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  • Yara Zgheib

On a Wild Shrub

The spotlight this month is on Muna Ismail, intrepid food scientist who may have found a way to end famine in Somaliland. Read more about her here, or on Womanscape.

Photo from Yeheb.org

She walks along the Haud plateau in arid, brown Somaliland. To the South and West it stretches into Ethiopia; it was not always this dry. When she was a child she would visit her grandmother – awoowe in Somali – in Hargeisa, and back then the plains were green and thick with Yeheb plant.

A wild shrub, not unlike her, that once grew independent and free. It had an elegant Latin name, cordeauxia edulis, many stems and long and deep roots. Those tapped into subterranean water and made Yeheb resilient to droughts. The plant could grow almost anywhere and bear a seed the children would eat.

Muna remembers it tasted like chestnut. They ate it raw, roasted, boiled. Sometimes her mother’s magic skills in the kitchen even turned it into sweet liqueur. In this land where food was scarce, rain uncertain, and nomads aplenty, the seed provided energy, nutrition, and tea from the tannins in the leaves.

She would pick and eat the seeds on hot summer days, playing. Now no shrubs grow on her way. There is no rain either, or food; Somalia is on the brink of famine. Muna Ismail looks at a landscape from which Yeheb has almost disappeared. A thought: what if it were domesticated? Then everyone could have enough to eat.

Food security means not having to worry about your next meal. Restoring the plant would restore the land and restore her people’s lives. But no scholar has studied the plant since the British High Commissioner in 1907, and no one has tried or managed to domesticate it since before the civil war.

Today the war is over and the English are long gone. So is the little girl Muna had once been and her grandmother’s farm. She now lives in England and has a PhD and a strong interest in natural product chemistry. At a crossroads,

two roads diverged in a wood, and I…

In 2005 she leads the first exploratory mission to Somaliland.

There is no manual for domesticating a wild, endangered African plant, so she decides to write one herself: the Yeheb Project has commenced.

The goal: restore food security through sustainable production of Yeheb. Additional benefits: increased biodiversity, a stimulated economy, an adaptive strategy to combat climate change.

Research is slow and funding is fickle, and unexpected hurdles arise; roaming, hungry animals eat the seedlings at the trial sites. Thirsty farmers drink their water instead. The climate is harsh and corruption is rampant; life is easier back in the UK, but she has made a choice.

'The believer is not the one who eats his fill when the neighbour beside him is hungry.'

- Sunan al-Kubrā, Hadith

Global change is personal. If this project succeeds, Muna Ismail will bring food and a livelihood to the chronically hungry and poor. In Somalia and perhaps beyond, in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, around the Horn of Africa. By cultivating a plant that bears seeds she used to eat on her way to awoowe’s home, in the summer, in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

#science #economics