Teaching a new way of looking at nature

ROB KNOWLES

TAXONOMIST and ethno-botanist Tony Dold
discussed bio-cultural diversity as applied to the Xhosa people at the February
meeting of the Lower Albany Historical Society, held at the Don Powis Hall, Settlers Park recently.

BOTANY LESSON: Tony Dold (left) with Ian
Moore of the Lower Albany Historical Society after Dold’s talk on his work in
bio-cultural diversity, held at the Don Powis Hall in Settlers Park
recently Picture: ROB KNOWLES

“Bio-cultural diversity,” explained Dold,
“is the blending of biological and cultural factors governed by environmental
conditions. For example, the Xhosa culture holds certain plants to be sacred
and use them in their religious and other practices because they can be found
in the area.”

Dold, the curator of the Selmar Schonland
herbarium in Grahamstown introduced his new book, co-authored with his wife,
Michelle Cocks, entitled Voices from the
forest: Celebrating nature and culture in Xhosaland
. He explained some of
the more popular Xhosa cultural practices and how the younger urbanised
generation is losing touch with their culture.

“The Albany Thicket, prolific in this area,
from Grahamstown through Peddie to the Fish River, is almost the same size and
contains nearly the same biodiversity as the more famous fynbos,” Dold told the
more than 100 visitors and guests attending the meeting.

“The thicket also runs through this area as
well, and the culture of the Xhosa people made good us of the grasses and
plants and barks found here.”

He explained about Xhosa medicines and
specifically the King William’s Town market where over 200 different plant
species are traded.

“Unfortunately, some of the plants are over-traded
which results in many being thrown away at the end of each trading day. The
waste is a nightmare and totally unsustainable,” said Dold.

According to Dold, who has studied the
Xhosa cultural practices together with his wife, an ethno-anthropologist, for
over 10 years, wild olive (related to the European olive except that its fruit
is inedible), sneezewood and many other local plants are vitally important to
the Xhosa for everything from medicines, magic potions and cosmetics to food.

Some now endangered plants are being
exploited into extinction.

Speaking of his educational programme to
teach Xhosa children the importance of protecting their cultural heritage while
preserving the biodiversity of the area, Dold said that it was critical that
young people understand the importance of ecology.

“We take the children out into the forests for
an hour at a time. For 30 minutes we ask them to just sit and close their eyes
in order to take in the smells, sounds and tastes,” said Dold.

“It is amazing what comments we get, from
them being scared there might be a wild animal nearby to the new sounds they
hear. We even ask them to eat an apple with their eyes closed and they taste it
differently than when they are walking in a street in town.

“We want to teach people a new way of looking
after nature. The signs put up around nature conservation areas are effectively
useless to illiterate people. And conservation officers in their uniforms and
carrying guns are seen as the enemy.”

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