Tsamma Melon

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Has anyone tasted a tsamma melon where it grows? The first time I ever heard of it was around 1980, when I was teaching in an adult English as a Second Language class at Pan American University. For supplementary materials we were given a hodge podge of of old videos from various departments; most were pretty dull and very outdated even then. Examples ranging from a documentary on labor problems in a Detroit auto plant to a biology primer on cetaceans. The all time winner though must have come from the anthropology department. Titled Bitter Melons, it featured some anthropologists following around a band of San in the Kalahari as they went about their daily routine wandering the wasteland trying to stay one step ahead of the Grim Reaper. Some of it was fairly repulsive for those living much further back from the edge than these people. Examples: burning the shell plates of a land tortoise with a smoldering stick, folding them back to run a skewer through them and roasting the tortoise alive in its shell before eating. Brutally efficient but a shock to modern sensibilities. The “stars” of the film was Old Uhone, a San nearing the end of his life, his wife, his son and his extended family. Uhone’s son checks a snare for an antelope only to find it nibbled in two and ruefully scratches his head while holding it. This brought titters of amusement from my students but I didn’t find it funny at all as such a mishap might have spelled death for members of the group. Uhone’s son and friends finally spear an antelope and set about butchering it immediately but just after opening the abdominal cavity they all gather around and begin consuming the partially digested contents squeezed from the entrails which were then coiled up to take back the camp. This brought sneers and gasps from the audience, but I am certain, that without exception they had all eaten, menudo, tripas and other variations of what we called “chittlins” when I was growing up on the farm. The only difference being we squeezed out the contents first (or at least my family did) and washed them. But we didn’t live in the Kalahari where every drop of moisture counts. Near the final scene the band comes upon a patch of bitter melons, falling upon them literally, to break the rind and then eating large chunks and letting the juice run down their joyful faces in a celebration of unexpected abundance. They just used up their last reserves of water from ostrich eggs filled from “sip wells”, wet sand beneath the surface found in widely dispersed locations. They didn’t know if they would make it to the next one when they found the bitter melons. Fortified, they set off once more but Old Uhone was having a hard time keeping up so he elected to calmly sit down and wait for the hyenas to come for that was the natural order of things among his people. He had a one string bow harp and he was twanging away on one of his compositions when the film closed. The images of the bitter melon celebration burned into my mind’s eye and I’ve always wanted to try one in its natural setting to truly savor it.


Was it this one?


Yes! That must be it, I have not seen it for nearly 40 years but the bitter melon scene I recalled came toward the end of this very long film but I’ve slept since then. It comes as a surprise that it’s still around much less on youtube. It must have won some kind of recognition. That dispassionate voiceover really annoyed me back then because when the San were really in dire straits about to die of thirst, I thought: “I know you’ve got jerry cans of water on that landrover you’re following them in. Couldn’t you have the simple decency to give them a gallon or two?” I guess anthropologists in the field follow some kind of Prime Directive but that’s really carrying it to extremes. I didn’t remember the spelling of Ukxone’s name either, I’d always spelled it phonetically the way I remembered it. It’s a mesmerizing film judged by just how much I do remember after all these years. Thanks for posting it!

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