Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Importance of Kola Nuts in West African Culture

Kola nuts being sold in a market in Cameroon; pods of kola nuts
Photo credits: Barry Pousman & Simon Berry

Kola nuts, often referred to as Cola, are the nuts of the Kola tree, which grow in the rainforests of Africa. As well as being chewed for its stimulant properties, Kola nuts play an important role in cultural practices in West Africa. They are used as offerings, during religious ceremonies, significant events (weddings, naming ceremonies, funerals), as an everyday symbol of hospitality, and as a form of divination. Due to its cultural and economic value, kola nut trees are highly valued, and in many communities it is considered taboo to cut one down. 

Kola nut pod
Photo Credit: Scamperdale

A common saying in West Africa is "he who brings Kola brings life". They are a symbol of peace, friendship and hospitality. They represent pure intentions and are meant to be shared. The nut has to be broken into parts, and as they are meant to shared, they bring people together. Just as the parts of the nut are all pieces of a whole, by sharing the pieces, recipients become one with each other. 

Photo Credit: Nick Hobgood

In many countries, Kola nuts are exchanged for courting and marriage: a man must offer them when asking the woman's family for her hand in marriage, if the nuts are not returned then the proposal is accepted. The man is also expected to bring more when the engagement is accepted.
The Igbo, in Nigeria, share the nuts as a symbol of their union during traditional weddings. 

In Cameroon, they are also an important part of reconciliation ceremonies - when two parties have reached an agreement and have forgiven past transgressions, the nut is shared between them to bind them to this reconciliation.

Sec. Clinton receives a ceremonial welcome of rice and kola nut in a calabash from Liberia's traditional leaders.
Photo Credit: Meg Riggs for Bureau of IPP

Igbo Kola Nut Breaking Ceremony
They are also chewed as part of a greeting ceremony: whether at the start of an important occasion, or when greeting visitors into your village or home. If a host doesn't have any to offer, he/she is expected to apologize and offer something else. Though the kola ceremony differs somewhat depending on the event, overall it looks like this: the host presents a plate of kola nuts to the guest (or leader of guests). The guest acknowledges that she/he has seen the plate by briefly touching it and passes it back to the host. The host then takes a nut and gives it to the guest while saying: "When the Kola nut reaches home, it will tell where it came from" which is a proverb that means the visitor needs to show the nut to his/her people at home as proof of having visited that village. Then the nuts are blessed, usually by the oldest man in the host company, by holding one in his right hand and saying a blessing, prayer or toast. After this comes the breaking of the kola nut. This is important, because the more parts the kola breaks into, the more prosperity it gives, to the host and the guest. However if it only breaks into two parts, this represents ill will from the host, so particular kola nuts that tend to break in many parts are preferred for this ceremony. Once the breaking of the nuts is complete, the guest explains the purpose of the visit while the nut pieces are handed out.

Here's a fun book to read after learning about Kola nuts:

Koi & the Kola Nuts retold by Verna Aardema (affiliated link) - this Liberian folktale doesn't get into the significance of the kola nuts, however Koi does use them to do good and help others. Ultimately his good deeds brings about help when he most needs it to save his life, and win a girls hand and chiefdom. Knowing the significance of kola nuts, their being the means of his generosity and help to others seems fitting. 


  1. How fascinating. I am constantly astounded by the huge variation in rituals around the world. It must be an interesting job checking out local cultural traditions, to prepare politicians for overseas visits! I'd never heard of kola nuts before but I wondered whether they're used to make Coca Cola. I see that they certainly used to be (after cocaine was banned!) and that they're still in Pepsi.

    1. Oh yes, that would be an interesting job! I wonder why I never thought of that?

  2. So interesting! My first thought was whether they were linked to coke in any way. Lucinda answered that for me! Another really great post!
    Are you enjoying Africa more than China?

    1. Oddly, I'm reading conflicting information about whether Kola is/was in Coca Cola - which is why I didn't bring it up in the post.
      I'm enjoying learning the culture in West Africa as much as in China, but I miss being able to celebrate some festivals :)

  3. Yes, The Kola nut is used in making Coca-Cola to this day. The Coca leaf is also used today in the making of Coca-Cola, but the Coca-Cola company has taken the cocaine alkaloid of the Coca leaf before mixing it in their soda soft drink. They use the Coca leaf now only for flavoring.


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