(Part of the Gambia 2018 Tour Series). Baobab Sustainability.
One great thing about visiting The Gambia at this time of the year is that many of the Baobab trees are full of yummy Baobab fruits! Although generally it’s still a little early, some trees, and some fruits are harvesting, and they do look amazing!
Along the coastal areas Baobab trees can still be found, even among the growing housing estates and direct on the sea front but generally palm trees are more common. It’s the perfect habitat for fruit trees, and we love it!
Whilst Baobabs are plentiful, growing in 32 African countries, and Baobab fruit supply is sustainable, the wider problem for Baobab is with the growing urbanisation. The building of housing/property means the coastal Baobab trees are often sacrificed and cut down for space – one of the reasons we are here advocating for wider Baobab sustainability and protection. More on that later.
Travelling up country we didn’t have to travel far to find more amazing Baobab trees. We have many fond places in The Gambia, and we have many fond Baobab areas, but this journey allowed us to explore a little wider.
We had the privilege of Isatou’s father, Ken, travelling with us, who has a background of community development with 35+ years’ experience supporting communities across the country digging wells and improving access to clean water. Travelling under the first skies of the morning we stopped off in Dasilamai, a village famous for ancient decedents and has a strong reputation for hosting and giving home to ‘strangers’ or travellers otherwise passing through. Their reputation for welcoming people into the community, and building them homes to help them settle had resulted in the village becoming a hub to many spawned surrounding villages, and one where people would come from all over to pray and give thanks. Ken had spent many of his early years growing up here, and as we approached we drove down a dusty bright red road with giant Baobabs flanking either side. At places it opened up into traditional farm land, and in other areas compounds emerged with families busy harvesting and sieving their grains. We stopped and took a little video inside a mini Baobab forest, and came across some real beauties!
The village has 78 family compounds, over 500 women and only 30 women currently have the means of vegetable production with access to a garden. So in addition to learning more about the tradition and history of the village, we were able to discuss community development and understand some of their specific challenges.
There is something about a Baobab tree that is purely awe inspiring. Historic. A living ancient relic of the past. Other than the practicality of their healthy fruits and durable fibres it’s clear to see why they have been so highly regarded for centuries. They help create beautiful environments around villages. Along with ‘strength’ and ‘resilience’, which can resonate with those early village settlers who were creating communities out of empty dry bushland, Baobabs also represent ‘wisdom’. On the bottom of our drinks pouches is a local proverb “Wisdom is like a Baobab tree, no one individual can embrace it”. Traditional stories, told by an elder and passing down ancient wisdom are often told underneath the Baobab tree. Their shade provide respite from the sun for many subsistence farmers toiling under the blistering African sun. We met and had many conversations with farmers under the Baobab tree.
As well as all of this, there is something about Baobab trees that also bring out the child in me, and I can’t help but climb! This is me in 2008 (lost in translation with a rather dodgy haircut!)… …
Travelling with Ken, and all his traditional and historic wisdom, allowed for an amazing insight. It was a cultural and historic tour, and at times a jolly good laugh! But there was a serious side too. The depth of engagement with community’s across the country gives us confidence for the partnerships and work that we can develop. As a result we have built more great community relationships. The desire and openness for collaboration was more than encouraging. The burning platform of health and nutrition was glaring and widely understood at all times. Whilst all communities had overriding challenges, each community had its own individual needs, areas of strengths and opportunity that we are able to connect to different areas of our emerging work – female co-operative gardens, baobab sustainability, school feeding, youth employment etc. It had the feeling that early partnerships and ‘business’ relationships were formed, but more encouraging than all it very much felt the beginning of new friendships.
Visiting another village, we stopped to greet an old friend but unfortunately found the compound empty as he had travelled. As the compound sat at the back of the village, we could however see the Baobabs that surrounded. One had a huge collapsed branch which exposed its giant hollow so (for research of course!) I climbed up for a closer look. An enormous snake that had been basking in the sun slithered back into the hollow, warning me not to get to close!
During this complete tour of the country, we were doing some light informal and observational research on the scale and state of the Baobabs, reporting into the Honourable Lamin Dibba Minister of Agriculture later in our visit, advocating on more actionable Baobab sustainability.
Our hypothesis was visually confirmed. Old village settlements were traditionally formed around old Baobab trees, and Baobab trees were planted around villages by their founders with the wisdom of the trees support to culture, health and nutrition. It’s a common feeling that Baobab trees grow everywhere, and are always within reach. This for most parts of the Gambia is true, but with that we risk complacency and that might not always be the case. Today, as villages grow, and as diaspora return from overseas and invest in building their compounds and further developing farms the Baobabs here too (just like the coast) are being sacrificed. What also is evident from our research is that no new Baobab trees are being planted, and little to no new trees are having the opportunity to emerge. With globalisation, modernisation and increasing imports from overseas, there is no longer the traditional requirement for Baobab in many daily practical needs. Baobab tree fibre used to be made into ropes that would be used for farming and to tie a donkey to its cart, used as pulleys for the water wells, or tie wooden rafters to the roof in building compounds. Bark, leaves, seeds and fruit used to be used more commonly in medicine but pharmacies are now relied on. Western drink bottles and cans are imported and even Baobab juice is reducing in consumption. With this modernisation comes many compromising and sometimes contradicting benefits, not least with the impact to health and nutrition. Every village reported its difficulties with the growing health problems.
However, some villages do take different approaches. In one interesting interview we filmed, it was noted that after Baobab juice is made traditional practice continues and the seeds are thrown behind the compounds at the back of the village. This is why you can find so many more growing around the perimeter of their village. However the elder also acknowledged that not everyone understands the importance and baby baobabs are not looked after, so very few, if any, make it. That particular village actually has a rule that no baobab is taken down, regardless of ‘modernisation’ without the village agreeing to it. As development needs increase and modernisation creeps in, it is yet to be seen if development needs will outright win in this battle, but it is an approach which can surely be built on.
Gambia is fortunate with Baobabs. However, our fear is that without some conscious effort and care our Children and our Children’s children may one day live without Baobab trees. And Baobab trees take centuries to grow, so if we leave it too late it is not an easy fix. If fears elsewhere in the world are true (like research into some of the fallen ancient Baobabs of southern Africa), then climate change may also pose a fiercer risk, and we should act now to protect this truly spectacular and ancient species.
One project we were able to move forward is our Baobab tree nursery plantations, and engaging various community co-operatives that we work with, and some new ones, to start the planting of Nurseries. This is a project which will take a bit more time to get off the ground, establish and scale to a level of impact, but it is most certainly one we are excited about.
Towards the end of our trip we re-visited the old village of Dasilameh as Ken still wanted to show us the ‘Ancient Baobab tree’ in the outskirts of the bush that made up so much of his childhood. It was famous for its size and age and glory. Many memories, folk tales and memories are told around this tree, through generations and as one of the oldest around, but to our dismay it turned out that sadly it no longer exists.
Encouragingly, plenty of research across the continent shows the sustainable and healthy levels of Baobab and its fruit, and the economic value that this can bring to local communities if markets and international supply chains are managed appropriately. An economic value to the fruit can also help incentivise local protection contributing towards sustainable management.
However change is afoot, and it’s clear in our minds. The time for Baobab sustainability is now!
Our journey exploring, researching and enjoying many of Gambia’s beautiful Baobabs was not the only part of this incredible journey. We also found time to revisit old friends and have more personable updates on the day to day lives of village communities that we work with.
Find out more in our next blog as things get a little more emotional:
“Lean against a Baobab, and you will surely survive!” – traditional proverb
Thanks for reading. Stay Healthy, Happy and Helpful!
Paul & Isatou
As a special thank you, for a limited time, use code: ‘HNY2019’ for a 15% off, loyalty reward on all our Baobab drinks, and organic Baobab fruit powder!