On that journey from Gwanda to Mashaba in south western Zimbabwe, the baobabs dominated the landscape and the conversation. My colleagues from Zimbabwe and Kenya teased me about my fascination with that ancient, strange tree. ‘What do you see in them?’, they asked, with bemused voices.
I tried to explain how I’d fallen in love with these majestic, upside down trees with their giant trunks and branches like roots reaching the sky back when I lived in Malawi in the 1990s. I told them about the three gnarled baobabs that flanked the treacherous road between Lilongwe, the capital, and Salima down by the lake. Those trees had probably been there for hundreds of years. The road builders had been there less than a hundred days and already they had a plan for felling them. I tried, in vain, to save at least one. I wasn’t a tree hugger – and anyway it would have taken 10 or 12 of me to hug those baobabs – but there was something about those trees that was a whole community, a history, a source of food, water, shelter, shade, and more. I’d seen birds and animals and people living and loving by those trees. They stood apart and yet held everything together in their complex structures. I was gutted when they were no more.
I smile now when I see baobab products marketed as superfruit in those fancy health food stores in Toronto and London and Paris and Lima and Dakar. The only time I’d tried the fruit, the Malawian women who’d offered it laughed at the look on my face. It wasn’t exactly top on my list. It was the sight of that loofa-like fruit suspended and swaying from those long rope-like strings hanging from naked branches that fascinated me. Africans have long used baobab fruits, leaves, bark and branches for food, medicines, textiles and more. The more recent discovery of the power of this incredible tree by those outside Africa is now supporting Africans to earn decent livings from baobabs – provided the buyers are committed to fair practices.
Those sacred trees can live for more than 2,000 years. I am shocked and deeply saddened to learn that several of the oldest baobabs are dying. The exact reasons are unknown but climate change and drought are suspected.
There’s something in the majesty, tenacity, generosity and complexity of those baobabs that speaks to me of Africa.