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The Baobab Tree

A friend, Ursula, sent this letter from Mali.

Let me tell you about the Baobab tree, which I found hugely fascinating.

As we have the oak tree in England determining some parts of the landscape, Mali has the Baobab tree.

Here I have heard two stories about how it came into being:
When God was creating things for some reason one day he got angry about something. He tore out a tree that was in his reach and pushed it back into the ground upside down. This explains the shape of the Baobab, which really does look as if it has its roots in the air.
The other story tells about a man who was a very nice man. When he died and was buried in the cemetery the first Baobab tree started sprouting from his grave and all other Baobabs came from this tree.

I have taken quite a number of photos of Baobab trees. They are a little bit like people. Every one is different and has a different character. So you could really take endless numbers of photos.

A lot of the different parts of the Baobab are used:
The leaves are used in a sauce called Gumbo that goes with a millet porridge called To. A lot of Malians are wildly passionate about eating To. I have watched the preparation of it, which is an experience in itself, but I must admit that the eating of it is an entirely acquired taste, which I don't think I am able to acquire. The reason being that the sauce also includes some dried and pounded okra which makes it slimy and I am not so keen on this texture.

The tree bears pendulous fruit which is shown in the photo above. When ripe the seeds inside are surrounded with a white, light substance which has a pleasant acidic taste, akin to a citrus fruit or the tamarind.
I have seen children making a hole into the fruit and poking the inside vigorously with a stick for a while. I am told that this produces a juice which is very tasty. I have not tried this.
Children also make the fruit into rattles by drilling holes into the outer shell and decorating around the holes and then leaving it to dry. The seeds are quite big and act as the rattle as seen in photo below.

Another story tells that the Baobab seed can only be germinated by passing through the gut of an elephant. Something happens inside the elephant that provides the right process. I have also been told that seeds are germinated artificially now otherwise there would of course not be new Baobabs, since elephants are now only found in one or two protected areas.
Sometimes the bark of the tree especially on very old trees looks like the skin of an elephant and the trunk can taper in a monumental way from very wide to quite narrow. Look at the photo below showing the bark.

On some trees the bark is shaved to a certain height and so to speak is harvested. There is a strong fiber between the bark and the sapwood which is used for rope making. I was told that if you remove the bark of the tree all around, the tree will die. But the Baobab does not seem to mind this treatment as long as it is done before the sap rises. Nowadays the rope that is made is put to a lot of different uses, but in former times it was reserved for pulling up a dead persons body to his/her resting place. The process of harvesting changes the shape of the trunk which forms a sort of scar tissue. Sometimes several bands of it are cut on the trunk, which gives the trunk a scooped look.

In the past some fibrous part of the Baobab tree was also used to mix in with the clay that was used for house building. This is not used anymore, instead some strawy part of the millet plant is now used for this purpose instead, like we used to mix straw or hair with clay for house building.

Baobabs are never cut down for fire wood. They are sacred. If there is a need to cut down a tree that is perhaps in the way of a new building the removal has to be decided by all the village elders. I have seen such a tree (photo above) and I observe that the wood has a peculiar texture, it is not homogenous which makes it useless for making furniture or suchlike out of it.

In former times important persons like chiefs or griots- these are singers that record history-were buried in hollow Baobabs. Only some of the very, very old trees are hollow and were used for this purpose.

We visited a place where there were a great number of very old trees. It was called La Reunion de Baobab. Our guide at the time said that La Reunion was an important meeting place for many people living around there.