Saving the Tree of Music
Pacific World, a New Zealand magazine
by Noeline Gannaway
A spiny member of the rosewood family is the focus of a joint action by Tanzanian botanist Sebastian Chuwa and Texas woodworker James Harris to secure its future. African Ebony, Blackwood, Dalbergia melanoxylon, or Mpingo as it is known in its native Tanzania, produces heartwood that is eminently suitable for tools, utensils, traditional carvings and musical instruments. Tanzanian woodcarvers of the Makonde tribe produce a wide range of objects for sale to tourists - from decorative combs to candlesticks and religious statues.
The density and fine texture of Mpingo wood make it ideal for woodwind instruments like clarinets, as it can hold the metal fittings and does not absorb water. It is also used for piano keys and the fretboards of guitars. International trade in musical instruments brings in $1.5 million annually to the local economy.
Besides being the premier wood in the world for ornamental turning, Mpingo is a vital element in the East African ecosystem, its roots supporting a specialised bacteria which increases soil fertility. But heavy commercial harvesting, encroaching desert and increasing population pressures with their associated set-fires and livestock grazing could lead to a scarcity of African Blackwood in several decades. Professional woodturner James Harris became aware of the threat to his prized medium through a 1992 BBC TV nature documentary, The Tree of Music (aired on US PBS television) from which he learned of efforts by Tanzanian botanist Sebastian Chuwa to replant the Mpingo into its natural habitat from seeds he had collected in his travels over East Afiica. Sebastian was paying local villagers to water and care for Mpingo seedlings planted in recycled cans until they were sturdy enough to be planted out in the wild.
Sebastian's words in the documentary mark him as a realist with a vision: "My 200 Mpingo seedlings are obviously not enough to make much difference compared with what is being lost. But next year I hope to have 20,000 seedlings to plant. It is vital for me to act now rather than wait until the future when things have reached a crisis." Impressed by the film, James set about tracing Sebastian, and eventually established contact. Letters were exchanged and plans developed for the long-term conservation and renewal of Mpingo. The African Blackwood Conservation Project (ABCP) was born. Contributions in response to 180 fund-raising letters sent out by James in June 1996 enabled the project to begin. A bank account was set up in Austin, Texas, to serve as a clearing house for donations in the USA, and a foreign exchange account was created for the ABCP at the National Bank of Commerce in Arusha, Tanzania, to convert US dollars into Tanzanian shillings for the project in Moshi, forty miles south of Mt. Kilimanjaro in northern Tanzania.
The first year however did not bring sufficient fimds to realise Sebastian's original wish-list which envisaged a one-acre donated plot, fenced, with a shelter built and irrigation installed. So a scaled-down version of the project began at Moshi before the beginning of the rainy season in February 1997. Basic tools were purchased and Sebastian began clearing a smaller fenced area donated by a friend of the project. He held a training session on Mpingo culture for interested people. An attendant, Mama Mariamu, was hired to tend the nursery.
A seedbed was prepared, mulched, then carefully watered and tended. By April the tiny seedlings were transplanted into pots. Over 500 seedlings were potted in this initial stage of the project. These plants need to be carefully protected from depredation by insects or animals, watered and fertilised until they are about 15 months old, and able to survive when transplanted into the wild. It is hoped eventually to replant every year the 20,000 Mpingos estimated to be harvested annually, "so that the song of the Tree of music will not go silent."
Noeline Gannaway has been writing for Pacific World for many years
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Last revised 21 April 2008.