“..In 2011 the oldest known specimen-a shrine for rainmakers named Panke that sprouted about 2450 years ago-died and toppled over.”
– Elizabeth Pennisi in sciencemag.org.
The term, Juju, has been applied to traditional West African religions for such a long time that today it has gained a colloquial meaning that is entirely different from what it actually denotes. Juju is now simply understood as any supernatural power, resource or phenomenon that could not be associated with the mainstream religions imported into Africa, especially Christianity and Islam.
This is why, for instance, the Wikipedia describes it as “a spiritual belief system incorporating objects, such as amulets, and spells used in religious practice, as part of witchcraft in West Africa.”
However, Juju is actually the essence of the religion of our ancestors: Animism. It can be loosely described as an invisible force resident in nature, and felt in the different manifestations of material creation – river, rock, ocean, tree, leaves, insect, sand, weather, mankind, spoken word, etc. This is why the nearest definition to the real meaning is “supernatural power attributed to a charm or fetish”. This means the spirit of any named talisman or fetish. In philosophy, the idea that, perhaps, captures the idea of Juju would be Pantheism – i.e. idea that “there is the force of God in all things”.
In animism – the religious belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence – the tree is understood as a special creature that towers over others. In Igbo mythological cosmology, for instance, a great man is viewed as a big tree: Oke Osisi. And when the great man dies, men and women rather murmur that a great tree has fallen instead of mentioning the deceased’s name in mourning.
Interestingly, among all the trees in Africa, there is no tree as remarkable as the Baobab, botanical name, Adansonia digitata. It is widely distributed throughout the semi-arid regions of sub-Saharan Africa and fits prominently into the cultures of people who live where it grows. From highly nutritious food products, to fibre, medicine, water storage and animal forage, baobab has earned the nickname “Tree of Life”. From the Western perspective, this would be the ‘practical’ value of baobab, but for African people, the practical goes well beyond the material.
In animist communities, the baobab is seen as a deity which has chosen to live among the people. In Burkina Faso, villagers give a solemn funeral for baobab when it dies, playing drums usually reserved for chiefs.
Among the Otammari people in the Atacora region of northern Republic of Benin, baobabs represent ancient settlements, and the spirits of their ancestral owners become part of the trees. Often, animal skulls, wooden ‘fetiche’ assemblies, tokens of the harvest and other significant items can be seen attached to the trunks or amassed at the foot of the trees. Village meetings and ceremonial rites of passage integrate the baobab.
Until recently, everywhere you see the tree in Nigeria or Ghana, there is a red and/or white cloth wrapped around its trunk, among other bric-a-bracs, to signify the presence of an altar of sort.
Surely, there is a mystery around the baobab. It has no tree rings, so it is not clear how old it is. Some experts say a baobab may live for 500 years, others for 5000 years. Africans view its age as that of “time immemorial”. The Economist, which named its African blog after the legendary tree, rightly noted that baobab is the living elder on a continent which reveres elders.
But all that is about to change as the baobab, with all its barbed tendons and Juju mystique, seems to be succumbing to the worsening jugular-clutch of climate change!
It came as a surprise to the world’s science community because the researchers that discovered the worrying trend did not set out to find that out. But by early this week it was confirmed, and the world was told: Some of Africa’s oldest and most unusual trees have mysteriously started dying, and scientists think climate change may be to blame.
Adrian Patrut, a Romanian professor of inorganic and radiochemistry, and colleagues, used radiocarbon dating to analyse more than 60 of the largest and oldest baobab trees in Africa to try to find out how the trees could grow so large. To their surprise, they found that since 2005, nine of the 13 oldest, and five of the six largest baobabs had either died or had their oldest parts collapse. Their paper, published online this week in Nature Plants, suggests that climate change may be affecting the ability of the trees to survive.
The professor revealed that El Nino – warm currents that travel east across the Pacific Ocean – had increased dry conditions over the past 20 years, leading to drought in southern Africa, which was thought to be one factor in the trees’ demise.
The dead trunks were found to contain only 40 per cent water, instead of the 75-80 per cent they should have. The extreme drought episodes meant the trunks could no longer support the tree’s weight so they collapsed.
Baobabs have a unique ring-shaped structure comprising multiple stems and trunks, often of different ages, that may fuse together to form a closed circle, or remain open. The experts found that in some cases all the trunks had died suddenly at the same time. The most high-profile victim of the phenomenon is the Chapman’s baobab in central Botswana, parts of which dated back 800 years, while others were 1,400 years old. A national monument of Botswana and a tourist attraction, it was more than 82feet in circumference. On January 7, 2016, its six trunks all collapsed and died.
“The deaths of the majority of the oldest and largest African baobabs is an event of an unprecedented magnitude. These deaths were not caused by an epidemic and there has also been a rapid increase in the apparently natural deaths of many other mature baobabs. We suspect that the demise of monumental baobabs may be associated at least in part with significant modifications of climate conditions that affect southern Africa in particular. However, further research is necessary to support or refute this,” the authors wrote.
There is no gainsaying the fact that we may not be able to quantify the potential loss in the emerging baobab tragedy. Firstly, the baobab is Africa’s tree. It is found in 31 African countries and has been introduced in several others. Outside Madagascar (which has several unique varieties of baobab) all are a single species: Adansonia digitata. Therefore, it is our identity, a giant that cannot be missed on any African horizon. Secondly, it provides an eco-tourist attraction. A specimen in Namibia is 36m in diameter-one of the fattest trees in the world in one of its driest places.
In fact, the baobab is a provider for a continent that is majorly peopled by rustic communities existing at subsistence level. It is home to fruit bats, parakeets, weaver birds and lovebirds, and those hawks and owls of the bush that feed upon the mice that live among the baobab’s roots. The baobab stores water. Its leaves and white flowers serve as salad and medicine for humans. Its black seeds are similarly edible and when cooked provide a substitute for coffee. The white pulp of the fruit can be boiled into a sherbet-like lemonade that is high in vitamin C. The husk can be used as a calabash. The tree provides no timber, its wood is soft like balsa, but the bark serves as food for elephants in times of drought and can be made into rope, roofing material, and clothing.
Indeed, climate change has thrown Africa into mourning. As the Igbo would say, Oke osisi adago!