Feast of First Fruits
Throughout Southern Africa, the ripening of 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 chiefs.
The Venda people look at the season as a time of festivity. Most time is spent sitting under the shade of the trees, preparing the brew and doing much "quality control" tasting.
In Swaziland, marula is called manganu, baganu, or emanganu, and is so popular that there is an Annual Marula Festival celebrated at the Royal Residence of the King at Ebuhieni in the Hhohho Region of Swaziland between February and March. Both the King and the Queen Mother are presented with marula beer from each household, in keeping with it being a 'fruit fit for kings.' Only afterwards can Swazis drink the beer.
Xikuha Marula Festival
Festivals are held in the marula fruits' honour throughout southern Africa, to celebrate the harvest from the fields in February. At the end of the marula harvesting season, women make marula beer, and gather at the chief's kraal, and sing, present the chief with a calabash full of marula beer. 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.
One person is responsible for guarding the calabash. Once this person tilts the calabash and the women see the calabash in a skew position, then they must go home. The left-over marula beer is called "hongwe" and is considered too strong for women. So the men carry on and celebrate the rest of the marula festival.
Ngelengele: Banishing the Worms
The women first notice that worms emerge from fully-ripened marula fruit on the ground. As they pick marula fruit from the ground to prepare for the Xikuha Marula Festival, the worms are a sign that the planting season is ready to begin. As they move from homestead to homestead celebrating marula, it is believed that the process chases away the worms from the fields. This is known as "ngelengele."
This legend is actually backed up with some scientific fact - as the fruit on the ground ripens, worms are attracted to the sugars of the fruit, and alerts the women to the threat of worms for their crops. They then use the marula fruits to spread around the areas, and the worms actually do disappear.
The Sacred Tree
The northern Sotho people believe that the marula tree was given to the people by the spirits and is, therefore, sacred. It has to be dealt with in the way of the ancestors. Often the marula tree will be the only one left standing in field once the field has been ploughed.
Often during the "First Fruits" ceremony, the ritual slaughter of a goat or black bull will take place, known in Zulu as umsebenzi. This takes place at a specifically selected marula tree, where 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.
The Marriage Tree
A whole range of beliefs is developed around the marula tree; it is known to the Zulu as the "marriage tree," for it is a symbol of fertility and is used in a cleansing ritual before marriage. As the tree is dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female trees, it is not by coincidence that the marula female tree is one of the most prolific fruit producing-trees in Africa.
Determining Babies' Sex
An infusion of the male or female trees' bark is believed to help determine the sex of an unborn child. Amongst the Venda, 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 then wished for, then he/she is said to be very special in being able to defy the spirits.
The marula stone is used as dice by Shangaan diviners, who cast their "bones" to foresee the future or help their clients with a variety of problems or maladies.
Local lore has it that by eating the marula fruit women are more likely to become pregnant. It is probably not a coincidence that when migrant men come home to their rural villages and their wives greet them with marula beer, that when they leave in January for work, that many of the women are pregnant!
The Elephant Tree
It is well known that the elephant loves the taste of marula fruit, and will go to all lengths to get the fruit during harvest season.
Tradition has it that Hare acted kindly towards Elephant during the year of drought, and was rewarded with a tusk. This he planted in his garden, which grew into a beautiful fruit-bearing tree. And so the elephant gave up his precious tusk, and the Hare was able to enjoy marula fruit in the time of famine. Forever after, the elephant seeks out its tusk and devours hundreds of kilograms of fruit during the marula season.
Preventing Bad Spirits
The Ndebele community in Zimbabwe use an infusion of roots and leaves to traditionally wash the body of a person to prevent malevolent spirits from possessing a member of the family. Even traditional healers have been known to fortify themselves by bathing their bodies in a decoction of marula bark before treating infectious diseases.
The King's Nut
The kernel of the marula, though small, is tasty and a rich source of protein in local communities. The Thonga call the nut the "food of kings." In the Kalahari, !Kung Bushmen used a mongongo or wild almond nut, which is outscored by the kernel of the marula nut. Analyses show the marula kernel has up to 3,100 kJ per 100gm, with a high protein and fat content - indeed, the king of foods.
The overripe fruit of Marula is used to brew a very tasty, potent alcoholic beverage known locally as "Mampoer" in South Africa. It is a local fire water that makes grown men weep. Mampoer was named after chief Mampuru of the ancient Sekukuniland, who favoured this drink.