photosynthesis takes place in the bark as well as in the leaves.

One New Year we had a hangi pit roast party in our front garden in Nairobi. This involved heating up rocks in a big hole in the lawn, and then wrapping food in banana leaves and burying it until it was cooked. It was a good party, and later we filled in the hole and planted a fever tree sapling. It grew wonderfully in the ashy soil. We called it the Party Tree. 

Looking back, it seems like a good name. The fever trees in these photos do look as if they might break into a  dance given half a chance; a waltz perhaps; something gently wafting anyway.


Nakuru National Park, Kenya. Giraffes like fever tree browse too. They steer their tongues around the thorns.


Traditionally, the timber is used for charcoal making, firewood and building poles. The foliage and the pods make good animal fodder. The trees can also be cultivated as a living fence, thus providing for many household needs all in one go. The roots are also nitrogen fixing, and the delicately scented pompom flowers are good bee forage. They are also elephants’ food of choice when they are not eating grass, although a Zambian zoologist once told me that they target fever trees for destruction because they are trying to stop them encroaching on their grassland reserves. In Australia, where it is an introduced species, the fever tree is regarded as a major and costly pest of pasture, so the elephants clearly have the measure of their tree.

In South Africa the tree is called Mukanya Kude by the Zulu people who revere it for its medicinal properties. They also use the bark to promote lucid dreaming and provide spiritual insight. Scientific analysis has shown that the tree’s parts comprise many active ingredients, and it is used throughout Africa to treat both physical and mental illness.  Paul Kabochi, the ethno-botanist whom I used to meet at Delamere Camp at Elmenteita, told me he had once successfully treated a local typhoid epidemic with decoctions of the bark.

Personally, I always find it heartening to remember that there is something bigger than Big Pharma – the still surviving natural world that harbours all manner of life-enhancing creation. We might also remember not to destroy it before we have learned of its many useful properties, or indeed learned to value other living things simply because they are there, and are in every sense magnificent.


Meeting elephants in a fever tree thicket at Lewa Downs, Kenya


copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

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