Why Baobab?

Written by  //  July 23, 2010  //  Africa  //  Comments Off on Why Baobab?

A charming piece that explains the origins of the title of The Economist’s new Africa blog. We have been fascinated by the Baobab ever since we first encountered it as a wonderful – and strange – word in The Little Prince.

“THE amazing thing about trees is how invisible they are,” says Thomas Pakenham, who has travelled the world writing books about remarkable trees. Mr Pakenham cites a recent example of a baobab forest in the city of Mombasa in Kenya which local tree experts insisted did not exist. “But there it was, a stand of baobabs of enormous size and uncertain age.” Even so, some readers have wondered why we decided to call this blog Baobab, especially with our Asia section having a rival tree in Banyan.

Firstly, because the baobab is Africa’s tree. It is found in 31 African countries and has been introduced in several others. Outside Madagascar (which has several unique varieties of baobab), all are a single species: Adansonia digitata. It is enormous, Falstaffian, life affirming, a wooden elephant that is hard to miss on any African horizon. A specimen in Namibia is 40m in diameter—the fattest tree in the world in one of its driest places.

Then there is the mystery around the baobab. It has no tree rings, so it is not clear how old it is. Some experts a baobab may live for 500 years, others for 5000 years. In any case, the baobab is the living elder on a continent which reveres elders. In Burkina-Faso, villagers give a solemn funeral for a baobab when it dies, playing drums usually reserved for chiefs.

The baobab is a provider. It is home to fruit bats, parakeets, weaver birds and lovebirds, and those hawks and owls of the bush that feed upon the mice that live among the baobab’s roots. The baobab stores water. Its leaves and white flowers serve as salad for humans. Its black seeds are similarly edible and when cooked provide a substitute for coffee. The white pulp of the fruit can be boiled into a sherbet-like lemonade that is high in vitamin C. The husk can be used as a calabash. The tree provides no timber, its wood is soft like balsa, but the bark serves as food for elephants in times of drought and can be made into rope, roofing material, and clothing.

The baobab is the listening tree. It is modest. It rots away almost immediately upon its death, so that the only trace of it are wood shavings and wasp nests. But in the centuries it lives, it is often the meeting place in the village, its branches providing shelter. “The villagers gather and talk about the day’s events and problems and the baobab is the benevolent listener to all these problems,” says Mr Pakenham. “In that sense it is a mother tree.”

In animist communities, the baobab is seen as a deity which has chosen to live among the people. Stoicism and gentle humour are the qualities attributed to it. Even in Christian communities, baobabs serve as places where religious services might be held. The tree is hollow. It is possible to make rooms in the space inside its massive trunk, and so it has suffered the indignity of being used as a toilet, a drinking place and a place of crime or of hiding. The baobab is also the tree in some African creation myths that was given to the hyena, and which the hyena threw away in disgust, so that it became the upside down tree. Yet it endures. It succeeds where nothing else can succeed, on outcrops of pink granite rising out of the desert, in salt flats, and in lands wracked with drought. It continues to flower after being knocked over by a lorry or burned by humans trying to smoke out bees.

For all these reasons, and in contrast with the spindly and epiphytic banyan, the mighty baobab stands for Africa.

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