from the Malvales
The Bombacacae Family
(28 genera, 200 species)
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
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
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
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
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
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
Its wood is also a raw material for certain musical
Providing both resources and shelter the tree's
magic penetrates both the life and death of man.
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
When decocted the fibre of the fruit can fight
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
When they are cooked and eaten, the roots of the
young seedlings are eaten in the same way as asparagus
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
But the powers of the tree don't work - so
some people say - when either Whites or Muslims
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."
too, the arms of the baobab are distorted
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
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
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
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
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