“Why should we garden, when there are so many mongongo trees in the world?” ~ !Kung tribesman
You may come across the mongongo tree, mongongo nut or manketti tree (Schinziophyton rautanenii) and imagine your younger self resting or climbing up, up, up on its sturdy sky-bound branches. If not you, perhaps a leopard or a bird, or a tree-house maker.
This is the tree you see floating up and down the Zambezi in its different form – the hand-carved mokoro (traditional dug-out canoe) of local fishermen and villagers. Its nuts you may have learnt about on a visit with Edith in the Malambo Village while at Royal Chundu or perhaps you’ve tasted them in a dish…
A member of the family Euphorbiaceae, the tree also goes by a few other names, according to the book, “CRC World Dictionary of Medicinal and Poisonous Plants,” By Umberto Quattrocchi.
The mongongo tree has only one thing on its mind, though, only one event over which it has some say. And it’s not its plethora of names. It knows that one day it will be large enough to be cut down, hollowed out and used as a dug-out canoe. It is aware that fires and moody elephants could, at a moment’s notice, decide to end its existence. All that it can do is ensure that its seeds are spread far and wide, to entice the local wildlife, with a nutritious fruity layer, so that they will consume large amounts of its fruit.
The nut or seed within its fruit is not easy to access, helping to protect its “vital organ”.
Just as the ‘world’s most expensive coffee’ includes on its journey a trip through the digestive system of the Asian palm civet, a cat-like animal that has the indignity of having its ‘poop’ sifted for its magical seeds, so the mongongo fruit employs a similar strategy… Once wild animals enjoy the fruity exterior, the ‘cleaned’ nuts that reside within the fruit can be found in the dung of African elephants, or regurgitated by the greater Kudu, Tragelaphus strepsiceros.
These piles of nuts are too tough for even an elephant to crack, the seeds within are safe and the mongongo tree thereby succeeds – having paid for the transport of its seeds and fertilisation of its potential offspring with a healthy meal. It’s a win-win outcome that prospered for thousands of years until somebody picked up a rock and broke open those nuts.
Hundreds, even thousands, of mongongo nuts, recently defecated or regurgitated or just lying ankle-deep around their mother-tree were far too tempting a meal to ignore. Fortunately for mankind, we possessed both the mental and physical prowess required to fashion the necessary tools to access the inaccessible.
Mongongo nuts require a severe pounding to break through their defences. First the extremely uncooperative shell is broken to liberate the seeds which, in turn, are either eaten raw or roasted, crushed to form a nut-flour or porridge, or boiled to release the highly nutritious oil.
The oil, with its high Vitamin E and zinc content, has also served as skin protection from the harsh African sun for thousands of years and is becoming popular around the world in moisturisers, cosmetics and skin preparations.
Of course, it is as a healthy and nutritious natural food that the Mongongo fruit really comes into its own. Say in our new Zambezi Tasting Menu with our Mixed Zambian Seed Sprout: with mabele, mbwila, finger millet and mongongo nuts.