“Knowledge is like a baobab tree; one person’s arms cannot encompass it.”
This baobab in Zambia’s South Luangwa was used as a poachers’ look-out
At the moment I’m working on a short story that includes a large and very ancient Adansonia digitata – in other words, a mighty baobab tree. These extraordinary trees have a way of finding their way into my stories (Mantrap, A Hare Who Would Not Be King amongst others). In fact, with so many legends about them, baobabs are nothing if not arboreal storybooks.
They are also like no other tree I can think of, although they are related to kapok trees. They grow in the hot lowlands of Africa and Madagascar and also in Vietnam and Australia. Their capacity to store vast quantities of water in their trunks has earned them the name Tree of Life. A single tree can hold up to 4,500 litres /1,189 gallons.
In my story, however, the baobab has no such mundane function. It is a place of ritual – a spirit home on the Swahili coast, for here, as in other parts of Africa, it is believed that baobabs harbour the souls of the dead. And that is all I am revealing of my story except to say that it also involves murder, unquiet spirits and unrequited love.
As for the trees, in real life they have a mass of practical, medicinal and nutritional uses – for humans and wildlife alike. It all begins with the pollination of these oddly striking flowers.
For nine months of the year, the baobab has no foliage. When the leaves come they are eaten like spinach by humans and browsed by both domestic and wild animals. The flowers, too, are short-lived. The bloom first at night, their pungent smelling nectar attracting bush babies and fruit bats which then pollinate the flowers. Bees also feed on the nectar, and farmers often hang their barrel beehives up in the branches of a baobab. Photo: Tuli Lodge, Botswana
The resulting woody capsules enclose many seeds within an edible pulp. Both seeds and pulp are high in potassium, calcium and magnesium and are ideal foods for pregnant and breast-feeding women. The pulp is also rich in vitamin C, thiamine and antioxidants. Being high in pectin, it is useful for jam making and creating refreshing drinks. The seeds produce a fine oil that is used by the cosmetics industry. They can also be ground to make a coffee substitute. And so with all these attributes, the baobab has been classified as a superfood. Its many by-products are now sold worldwide. Photo: http://www.ifood.tv/blog/the-latest-superfood-from-africa-baobab
The growing world-wide demand for the baobab’s phyto-nutrients mean that seed harvesting has become a valuable source of income for many African families. This is one man’s story:
“My name is Andrew Mbaimbai and I am 63 years old. I live in Mtimbuka, a village in southern Malawi, with my wife, four daughters and eight grandchildren. In 2005, I heard that a new company was buying baobab and I knew this was a good opportunity for me.
“I collect and process baobab in my spare time because I also have a job as a cook. After gathering the fruit, I go to the processing centre, crack the shells and separate the fruit powder from the seeds. Then I sell it.
“I use the money to pay for my grandchildren’s school fees and to buy clothes for my family. Sometimes if a family member falls ill, I use the money to pay hospital bills. Without the money from selling baobab, I would not be able to meet all my family’s needs.”
As a consequence of ethically managed initiatives like the Eden Project’s programme in Malawi you will now find many baobab-derived products on line and in your local health food shops. Here is one of them. It can be added to anything and everything, creating, apparently, a zesty flavour.
The Eden Project’s baobab powder.
Then there are the baobab bark products. The trunk of the baobab is very fibrous and can be processed into cloth, twine and ropes. Kenyan women are famous for their kiondo bags which they make both from baobab and (increasingly) sisal string. You will see women walking along the road weaving these lovely baskets, and I can attest that they last for decades. I have at least four. In time the leather handles might need replacing, but the baskets endure, becoming more beautiful as their pigment dyes fade.
Baobabs can of course grow to massive proportions and into the oddest shapes. They may be thousands of years old.
Photo: Eco Products
With age, many become hollow, creating large spaces within that are variously used as barns, churches, places to give birth, and for the burial of griots as in West Africa. In Botswana one was once used as a jail, the adjoining trunks for male and female prisoners.
Kasane, Botswana, now has a new prison but the architect ensured that the original one was preserved: http://www.ofm.co.za/article/67788/Voices
At Sunland Farm, Limpopo, South Africa, this baobab is used as a bar and wine cellar. It is believed to be the largest example in the world. It is 47 metres around (154 feet) and has a carbon date of around 6,000 years. Below are four of us trying to surround a much younger Kenyan baobab. This one is at Maweni on Tiwi Beach, South Mombasa.
And now for some of those baobab legends I mentioned. There are many variations of these tales throughout Africa.
When Creator was busy creating the world, the animals came to him and asked if they could help him finish his work. Creator was doubtful and said there were only the trees left to make. But the animals persisted, so Creator handed out specific seed types to each animal species, and they went away and planted them. Finally, only the baobab seeds remained, and these Creator handed to the hyenas. The outcome, of course, was to be expected, given the stupidity of hyenas. They planted the seeds upside down, and that is why the baobab always looks as if it has its roots in the air.
Long, long ago the very first baobab sprouted up beside a small lake. When it saw the other trees with their tall, smooth trunks and bright flowers and large leaves, it thought how beautiful they were. Then one day, when the lake surface was smooth as glass, the baobab caught sight of itself, and oh, what a shock. Its flowers were so pale, and its leaves so small. But worst of all, it was appallingly fat, and its skin looked like the wrinkling hide of an old elephant.
The baobab cried out to Creator, complaining of its lot. Creator in turn was huffy. Many things had been made that were not quite perfect, he said. He retreated behind a cloud. But the baobab did not stop whining and whingeing. Finally, Creator grew so cross that he leaned out of the sky, and yanking the baobab from the ground, replanted the tree upside down. And so ever since, the baobab has lived on in silence, unable to see its reflection in the lake, but making up for its transgression by doing many good deeds for humankind.
And if these baobab tales have not quite cheered you up, here are some clips from the life-enhancing Orchestra Baobab. This band from Senegal has had two lives, one back in the ‘70s, and now the current reprise which includes many of the original line-up, among them the Togolese guitarist, Barthélémy Attisso, who in the interim went away to become a lawyer. If you get the chance to see them live, go for it.
© 2014 Tish Farrell