Anthology Baobab: African Story Tree

 

 

 

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

Ghanaian proverb

South Luangwa - mighty poachers' baobab 2

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.

II

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

Elephants, E-books and Enticing Reluctant Readers

Two at once challenge – DP : Reel Talk and Frizztext’s  EEE

Everyone who comes to this page is a reader. Bloggers love to read as well as write: poems, flash-fiction, memoir, novel excerpts, reportage, long pieces, short pieces; it’s how the blogweb works: exchanges to entertain, enchant, enthuse, encourage and elucidate.

Some of my stalwart followers and followees boldly read and create in second and third languages, which for me who only has proficiency in English is a great source of admiration and envy. And if that’s not enough ‘Es’ already, I have some more. But first a question: what about those (old and young) who find reading a struggle? What about those who find a page loaded with text a total turn-off, or the average sized paperback too daunting in scale to broach?

And to answer my own questions, this is where the book cover below comes in, because one of the things I do besides loitering in cyberspace is to write good stories for unkeen teen readers, (or for anyone else I can corner for that matter).

Shades covers for REPRO Batch 2_Layout 1

Cover: copyright 2013 Ransom Publishing.

The title of this new edition of my very short book Mantrap clearly begins with ‘M’ ( which means you can look forward to more mentions further down Frizz’s alphabet.) So what is it doing here now? The elephant is of course the excuse I needed to write this piece, also the fact that Ransom Publishing will shortly be bringing out  an e-book version for Amazon Kindle and Apple, as well as a paperback edition. It is part of their Shades series. Full details of this and other books in the series can be found HERE. The series is being printed as I write this and will be launched in August.

Interest-wise, the stories are aimed at readers of twelve years and upwards, but whose reading ability is deemed to be a few years younger. The text is a piece of short fiction but presented in a novel format i.e. 6,000 words divided into several chapters, and over 64 pages. There is plenty of white space on the page.

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Ransom publishes a wide range of fiction and non-fiction for all ages. Personally, I think the Shades’ quick-read formats are ideal for just about anyone who wants a good story, but has limited time to read it. You can slip these nice little books into your pocket. However, this is not so much a sales pitch as an explanation: the why, where and how this story about ivory poaching came into being. There’ll be an excerpt at the end.

I can also tell you precisely where the Mantrap story began – under a baobab tree. And here it is, the very one:

South Luangwa - mighty poachers' baobab

The fact that it was in leaf at the time was perhaps auspicious. Baobabs are usually bare. This one could be a thousand years old. We stopped under it for a noonday picnic after a get-up-while-still-asleep and go on a dawn game drive. The location is South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. It is a glorious place with parkland vistas, much shaped by the local elephants who knock down the thorn trees, but rarely the baobabs, to encourage the growth of their favourite food – grass. 

The other great shaper of the territory is the mighty Luangwa River as it endlessly carves new meanders through the bush country.

South Luangwa - dawn walk and hippos

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As the river shapes a new channel, so the old meanders are left behind, some becoming stagnant lagoons where hippos wallow amongst the cabbage weed. The local people call such places Luangwa waffa or Dead Luangwa.

South Luangwa - lagoon with cabbage weed 2

But back to Mantrap. It was while I was standing under the baobab, and peeling a very English hard-boiled egg, that our guide happened to point out the narrow strips of wood that had been driven unobtrusively  into the tree’s hard, smooth trunk. 

South Luangwa - mighty poachers' baobab 2

“It’s a poachers’ ladder,” the guide told me. “Ivory poachers. This tree has been a look-out post for years.” He went on to tell me how earlier that week an elephant had been killed nearby. The tusks had been taken, but then later, when the coast was clear of poachers, the local villagers had come to grab the meat.

My spine tingled:  horror and pity, and not only for the elephant. I knew that rural Zambians were  in a poor state. This was the reason why we had come to Zambia. Team Leader Graham was responsible for the logistics of delivering EU food aid to drought-stricken villagers. (See Letters from Lusaka.) Also, elephants and other game can destroy a farmer’s whole crop in a single night. The conservation of wild game, then, and the protection of neighbouring people’s livelihoods are matters  not easily resolved.  Game parks across Africa generally do not have fences. Animals move about at will, and many farmers are maimed or killed by buffalo, crocodiles, hyenas and elephants. Their families rarely receive compensation.

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We, however, belonged to the fortunate segment of the world’s population that had no shortage of food and also the leisure to take a few days holiday, staying in a small tented camp run by Robin Pope Safaris. On the way to our campsite from Mufuwe airstrip we crossed a dried up river where a girl was digging deep into the sandy bed in hopes of scooping out some water. In the gardens of a nearby farmstead, the maize was blown to dust. It was hardly surprising that there was a poaching problem in the district. People were starving.

But then to my  mind, there’s a big difference between hunting antelope and small game for the pot, and particularly when the park and surrounding licensed hunting blocks occupy the local people’s former hunting territory, and the obscene and pointless slaughter of elephants solely for their ivory.

South Luangwa - young elephant

Yet the temptation to some locals must be enormous. They have families to support, children to send to school, medicine to buy. Big business cartels, especially in the Far East, are apparently more than glad to arm and fund local hunters in the pursuit of ivory and rhino horn. This means that park rangers are at great peril. Many are murdered in their attempts to protect wildlife so tourists like us may come and stare, and snap away.

One way to combat poaching is to give people good reasons to protect the game. Robin Pope’s Safaris have pioneered schemes to involve local communities in conservation.

Helping communities to gain from tourism

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So these, then, were some of the things I wanted to explore in my story. What emerged was a life-and-death adventure that had its beginning the moment my fingers touched the rungs of the poachers’ ladder.

Here then is an excerpt – the opening scene. It is dawn in Luangwa. Hunger has finally driven Danny and his father, Jacob, into the National Park to hunt antelope. But Danny is a schoolboy, not a hunter; it is not surprising that, in his panic, he makes a mistake – a mistake that lands them in the clutches of a corrupt ranger who has a far more dangerous quarry in mind.

Chapter One: The Kill

Impala. A small herd among the sausage trees. Jacob stopped dead and held up a warning hand. Danny froze on the spot and this time, without a sound, dropped behind a potato bush. He peered through the leaves, fixing on a big ram. He was about twenty paces away, grazing the yellow grasses, his harem of females all round. Danny’s eyes stung with longing. There was that beautiful ram. So near, and yet so far. The smallest sound might send him bolting. Out of reach!

Danny willed Jacob to shoot. Now, Dadda, now. Then nearly howled when the ram raised his lyre-shaped horns and sniffed the breeze nervously. The ram had scented them. He had. Danny prayed and prayed. Please let our luck change. Please let Dadda shoot. Then we can get out of here. Before the sun comes up. Before the park rangers start their patrol. Before we’re caught and sent to jail…

And finally, here’s a short clip that shows Luangwa in all its rain-soaked glory. One of the earth’s most beautiful places, and over four hundred species of birds.

© 2013 Tish Farrell

Links:

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/reel-talk-writing-challenge/

http://flickrcomments.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/eee-challenge/