THE STORY OF BALENI SALT
Baleni hot mineral spring (geo-thermal spring) is a unique natural feature in the otherwise arid Mopane veld wilderness, south east of Giyani, near the village of Shawela. It has been declared a Natural Heritage Site (1999), because of its unique ecology with hot water and mineral contents. A species of fish, the stunted population of Mozambique Tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus), lives in the fountain. The surrounding swamp is mostly covered by bulrushes and reeds. It is believed that if you wash your face in the warm water you will wash away bad luck.
People have made salt at this fountain for the past 2000 years according to archaeological excavations. Stone tools also tell us that Stone Age people were active at Baleni. There are three similar fountains in Mopani District Municipality, but all three have been destroyed by developmental activities. At present Baleni is thus the only active salt production site, where indigenous people harvest salt according to indigenous technologies, practices and customs. It is also believed to be the only un-developed hot spring left in Southern Africa. This area was central to the Arab Trade Routes that were dominated by the Tsonga people over 1000 years ago when salt, and iron-ore and copper where all produced in this area.
Every winter local women still produce salt at Baleni, using traditional methods. Traditional customs which accompany the salt making process, include interaction with the ancestral world through ritual and appeasement offerings at the sacred dry leadwood tree (the shrine). The natural fountain is significant to a broader indigenous community (than only the salt makers) because of its mythical character. The fountain is called Ka-Mukhulu by the locals.
The cultural landscape at Baleni (which means ‘wide open flats, or vlei) includes ancient salt mounds, which date back to 250AD and which cover an area of 1.5 to 2 km in radius from the fountain eye. The modern salt production site and the shrine, are also part of the cultural landscape. Oral history abounds and because of all the myths, legends and other stories that are well known to all the people in surrounding communities and regularly told to visitors, the place and the fountain is a sacred site.
Besides being a sacred site, it is also a gendered site, because salt making is an activity that is mainly practiced by woman. All the information, the indigenous technology and the oral traditions are transferred from one generation to the next. Of the many indigenous people mentioned in the prayers, who made salt at Baleni and who acknowledged the sacredness of the fountain, the following are mentioned in the oral tradition: VaKaranga, BaNyai, Balemba, VaVenda, BoLobedu, VaTsonga.
Traditional Ecological Knowledge abounds amongst the elders, specifically the traditional women, who lived in close interaction with their natural environment, because they were dependent on it. The salt is harvested through scraping off salt crust of the swamp. This is filtered through a raised conical filter (Xinjhava) made from branches and clay from anthills. Water (Ntsobe) , from the river, is poured into the filter dissolving the salt in the soil (Nwahuva). The salt is then extracted by boiling off.
“Baleni is a sacred place; when one harvests the salt, one may not talk of the wind and call it the wind. One should call it ‘The Bride’. One may not talk of the reeds; one may also not talk of the clouds and call them the clouds. One should call them ‘The Spears’ and ‘The Blankets’ … This is the way of this place…”
The uses for Baleni Salt
Today, Baleni Salt is still harvested the old way – through back-breaking work. It is mainly sold to Traditional Healers who respect its ability to strengthen other muti. In addition it is used to help people with sore muscles (bathing) as well as those with high blood pressure. Also, it can counter other muti. For those with an interest in chemistry, the salt is mainly NaCl (the same as table salt) with 8 more minerals including magnesium, calcium, potassium, sulphate, nitrate and nitrite. This makes it very salty to taste and less is needed to achieve the same saltiness as table salt. This means it can be classified as a low sodium salt. Some chefs buy the salt for use in high-end restaurants. The salt has been acknowledged by the international Slow Food movement and is a registered Presidium of the Terra Madre
Who, where and when to get hold of Baleni salt, the best way to buy this salt is directly from the harvesters at Baleni. Stay at the African Ivory Route’s Baleni Camp, and arrange to spend a morning with the harvesters, learning and experiencing this old artisanal practice. (This is the best way to stimulate rural tourism). Alternatively, you can order via firstname.lastname@example.org. Bulk orders for Chefs can be purchased through the salt shippers, Oryx Salt.