Making Fire LO25350

From: AM de Lange (
Date: 09/18/00

Replying to LO25305 --

Dear Organlearners,

Andrew "Campnona" < > writes:

>Dear Leo,
>You wrote asking,
>> how do the San people make fire?

Leo also writes:

>>Maybe the answer to this question is unknown within this
>>audience. Maybe, we think that this question is not important.

Andrew replies:

>The stick I see is about one metre in length about 4-5cms
>in width, like a schoolmasters cane;-( The "male" stick is
>twirled in a softer "female" piece of wood, around which is
>tinder for ignition. Powder is produced, it smoulders and then
>ignites with some 'gentle breezes'. As to which end of the
>human artifice the gentle gust doth blow we are left only to
>imagine. I personally suspect the more "polite" end since
>often fire is made in a family group and serious explosions
>could be dangerous if they are in happening in close proximity;-).
>Hope this helps. All information from Prof. P.V.Tobias

Greetings Andrew, Leo and fellow learners,

I feel bad because I did not want to reply to Leo's message without doing
some reading on the topic. I have a friend (Naas Ferreira) who is a
curator in a museum. He promised me to get hold on a very old booklet, yet
very informative, on the San and Fires. He searched for that booklet, but
it seems to have disappeared. I have once almost three decades ago also
studied documentations made by a certain couple Bleek, but I cannot
remember much more. It was to prepare for my own desert wanderings. I will
now have to write from memory to prevent this "cyber fire" from burning

The "stick" which I have seen them using, is often some 50cm in length and
some 2cm in diameter. It consists of a very hard wood like "sekel-bos"
(sickel-bush, Dichrostachys cinerea). The "female" in which it is twirled,
is about the size of a woman's foot. It consists of a very soft wood like
"pampoen-hout" pumpkin-wood, Commiphora pyracanthoides). They usually
would add fine grass as tinder around the hole in the "female" pivot.
Sometimes the male part is added like an arrow point to a long stick. In
this case the stick, although straight, would not have the right
properties for fire making.

To find a living specimen (there are about two dozen desert species) of a
Commiphora species is like finding a great work of art. The form of these
plants defies all description.

But there are also two other very important pieces needed. The one piece
is the "male" block which is used to press the stick downwards into the
"female". It consists of wood with much the same hardness as the stick.
The other piece is the famous bow of the San. It has the bent shape common
to bows. It also has a leather "riem" (throng). It is given one loop
around the stick. It is then rythmically pushed forward and pulled
backwards, almost like in sawing. This makes the stick twirling so fast
that with the applied pressure, a fire can be made in less than 10
minutes. Without the bow it can take up to an hour to produce a fire.

The leather throng has to be specially prepared, otherwise it will not
even last for 5 minutes with the vigourous "sawing" action. It is made
from the skin of the "kudu" (a huge antelope, perhaps bigger than a
moose). The "riem" is then carefully rubbed with bee wax so as to prevent
friction within the "riem" because of the twirling motion which it has to

They (and most people who knows this genus of trees) love to make a fire
from "Combretum" species (hardekool). The embers of a "hardekool" fire
will easily keep through the night until day break. The fire of a
"hardekool" gives off a strange "sour" aroma. Boil water in an open pot
for at least an hour to become rich in this aroma and them make coffee in
it. The taste (no milk or sugar) is a gift from heaven.

The San did not use fire mainly for cooking. They ate most of their edible
wild plants raw and meat of hunted animals as "rare done". They were for
this reason not barabaric as the first commentators centuries ago
supposed, but were actually preserving the water and nutritional content
of the food.

The San also did not use fire to keep them warm, except during "killing
frosts". They were very good at finding sheltered places and using skins
of big animals as blankets.

The San used fire mainly for cultural purposes, bringing binding
(commutation) to their communication and community life. They would gather
at dusk around a fire for "!Xhum" (khum). (Say "cum" which a
"tongue-against-palate" click before it. They used their bow attached to a
"kalbas" (hollowed wild gourd with a very hard outer husk) as their main
musical instrument. Their stories, singing and dancing were their way of
enacting the Learning Organisation !!! The five disiciplines could be
easily discerned at such a "!Xhum" (fire communion). They would tell with
powerful mimicking about hunting, history, family care, art and religion.

Some of the food of the San were the following: (the "!" indicates
a clicking sound of the tongue against the palate)
Grain -- "!twa" -- Stipagrostis unilumus (tall grass)
Nut -- "!gwi" -- Tylosema esculenta (geophyte, braaiboon)
Spinach -- "!xhi" -- Tetragonia decumbuns (succulent, done mesem)
Carrot -- "!usi" -- Talinum crispatum (geophyte, vlakvarkwortel)
Onion -- "!an" -- Cyperus fulgens (geophyte, bobbejaanuintjie)
Snack - "!ero" -- Ceropegia rendalli (geophyte, koeiriempie)
Water -- "!xham" -- Fockea edulis (geophyte, kambroo)

It is great joy trying to find these plants self, having merely a name and
"modern" botanical description of them. The "!xam", for example, can have
a massive caudex (tuber) under the ground, up to 10 kilogram. It will then
store close to 10 liter of almost pure water. The part above the ground
has one or two thin tendrils (1 mm thick) with long, thin leaves (1 mm
broad) attached to it, twining into a bush. One has to develop and
immense focussing power to spot such a feeble tendril in a bush.

They were also masters with herbs for medicinal purposes. For example,
shavings of "Raphionacme burkei" was used to wipe the body clean again.
(The San of the desert do not have the luxury of water.) Minute pieces of
"Dioscorea sylvatica" was used as a contraceptive (it contains diosgenin,
a hormone). Yes, modern pharmacy obtained its first oral contraceptives
from this plant. Larger amounts was used as a laxative and even larger
amounts for abortion. The tuber of "Hypoxis hermerocallidae" was used as
an uretic and to give relief from gout. The tuber of Kerostis nana" was
used as a stimulant for gluconeogenesis (releasing glucose from aminoacids
and would thus perhaps be good for persons with diabetes like me.) Dried
snuff made from "Aclepias fruticosa" was used against headaches. (It may
occur easily when thirsty and the body being dehydrated. It works for me
as good as aspirin or nurofen). Small pieces of the massive bulb "Boophane
disticha" was used as a powerful hallucinogen since larger amounts are
deadly poisonous. The fleshy leaves of "Bulbine frutecense" were used to
treat cuts and burns to prevent inflammation and accelerate healing. (I
have tested it personally and it works incredibly good, better than
anything on the market based on Western technology.) Crushed leaves of
"Agathosina betulina" (boegoe) were used as a perfume. The leaves of
"Pterodiscus ngamicus" were used as a soap. Part of their deadly arrow
poison came from the massive caudex (tuber) of "Adenium oleifolium"

Indicative of the latter plant's alkoloid poisons is the bitter taste
which it leaves on the hands after having handled the plant. It takes
several hours to dig out one caudex without hurting it. Then it takes
about four times of thorough washing of the hands with soap to remove all
bitter from the hands! I have a plant growing in a pot which I dug out 22
years ago. The plant is still in a perfect condition, unlike me ;-) I
pollinate its flowers year after year to get seed. The pollination is a
very delicate procedure, needing one strand of hair from a "kudu" or
"gemsbok" (Orynx).

The San thinks the world of an Orynx. You will do so too when you come
into close contact with this most majestic of all animals.

Most San communities (except the few which roam the Kalahari desert) are
now living in extreme poverty after having become "westernised". Many
reasons for this demise have been offered and some projects have been
launched to restore their dignity, all seemingly in vain. I personally
believe that one reason is more important than all the other together --
the loss of their Learning Organisation which functioned during "fire
communions" (!xhum).

Making a fire was not merely technology for utility or ritual purposes. It
was the signal for learning together all about life important to body and
mind for the individual and the community. Today they are told (not so
much in words) that making fire was the first and most primitive step of
humankind on the ladder of technology which they now have to climb. What
tripe can we not produce as "knowledge" from our own cultural viewpoint!
For "free bush persons" (San people) a bow and a fire are far more than
what a bow and a fire are to us. The bow and the fire are for them
manifestations of the very wholeness of life. (Are computers (EBIT) not
fast becoming the same manifestation for many "advanced technocrats" of

In this morning's edition of the Afrikaans newspaper Beeld there
is a discussion of a new book
. "Stories that float from afar -- Ancestral Folklore of the
. San of Southern Africa" by J D Lewis-Williams.
. David Phlip publ.ISBN 0 86466 462 0
The reviewer (Hennie Aucamp) seems to think the world of this
book. He mentions specifically that the compiler Lewis-Williams
warns against making a cult out of another culture because of
inferior understanding from the viewpoint of one's own culture.
I think that this is profound wisdom. I will have to study this book,
the sooner the better.

Leo and Andrew, thank you for sticking so much to this topic
of "making a fire" -- for keeping the "cyber fire" burning. I wonder
how much we can learn also from other cultures on something
seemingly as simple as "making fire".

With care and best wishes


At de Lange <> Snailmail: A M de Lange Gold Fields Computer Centre Faculty of Science - University of Pretoria Pretoria 0001 - Rep of South Africa

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