Broad as a Baobab Trunk: Lessons from Senegal
By Rebecca Jacobs-Pollez
In this essay, Rebecca Jacobs-Pollez, professor of history at Murray State College in Tishomingo, Oklahoma, and a 2020 participant in CAORC’s faculty development seminar to Senegal, discusses how the experience helped her understand Senegal, Africa, herself, and humankind, through observing the many uses of the baobab tree. All images are courtesy of the author.
When I learned I was selected for the 2020 faculty development seminar to Senegal, I was extremely surprised and thrilled. I teach World Civilization at a small community college in rural Oklahoma and I knew that my knowledge of Africa needed improvement. This trip would give me a chance to learn, not just for myself, but also for my students and the local community, since I hoped to give presentations at several local libraries upon my return. My college has a growing number of international students, many from Africa, and this trip would also make it easier for me to connect with them.
The lessons in Senegal started early. One of the first things that I did with some of my fellow participants after arriving was to take a walk. We wanted to see, smell, feel, and hear Dakar. On that first walk, my colleagues and I passed an enormous tree on a side street near the Presidential Palace (see above). The tree sat right in the middle of a road that forked around it. One colleague noted that it was a baobab tree. I was immediately excited because I had baobab powder in my pantry at home. I knew the powder was made from the football-shaped fruit that was allowed to dry on the tree before being harvested. I mostly used the powder in cooking since it adds a sweet, slightly fruity flavor. Seeing the tree, I felt that maybe I actually knew something that mattered but, over the course of our trip, I discovered just how much I did not know!
For instance, did you know that baobabs are sometimes called the upside-down trees because their branches resemble roots? Neither did I. It was one of the many lessons I learned during my travels through Senegal. To me, they appeared to be dancing ladies captured in a moment of happiness. The enormous trunks were skirts and the branches stretched upward like waving arms. Everyone says that the people of Senegal are welcoming, and they are, and the open arms of the baobabs seem to also say, “Welcome!”
Once I noticed that first baobab, I began to see them everywhere, teaching me about creativity, a characteristic of all people. Upon closer inspection of one tree, I saw small rocks that rested in the dimples that covered the trunk. I expected some deep significance or symbolism to their placement. A few days after our walk, I asked Ali, our extremely knowledgeable tour guide, about the rocks, and he smiled at me and said, “Children think it is fun to put the rocks in those holes.” I had to laugh at myself – my first lessons were in making assumptions. A lesson for the teacher because I often tell my students, “Do not make assumptions.”
Early on, our group discovered the integral role the baobab tree plays in Senegalese culture. All parts of the tree are useful. The leaves are used in traditional medicine and as food; the fruit is high in nutrients. We drank the delicious bouye, a juice drink made from baobab fruit. At a market in Dakar, we found candy made from the pressed fruit and ginger. The seeds yield an oil that is used in cosmetics. Our lecturers and guides taught us that along with the lion, the baobab is the national symbol of Senegal, so images of the tree appear everywhere, from the tiles on the patio in front of the Hotel de Ville in Dakar, to the obelisk in Obelisk Square, to sand and glass paintings on Gorée Island. Visitors to the Museum of Black Civilizations are greeted by a three-story metal baobab (pictured above) created by the Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrié. The baobab can even be found in music. The Orchestra Baobab is a Senegalese band established in 1970 as the house band of the Baobab Club in Dakar. These monuments and symbols were only the beginning of my education on the significance of the baobab.
The tree is also a sacred object. At the Bandia Wildlife Reserve, we were shown one of the few tombs within a baobab tree still open to the public. The practice was banned in the 1960s. I had never heard of griots before visiting Senegal, but their significance, as relayed by fellow participant Kimberly Monroe in her blog article, cannot be denied. Griots are often described as wandering storytellers, but they are much more. Griots have a long history of keeping oral tradition—they are singers who transmit history, provide advice, act as reporters, storytellers, poets, composers, and musicians. One common explanation for why they were buried in baobabs says that since these men were living historians, walking libraries, whose words held strong power, their energy should radiate throughout the baobab for eternity – a beautiful thought about the importance of knowledge.While the baobab’s significance as a sacred symbol cannot be denied, throughout our time in Senegal, I also saw various utilitarian uses of the tree and its products. At the primary school Nos Enfants Lisent in Sokone, most of the members of our group bought bottles of baobab oil. As we drove through the countryside, I noticed cows and donkeys often clustered under the trees. Turns out they might have been eating the leaves that had fallen from the trees since during the dry season those leaves become a source of animal food.
Since returning to Oklahoma, I’ve learned a lot more about the tree’s biology and how well it is adapted to its environment. Quite sadly, I also discovered that these wonderful, useful, and fascinating trees are dying all over Africa, probably because of climate change, but certainly from human intervention as well. According to The New York Times, in the last 50 years, more than 50 percent of the Senegalese baobabs have died or been felled. We saw first-hand evidence of this upon our evening arrival in Dakar, on our ride from the airport to the hotel. During the ride, we could see in the dark landscape a massive amount of building. That was Diamniadio, Senegal’s ultra-modern new city, necessary to house Dakar’s rapidly expanding population. What we did not know at the time is that Diamniadio is being built on what once was a baobab forest. Senegal is trapped by the need to support their increasing population and, as happens all over the world and has happened for centuries, the environment suffers. To Senegal’s credit, officials have pledged to replant the trees.I have often heard the phrase “travel is broadening.” The baobab tree is broad in size, as are the lessons that it teaches us. Our guide at the Museum of Black Civilizations emphasized the fact that humankind started in Africa and that we all share common roots. In learning about the baobab, I have also learned about humanity and what we have in common: creativity, belief in the sacred, interactions with nature, and the need to resolve problems we all face. My lessons have continued since my return from Senegal. Each time I did research for this article, I learned something new about the baobabs, about Senegal, about Africa, about the world, and about myself. If I were to write this in a year, those lessons would be different, and I look forward to continuing my education.
The author wishes to thank Cinder Cooper Barnes for her insightful comments and suggestions on an earlier version of this article.
CAORC’s 2020 faculty development seminar to Senegal was organized with the West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal, and supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the following U.S. National Resource Centers in African Studies: Boston University, Howard University, Indiana University, Michigan State University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Kansas, and University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Learn more about CAORC Faculty Development Seminars.
Rebecca Jacobs-Pollez is professor of history at Murray State College in Tishomingo, Oklahoma. She was one of 16 participants in the CAORC-WARC Faculty Development Seminar on Diversity, Religion and Migration in West Africa, January 6–23, 2020.