Griots and Baobabs: an intersection of plant science and cultural heritage
Who are Griots?
Griot are West African musicians (generally), but also storytellers, poets, bards. They are considered a repository of the oral traditions of West Africa and are highly respected in these societies. What we mostly know them for now, however, is for the music. They are found among the Mande, Mandinka, Fula, Hausa, Songhai, Tukulóor, Wolof, among others, in most of the countries of West Africa. Many of these griot are famous for playing the kora, an instrument of particular importance in West Africa. The kora itself is made from a calabash (Lagenaria siceraria), a type of gourd.
These griot are highly respected keepers of West African tradition and their deaths are met with great communal outpourings of emotion. Below is one of my favorite musicians, Mali’s Toumani Diabate, himself a griot, playing that gourd of an instrument known as the kora. His family have been griot for over 71 generations, according to his family oral history.
The baobab is a fairly famous tree, known for both its unique shape (it looks upside-down) as well as for the thousands of uses that the West Africans have for each of the tree’s parts. Baboons love the fruit of the tree, hence its other nickname, “monkey-bread tree”. It has been around for a long while and has exerted influence for thousands of years. The fruit was known in the herb and spice markets of Cairo as early as 2500 B.C. It was made famous in the West by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s French fable “The Little Prince.” The baobab was approved for European markets in 2008, and FDA soon followed suit. The fruit’s dry pulp is now sold as an ingredient for smoothies and health foods.
Needless to say, it holds a certain fascination for many in West Africa. A highly, highly versatile plant as made evident from its Use record from the Useful Plants of West Tropical Africa.
The wood can be pulped for paper-making, but quality is doubtful (12, 39). It can be turned into a poor quality charcoal, sometimes used for want of better (1), and burnt to yield a vegetable salt (21, 39). Wild animals are said to chew the wood (39) perhaps to obtain the salt from the sap.The tree living in very dry situations with its enormous trunk of spongy wood carries a great quantity of water. A good tree may hold as much as 1,000 gallons (39), and girth may vary according to weather conditions. Man has undoubtedly planted trees to be able to tap the aqueous sap as well as for its other multifarious uses. Hollows may be carved out from a small hole which is then corked so that the liquid may collect and be readily drawn off, or even the whole tree hollowed out to form a tank though medical officers may view this with disfavour as furnishing mosquito breeding sites. In E Africa the trunk may be hollowed out to provide shelters and form storage rooms (39). Livingstone in his explorations in Mozambique recorded use as dwellings. The fabled longevity of the tree is not satisfactorily confirmable, but the age of a tree cut down for the Kariba Dam project was determined by C14 dating as 1010 ± 100 years old, with an inference that really large individuals could, indeed, be several thousands of years old (37).
The above is just a small sample of that Use Record. However, the ceremonial uses are of more importance to us for the purposes of this post:
The hollowed-out trunk has been recorded as used as tombs (1), and a place where a body denied burial may be suspended between earth and sky for mummification (12). In places it is worshipped as a fertility symbol. Rock-art in the Limpopo Valley depicts women’s breasts as baobab pods (39). In Upper Volta children of the Ela born under the sign of this tree (kukulu, Lyela) are given the patronymic kukulu, boys, or ekulu, girls (32)
It has indeed been used as a tomb for those denied burial. Now, we might assume that being denied burial implies some imposed penance or some transgression of the person in their former life. That isn’t always the case. For the griot, this is an honorific entombment, one not always desired.
Griots and Baobabs: Plant Science and Cultural Heritage & History
Many West African people choose to entomb their griot in the hollowed-out baobab, still erect. They do this for a variety of reasons, including
- not wanting the stories, traditions, and music to seep into the ground along with the body. If they are buried in the baobab, their traditions are still circulating and among the people.
- Griots have never worked the soil and, as a result, cannot be buried in the ground. It is said that if a griot should be ever buried in the land, a terrible drought will develop.
So, they are often buried in baobab trees. Often against their will. Many have fought (while still alive) to be buried in the ground next to family and, in one instance at least, this has been codified into law (Senegal). All griot are to be buried in the ground and not in baobab trees. However, there was a drought in Senegal that year.