When Eating a Tree Becomes Normal
Sofia Chizi Mtunda and Hadija Jibebe embody the typical participant in a GWC supported farmers’ cooperative. Both are mid-thirties women with large families—Sofia has four children and Hadija has six. Both women have embraced GWC’s messages about the benefits of moringa trees for leaf consumption and oil production and have integrated both into their daily lives.
When we asked Sofia and Hadija about eating moringa leaves, they immediately replied with a rapid flow of praise for moringa, calling it medicine for high blood pressure and praising its benefits for increasing lactation in mothers (Sofia was in fact nursing during part of the discussion). They and their children eat moringa several times a week. When we asked how often they eat moringa, Sofia (the bolder of the two) replied, with a touch of confusion, “like any other vegetable,” as if we had just impudently asked if they are eating enough broccolis. They cook moringa leaves with tomato and carrot, just as they cook sukuma wiki, an indigenous leafy green vegetable much like spinach. As with sukuma wiki, they eat it with ugali and (if they have meat) meat stew. Sofia and Hadija also spoke of drying moringa leaves in the sun when there is excess, maybe every 2-3 months, to create leaf power. They add this powder to other cooked vegetables and sometimes to tea.
GWC provided their farmer’s cooperative with a seed press several months ago. Both women and the field officer for the area report that the cooperative uses the press about 3 times a month. Each time the press is used, they grind about 1 kg of seed to produce about 100ml of oil. This oil is split amongst a number of women at that time, so each takes only a very small amount, maybe 5-10ml. Sofia and Hadija use the oil for their bodies, and especially their faces, to keep their skin soft and healthy in the incredibly dry and dusty environment in the area (evidenced by deeply cracked skin on their heels and feet). This amount can last them for about a week, conservatively applied to their skin, but would not last even a day in cooking, so Sofia and Hadija are using it only for their skin right now. Both agree, however, that if more was available they would cook with it and even sell it. “People really want it. It’s possible to sell it.” Sofia told me.
Because the few moringa trees that Sofia and Hadija have planted in their homesteads are still young and relatively weak, the leaves and seed they use come from cooperative land. Cooperative leadership helps regulate consumption to maintain the health of the tree, and moringa trees are hardy. Because of this resilience, even excessive consumption of the leaves by people or animals is rarely fatal to the tree. The only solution for animal consumption is fencing, which they have done around some of the trees. Sofia and Hadija also reported that a type of worm or caterpillar sometimes eats moringa leaves. Fortunately, the group is able to use another tree we plant, the Neem tree to protect the leaves from insects. The women boil the Neem leaves, let the water sit overnight, and then sprinkle it on the trees. If the worms eat the leaves after this treatment, they will die, thus protecting the tree in a natural, sustainable way.
We have high hopes for what the future will hold for Bahakwenu, as they continue to plant new moringa trees and as the hundreds they have planted continue to mature and produce more and more leaves and seeds. We look forward to the next year or so as a time of business incubation which will lead to sufficient numbers of trees to support sustainable income generating activities for women like Sofia and Hadija from the sale of oil or leaf power.