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Adrian Koopman Shares His Light-bulb Moments of Discovery at the Launch of Zulu Plant Names

What started out as a chapter for his book Zulu Names, published by the University of Natal Press (now UKZN Press) in 2002, soon became a project in and of itself and finally culminated in the publication of Zulu Plant Names earlier this year.

Zulu Plant NamesThese were the words of Adrian Koopman at the launch of Zulu Plant Names, which was held at his house in Lincoln Meade, Pietermaritzburg, earlier this year.

Koopman invited friends, academics and family to his home where many of the plants explored in the book can be found in his indigenous garden. To illustrate the complex relationship between plants, the Zulu language and Zulu culture, Koopman shared some of his “serendipitous moments” during the research of this book.

In Zulu Plant Names, Koopman not only teaches the reader how to identify plants but tells us more about Zulu plants and how they perceived or used in Zulu culture.

At the launch, the author first thanked all the people who helped him put the book together, and shared interesting anecdotes about his discovery of the clear links between plant, language and culture.

Read Koopman’s speech from the launch:

This book was originally meant to be a chapter in my earlier book Zulu Names which the University of Natal Press published in 2002. The reviewers, however, suggested at the time that the chapter was too long, and that I should think about expanding the chapter as a separate book. Well, 13 years have passed since then, and it has been a long haul between that earlier suggestion, and the launch of Zulu Plant Names today. In that long haul, many people have helped in both the writing and the publication of this book and it is important that I thank them publicly today.

Thanks to various people:

Ndela kaBhekifa – also known as Nelson Ntshangase – has been an absolute fount of indigenous knowledge about plants and how they are used and perceived in Zulu culture. Many were the hours, nearly 10 years ago now that we sat together and you shared you knowledge with me.

Hhayi-ke Wena kaBhekifa: Wangivumela ngitape inyosi engqondweni yakho, wangivumela ngilime ngikhe ngivune emasimini akho. Manje, namhlanje, inqolobane igcwele, ngenxa yosizo lwakho.

Mgazi, Somlomo, Biyela – Ngiyabonga kakhulu.

I thank Mkhipheni Ngwenya for his helpful suggestions on the first draft of my manuscript. Mtimande! Bambo lunye! Zingaba zimbili weza nonima! Mkhipheni and I share other things related to the interface between botany and the Zulu language. He and I together with Rosemary Williams were joint authors of Zulu Botanical Knowledge and were together with Noleen Turner, Elsa Pooley, Nelson Ntshangase and a number of others participants in the Zulu Botanical Knowledge Project. But there is something else which links Mkhipheni and I, and that is that both of us are named after plants: My adopted Zulu clan name is Khumalo, derived from the noun ikhumalo, the tree Cassinopsis ilicifolia or Lemon-Thorn, while Mkhipheni’s clan name [u]Ngwenya shares the same word root as ingwenya “crocodile” and umgwenya (Harpephyllum caffrum). You’ll find the link between the crocodile and the tree on page 235 of my book.

Noleen Turner also made useful comments on the first draft of the manuscripts, and has been the first to write a review – before the book has even been launched – which will be published in this year’s issue of the journal Natalia. Noleen has been inviting me over the last two years to join her Zulu bird names workshops (which I have done), and a book on bird names and birds in Zulu culture might well be my next project.

And then I must thank Elsa Pooley: Elsa has played a double role in this book on Zulu Plant Names: First, when I was researching and writing the book I relied enormously on her wonderful publications Trees of Natal and Wildflowers of KwaZulu-Natal. And then secondly I must thank her for her extremely useful suggestions when she read a draft of the manuscript.

I am glad to see Louis Gaigher here: He was much involved in the earlier review and consultation stage of the book. Thank you for that, Louis.

I owe a great debt to Angela Beaumont. She was responsible for going through the manuscript from the first page to the last, checking and correcting botanical errors (I am in no ways whatsoever a botanist!) and especially in checking whether scientific botanical names were still current. Much of my Zulu name material came from books published over 50 years ago, and in one case 110 years ago, and over this period of time botanists have made a lot of taxonomical changes, which means that the scientific names frequently change. We decided in the editing of the book to leave the earlier names in place, but mark them with an asterisk, so the later, current names could be looked up in a list of synonyms. You’ll see her annotated copy of the manuscript on the table inside.

But I must also thank Angela for the superb colour painting of the Snake Lily in the book, and her equally wonderful drawings thoughout. The black mamba merged into the umdlebe tree on page 196 is stunning. We were lucky to have such a gifted botanical artist to illustrate the book.

And then my thanks to the UKZN “team”: UKZN Publisher Debra Primo, Adele Branch, who has organised this launch here today, Christopher Merrett for his usual meticulous text-editing, Trish Comrie for typesetting, and Catherine Munro for proofreading. But particularly I must thank Sally Hines for managing the entire production process. Many were the long hours we worked together, Sally. I bet you are pleased to see it’s all over!

And then last but not least (as they say) I come to my wife Jewel: Jewel, thank you first for allowing this launch to be held here today. Many of us here will know how much work this entails, and Jewel didn’t hesitate to take it on. And then I must thank her for doing most of the General Index of the book, a task that required hours of the most boring kind of work. But mostly I must thank Jewel for a different type of contribution. I don’t know if this is true for all writers, but I find that when I am researching and writing (and I seem to be spending 100 percent of my time since I retired doing just that) that it is enormously rewarding, if not essential, to have someone to share exciting discoveries with – to have someone you can run to and say, “Hey! Look what I’ve just discovered!” Jewel has always played that role to perfection.

And now to a few remarks about writing the book and the book itself:

I have to say that researching and writing a book like this one can in no ways be considered work: It is rather a wonderful and intriguing voyage of discovery, marked at regular intervals by instances of pure serendipity.

I don’t want to spend the next two hours talking to you about the book, so let me rather give you just three serendipitous moments:

I mentioned earlier the connection between umgenya the tree and ingwenya the crocodile. I had been puzzling for years trying to see if there was a link between animal and tree, and then I came across a statement in Peoples Plants by Ben-Erik van Wyk and Nigel Gericke about how muti from the tree was used to cure warts and pimples. Bingo! Light-bulb moment! At once I saw how the crocodile and the tree could be linked. You’ll find the story on 235 of Zulu Plant Names, together with a drawing of a crocodile, a half-eaten mealie cob, and a pimply face.

And then I must mention my puzzlement when I first read in Pooley’s Wild Flowers that the Zulu name for Scadoxis puniceus or Snake Lily was idumbe kaNhloyile. I knew the word idumbe to be the singular of what Natal English calls “madoombies”, and I knew that unhloyile was one of a number of names for the Yellow-Billed Kite. It was only last year, at the beginning of August when I saw the Snake Lilies in this garden starting to poke their snouts above the soil, and at the same time heard the Yellow-Billed Kite calling above that my mind once again went ‘Bingo!’ – another moment of serendipity.

I was likewise puzzled when I read in Pooley that the Caterpillar Bean or Zornia capensis had the Zulu name umkhondo. I only knew the word umkhondo to mean the track or spoor of a person or animal. Here it was my old friend Doke and Vilakazi’s Zulu-English Dictionary that provided the link. They give three meanings for the word umkhondo, all linked to each other. The first meaning is the one I was familiar with: “track, trail or spoor of passing animals or persons”. The second meaning is “disease of new-born baby, entailing a sinking of the fontanelle, believed to be caused by the mother crossing the track of an ill-omened animal such as the eland”. And then the third meaning of umkhondo is “species of spreading weed, Zornia capensis, used by pregnant women, tied around the ankle as protection against the umkhondo disease”. Another light-bulb moment! Here we see the link between umkhondo as spoor and umkhondo as plant name. When I read this I learnt about three distinct Zulu cultural beliefs that I had never known before: One, that the eland is an unlucky animal; two, that the bad luck inherent in an animal can pass up through the feet and the body of a woman carrying a baby, and cause its fontanelle to sink; and three, that an anklet made from the plant Zornia capensis can prevent such bad luck passing into a person.

Here in this last example we see clearly the link between plant, language and culture; a single space where the distinct worlds of botany, linguistics and belief systems come together. Such linking is the major theme of this book on Zulu plant names and there are many, many more such examples. I hope you enjoy reading it.

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