Selling the Sacred
I was first mesmerized by Senegal’s trees while sitting in the window seat of a full N’Diaga N’Diaye, while traveling from Dakar down Senegal’s west coast. I could escape the crowded bus by gazing over the flat earth, which made a perfect stage for the cast of arboretum characters. Each tree usually stands alone, the vast space between it and the next giving an observer enough time to truly appreciate each individually. There are the coconut palms and the Doum palm, both standing tall and thin. Enormous mango trees produce fruit sweeter than the gumdrop whose shape it mimics. The Kapok has roots that twist and maze around the base of the trunk, creating a labyrinth for insects, critters and children alike. And while there is too much open space to warrant a forest, there is no doubt that the Baobab is the king of the Senegalese jungle.
A few days after my bus trip ended I was in Fadiouth, a small fishing village, and a new friend, Moudou, offered to take me to visit Senegal’s largest Baobab tree. I quickly agreed, and we decided that I would meet him and his horse, General, the next afternoon before lunch. If there was any better viewing point than the N’Diaga N’Diaye window seat, it had to be riding on the back of a horse-pulled cart, where the horizon and the infinite blue of the sky framed my view.
The Baobab Tree is a ubiquitous symbol of Senegal, and Africa at large. Its omnipresence, however, does not lessen the magic that each tree seems to hold. Where its thick trunk grows up from the earth, the bark looks wrinkled like the skin of an elephant. Its branches are long arms, extending to spiny fingers. Old trees are covered in patches of leaves, while the younger ones are sparsely decorated like a young boy who counts his whiskers each morning to see if his night’s sleep brought maturity and wisdom. The fruit, bouille, dangles from the branches on long vines. One can look at the spiky branches and see the twisted, short hair of a young African girl or the thin, crooked fingers of a witch’s hand.
Moudou, his two brothers, General and I started our journey when the afternoon sun had already heated every nook and cranny of the land. As we set out, Moudou shared with me the legend of the genesis of the Baobab tree. When God created the Baobab, he made it the strongest tree in the world. Knowing this, the Baobab became very proud and moved all around the continent of Africa, showing off how great it was. This greatly upset God, who feared he had failed to teach the tree humility. In order to do so, he took the Baobab, lifted it out of the ground and planted it upside down. Today, the trees’ branches that we see are actually its ancient roots.
General’s speed over the sandy path bounced us up and down on the cart and made me feel like God may be trying to do a similar topsy-turvy move with me at the moment. As I held on to the side of the cart, I though about how in the three months I had already spent in Senegal, I had enjoyed several contributions of the Baobab tree. I drank water out of cups made from the shell of the Bouille fruit, and ate a sauce made from the leaves. In my Wolof class, we learned that the word garab means both tree and medicine. This was not only linguistic truth, I myself had been healed by the Baobab. When my stomach was running its course adjusting to the food and water, my host mother suggested the sweet Bouille juice as an effective anti-diarrheal. In addition, the leaves of the tree can be dried and ground into a paste to help heal skin infections and joint pain. I calmed myself through the bumpy ride thinking that if I did fly off the side of the cart, there would probably be some way that the Baobab could cure any injuries I sustained.
Our bumpy ride took us through millet fields, peanut fields, and mangroves surrounded by hundreds of Baobabs. I would try to find the largest one in the distance, predicting it was our destination and then we would come to and pass it, bringing another tree into sight whose size put to shame that which I had picked out. As we got further from the village and deeper into the countryside, I became dizzy with the choice of Baobabs in front of me, each seeming bigger than the last. The only noise was the rhythmic clapping of the horse’s hooves, which reminded me of the drumbeats that had become so familiar to me since arriving in Senegal. I recalled the warm welcome that I had received days earlier at a marriage ceremony. The griots that were playing music under the shade of Baobab had sung a song in my name about my arrival. I daydreamed about how nice it would be if we were similarly welcomed at our Baobab destination.
Music is at the foundation of the oral tradition of the Senegalese, and it is the griots who create and preserve it. No special event goes without music; griots are invited to marriages, funerals, wrestling matches, naming-ceremonies, baptisms, circumcisions, the arrival of guests, a football match at the stadium and all other social occasions. Their narrative music passes down traditions, cultural and family histories. Ancestors are remembered just as I was honored as a wedding guest: by having their name and their good deeds sung in a song.
Despite their irreplaceable contribution to Senegalese culture, the griots are the lowest of the castes. Until the second half of the 1900s, it was believed that if these griots were buried in the ground after they died, they would pollute the earth, ruin the planting season and cause a drought. Accordingly, their dead bodies were placed into the hollow trunks of gigantic Baobabs. Leopald Senghor, the first president of Senegal outlawed this practice soon after Independence. Soon after in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Senegal had its worst drought in history. I hoped that if I had the chance to see any griots today, they would be those playing under the tree instead of those buried in the tree.
As Moudou told me we were nearly there, I felt a great sense of suspense. I felt like I was visiting the Pope, or Mecca. Before religion found its way to Senegal, animists worshipped the ways of nature. This Baobab had seen and heard 800 years worth of life, death, and the wisdom passed down in between. Thinking in those terms made my visit seem very small in the life of the tree, and yet very significant in my life.
As General rounded the last corner, I heard what sounded like the roar of engines. Sure enough, I saw two overland trucks and two buses parking 30 meters from the tree and unloading dozens of white people. I was struck not by the beauty of the tree, or the surrounding tranquility but instead, by how I had left the quiet countryside and been yanked into a tourist ghetto.
As we tied up General and the cart, more than 40 people piled out of the trucks and buses and made their way to the tree, whose entire periphery was surrounded by vendors aggressively trying to push their cheap merchandise into the faces of the tourists. “Madame, veilleuz-vous achetez les statues? This drum? This necklace? This purse?” The tourists did everything short of two-stepping to avoid the vendors, see the tree up close enough to take some pictures and return to the safety of their huge overland vehicles, from which they then began to bargain for mass-produced souvenirs.
It took me a couple of minutes to peel my eyes from the scene in front of me and look at the majestic tree towering over me. It was enormous. From the angle we arrived its trunk looked like it was the trunks of five separate trees welded together, the circumference easily totaling over 20 meters. More than two hundred bouille dangled from the tree on vines three feet long. The span of its branches hovered at least 30 meters high and stretched out even wider.
The cavity in the inside of the tree is large enough to enter, and with a little flexibility and the help of a friend, I folded myself through the hole to make my way. Stepping inside was like stepping into a fantasy I had as a child every time I got angry at my parents. I would dream that trees in our back yard were actually the size of small houses inside, and I bring all the worldly possessions an 8 year old would need to survive and could live there, worrying my parents but not having to worry myself by actually leaving our yard. I was snapped back into reality by the huge bats swooping down from top of hollow. Conveniently, the friend who helped fold me into the tree was also a guide, and without invitation he spewed dozens of facts at me then asked me to pay him for his three minutes of trouble. His speech was so aggressive, so rehearsed and delivered so quickly that I barely remember any of the facts to share with you here.
I do, however, remember seeing one tourist dangle his money down from the first safari vehicle to a vendor, almost like he was dangling food in a cage for a zoo animal. When the truck started to drive away, the vendor ran next to it for 10 meters, pushing the wooden statues up to the man, pleading with him to take them in exchange for the money. The vans disappeared behind the tree before I saw if the transaction was completed, before the vendor could no longer keep up with the speed of the truck.
We rested under the tree for a while before we decided to make our return trip. Over the din of the vendors’ sales pitches, the tourists’ curt refusals, and the roar of the safari vehicles engines, I could still listen closely enough to hear the wind rustling through the tree’s thousands of leaves. I imagined that it was whispering the secrets of the last 800 years to us, but feared that if I listened too closely, I would hear the calls of carnival auctioneer, selling the opportunity to try and win cheap stuffed animals and other forgettable prizes.
I was totally depressed. Here I had hoped to have a spiritual, magical experience at the oldest of the most sacred trees of Senegal. Instead, Senegalese and tourist opportunists were pimping out the innocent Baobab tree. When people travel abroad for short vacations, like those in the safari vehicles, they bring a lot of money to spend, but little time to give to the people of the country they are visiting. They end up missing the opportunity to learn a culture by talking with the people who live it, and instead pay huge amounts of money to have it spoon fed to them. The Senegalese with whom they could be talking, are equally short-sighted and end up seeing the tourists only as sources of income. Both parties end up forgetting to treat each other like people, and as a result, the largest Baobab tree had been turned into something only a bit short of an amusement park.
After a couple minutes of trotting along, General had brought us back to the quiet tranquility of the countryside where I became very aware of my hunger. Our journey had taken at least a couple hours and we had not eaten lunch yet. I looked forward to the ceeb bu jeen (fish and rice) that Moudou’s family had invited me to share, but I was not sure that I could make it another hour before getting something in my stomach. My already dismal mood made it far too easy to dream up my slow demise: a dizzy confusion from hunger’s sudden drop in blood sugar, resulting in a fall from the cart only to get trampled under General’s hooves. I had just started to imagine my family’s despair at such a preventable death when Moudou tugged on General’s reigns and the cart stopped abruptly.
“Look,” said Moudou’s younger brother, “two bouilles!” He hopped off the cart and picked up the fruits that had fallen from the otherwise unremarkable Baobab we were passing underneath. He cracked open one and offered me the shell holding dozens of seeds coated with a layer of tasty white dry pulp.
I popped a seed in my mouth, marveling at how if it was given enough time, it could grow larger and stronger that the tree we had just visited. I spit it out, watching it land in a soft patch of dried leaves, and wondered if in 800 years, a tree standing in that very spot would feed another weary, hungry traveler.