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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 156 | Julio 1994
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Nicaragua

The Marango Makes Magic in Water

It can grow to a height of 15 meters, it offers both shade and beauty, its flowers are whitish yellow and its seeds are able to work the wonder of purifying the drinking water in any household or in the water systems of the largest cities.

Raquel Fernández

Current industry and technology would seem to have the conditions to confront all problems and satisfy all needs. But their responses and solutions sometimes create even more serious problems. At that point, the eyes of the high karat scientists turn to plants, those simple plants that grow so silently and tenaciously, and discover in them the true solutions.

This is what has taken place with the treatment to make water potable. In the developed countries, an aluminum sulphate process is used, but there is a known but so far little studied relation between the aluminum and the terrible sickness known as Alzheimer's disease. Nature has an alternative response: a slender and graceful tree known as the "marango" (moringa olifera) can solve the same problem in less time, at less cost and with fewer health risks. Its seeds are a magic wand that can clean up water.

Chinese Women Knew It

The marango tree originally comes from the very heart of Asia. It grows in the sub Himalayan regions, between 600 and 700 meters above sea level. During the British occupation of India and neighboring countries, the marango was scattered throughout the world in the knapsacks of His Majesty's soldiers. Its beauty, the charm of its blossoms and its rapid growth quickly made this tree a much prized decoration in British gardens.

The marango had long been known in China, where it sparked the interest of women. Forced to give their children water from the sandy currents of the Yangtze, the women had discovered that the seeds of the beautiful tree providing shade for their homes possessed the ability to drag the contaminants in a recipient of water down to the bottom and insure that the mud would not rise again to the top. The water itself was transformed into clear and clean liquid.

The women also discovered that, to obtain this effect, it was necessary to stir up the water with the marango seeds. They did it their way: they rubbed the seeds into dust against the rough surface of the clay recipients where water is stored. Naturally, the Chinese women acquired this knowledge over years, observing and sharing experiences, commenting among themselves, through the trial and error process that has made science advance to the point of reaching the miracles that so amaze us today.

If Fairies Existed

The marango made it to the Sudan in the military backpacks of countless British soldiers. That was where Samia Al Azharia Jahn found it. She is one of the people who knows the most about the marango in the world, having dedicated more than 20 years of her life to studying the tree in eight countries in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean.

If this were a tale, Samia Al Azharia Jahn would be the fairy godmother of the world's marangos, their spiritual protector a godmother getting on in years, plump and graying, full of vitality and energy, with deep gray eyes and long rebellious hair tied up in an untidy bun.

But this is not a fairy tale and, in fact, Samia Al Azharia Jahn is a wide ranging scientist, with post graduate studies in chemistry, biology, medicine, genetics, botany and physiology. She studied in her native Germany despite her Arabic sounding name, she is absolutely German and in Sweden as well. After carrying out various high level biological research projects, she responded to the call of Africa that many northern Europeans have heard in their lifetimes. She went to the Sudan and Egypt, where she taught at the universities in Khartoum and Cairo.

Her investigative spirit led her to try and reach a deeper understanding of these country's legends, traditions and customs. Taking advantage of being in an Arab country, where women have almost no public interaction with men, she was able to enter prohibited arenas, reserved only for women, where the true treasures of a deep culture, of a collective soul, are kept.

As a result of this effort, she published a book on traditions and legends of the Sudan, a country with a rich tradition of voodoo and other religious rites, maintained by women and children. It was during her studies that Samia Al Azharia Jahn found the marango.

The Waters of the Nile

Both the Sudan and Egypt are cut through by the Nile, that great river that transforms desert into oasis. But the Nile has surprising variations in its flow. From December to July, its waters are reasonably clean, but when they rise they become turbulent, dragging with them mud, plants and everything they find in their way. The river becomes dirty, cloudy, the color of a poor grade of chocolate. Just looking at the water is enough to take anyone's thirst away. But since there is no other water, people must drink it, even at the risk of contracting serious diseases.

The Egyptian and Sudanese women noted that along the Nile's shores is a clay that, mixed with the cloudy water, cleans it up. Several hours after mixing in this clay, the water ends up crystal clear, just like a mountain stream. The "miraculous" clay, however, has with some drawbacks. It is very scarce, is found only in certain places and is not easily marketed. Additionally, it is a non renewable resource: when it's gone, that's it.

The Sudanese women who have the same problem as their Egyptian sisters had observed that the marango seeds had the same property as this miraculous clay. And it had a number of advantages over the clay: the tree can grow in the yard of any house, offers great shade and assures that, as long as there are seeds, there will be clean water.
In addition, the clay had to be measured out according to the water's muddiness, and great care had to be taken to add just the right amount. It's much easier with the seeds: even if too many are put in, the water uses just the amount necessary, making errors impossible.

A Fairy Godmother with a Microscope

In her search for traditions, stories and customs of the population living along the shores of the Nile, Samia Al Azharia Jahn spoke with the women who passed down their ancestral customs from generation to generation. These Muslim women did not see her as a threat, but as someone with whom they could speak, someone who would be surprised by things that all the neighborhood women already knew. Samia took her young son with her, which made it easier to enter into the homes of the women. A woman, particularly a poor woman, will always sympathize with another woman whose child is thirsty, and will generously offer hospitality and a glass of water.

For a European woman, educated to fear viruses and bacteria, that water often had a rather threatening aspect. Yet, in some homes, Samia was offered perfectly clear water and began to wonder about the process that water underwent. That's how she came to know about the clay and the marango. A laboratory analysis showed that the clay used for centuries by Egyptian and Sudanese women to purify the water was simply bentonite, a clear colored clay made essentially of montmorillonite, a philosilicate of aluminum, magnesium and sodium originating in the transformation of volcanic ash. Montmorillonite has a number of industrial uses in developed countries; it is used to purify fuel, wines and other commercial liquid products.

As for the marango, Samia found that its seeds needed minimal treatment to produce the desired effect. They only had to be crushed with a mortar, preferably wooden, until they were reduced to dust, which was then mixed with water. To cleanse the water, the pulverized seeds or the clays had to be mixed with the water over a period of time.

From Microparticulates to Macroparticulates

How does the water become purified? The cleansing results from the electrical charges established between the muddy particulates suspended in the water and the pulverized particulates of clay or marango seed. The electrical currents gather the suspended particulates around the seed particulates. After a while, what began as many microscopic particulates suspended in the water due to their lack of weight, turns into thick and increasingly large macroparticulates, eventually pulled to the bottom by the force of gravity.

The marango does not guarantee that the water ends up completely free of pathogenic germs. It is cleaned, but not totally purified. But drastically reducing the number of suspended particulates also reduces the quantity of microorganisms. And those that remain are trapped among the thick macroparticulates that sink to the bottom of the recipient. Although the water is not absolutely pure, it does become drinkable.

The marango is so far only used at the household level, but it could also be used to clean up drinking water on a large scale, in sizeable cities. All that needs to be done is put more seeds in the water. The correct proportion is two groups of pulverized seeds per liter of totally muddy water. And the marango doesn't alter the water's taste.

Deadly Aluminum

In all countries, piped water is treated to purify it and make it drinkable before it reaches the consumers. In most cities in the developed world, aluminum sulphate is used to this end. When little was known about its possible secondary effects, the assumption was that water was drinkable at 200 micrograms of aluminum sulphate per liter. It was noted that the aluminum sulphate led to some intestinal problems in particularly sensitive people, but that fact was not considered very important, as there were few cases.
However, with Alzheimer's disease beginning to affect growing percentages of people 55 and older, and medical research finding unexpected links between the illness and the aluminum, health authorities limited the quantity of aluminum sulphate in drinking water to 50 micrograms per liter. But with this dosage, the water becomes less drinkable, once again posing a health threat. International health authorities now face a serious dilemma. At this point, the best and safest solution would be crushed marango seeds.
Alzheimer's disease primarily affects citizens of the developed countries, largely because life expectancy in the underdeveloped countries does not generally reach the age at which the symptoms tend to become severe. The use of the marango does not guarantee the disappearance of Alzheimer's, but does eliminate one of the potential causes of its proliferation.

Also for Sewage

The marango not only cleans water for drinking; it can also clean sewage so that rivers, lakes and the sea do not become sewers. With the marango, drainage outlets could become new artificial tributaries that contribute a greater and cleaner flow of water into the rivers.

The procedure is simple. It is just a question of building oxidation and sedimentation lagoons into which the sewage waters of the population centers would run. There the water would be treated with the marango seeds, and the garbage in the water would sink to the bottom of the lagoons. When enough residue is stored, the lake would be emptied out and the sediment dried, processed and pressed into cakes to be used as protein rich cattle feed or organic fertilizer.

Since city water also contains sizeable quantities of non organic elements, it would also be necessary to apply species of algae that can transform almost all of them into innocuous products.

Heavy metals, abundant in the wastes from large industrial centers and key sources of water contamination, can also be treated and absorbed by plants. It has been shown, for example, that a certain water lily (Scirpus lacustris) uses at least four dangerous heavy metals, including strontium and cobalt, in its metabolic processes. Rapid multiplication of these lilies generates its own problems, as seen, for example, in the artificial lake at Apanás, Jinotega, but these are compensated for by the fact that the plant serves as excellent raw material for producing biogas.

Undoubtedly, other harmful products found in sewage outlets could also receive adequate treatment with plants whose properties have yet to be fully studied.

Marango in Lake Xolotlán

In the case of Lake Xolotlán (also known as Lake Managua), correct treatment of Managua's sewage outlets means the difference between life and death. For centuries, the lake has been suffering a process of dessication, accelerated in recent decades by poor agricultural practices and deforestation. The lake depends on the rivers that empty into it to maintain its levels, but it now gets virtually no water from rivers, since the major ones in the area have dried up. Only the Río Viejo from Matagalpa contributes a trickle, and it is full of agrochemicals.

The only constant and abundant flows feeding into Xolotlán today are from Managua's sewers. And the water they empty into the lake is dirty and contaminated. The lake water is thus getting dirtier and dirtier, putting the capital's livability at risk.

What would happen if the water emptying into the lake were clean, free of garbage or toxic contaminants? It is possible, not only in Xolotlán, but in all rivers and lakes of our country and the entire world by applying these renewable resources: the marango, algaes, water lilies and others. All these plants could easily be used by countries in the South, since they are produced in the South, where investigations into their use are also taking place.

In Nicaragua's case, a biomass project is currently underway at the National Engineering University. In May 1994, Professor Samia Al Azharia Jahn was invited to spend several weeks at the university, sharing her vast knowledge regarding the marango.

Refining Cooking Oil

The dust of the marango seed is not used only for cleaning dirty water, whatever its origin and destination. It can also refine oil and, with the resulting sediment, produce a paste that can be used as cattle feed.

One of the most serious problems in producing edible oil is precisely the problem of refining. Due to its viscosity, the oil has the ability to keep large quantities of particulates suspended. These particulates are what quickly make oil rancid.

All procedures used to refine oil are expensive, complicated and difficult to manage. They rely on imported technologies that underdeveloped countries must pay for with precious hard cash. Only one easy and inexpensive method can be carried out nationally: sprinkle a little marango seed into the unrefined oil and wait a few hours. When the time's up, a layer of thick high protein sediment will have formed on the inside of the container. That can be used as animal feed, while the oil for human consumption is clear and clean, with neither strange odors or tastes.

The marango's purifying powers are superior to industrial refining methods. It is so strong that putting seed powder into officially refined cooking oil sold in any supermarket yields a considerable sediment of substances that should not be there.

Cloning Its Growth Hormone?

When pressed, marango seeds the size of a bean and found inside a pod also produce an oil usable for human consumption. The resulting cake of residues is excellent cattle feed. In addition, the tree's leaves are very good in salads, while the roots also provide a protein rich, tasty food.

The marango grows well in sandy soils, and is found in both tropical and subtropical lands. It also grows extremely rapidly. In less than a year, the seed becomes a lush tree some eight meters high, providing both flowers and seeds. In Nicaragua, its pretty yellow flowers, infused with honey, are used as a cough remedy.
The velocity of the tree's growth has led some scientists to believe that it contains some particularly active growth hormones that could be applied to other crops. The avocado, for example, grows relatively slowly in the tropics. If the marango's growth hormones could be isolated and used to genetically speed the growth of avocados, it could have important economic consequences for agriculture. A similar process could be used with precious woods, such as the beautiful and internationally sought after mahogany, whose development normally takes decades.

The marango is part of the moringacea family, made up of 14 species, all of which have the same rapid growth feature. Only seven of the species have been studied. Perhaps they all harbor valuable treasures. Samia Al Azharia Jahn has devoted the most time to discovering and understanding the secrets of this vegetable family. Today she may well be found in some remote corner of the planet, anywhere the magic wand and whitish yellow flowers of the marango beckon.

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