Baobab tree …a mythical symbol among the BaTonga

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THERE are arguably three symbols that are held in high esteem and revered by the BaTonga people of both Zimbabwe and Zambia; these are the fish eagle, the Nyaminyami (their river god) and the baobab tree.
However, it is the baobab tree that is often revered as a powerful symbol that the BaTonga elders say has certain mysterious qualities that are respected among the tribesmen.
The distinctive profile, longevity and utility of the African baobab tree has made it an icon of the BaTonga people.
It is regarded as a symbol of shelter, of plenty and of productivity. There is much mystique and superstition wherever baobabs grow in Binga.
The massive, usually squat cylindrical trunk gives rise to thick-tapering branches resembling a root system, which is why it has often been referred to as the upside-down tree.
According to Tonga mythology, God planted them upside down. Some BaTonga believe the baobab actually grows upside down.
The baobab tree is known as the tree of life. It provides shelter, clothing, food and water for animals and humans.
The cork-like bark and huge stem are fire resistant and are used for making cloth and rope. The leaves are used as condiments and medicines.
Being deciduous, the leaves fall off in winter and appear again in late spring or early summer.
The large flowers are white and sweetly scented. They emerge in the late afternoon from large round buds on long drooping stalks from October to December. The flowers fall within 24 hours, turning brown and smelling unpleasant.
According to the BaTonga elders, when the world was young, the baobabs were upright and proud. However, for some unknown reason, they dominated over lesser growing trees and the gods became angry and uprooted the baobabs, thrusting them back into the ground, root upwards.
Elders also say the myth around the baobab tree is that evil spirits sometimes haunt the sweet white flowers and anyone who picks one will be killed by a lion.
One gigantic baobab in Zambia is said to be haunted by a ghostly python. Before the whiteman came, a large python lived in the hollow trunk and was worshipped by the local tribesmen.
When they prayed for rain, fine crops and good hunting, the python answered their prayers.
They said the first white hunter shot the python and this event led to disastrous consequences.
On still nights, the tribesmen claim to hear a continuous hissing sound from the old tree in the Kafue National Park in Zambia.
One of the largest baobabs is known as ‘kondanamwali’ — the tree that eats maidens.
It is believed that the big tree fell in love with four beautiful girls who lived in its shade. When they reached puberty, they sought husbands and made the tree jealous.
One night, during a raging thunderstorm, the tree opened its trunk and took the maidens inside. A rest house had been built in the branches of the tree.
On stormy nights, it is said the crying of the imprisoned maidens make people tremble — not the sounds of the wild animals.
In the Zambezi Valley, it is believed that when a young boy is washed in water used to soak baobab bark, he will grow up to be a big man.
The tribesmen’s beliefs have been proven to have a scientific basis. The local people believe that women living in kraals where baobabs are plentiful have more children than those living outside baobab zones.
This has been proven true, especially for the BaTonga where a woman can have up to 10 strong children.
They eat soup made from baobab leaves, which is rich in vitamins. This compensates for any deficiency in their diet.
Doctors have confirmed that this indeed brings about a higher fertility rate. The African bushman has a legend that tells of the god Thora.
He took a dislike to the baobab growing in his garden, so he threw it out over the wall of Paradise on to Earth below, and although the tree landed upside-down, it continued to grow.
It is not surprising that such a strange looking tree should have superstitions linked to it.
Some people believe that if you pick a flower from a baobab tree, you will be eaten by a lion, but if you drink water in which a baobab’s seeds have been soaked, you will be safe from crocodile attacks.
There are nine species of the baobab tree (genus adansonia) – six from Madagascar, two from Africa and one from Australia.
The tree’s biggest enemies are drought, water logging, lightning, elephants and black fungus.
Baobabs are deciduous and their bat-pollinated flowers bloom at night. Baobabs store large volumes of water in their trunks – which is why elephants, eland and other animals chew the bark during the dry seasons.
The trees have been used by the BaTonga for many purposes, including shelter, ceremonies, food, medicine, fibre, juices and beer.
Animals like baboons and warthogs eat the seed pods; weavers build their nests in the huge branches while barn owls, mottled spine tails and ground-hornbills roost in the many hollows.
The creased trunks and hollowed interiors also provide homes to countless reptiles, insects and bats.
According to research, cream of tartar (a cooking ingredient) was originally produced from the acidic baobab seed pulp, but is now mainly sourced as a by-product from the wine-making process. The roasted seeds can also be consumed as a coffee.
Baobab oil is also used as an aromatherapy product. Baobab is valued for its nutritious, skin-protecting oil which has a rich, slippery texture.
People use it as a body or skin care oil as well as a nourishing hair and scalp massage.
The mauyu fruit, known as monkey bread, is edible and full of vitamin C. The fruit has a dry, powdery substance inside that covers hard, black, kidney-shaped seeds.
The off-white, powdery substance is rich in ascorbic acid, a naturally occurring organic compound with antioxidant properties. When soaked in water, this white powdery substance produces a refreshing drink, somewhat like lemonade. It has an acidic flavour.
This drink is used to treat fevers, malaria and other ailments.
Rainwater, which often collects in the hollows of the large branches (mhango), is welcomed by travellers and hunters alike.
It has been recorded that in some cases, the centre of the tree is purposely hollowed out to serve as a reservoir for water during the rain season.
The nutritious fallen baobab flowers are relished by wild animals and cattle.
When baobab wood is chewed, it provides vital moisture to relieve thirst.
Humans and animals eat baobab wood in times of drought.
The leaves are rich in vitamin C, sugars, potassium tart and calcium. They are cooked fresh as a vegetable or dried and crushed for use later. The sprout of a young tree can be eaten like asparagus. The root of very young trees is also edible, as are the seeds.
Seeds can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute while caterpillars which feed on baobab leaves are collected and eaten as an important source of protein.
Wild animals eat the fallen and fresh leaves.
Many baobabs live to a ripe old age – with one recently collapsed Namibian tree known as ‘Grootboom’ thought to be 1 275 years old.

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