Sacred and Cursed Tree


Flame tree with a crested crane; photo by Ash Dumford

Flame tree with a crested crane; photo by Ash Dumford

The tree called ekiko in Rukiga is usually known as flame tree but also red-hot poker tree or lucky bean tree in English. Its Latin name is Erythrina abyssinica. This tree is indigenous to the Gorilla Highlands and found in various other parts of the world, up to 2,000m above sea level. It grows to 6-12m, with thick branches coming out of a short trunk.

If a dracaena is not available, a flame tree can be utilised for demarcating boundaries. It is also good for making beehives, beer brewing vessels and improvised stamps (used at rural schools or local councils). Nevertheless it is perceived as a relatively useless tree, so it is a cheap option for firewood.

The strikingly red flowers from a flame tree were appreciated as decoration inside ancient people’s huts. But the thorns on its branches and trunk were as remarkable: there is a proverb saying that “the one who wants to shed blood climbs a flame tree”, meaning that one can always create problems to him/herself. Warring clans would even use thorny stems as weapons.

Flame tree from below; photo by Marcus Westberg

Flame tree from below; photo by Marcus Westberg

TRADITIONAL MEDICINE

– skin rash: you crush its red flowers with leaves, then squeeze it out and rub the juice and crushed leaves all over your body
– liver disease: you crush the leaves or the stem and dry them, pound till it looks like powder and mix it into food and drinks; 3 times a day, for 1-3 months
– gonorrhoea: you roast the bark until it turns black, crush and pound it to powder; apply it on the burns and swelling parts of the body, tie with a piece of cloth and squeeze it on the swelling
– malaria: you crush the leaves, add cold water, sieve it and drink it after meals, 3 times a day; you peel the roots, cut them into small pieces, dry them, pound them to powder, add cold water and drink it after meals, 3 times a day
– animal eyes treatment: melt the flower with fire and squeeze its juice into the animal eye; do not do the same with human eyes as it may cause harm

Flame tree flower; photo by Bostjan Sivka

Flame tree flower; photo by Bostjan Sivka

CULTURAL BELIEFS

Sacred tree: If you want your own Nyabingi, pray under a flame tree. Its wood is used for roasting meat when you give sacrifice to ancestors.

Cursed tree: Hunters used to bury their dogs under flame trees or tie a dead dog to the trunk and leave it. They believed you could not be successful at hunting in an area with many flame trees.

Protection from birds of misfortune: Flame trees were planted to discourage, due to their thorns, nesting of birds like owls which bring bad luck to the family.

Protection from lightening: The tree catches lightening that would otherwise destroy a house or other properties.

Twin baby delivery: Newborn twins were taken to a flame tree and their bodies were smeared using the leaves and flowers mixed with cow ghee. This was done to avoid disease.

text: Owen Bright

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