Here we are:
In South Africa, women transform a tart fruit into a famous sour brew.
Even if many have questioned myths about drunken elephants wobbling through piles of fermenting marula, it’s established that humans have found multiple ways to turn the South African fruit into a beverages, from the commercialized Amarula Cream Liqueur to the more local specialty known as marula beer.
The history of the Marula tree (Scelerocarya birrea) dated back thousands of years. Several archaeological evidence shows the marula tree was a source of nutrition as long as ago as 10,000 years B.C., and is most well known as the fruit that ‘drives elephants mad’!
The fruits of marula tree are collected by rural people as an important food item and are also collect to make a traditional fermented beverage named by the local communities “Marula Beer”, also known as “mokhope” or “ubuganu”, enjoyed by many. In South Africa, to turning these tart fruits into beer are in the major part women. The production of Marula Beer begins under the marula tree in owner’s fields and is a social event in which other women partake and provide their work in order to receive a share of the benefits. Local women often get together to brew marula beer like a community. Brewers collect ripe fruits from the ground underneath the Marula trees. The skins are removed with a butter knife, spoon or fork and the pulp, pips and juice are then placed in a large container. Then they mash the fruits with water and the container gets covered and left for 2-4 days. When it’s ready, the cloudy drink gets poured into jugs or plastic bottles and shared with family or sold on the road, and this become an income for lot of women in the region.
The result is a low-alcohol brew, with a slightly sour flavor so appreciated that there are lot of festivals to celebrate the drink and the marula fruit across South Africa. Some traditions require that, once the season’s fruits have been transformed into beer, a calabash filled with the brew should be presented to the community’s leader, who must be the first to drink the beverage. They sing special songs and praises known as “chembe.” Everyone is allowed to drink beer, and the festival gives people a sense of oneness and togetherness and belonging.
Throughout Southern Africa, the marula fruits from December to March is celebrated. The “great harvest” begins in February/March, which also marks planting season. The Tonga people call marula the “food of kings,” and celebrate the Feast of First Fruits by pouring offerings of fresh juice over the tombs of their dead leaders.
The Venda people, instead, look at the season as a time of festivity. Major part of the time is spent sitting under the shade of the trees, preparing the brew and doing much “quality control” tasting!
The northern Sotho people believe that the marula tree was given to the people by the spirits and is, therefore, sacred. Often, during the “First Fruits” ceremony, the ritual slaughter of a goat or black bull will take place, known in Zulu as umsebenzi. Under a selected marula tree, an offering of marula beer in a clay pot is made to the ancestors at a ceremony where the local traditional spirits, spirit mediums (izangoma) and traditionalists in the community are involved.
There are lot of beliefs developed around the marula tree: it is known also as the “marriage tree,” a symbol of fertility and used in a cleansing ritual before marriage. The tree is “dioecious”, meaning there are separate male and female trees, so, according to the local traditions, an infusion of the male or female trees’ bark help determine the sex of an unborn child. A woman seeking a baby boy will take in an infusion from the bark of the male tree, or if a girl, from the female tree. If the child is born of the opposite sex, it is said to be very special in being able to defy the spirits!