My father says that his mother used to send him to school with a small cloth bag filled with camphor tied around his neck under his shirt. Apparently, the pleasant aroma of the camphor protected him from noxious microbes. It seems to have worked; he was 94 in April.
My colleagues and I went out for a walk one Sunday afternoon in Embu. We were ambushed by a man looking to be employed. He told us that he had done all the gardening for a new housing development a few hundred metres away down Spring Valley Road. He desperately wanted to show us his handiwork.
We followed him down a paved road to a clearing in the trees. There were several massive bungalow-mansions with pillars and curlicues. He beckoned us to go inside to take a look. It was very posh, far too fancy for volunteers working with a medical humanitarian charity. This is the reception room, with a balustrade and mirrored wall cabinets behind.
We heard men working in the bedrooms. The carpenter told us that he had designed and made the doors himself. He was planing down the edge by hand to get a beautiful smooth finish. Disappointingly, the vanity unit was made from veneered MDF.
The carpenter said that he was using camphor wood. We gathered up the shavings and smelled their wonderful odour. I seem to remember it being used instead of mothballs. He said the trees had been cut down locally, so I presume this was actually East African camphor (Ocotea usambarensi) rather than the Taiwanese variety.
Camphor has many uses. It was employed during the First World War to produce smokeless gunpowder – soldiers didn’t want to reveal the location of their machine guns. It had the added advantage of being less likely than conventional gunpowder to jam weapons.
It has other medicinal uses, as a rub for painful joints, to reduce fever and as a decongestant. The Ancient Egyptians used it in the mummification process. It is toxic in large doses and can cause lethargy, as seen in my last photograph.