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THE BAOBAB TREE
Senegal's emblem

Angiosperm-type order
from the Malvales

The Bombacacae Family
(28 genera, 200 species)

Adansonia genus


The baobab grows in the semi-arid regions of Madagascar. Seven listed species among which the Adansonia Fony ; in Africa 1 species, the Adansonia digitata, and in Australia 1 species.

Its longevity is bewildering, 1,000 to 2,000 years, 6,000 years according to Adanson ; only the Sequoia and the Japanese Ceddar can compete with this outstanding achievement.

If the tree grows up to 20 metres high, it may sink when ageing, which then allows its trunk to widen up to a nearly 30-metre circonference, that is to say a 9.5-metre diameter.
Called "bottle tree" its thick trunk is made of parrenchy-like tissues saturated with water. The baobab can store more than 120,000 litres of water.

The leaves of the baobab spring irregularly between July and January. If watered the tree can keep its leaves all the year round.
It generally blossoms from May to August, during one single night just the time for nocturnal nectar-lovers, particularly bats, to ensure pollination.


THE BAOBAB AND THE EUROPEAN EXPLORATION


In 1445, Portuguese navigators led by Gomes Pires reached the island of Goree where Dinis Dias had put in the year before ; they discovered Infant Don Henrique's coat of arms engraved on trees.
Here is how chronicler Gomes Eanes de Zurara described the tree : " Very big strange-looking trees ; among them some had developed a 108 span girth at its foot (around 25 metres). The trunk of a baobab is not any higher than the trunk of a walnut tree ; the bark yields a strong fiber used for ropes and cloth ; it burns in the same way as flax does. It has a large gourdlike woody fruit whose seeds are the size of hazelnuts ; local people eat the fruit when it is unripe, dry the seeds and store a great quantity of them : I think it must be for their food when the green pulp has been used up."
(in Chronica dos feitos de Guiné - Lisboa 1453).


In the Western Science this bearing gourdlike fruit tree is called "bahobab" again ; in Egyptian Arabic this term designates the pulp ; the "bu hibab", the seedy fruit or "lobab", nuts almonds (in De plantis Aegypti Liber by Prospero Alpina - Venice 1592).

Baobab is the name used in France in the Encyclopedia by Diderot and d'Alembert, published in 1751, after Michel Adanson had brought back samples and a description from a stay in Saint-Louis of Senegal in 1749 : "a tree whose incredible size attracted my attention. It was a tree bearing gourdlike fruit, also called monkey's bread, which the Wolofs called "Goui" in their own language (...). (Probably) the most useful tree in all Africa (...) the universal tree for Negroes."

When they classified plants, Bernard de Jussieu of the Paris Museum and Charles de Linné paid tribute to both the scientist and explorer he was, Michel Adanson, by giving the baobab the Latin name Adansona digitata.

Thus called, the solitary tree of the savannah found a family, the Bombacacea, from Bomba, an idiom spoken in equatorial Guinea, and then officially entered Science.


Even so, Father David Boilat describes, as though for the first time, the already legendary tree, when he observes it in the Mbour region :"... the trees are surprisingly big and very numerous : I measured a few whose girth was from 60 to 90 feet (20 to 30 metres).
Not only is this tree useful for Negroes, it is also essential, they couldn't do without it. With its dried leaves, they make some powder they call lalo and which they mix the kouskous. They use the roots as a purgative ; they drink hot bark-tea to cure chest-ailments.
The fruit called "monkey's bread" is used to curdle milk and is also served with the food they call "lack" or "sangle" (...). This tree is sometimes excavated to form houses where the Sereres can live : they just open up the trunk to make a door, they scoop out the mucilageneous pulp that fills the inside of the trunk.
When emptied the tree suffers no damage and does live on.
They set fire inside to dry the sapwood up and in a short time, instead od shrinking and folding the bark grows and stretches, and as it were lines the whole inside.
" (in Esquisses Sénégalaises - 1853)."

Before he arrived at Joal, the priest visited a baobab whose trunk was extraordinary, roughly 26 metres.
There were two rooms inside which were used as both a house and a shop by someone whose name was Amar Ngoné.

Today, when one visits this huge baobab, 15 kilometres far from Joal, "the biggest in Senegal", one learns that the trunk of the tree opens and closes naturally, just to give time for the mortal remains of a griot or of a great figure, socially speaking, to be entrust to the tree's care.

When African, the baobab is source of light, but its boughs are crooked and tortured-like ; its trunk is monstruous and stigmatized.
When Senegalese, the baobab inspires poetry , legends, rites and devoutness.

It is practically used neither for building nor carpentry, except perhaps, failing anything better and only when it is dead is it employed to make pirogues because it is a very light wood ; its bark yields a strong fibre used for ropes and weaving thread.
Its wood is also a raw material for certain musical instruments.
Providing both resources and shelter the tree's magic penetrates both the life and death of man.

PHARMACOPEA

According to Jean-Pierre Denis and Abdoulaye Camara (Gesproc) every single part of the tree constitutes genuine medicine, the leaves are used in particular as anti-diarroheic, also as febrifuge and against inflammation and filarae (a parasitic nematode).
The powder made of dried out leaves fights anaemia, rachitis, dysentry, asthma, rhumatism ; it is also used as a tonic and an emollient ointment.
The pulp can fight diarrhoea, dysentry, small pox and measles.
The bark fights fever, inflammation of the digestive track.
When decocted the fibre of the fruit can fight diarrhoea.

As they are rich in calcium, iron, proteins, lipids, the leaves are either mashed into gruels or porridges or dried (lao or alo) and mixed with cereals and gravy-sauces.
The seeds are full of vegetable oil and can be grilled, then eaten. They are rich in phosphate, and used for the making of soap and fertilizers.
The pulp of the fruit (monkey's bread) can be eaten raw but it is also mashed into a thin gruel to prepare drinks for children ; mixed with water this beverage is similar to coco-nut milk with a taste of lime.
The shell of the fruit is used to make various bowls.
When they are cooked and eaten, the roots of the young seedlings are eaten in the same way as asparagus are.



If it is not used as a burial place for griots, dwelling houses or sheds to store tools and instruments that are not often used, one may turn to him for being released from pain, anxiety, for confiding in him : the person then applies both ands on its trunk, makes the vow to make a sacrifice in order to fight back malediction.

But the powers of the tree don't work - so some people say - when either Whites or Muslims are concerned.

A landmark for travellers, gathering point for the villagers' long drawn-out discussions, when it is not of use to man, the tree provides shelter to the animals of the savannah : lizards, margouillats (triangular headed saurians), snakes, birds, mammals.

The absence of other seedlings around the baobab emphasizes the image of solitude and strength it inspires. "The absence of moaning during its lon life spent doing good turns to Africa commands respect, incites imagination and inspires compassion".

Thus when Albert Londres (in Terre d'Ebène - 1928) describes the baobab it is Africa he does depict :
"...desperate giant, armless and twisted, he thrusts his stumps into the air facing heavens as if it meant to turn for the Creator's judgment on the wickedness of the torturers who crucified him. Were he able to utter a word one feels he could let out heart-breaking screams and had he been granted the gift of movement by nature he would gesture his distress."

For Senghor too, the arms of the baobab are distorted with anguish.

Last but not least, the Creator may have planted it upside down because He was weary of hearing the tree moan.
(An Arabian legend has it that the Devil plucked up the baobab, thrust its branches into the earth and left its roots in air.) (Encyclopedia Britannica)

In a bulletin issued in 1926 by the "Comité d'Etudes Historiques et Scientifiques de l'A.O.F." (Committee in charge of historic and scientific studies in West French Africa) Michel Perron, Governor of the Colonies, reports that the village Toumbou-Ba owes its fame to its baobab. :
... "He" is the one that holds the true right of asylum. Only in the hollow of "his" trunk and under "his" boughs will a person be safe from abuse and blows. ...

Beyond any form of superstition and legend, this baobab has a very strange shape even for persons that have already seen a few thousands of this tree somewhere else.
In actual fact "he" is composed of two large baobabs doubled up at the rear part, the latter being what is left of another baobab whose circumference must have been tremendous ; in the course of "his" long life the tree must have gradually become hollow under the action of humidity and rain until three quarters of "his" trunk had rotted away.

On this rear part, a relic of the former trunk - a third baobab has grown younger and still now less developed than the first two.
Last but not least, a kapok-tree has grown on the outer roots of the group of trees, next to the trunk of the left-side baobab.
The whole top of this gigantic set spreads into an inextricable entanglement of boughs. On the ground, there lies another entanglement on knotty and meandering roots. Between the two large present baobabs and in the remaining part of the late giant a natural recess formed, similar to the niche for the statue of a saint one can look at in our chapels. A small stone-altar has been placed in the niche.

Here is the legend of the Baobab as told by the inhabitants of Tombou-Ba : this baobab came here travelling over the skies from a village named Balou which formerly stood on the eastern bank of the river.
Today's inhabitants' ancestors were, there and then, ordered to follow the baobab right up to the place where it would stop.
In those by-gone days the chief of the clan was Mamadou Monecata. One can't say exactly when that took place.
A second baobab followed the first one later on and travelled in the same way. It "landed" - so to speak - in the present village of Faraba (about 200 kms away). But it did not develop to excess and did not acquire any noticeable power. Part of the persons who had emigrated from Balou stayed where the tree had "landed" and founded Faraba.
This is the reason why a few Monecatas live in Faraba ; they are related to the Monecatas who live in Tombou-Ba.
Mamadou Monecata and his people stopped at Tombou-Ba where the true sacred baobab had landed and rooted again. He founded the village. When he died he was buried under the tree. Everybody knows where the tomb is, despite the fact that nobody knows the actual time when the great ancestor lived.
Bees nested inside the trunk of the baobab, but when it fell down to the earth they left to live in the rocks of the neighbouring creek. Only the people of Tombou-Ba are allowed to collect the honey. Anyone that would scratch the bark of the baobab dies in the course of the year. Any scratch in the bark causes blood to drip out. If one breaks some of the fruit open (monkey's bread) one will find human hair inside. Once someone did climb up the tree and carved out notches on the trunk. He was struck dead. Marks of that attempt to climb up the tree can still be seen.

A broken branch that has fallen down and has utterly dried out, will still bear flowers and fruit that no one whatsoever may touch. When sheltered either under the boughs or inside the holes of the baobab, no one can be hit or abused. When the time of the circumcision comes and until the ritual feast has been completed it does rain on the village despite the fact that the dry season is on.
While the tam-tams of the circumcision are being played, snakes come out of the baobab and coil around amid the musicians who sit in a circle.

Infertile women come out and lay their hands against the tree just by the niche-shaped hole. They wow to offer sacrifice to the baobab, or to give their child "his" name. If they are not true to their wows, the children die in a rather short time.
Such is the legend of the baobab of Tombou-Ba.

The interpreter for the Governor of the Colonies who lets us know all about the legend is a Toucouleur from Senegal, a Moslem too ; he insisted - or so it seems - on walking on the baobab and scratch it.
The inhabitants had a ready-made answer then :
"the baobab's powers don't work when either white people or moslems are concerned".


© Dominique Moiselet - 1998


See also Griots' Tomb >>