top of page
  • Writer's pictureCulture Fund


Pathisa Nyathi, April 2018

Life springs from death. Was it not the death of a star, a supernova, that gave rise to all things in the cosmos, both living and nonliving? Dual opposites seem to underpin cosmic existence and reality. The living consume food, but invariably it is dead food. This is true whether food be from flora or fauna. At both the micro and macro levels, life is unthinkable in the absence of death, and yet we can only talk about death where initially there was life. The two concepts, it would seem, are intricately interwoven and interlinked. Their relationship is one of inverse proportion.

How possible is it to talk about the death of a lifeless object? Africans will say, a clay pot has died. A glass of water has died. A gourd cup has died (inkezo ifile, nkombe wafa). In common parlance these three objects are lifeless only if life is conceptualized in western scientific terms. In African scientific terms, all these objects have a life of their own. A stone dies because it has a life of its own. Every object has its own life. Living objects, as conceptualized in western terms, have hierarchies of life. This concept has been analyzed at Amagugu International Heritage Centre. Menstruating women did not excavate clay to make clay pots, nor did they mould pots and fire them. Whenever African science is not understood by some societies, it is quickly dismissed as supernatural mumbo jumbo.

To the uninitiated this was just African nonsense. The African knew menstrual blood was dead blood. That translated to the menstruating woman possessing within her, death which could negate life of an object she came into contact with or handled. In this case, her condition of death transferred to the clay pot. The death of a clay pot translated, in practical terms, to its cracking and disintegrating. An African would then say a clay pot has died. Only when we think in African terms can we begin to make sense out of what may seem nonsensical. The problem simply, is one of overdose of academic arrogance.

This article focuses on how grain is preserved during the winter months when crop production is not taking place. The grain should be protected from moisture. Nowadays before grain is stored in grain silos its moisture content must be determined to make sure it will not spoil. In the last article we did show how Africans ensured the required level of dryness was achieved before grain was stored.

Grain bins in cattle byres were prepared with a view to keeping out moisture. At the depth to which the grain pits were dug would be within the moisture belt. After the required depth was reached, the pear-shaped structure had some fire made in it. Intense heat led to the drying of moisture on the walls of grain bins. This was not all. Wet clay was applied to create some buffer between the interior of the grain bin and its walls. Finally, grass was placed at the base of the grain bin and also on its walls.

Movement of moisture through the soil relied on capillary attraction. Grass trapped some air which forestalled capillary movement of moisture. The air thus became a buffer between the grain and the moist walls. All these measures being taken were scientifically driven. It was applied science or technology at work. However, African practitioners could not explain the phenomena as I do, given my science background. Nature or science is understood differently by different communities or societies. Explanation and interpretation of same is in accordance with the community’s understanding or conceptualization of the said phenomenon. It is sheer arrogance of imperial magnitude for one society to claim its science is the king of sciences.

Ash was used to preserve grain. Once again, this was a case of applied science. The said applied science depended on the knowledge of anatomy of insects. This is anatomy which the naked eye cannot see. Insects have breathing holes on their abdomen. The tiny microscopic holes known as spiracles are invisible to the naked eye. Our grandmothers and mothers surely never saw these microscopic anatomical features. We cannot argue that they were guided by instinct. What was transmitted down the generations was knowledge of the cultural practices minus the underlying science.

Be that as it may, there must have been some time when both science and technology were simultaneously understood. Technology sometimes outlives the science that underpins it. We have argued along the same lines regarding some decorative symbols. What remains, and is being passed down the generations, is the aesthetics of symbols. Over the ages, underlying meaning has been lost in the thick mists of history. The challenge for the African is to transcend the clouding mists and get to the times of clarity when aesthetic components and their meanings or interpretations were jointly understood. Symbols communicated messages, in addition to being beautiful. Beauty communicates effortlessly, the African knew that.

Aesthetics and meanings were, once upon a time, married. This was the case too between science and technology. Both are pointers to the ancient times when Africans understood the environment; terrestrial, stellar and spiritual, better than they do today. Astronomy is one good example and one that is easy to appreciate. Our ancestors knew more astronomy than we do now. Movement of cosmic bodies underpinned and governed their cultural practices: as above, so below.

Ash, fine ash in particular, clogged breathing holes of insects. On the basis of that knowledge, ash was added into the storage facilities containing grain. This was the case with the grain bins in cattle byres among the Ndebele. It was true also with regard to the grass grain bins, izilulu. Once insects had their spiracles clogged, they died from asphyxia. Ash from poisonous trees was not used. Fine ash from the lead tree, umtswiri, was preferred on account of its fineness which made it effective in clogging an insect’s spiracles. Further, umtswiri is not a noxious tree. Of course measures were taken to remove the ash prior to processing the grain and subsequent consumption.

Let us now turn to grain preservation among the Bakalanga and Banyubi. Unlike Ndebele people, they constructed granaries within their homesteads. The bases of granaries had huge stone boulders on which rested thick wooden pillars which were partially burnt, ukufusa. The wooden pillars had their bark removed. Burning hardened the wood which made it difficult for white ants to consume. Insect wood borers also found it difficult to damage the wood. Stones kept wooden structure above ground level which kept the structure free from ground moisture and flowing rain water. Ash was deposited around the stones to ensure white ants and other insects were kept at bay.

Clay walls were then made with their bases on wooden pillars. Some people made walls from short treated wooden pillars. Clay was applied, ukubhada, on both sides of pillars that constituted the wooden framework. There were several compartments in which different kinds of grain were stored, e.g. sorghum, millet, dried melons (unkankalu/mpale). The making of unkankalu/mpale was in itself, a way of dealing with moisture as a food spoiler. At the end of the vertical walls euphorbia tree trunks were laid horizontally. The use of euphorbia, umhlonhlo, was meant to ward off insects as the plant is poisonous.

Ash was added into the various compartments together with grain. There were alternating layers of grain and ash. On top of the grain there was the last thick layer of ash. This done, ladies made a clay lid that was used to close the entrance to the compartment. A watery mixture of clay was then applied on the interface between the granary wall and the clay lid. Making this watery mixture was not something fortuitous. Rather, it was based on scientific knowledge. Watery mixture severed links between the interior of the compartment and the external world. The whole compartment was rendered airtight.

If there were any insects trapped inside the compartment they would, in the fullness of time, be starved of oxygen supply. They would ultimately suffocate and die. There was no chance of more air coming in as the structure was airtight. This was certainly not a result of instinct on the part of our mothers and grandmothers. Technology was divorced from its basis or underpinning. Science underlying cultural practices was lost over thousands of years. What endured to the present were technologies which pass down from generation to generation; passing for cultural practices with no scientific backing. Sadly, many people still think the African knew no science. Wrong!!!

62 views0 comments


bottom of page