The “Lowly” Baobab Tree


Baobab Tree near Shinyanga

If you travel much around the general region central Tanzania, you can’t help but notice the huge baobab trees which dot the countryside. They seem to stand as bleak sentinels, forever keeping watch over everything that happens. Again, they usually are HUGE but if you look carefully you will see varying sizes. It’s interesting, though, I have never seen one sprouting or even real small.

I guess this fact gives some credence to what many Sukuma say about that tree. “God was angry with them and just threw them to the ground. They ended up “planted” upside down, with their roots in the air”. I guess this comes from the fact that most of the year they seem to be leaf-less; just barren branches reaching upward.

The tree itself is basically useless. No use for firewood. No use for lumber. An unsuspecting logger may dream about the lumber he could harvest but that would be a pipe-dream. The tree is fibrous, consists basically of an ever expanding trunk and is hollow inside. In fact the word was that during WWI, when the Germans were fighting to hold onto Tanganyika, they cut an opening into the trunk of some trees and used the hollow inside as ammunition dumps to keep the stores from detection. I wonder what it would have been like if the English had scored a direct cannon hit on one of those trees!

But, the tree did have some use. Following its brief flowering/leafing period, it produced seed pods that, when dried, produced a sour powder-type pith which surrounded the seeds. The Sukuma used that to give flavor to their corn meal porridge (nghomba/uji). I remember my mother (I grew up in Tanganyika, my folks were missionaries there) using that pith powder, mixed with baking soda (I forget the proportions), as a substitute for cream-of-tarter for her baking. WWII brought a lot of shortages to East Africa.

Also, further out on the plains, the elephants seemed to love those trees. With their ivory tusks they would gouge out patches from the trunk of the tree. From it they seemed to get both fibre and moisture. And, though most of the trees survived, some were well scarred from all that gouging. Some trees, though,
had too much gouging and died, seemingly “melting” as a mass to the ground.

Another plus from the tree is that, because it was basically hollow, if an opening into that hollow was made (from a branch breaking off?), African honey-bees found their way in and established a hive. Many trees had pegs pounded into them to allow folks to climb up to where a hive was in order to collect that sweet bounty. But one had to be careful. If there was an opening, snakes also could find their way in – and there were a lot of venomous snakes around! The Sukuma concept was that the only good snake was a dead snake! Some also believe the bones were poisonous and made sure that a “dead snake” was buried deeply!!

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