Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1262, (10 - 16 September 2015)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1262, (10 - 16 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Water hyacinth try-out

Artist Hemat Salah works with local peasant women to make products from the pulp and fibre of water hyacinths near the ancient necropolis of Dahshour. She spoke with Gamal Nkrumah

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Eichhornia crassipes is the scientific name for the much-maligned species of free-floating perennial hydrophyte that is regarded in many countries as a dubious and invasive Pandora’s Box.

It is better known as the water hyacinth, an aquatic plant native to the Amazon Basin in South America. From the impenetrable jungles of the Amazon it has spread like wildfire throughout the tropical and subtropical worlds. And Egypt is no exception.

It is easy to forget how much the water hyacinth has been an integral part of the cultural life of rural Egypt for the past three centuries. The French introduced the Amazonian plant to Egypt, and it swiftly became part and parcel of the Egyptian peasant’s way of life.

French botanist Alire Raffeneau-Delile pioneered the cultivation of water hyacinths in Egypt under the auspices of Napoleon Bonaparte, as early as the late 1790s, when France conquered Mamluke Egypt between 1798 and 1801.

Later, as rural people moved into the shantytowns surrounding Cairo and Alexandria and some of the provincial cities, they brought with them craft-making skills that used the by-products of the water hyacinth. As the plant clogged the River Nile, so the workshops went up too.

The pertinacious plant was perfectly evolved to suit the enterprising Egyptian peasant. Water hyacinths spread primarily by way of runners, and are among the world’s fastest-growing plants. In Nile Basin nations, water hyacinths can diminish fish reservoirs and choke large swathes of the Nile’s lakes and waterways, becoming an ecological plague and destroying natural habitat and plant species native to the Nile.

Fishermen who live on the water’s edge are irritated because the water hyacinths often kill their catch. The fish are trapped in the floating water hyacinths, but when regularly harvested, the hyacinths prove a most versatile crop.

It is sometimes said that Egypt’s cultural heritage in dealing with the water hyacinth is being systematically eroded and that it is a dying art. Not so, according to Hemat Salah, head of the Egypt-based NGO Turathiyat, or cultural heritage, who is now focusing on reviving the venerable tradition of working with the mildly poisonous plant.

The pulp and fibre of the water hyacinth is used to produce a wide variety of handicrafts, and Salah intends to exploit the plant to the full in order to provide an income-generating project for local women.

Salah first drew inspiration from classic hand-woven water-hyacinth storage baskets made in South and Southeast Asia, as well as from simple, albeit solid and tough, African, Indian and Southeast Asian furniture, footware and household utensils.

She uses water hyacinths to make exquisite decorative baskets and furniture. “I am preparing to take orders starting in October, and I am exploring certain marketing techniques to sell the products, both in Egypt and abroad,” Salah says.

Southeast Asian nations, and in particular Vietnam and Indonesia, are perhaps best known for producing the most elegant, even ethereal, water-hyacinth products. In many Nile Basin nations, too, water hyacinths are used to make furniture, footwear, handbags, baskets, cordage and rope. Bins and trays can also be made from water hyacinths woven over metal frames.

“Most important is the fact that my project provides jobs for women. They find it very rewarding. They often come up with novel ideas that startle me. However, I invariably provide the basic designs. Then they improvise. In the near future I am looking at working with banana leaves and products as well,” Salah told the Weekly.

The banana, an herbaceous flowering plant, has long been a source of the fibre used to manufacture high-quality textiles in countries such as Japan and in Southeast Asia, yielding exquisite yarns. The leaves and shoots are cut from the plant periodically to ensure softness. The outermost fibres of the banana shoots are the coarsest and are used for specific household items such as tablecloths.

But for the moment, Salah wants to develop the water hyacinth business first, perhaps combining it with the use of the wood of trees native to Egypt such as the date palm and acacia.

“Nobody in Egypt does this on a commercial scale as I and my women do,” she says, even though the plants are also extensively cultivated for waste-water treatment in Nile Basin nations and other parts of the world such as South and Southeast Asia.

Salah currently specialises in furniture, footwear and household utensils. “Perhaps in the future, I will look into cultivating water hyacinth for waste-water treatment as well,” she muses.

The uses of water hyacinths are legion. “Glory is like a circle in the water, which never ceaseth to enlarge itself till by broad spreading it disperses to naught,” mused William Shakespeare in his play Henry VI Part One. And the same can be said of the water hyacinth, except that many are struggling hard to make sure that the precious plant does not “disperse into naught.”

Salah is one of these tireless conservationists. “The difference between me and others with the same purpose is that with the women I try to be original and artistically authentic in a distinctive Egyptian fashion,” she explains.

Water hyacinths, Salah notes, often penetrate bodies of water that have been impacted by human activities. It is an excellent source of biomass in itself and can be converted to ethanol. “The uses of the plant are infinite,” Salah insists.

Farmers collect and pile up water hyacinths to dry at the onset of the dry season, and they then use the dry water hyacinths as fuel. They also use the ashes of the dried plants as fertilisers. “Just imagine how many uses there are for the small and commercial farmers alike,” Salah says, adding that she has approached Egypt’s Ministry of Irrigation with ideas. “Quality control is a prerequisite for any successful venture, though.”

Even though water hyacinths are considered by many people to be inedible, partly because they can be poisonous, they are eaten as a carotene-rich vegetable in Taiwan and certain parts of Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, the Javanese consume the inflorescence of water hyacinths for medicinal purposes, and in other parts of the world they are drunk as herbal tea. Water hyacinths are likewise used as fodder for domestic animals. In Egypt, cattle and buffaloes eat the plant’s stalks and flowers.

On the down side, Salah’s novel venture could be in danger of becoming formulaic, something she abhors. She is an artist who thrives on creativity. For the time-being, Salah’s workshops are centred in Dahshour to the southwest of Cairo in the Giza governorate. She works in the shadow of the Pharaoh Senofru’s Red Pyramid.

Dahshour has several ancient Egyptian pyramids, including some of the earliest constructed in the country, built between 2613 to 2589 BCE. The spirit of Senofru (2613-2589 BCE) hovers over the lush countryside, and the picturesque rural scene could be from time immemorial, except that there were no water hyacinths in the days of the pharaohs.

The mortuary complex of the fifth king of the Twelfth Dynasty, Senusret III, who ruled from 1878 to 1839 BCE and is sometimes erroneously referred to as “Sesostris” is also located in Dahshour. Salah hopes to emulate the beautiful personal artefacts of the illustrious pharaoh’s daughter Sithathor. Her treasure chests were found in a gallery tomb next to her father’s.

Sithathor’s treasure today could be replicated in water-hyacinth by-products, Salah says.

The Black Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid at Dahshour also lend inspiration to Salah, as do the awe-inspiring cemeteries of officials from the Old and Middle Kingdoms of ancient Egypt and the royal necropolis nearby, threatened today by encroachment as wealthy people have moved into the area to construct palatial villas.

The necropolis is also under threat of desecration by local people who complement their incomes by tomb robbery. It is partly for this reason that Salah is deeply involved in job creation for the local women who work on the water hyacinth by-products. She helps them market the furniture and handicrafts they produce under her supervision.

Salah is careful to employ both Muslim and Christian women. She remembers how in July 2012 Dahshour’s Christian community fled in fear after an outbreak of sectarian violence. Sadly, a Coptic Christian church was gutted.

Salah is amazed at how well Muslim and Christian women work together today, however. “The women are diligent and purposeful, and so am I,” she tells the Weekly. “So let’s go to Dahshour and shoot the works with water hyacinths.”

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