Basket Case ~ How To Make A Bag From A Baobab

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I could have written about my compost heaps, and repurposing of fallen foliage into leaf mould, but I’ve already done that HERE and written the poem. Instead, I’ve chosen an example of some traditional Africa repurposing – far more interesting and pleasing to look at.

Kenya is famous for its string bags or kiondo. These days they are usually woven from sisal string, the sisal grown on vast plantations. But in the past the twine was much finer and fabricated from baobab and wild fig bark. One of my treasures from our Kenya days then (and as far as the Team Leader is concerned, I have rather too many such treasures) is this more traditional bag made from baobab fibre.  I bought it from a curio seller at the annual Nairobi Agricultural Show in 1997. I think I paid 500 shillings for it, around five pounds at the time.

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Baobab trees may appear impenetrable entities with iron-like skins, but their trunks are deceptively fibrous, and especially so in old age and after elephants have done some determined shredding work on them.  Even so, the twine to make a bag like this would have taken  much preparation. The main process involved chewing the fibre until it could be rolled out to the required thinness. Two strands would be worked one after another, and then twisted together to produce the final cord. This was then dyed using natural pigments, the cords cut to suitable lengths to create the warp threads, and work begun from base of the bag, moving outwards as the weft thread spirals round.

South Luangwa - mighty poachers' baobab

Whether or not the materials have changed, methods of construction  remain much the same. I have seen women striding out along the Mombasa highway, their work in progress flowing from their arms like some giant deconstructed spider’s web. You will see what I mean in the next photo. It was taken in the early 1900s and shows a young Kikuyu woman at work:

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Both images are from what I feel is the inappropriately titled 1910 monograph With A Prehistoric People  by W Scoresby Routledge and Katherine Routledge.

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And there you have it – a beautiful, but eminently useful bag, painstakingly constructed from baobab parts. I consider it a work of most artful repurposing and, as with many traditionally crafted everyday artefacts, it also strikes  me how  people untouched by western mass-production, daily and routinely  made art out of necessity and utility. There is an intrinsic aesthetic here, which is why I take issue with the term ‘prehistoric’ used in this early twentieth century context. People who work with their hands in this way continuously nurture and exercise  their creative intelligence and powers of discretion and visualization. This also makes me think that one day we technophiles might wake up and regret the loss of such facilities and skills; we might recognize, for instance, that their passing signals a lack of general competency?

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Daily Post Photo Challenge: repurpose

Too Long Out Of Africa

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I had been wondering to myself whether I would post some of my Africa pix for the nature photo challenge, and thought I probably wouldn’t. Then the ‘Landscape’ challenge cropped up, and so here  I am, killing two birds with one shot. Or it might be two. Also, for whatever reason that has nothing much to do with me, post editing or anything, this view of the Maasai Mara (edge of the Ololo Escarpment to the right, desert date tree to the left) has acquired the look of a painted landscape. I think it was probably taken at dawn, out on game drive from the Mara River Camp, one of the last places we stayed before ending our eight-year life in Kenya and Zambia.

The desert date (Balanites aegyptica), much like the baobab, is one of Africa’s treasure trees, and has multiple uses. It grows in the driest places across the Sahel and savannah regions of the continent, and fruits in the driest of years. It is thus highly valued by nomadic herders since both fruit and foliage provide useful forage for camels and goats during times of drought.

Also a nourishing and restoring skin oil can be made by milling the fruit, its cosmetic and therapeutic qualities long known of by the Ancient Egyptians. (Samples have apparently been discovered amongst pyramid grave goods). And you can buy it now. Fair trade producers in Senegal, West Africa are producing the oil commercially.

Other traditional uses include making fish poison from the bark, and using the termite resistant wood to fashion farm tools. Better still, an emulsion can be produced from the fruit – harmless to humans and warm-blooded mammals (Trees of Kenya  Tim Noad & Ann Birnie: 27) and used to clean up drinking water supplies. It kills the freshwater snails that carry bilharzia, and the water fleas that carry guinea worm, both causes of distressing and debilitating diseases in many parts of Africa.

The continued existence of this tree is also related to the continued existence of elephants. In the wild they are the main conduits by which seed is processed and made ready to plant. Having passed through the elephant’s digestive tract, it is then conveniently deposited in its own dollop of manure. Another example of how all in the natural world is intimately connected, and we kill off bits of it (stupidly thinking they don’t matter) at our peril.

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Elephants at high noon beside the Mara airstrip. You can see the green tops of desert date trees above a gully in the distant heat haze.

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Anna at Una Vista di San Fermo invited me to join the 7-day Nature Photo Challenge. This is my Day 4. Please also go and see Laura’s magnificent dragonfly at Eljaygee, and Sue Judd’s elegant study of daffodil decay at WordsVisual, and Gilly’s absolutely mega termite mound at Lucid Gypsy.

Landscape

Anthology Baobab: African Story Tree

 

 

 

“Knowledge is like a baobab tree; one person’s arms cannot encompass it.”

Ghanaian proverb

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This baobab in Zambia’s South Luangwa was used as a poachers’ look-out

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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http://www.ifood.tv/blog/the-latest-superfood-from-africa-baobab

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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.”

http://baobabsuperfruit.com/andrew-mbaimbai/

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.

Baobab Fruit Powder Pouch

The Eden Project’s baobab powder.

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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.

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Photos: africablogs

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A Kenyan kiondo woven from baobab fibre.

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Baobabs can of course grow to massive proportions  and into the oddest shapes. They may be thousands of years old.

The Legend of the Upside-down Tree

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.

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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

Big Baobab

Sunland Baobab

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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.

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And now for some of those baobab legends I mentioned. There are many variations of these tales throughout Africa.

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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.

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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.

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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

Frizztext’s ‘A’ Challenge