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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Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Baobab Tree: The Tree of Life in West Africa

Long ago, as the earth was being created, the gods created the Baobab tree as the first to be put on land. The baobab tree was majestic, and being the first thought all the other trees should know this. The baobab insisted on being treated as the most important, most spectacular tree in the land. The other trees found it tiresome and even hurtful. When aware of the baobab's arrogance and boastfulness, the gods became angry. They pulled the baobab from its roots, and planted it upside down. Which is why the roots are now the baobab's branches.

Or so the legend of the Baobab Tree goes - that is, one of the many legends. These are pretty spectacular trees that play an important role in local ecologies as well as cultural heritage.

Baoabab tree in Burkina Faso
Photo Credit: Eric Montfort (CC)

Also called the Tree of Life, the Upside-Down tree, and the Monkey Bread tree - the Baobab (bey-oh-bab) tree has a rather odd appearance with branches that are without leaves for most of the year, giving them the appearance of roots. Of the 9 species of baobab in the world, 2 are native to Africa and can be found throughout the savanna and drier regions of Africa - throughout much of West Africa as well as sections of east and southern Africa. (The other seven species are found in Madagascar and Australia). They can live for thousands of years - isn't that incredible?

Their diameters can be as large as 60 feet (!!) and can grow up to 75 feet tall. These trees survive the 9 months of dry seasons because their trunks store water - as much as 120,000 liters of it! During droughts, elephants have been known to break into tree trunks to get to the water. In fact, historically, many settlements were established in their areas because of the presence of a baobab tree (and its water). 

The fruit of the baobab is called "Monkey bread". The fuzzy outer skin eventually dries hard like a coconut, and it's the pulp inside that has all the nutrients. 
Photo Credit: Ollivier Girard for Center for International Forestry Research (CC)

The baobab tree has lots of uses. The bark rapidly regenerates after stripping, and it's often used to make rope. The bark, leaves and fruit are used in traditional medicines, for plenty of different complaints (though not everything has been clinically proven). The fruit, known as monkey bread :), has a pulp that's especially healthy, and depending on the variety contains up to 10 times more vitamin C than oranges. It's used in drinks, sauces and brewing. 

The baobab tree is the national symbol of Senegal.

The markings on the trunks of these baobab trees, in Mali, were made by the Dogon, scraping off the bark to make ropes.
Photo Credit: Hugo van Tilborg (CC)

They provide shade and shelter, and are traditionally the center of community life. Meetings often take place under its shade giving broad branches. In some places, it's also where religious rites take place. Some baobab trees are living mausoleums - traditionally, griots (musicians, poets, historians) were denied a ground burial and their remains were placed in the hollow trunks of matured trees.

Create something

Read a book

As with anything we learn about, I like to look up picture books. These aren't based in West Africa but generally in the savanna or South or East Africa. They range from informative to fictional, and offer a glimpse at the importance of these majestic trees - whether to the environment or to the culture.  

Tree of Life: The World of the African Baobab (Tree Tales) by Barbara Bash. This is a great book to learn about the Baobab tree, from legend to facts, and its role and interconnections with various wildlife found in the savanna. It's a great non-fiction picture book.

This is the Tree: A Story of the Baobab by Miriam Moss. This book is written in lovely poetic prose about the baobab and how connected it is to the other beings in the savanna - from insects, to animals, to people. There's a double page spread at the end that gives more informative details to what is seen in the book.

Under the Baobab Tree by Julie Stiegemeyer. With lyrical writing, we follow a brother and sister as they make their way to a neighboring village to gather under the baobab tree. On their journey they pass wildlife from the savanna, and wonder about who will be at the tree of life - giving the reader glimpses of how the baobab tree is used in some rural African villages. Ultimately, they arrive for a church service, being held under the baobab tree. The front page also includes information about the baobab tree.

Dear Baobab by Cheryl Foggo. This story isn't about a baobab, but its use in the story shows how much this tree is part of the cultural heritage of many. This is the story of Maika, a 7 year old boy who was born in a rural village of Tanzania but now lives in Canada. He is having a hard time adjusting to his new life, and is being picked on by some students at his school. It's thoughts of his home town and the baobab tree he used to sit under that brings him comfort. In the end, Maiko starts to find new ways to feel connected in his new home.

"Knowledge is like a Baobab tree, one person’s arms cannot encompass it."  - Ghanaian proverb

Find more posts exploring culture, geography and history with kids at:

Books are a wonderful way to experience new worlds and ideas. Our house is filled with books, most of which are borrowed from our public library. Public libraries are an incredible resource, making books accessible to everyone, and we highly encourage everyone to discover theirs. If you are hoping to build your own home library, I've made it easy by linking available book titles to Amazon.com. Please note that I have become affiliated with them, which means that any purchase made through these links may earn this blog a small commission. If unavailable on Amazon, I've linked titles to Better World Books, a site that sells second hand books (I have no association with them).

Title image credited to Quinn Norton (CC - Adapted with words overlay) 

1 comment:

  1. You wrote some incorrect information here. You said "2 [baobab species] are native to Africa .... The other seven species are found in Madagascar". But Madagascar is a part of Africa!!


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