Looking Back, Moving Forward
The Buffalo Thorn or Ziziphus mucronata is a small- medium-sized tree found in southern Africa that has profound significance in various African cultures. The branches on the tree are peppered with thorns but, interestingly, the thorns come in a unique combination. They come in pairs, one pointing forward and the other hooking backwards and easily catch passers-by. The backward-pointing thorns can inflict a deep wound and are difficult to remove, with the result that the Afrikaans name for the tree is a Wag-’n-Bietjie (“wait a while”) because if the tree ensnares you it will take you some time to free yourself. The tree symbolises, in various cultures, that life is difficult and complicated. The backward-leaning thorn represents the place from which we come and the forward-leaning thorn represents the one to which we are going. The Zulu name for the tree is UmPhafa but it is also called umLahlankosi. The latter translates as “that which buries the chief”. The tree is used in burial rituals and is said to be able to carry the spirits of the dead from one place to another. If a person dies away from home, a ritual can be performed where a branch of the tree can be carried from the place where the person died to their homestead, bringing their spirit with them. A branch performing such a function would, or so the stories go, be given its own seat in a taxi (generally meaning an overcrowded mini-bus in South Africa), often with extra payment being demanded for the additional passenger. In the bushveld the presence of the tree indicates water; many believe it will protect you from lightning and evil spirits; and its leaves and berries have numerous healing properties. The tree is of the same genus as Ziziphus spina-christi Willd, the tree from central Africa that is said to have provided the thorns for Christ’s crown (Palmer & Pitman, 1972).