Standing There Upside Down
The guide cut the engine and the Land Rover coasted quickly to a stop in the thick red dust that masks our view of the the forest. In front of us sat one of the most grotesque images I had seen since coming to Africa. In every direction it seemed to be clawing its way toward the heavens, and it appeared to be nearly as broad as it was high. It was one of the old ones, one of the Baobab trees that inhabit this part of Africa. I had read story after story about them, and fable after fable. I did not know I was about to hear another of those tall stories (no pun intended) about this famous tree. But first a little more background might be in order for those who live in parts of the world where this tree has never traveled.
The baobab tree is one of the longest living trees on earth. There is evidence that some have lived for over 2,000 years, while other reports indicate trees that may have lived in excess of 3,000 years. Trees can reach a maximum height of 75 feet and a maximum diameter of 60 feet around the trunk. It is most unusual in that nearly every part of the tree has a value to either man or animal. It can be used for lumber, is often hollowed out to serve as a refrigerator, or even as a burial site. After being hollowed out it can be used to hold water, or in its natural progression a large tree can actually store as much as 120,000 liters of water in order to survive long droughts in the harsh climates where it grows. It can also be used as a watchtower for a nearby village and the village people can climb to the top to see danger before it reaches their village. The fibrous bark can be used to make fishnets, cords or used in clothing. In some places the leaves are used as a vegetable and its fruits are also edible by both man and animal. Even the pulp can be used as a fruit drink. Some reports indicate it is also used for glue making, soap, rubber and medicine.The Center of the Community
In many villages the baobab tree is a center for community life. Meetings take place under its broad branches, and in places it is the source of many religious beliefs and rites. The nation of Senegal has selected the baobab to be its national symbol.
One African proverb from the nation of Ghana offers this favorable evaluation, “Knowledge is like a Baobab tree, one person’s arms cannot encompass it.” However not every conclusion about the tree is quite this complimentary. Many fables revolve around the tree. One of them is drawn from its strange appearance. The leaves appear to be under the ground and the roots seem to be what is sticking up in the air. Because of this upside down appearance the story concludes it is an act of the gods. So the story goes it’s upside down appearance comes because of its arrogance with the other trees around it. This caused the other trees to be sad and the gods who planted them became angry and pulled the baobab tree up and then shoved it back in the ground upside down. In parts of Tanzania the village people believe the trees contain the souls of former chiefs or tribal leaders.
Here Comes Another Tall Tale
Not to be outdone by the other cultures our guide launches into yet another tall tale concerning the appearance of the baobab tree. As the story goes when God created the earth the animals came to him and asked if they could be participants in the remaining portion of the creation. Since He was nearly done he advised them that the only thing remaining was to create the trees. The animals were excited because they could participate in this work. They asked God to let them plant the seeds for the trees. God reluctantly agreed. He then started giving out seed, one particular seed to one particular group of animals. Another group of seeds to another group, and on and on until He got to the last seeds and the last animals. It was the seeds for the baobab trees that remained and the only animal left were the hyenas.
“Now everyone knows how stupid the hyena is,” he observed.
“Well, when they went out they planted all of the baobab seeds upside down. Stupid animals. That is why the roots look like they are growing up in the air and the leaves are buried out of sight in the ground.”
With that he turned the key, the diesel engine sprang to life, and we drove past the giant tree that may have been listening to every word!