The Cactus Patch
THE NEWSLETTER OF THE BAKERSFIELD CACTUS & SUCCULENT SOCIETY
Volume 6       July 2003      Number 7

POISON
A Letter From Bruce
by Bruce Hargreaves

"We're still some of the worst drivers, especially young people. They buy the most expensive cars and drive at the highest speeds."
President Festus Mogae, Botswana Daily News, 28th May 2003

The 19th of May began with a parade to celebrate International Museums Day. We marched through town with flags of many nations, mostly African (non-African were France, Germany, Sweden, India and the U.S.A.). This was followed by speeches, music and dancing at the museum. Unfortunately, I had to leave all the celebrating for a meeting with experts regarding the restoration of the old coach house at the Botanic Garden. (Despite all the constant hiccups, its good to see the garden project pushing ahead.)

That evening we had a normal choir rehearsal. Unfortunately, on the way home we were hit by a Mercedes driver who ran a red light at high speed and took out the front of our VW Citi Golf. (It is totalled!) I guess we are fortunate that he took out the engine and not us! Polly has broken arm bones now put together with metal pins. She will get them taken out about the end of July. I was luckier -- I only dislocated my shoulder (for the fifth time).

Warning for anyone wishing to visit Botswana: red light running is only one of the poisonous bad driving habits

here. And its getting worse. On the positive side, we still have our Hyundai and it's automatic (unlike most cars here) so we are able to drive it one-handed.

I managed to get back to work on the 22nd, but Polly is still spending most of her time resting at home. On the 2nd of June we went to a book signing by Unity Dow, author and High Court Judge. Her newest book "Screaming of the Innocent" (Double Story, Cape Town, 2003)

centers on ritual murder and is very heavy reading. In addition to fiction, she has also written a surprisingly readable account of her legal battle to get Botswana citizenship for her children. (Prior to her successful battle, citizenship was automatically awarded only on the basis of the father's.)

That wore us out, but by the 8th we were recovered enough to see "The Quiet American", a film we recommend. It is based on a story by Graham Greene which covers the end of the French and the beginning of Americans in Vietnam. We went with Lilian Turton who, it turns out, actually met Graham Greene. Im jealous I consider him one of the best authors of the 20th Century. By the 9th we were brave enough to return to choir - just in time for the annual general meeting. Polly was elected vice-chairman i/c of the newsletter.

On 11th June I went to the hills between Lobatse and Kanye to check out plants that might be disturbed in power line construction. There are interesting species here because it is the highest plateau in the country. Near the Kanye end I recommended preserving a rocky outcrop which has caudiciform, Adenia glauca, as well as unusual trees. The day was exhausting, but my shoulder survived the dirt tracks.

Then on the 14th we went to a concert by four jazz bands which were honoring those killed in the South African raid into Botswana on 14th June 1985. (We were in Lesotho at the time but were well aware of the event: the 6-year old niece of one of the University of Lesotho technicians was killed. Also, Lesotho, along with all of South Africa's neighbors, had been similarly raided.) The first three bands had a friend of ours in each, so it was great to see them perform (and the music was terrific). They were still going at midnight, but we gave up and went home and collapsed.

We have had a mild winter so far and even a bit of unseasonable rain. Earlier, however, drought conditions still prevailed and there were reports of cattle dying from eating "mogau" (Dichapetalum cymosum), a leathery leafed plant with woody underground stems. Cattle usually avoid it, but it was about the only green thing left. We have watched cattle in Lesotho grazing in fields full of the poisonous wild yellow Iris, Homeria pallida. I was told, however, if naïve cattle are brought in they will eat the plants and die. How do animals learn?

This brings us to the book "Murder in Morija" (Tim Couzens, 2003, Random House, Johannesburg) which I promised last month. (The whodunits I mentioned will have to wait.) This is a most unusual book and I can't imagine who will buy it (even at the reasonable price of P194 or about $40). The book is a bit lengthy (474 pages of text) and does have a good number of historic photos (62 pages of them). It covers the history of Lesotho, Protestant missions from France and Switzerland, poisonous plants and a host of other topics. All of this stems from a novel "Love at the Mission" (R. Hernekin Baptist, 1938, Macmillan & Co., London). [Baptist was actually Ethel Howe, better known as Ethelreda Lewis, co-author of the Trader Horn books.]

As Couzens explains:"what story was the novel based on? The person who solved this particular mystery for me was David Ambrose of the National University of Lesotho. He did not know the novel, but immediately recognized its outlines as based on the life and death of Jacottet. David is the encyclopaedia of Lesotho. He knows everything about the country, he collects everything, he shares everything generously. He and his wife Sumitra Talukdar, an expert botanist, run a household the locals call 'The Hammerkops' after those birds that collect everything for their nests, from reeds to ribbons. The Ambroses are the scholarly equivalent." [Naturally, we are good friends of David and Sumitra.]

It turns out that Edouard Jacottet was murdered in 1920 by arsenic in the soup. The mystery as to who did it was never solved. He was head of Morija, the first mission in Lesotho [named after the Biblical Mount Moriah where Isaac was taken to be slain by Abraham]. This leads Couzens into the history of Lesotho and the fact that the missionaries were from France and Switzerland leads back to Europe. It is a very convoluted book.

Despite the fact that arsenic is known to have been the poison, Couzens delves deeply into poisonous plants including the use of Aloe ferox and others to induce abortion. Couzens acknowledges that much of this information came from Sumitra who in turn got it from "The Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern and Eastern Africa" (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk, 1962,Livingstone, Edinburgh). [What is not stated, of course, is that copies of this monumental tome disappeared from the University library long ago and David actually photocopied all 1457 pages from my copy when I left Lesotho in 1989.] Other interesting anecdotes involve the National Archives which were rotting in the University library basement and have, apparently, been recently moved and scrambled. This leaves David as a major resource.

There is a sketch map of the Jacottet house which shows a number of exotic plants, including a "yucca tree". Surprisingly there is no mention of Agave americana, which is now ubiquitous in Lesotho.

I won't reveal what Couzens thinks actually happened in1920, so if you want to know you'll have the painful job of wading through his book. Bon chance!

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