Africa is not called the ‘dark continent’ for nothing. It is a continent of dark secrets and legends. The legends cover not only the people, but the animals, rivers and trees. And the tree with more legends hanging on its branches than baubles on a Christmas tree has to be the enormous Baobab (Adansonia digitata), found in just about every country south of the equator.
I personally love Baobabs and feel so excited whenever we come across them on our travels. They transport me back to my childhood in Zimbabwe where I had the utmost reverence for these giant gnarled, funny-looking ‘upside down’ trees. To me they represent Africa and mystery, and I’m obviously not the only one from whom similar feelings are evoked.
Any number of legends abound about Baobabs, from their origins to their magical powers. Every tribe has their own version of the good and bad things associated with Baobabs – which is why they are so venerated and feared. Many believe that benevolent spirits and ancestors dwell in them, whilst others fear the more malevolent spirits of both the trees and their Gods. Offerings of food and gifts are placed near the trees to pacify angry spirits or to show gratitude for bountiful harvests. Rituals are held in hollowed out Baobab trunks, with drums being beaten and prayers offered up for protection, and communication is made with dead ancestors and spirits. Animals seek shelter in them and up to forty people have been known to crowd into one hollow trunk.
In northern Namibia Baobabs are even responsible for keeping the environment clean, for legend has it that anyone who pollutes the area around a Baobab will be engulfed in its large trunk. He or she can only be rescued by a hardworking woodpecker (and this is highly unlikely as woodpeckers apparently resent humans for tearing down trees without asking their permission first) or by a hornless mooing black cow, which is extremely hard to find. The natives often say they hear victims crying in the trees. This ties up with yet another urban legend that has the evil spirits lying in wait amongst the branches. If one listens up close to the trunk one can hear the spirits laughing inside (a noise most likely caused by bees nesting in the hollow trunk).
In Botswana the Bushmen believe that the flowers, which only bloom for one day, are inhabited by spirits and if anyone has the audacity to pluck one they are sure to be eaten by a lion! Yet other Bushmen believe that one’s fate for such a crime is to be eaten by a tick. If Bushmen are hunting an animal and it passes under a Baobab tree, the hunt is immediately stopped and another animal killed to preserve the life of the one that received the protection of the tree.
There are many different versions of the origin of the tree, like God being angry because when he planted the tree in the earth it kept on walking, so he uprooted it and threw it onto the ground upside down. It didn’t die but continued to live with its roots in the air. Yet others believe that the God, Thora, flung the Baobab down from paradise (because it was always complaining) and it landed on earth upside down. Its elephant-like appearance apparently came about because its maternal creator was startled by an elephant when she was making the tree and it assumed the grotesque shape and dimensions of this large animal.
Talking of dimensions, Baobabs can reach heights of twenty meters and have trunks with a diameter of twelve meters. Their trunks, which absorb vast amounts of water (up to 120 000 liters in an adult tree), vary considerably in size during the dry and rainy seasons. Because of its watery properties, as well as the food that one can get from it (Cream of Tartar), the Baobab is also known as the ‘tree of life.’ Providing shelter, medicine, rope, cloth and protection it is no wonder that it is held in such high esteem by the people of Africa. In addition, if one drinks the water that seeds have been soaked in, one is guaranteed not to be eaten by a crocodile!
When the South African army was present in Katimo Mulilo in the Caprivi region of Namibia during the Bush War, they held no reverence or fear of the mighty tree as they fitted a flush toilet into one, thereby defiantly showing the world what they thought the of the superstitions and legends. The tree had the last laugh though, as its trunk grew over the door, making it difficult to open.