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AIZEN (MUKHEIT)

The aizen or mukheit (Boscia senegalensis (Pers.) Lam. ex Poiret) occurs across the very area that in recent decades has faced more hunger than any other in the world—the vast swath of Sahel and Sahara savannas stretching from Mauritania, Senegal, and Mali all the way to southeastern Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya.

This highly stressed and unforgiving region provides some of the most daunting conditions ever faced by higher plant life. Yet this is the aizen’s territory. In extreme aridity it shrinks to a scrawny shrub less than 2 m tall, but in favorable environments it soars several times that height and becomes almost treelike with a rounded, spreading crown.

Having survived thousands of years of recurrent drought without horticultural help, this wild species holds the potential to make life more bearable under the desiccating conditions in which millions of Africa’s most destitute are increasingly forced to exist. For this, there are at least three reasons. First, aizen is adaptable, resilient and, of course, capable of handling extreme drought and heat. Second, it yields an array of useful products. And third, it provides year-round shade in areas where even slight relief from the sun seems merciful.

Aizens are not fruit crops in the normal sense. It is the combination of foods and useful qualities that makes them important. The species produces enough different products to sustain human life almost by itself. In at least a dozen countries, at times people virtually live off aizen fruits, aizen seeds, aizen roots, and aizen leaves. In eastern Sudan, for example, men and women sometimes spend 8 hours a day seeking aizens, carrying the branches and fruits home to ease their hunger or sell along the roadsides to other hungry people. For them, these plants are crucial to existence, allaying hunger and earning cash. Also, the foliage keeps their animals alive during the dry months when little remains to sustain a herbivore. And certain peoples use various parts of the plant for cooking food, controlling pests and parasites, and clarifying water to render it safer for drinking.

Although not unpleasant on the palate, the fruits are most notable for being on hand when little else edible remains. The foliage’s very unpalatability is key here: livestock and wildlife leave aizen alone for most of the year. Thus the human users have no worries that their trees will be



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