Historic baobab trees of Senegal

Following on my post about çinar trees at Turkish mosques and shrines, one reader, none other than my brother-in-law Ryan, suggested I post about Senegal’s baobab trees, and I am delighted to oblige.

Professor of Anthropology John Shoup standing near a well-known baobab tree on National Road #2 near Kébémer (ph. Eric Ross)

Baobabs (Adansonia digitata, guy in Wolof, boki in Pulaar, baak in Sereer, sito in Mandinka) are extraordinary in many regards. Their most distinctive attribute is their enormous girth. Their massive trunks can grow to circumferences of 25 meters or more. Their second distinctive feature is great longevity. Baobabs live well over a thousand years as attested by radio-carbon dating. There is every reason to believe that certain baobabs are far older still, but these ancient trees are invariably hollow – the oldest wood at the center having disintegrated to create a cavity – so their age is impossible to determine by carbon dating or dendrochronology.

The cavity of the baobab near Kébémer faces the road. (ph. John Shoup)

The cavities within the trunks of old baobabs are as large as rooms and, depending on how they are configured, people put the space to a variety, using them as shrines, altars, and tombs as well as roadside kiosks and workshops.

Due to their size and longevity, baobabs are important landmarks in Senegal’s dry savanna plain, which generally lacks other types of natural spatial markers such as hills or streams. Some ancient baobabs are true historical landmarks in that they predate human settlement as recorded in oral histories. Their presence on the land has been permanent and they have proper names. In oral histories such baobabs are cited as loci of battles, or as marking borders between states.

In addition to baobabs, kapok trees (Ceiba pentandra, bénténe in Wolof, mbudaay in Sereer), cola trees (Cola cordifolia, or taba in Wolof and Mandinka), acacias (Acacia albida, kàdd in Wolof) and mbul trees (Celtis intergrifolia), have also played historical roles in the construction and maintenance of settlements with strong collective identities. Specific trees of a variety of species actualized notions of the community’s foundation-creation, duration-continuity and harmony-order, in both the cosmic and temporal realms. Kings could be crowned beneath a tree, parley with envoys beneath another, and administer justice beneath a third. Warriors might take oaths of allegiance at one tree while priest offered sacrifices at another. In effect, a variety of monumental trees marked the configurations of Senegal’s most important pre-colonial settlements, its royal capitals. These included coronation trees, constitution trees, tree altars and tree cemeteries, and, most importantly, palaver trees (pénc in Wolof), trees which mark the central public squares of polities. Many of these historic trees still stand today and, at last count, sixteen of them have been classified as historic monuments by the Ministry of Culture. At the end of this blog post readers will find the list of these classified arboreal monuments. The complete list of monuments can be found on this tourism information website.

During a session of field work ten years ago (December 2001-January 2002) I attempted an inventory of historic and monumental trees, mostly baobabs, in some of Senegal’s principal pre-colonial capitals. In the company of Prof. John Shoup and research assistant Cheikh Oumy Mbacké Diallo, I visited Mboul, Lambaye, Diakhao and Kahone, as well as a few of other historic sites in the Wolof-Sereer heartland.

Senegambia ca. 1800

Wherever possible, we interviewed the most senior local informants, members of old political lineages and local officials, and we did so as close as possible to the actual historic trees.

This Google Earth (kmz) file locates the places, and sometimes the specific trees discussed in this and the next post. Unfortunately, in 2001-2002 (before Google Earth) I did not yet have access to high-resolution satellite images and had only 1:50 000 scale topography maps to play with. I was not able to accurately map the places we visited or to precisely locate the various trees. More serious research on the history of these capitals would require partnership with an oral historian and an archaeologist. Any takers?

Mboul

According to recorded oral tradition, Mboul, Kayor’s first capital, was founded in the second half of the 16th century when a Muslim cleric named Amadi Dia, at the behest of Amari Ngoné Sobel damel (king) of Kayor, attached a talisman to a pigeon and set it loose. The first tree on which the pigeon alighted was designated as the palaver tree at the center of the public square of the new capital. The bird landed on an mbul tree, and the capital was named Mboul. Mboul is now a very small village and the original mbul tree no longer exists, but the spot where it stood, in the former capital’s central square is still known to residents.

The first public square (pénc) of Mboul is now occupied by the mound in the foreground. (ph. Eric Ross)

During our brief visit, the wife of the Chef de village provided a guided tour of Mboul’s historic trees.

The wife of the Chef de village standing beneath Mboul's Guy Werugën, used during coronation ceremonies. (ph. Eric Ross)

The Guy Werugën was used during coronation ceremonies to measure the height of the new damel. Its trunk still caries numerous incised marks consisting of vertical and oblique strokes and aligned dots.

The inscribed trunk of the Guy Werugën in Mboul, showing incisions. (ph. Eric Ross)

The use of baobab trunks to support arcane inscriptions is common throughout Senegambia. Such trees are known generically in Wolof as guy mbind (baobab of writing) and are discussed below.

Another great baobab in Mboul whose trunk is incised with horizontal strokes is the Guy Sanar Akanan, or “idol baobab,” which was used by traditional priests. When she showed it to us, the wife of the Chef de village kept well away from this tree, and so did we.

The Guy Sanar Akanan, or “idol baobab,” was used by traditional priests. (ph. Eric Ross)

The Ndiangou Kàdd Laye-Laye still stands in Mboul’s first Muslim neighborhood, now abandoned. (ph. Eric Ross)

The Ndiangou Kàdd Laye-Laye gets its name from the Muslim recitation “Allâhu Allâhu” and is commonly referred to in French by local residents as l’arbre du marabout.

We were not shown the acacia beneath which damels were crowned, the Kàddou Pallou Kaye mentioned in published sources.

Lambaye

Lambaye was the capital of the kingdom of Baol from the 16th to 19th century. It is now a large complex of villages, each of which marks a neighborhood of what was once the capital area. During our visit Dame Diaw, the Chef de village, showed us many of its historic trees.

Two ancient baobabs, one collapsed, occupy Lambaye’s first pénc. A famous battle later took place on this spot. (ph. Eric Ross)

The Guy Ndëng is one of two great baobabs – the second has collapsed from the weight of age – still marking the capital’s oldest public square. Its trunk is incised with many short vertical and horizontal strokes.

Incised trunk of the Guy Ndëng, Lambaye. (ph. Eric Ross)

Lambaye’s second public square, now also abandoned, is marked by a baobab called the Guy Pénc, while another large baobab nearby marks the location of the former royal compound.

Baobab in the former royal compound, Lambaye. (ph. Eric Ross)

Another tree, the Ngiicie Bàkku (a Ziziphus mauritiana), was where nobles and soldiers took oaths before departing for battle.

Several other baobabs in Lambaye are associated with the activities of the priests and griots attached to the court. The Guy Tan was where priests left sacrifices for vultures. It has a large inner cavity which is accessible at ground level through a high open “doorway,” quite Gothic.

A kid grazes at the base of the Guy Tan, the Vultures’ Boabab, in Lambaye. (ph. Eric Ross)

Further a-field, the Guy Bateñ marks the neighborhood where the griots lived, while another baobab, the Guy Géwél, was their shrine.

The cavity of the Guy Géwél, the Griots’ Baobab, in Lambaye is configured like an absid or an iwân. (ph. Eric Ross)

Lambaye’s Guy Géwél has an inner cavity with a wide opening creating a semicircular architectural space which might have been conducive to the performance of rituals. Its trunk is incised with numerous vertical strokes.

Diakhao

Diakhao was the capital of the kingdom of Sine from the 16th century to the onset of colonial rule. Diakhao is still the administrative center for an arrondissement (or county) and its original pénc is still the town’s principal public square. It is Dieng Sarr, a village elder, who showed us the central pénc and the royal compound. Originally, four mbul trees stood on the pénc and symbolized political continuity during coronation ceremonies. Only one of these trees still stands.

Only one of the original mbul trees (right) still stands on Diakhao’s pénc. (ph. Eric Ross)

Senegal’s Ministry of Culture has also classified as historic Diakhao’s Guy Kanger, a secluded baobab outside of town where the kings of Sine offered libations. We were not taken to see this tree. We were however taken to the royal compound which stands on the west side of Diakhao’s pénc to pay a courtesy visit to Mme. Hadi Diouf, daughter of Mahecor Diouf the last king of Sine (d. 1969). This is why I love field work.

Kahone

Kahone, on the north bank of the Saloum River, was established as the capital of the kingdom of Saloum in the 16th century. It was a great tree, venerated by the local Sereer, which is purported to have given its name to the city. Today Kahone is an industrial suburb of Kaolack, the city that has replaced it as administrative capital of the Saloum region. During our visit El Hadj Malik Sarr, Farba of Kahone and member of its Municipal Council, granted us a tour of the old capital.

El Hadj Malik Sarr, Farba of Kahone, and young aide stand under an ancient tree on Kahone’s pénc. (ph. Eric Ross)

Kahone’s original central square retains its function today. It harbors the remnant stump of an old shade tree, one limb still living, and the mausoleum of the last Buur Saloum. The former royal compound, on the south side of the square, is entirely abandoned.

The mausoleum of Fodé Ngouye (d. 1969), the last king of Saloum. (ph. Eric Ross)

Two historic baobabs stand outside of the current settlement, to the east. The Guy Géwél, or “ Griot’s Baobab,” is truly huge and towers over the landscape. Its large inner cavity can only be reached through narrow apertures some eight meters above ground and, because of this, it may have served as burial chamber for griots. This practice was widespread. The special status of griots in society extended to their burials. Feared and respected for the manner in which they could affect destinies, griots were not buried in the earth lest they render it infertile. Instead, ancient baobabs with small, difficult apertures were turned into arboreal mausolea. Many generations of griots could be buried in the same tree and such trees can be found in many historic localities.

Kahone’s Guy Géwél, or “Griot’s Baobab,” may have been used as a sepulture by griots. (ph. Eric Ross)

Further south, across National Road #1 and nearer to the bank of the Saloum River, the enormous Guy Njulli sprawls behind a protective fence. The main trunk of this ancient tree towers skywards while several great limbs grow horizontally along the ground for some distance before rising.

Kaohone’s Guy Njulli, or “Baobab of Circumcision,” is a national monument. (ph. Eric Ross)

El Hadj Malik Sarr, Farba of Kahone, sits on a limb of the Guy Njulli while recounting its story. Standing by the trunk is Cheikh Oumy Mbacké Diallo. (ph. Eric Ross)

In the old days the Guy Njulli was the locus of a great annual festival called the gàmmu. Representatives of all the kingdom’s provinces would come to this tree to pledge their loyalty to the king. The festivities would go on for days.

Diourbel

Though never a royal capital, Diourbel was an important political center and has many historic trees. Two of Diuourbel’s historic baobabs, the Guy Sambaye Karang and the Guy Woté, are classified national monuments. And, according to tradition, a large kapok tree named Doumbe Diop was the focal point of a festival. We did not see these trees but were taken instead to the baobab called Fekh Bah, behind the hospital. Its trunk bares many incisions.

Diourbel’s huge Fekh Bah baobab stands among smaller specimens. (ph. Eric Ross)

Another of Diourbel’s ancient baobabs, the Guy Kodiouf of Ndounka ward, was the object of a scholarly controversy between the great Senegalese intellectual Cheikh Anta Diop and Raymond Mauny, a well-known Africanist prehistorian. In the second volume of Nations nègres et culture (1954, p. 352) Diop recounts childhood memories of what he called hieroglyphs (signs of hands and feet, of animal feet and other objects) inscribed into the bark of this tree. Mauny then went to visit this baobab and concluded that the marks were merely graffiti, and not actually glyphs (Notes africaines #89, 1961, p. 11). After returning to the site Diop responded that, though the signs he could make out (a camel, prayer beads, a sword, a goat hide) were not as he had remembered them, the glyphs inscribed on its trunk might be deciphered and thus this tree and others like it constitute important archaeological artifacts. (Antériorité des civilizations nègres, 1967, p. 246).

In the old kingdoms, nobles, priests and griots all used to inscribe certain baobabs with religious or political markings in what may well have been secret scripts known only to initiates. As we have seen above, such guy mbind (baobabs of writing) feature in every important historic settlement. But, to the best of my knowledge, half a century after the Diop-Mauny debate no study of these trees and of the messages inscribed on their trunks has yet been undertaken. Though the secrets of these trees are now lost, and the priests and the nobles of olden days are now gone, local people still treat these trees with great respect. No harm is allowed to come to them and their stories are still told.

Fadiout

Fadiout and its lagoon were the subject of a previous post. One of the monuments in this historic town is the Baak no Maad, the King’s Baobab, which dominates the town square in the northern part of the island. When I visited Fadiout in 1988 I didn’t own a camera, so I have no picture of my own to show. The one bellow was downloaded from this tourist information site.

The Baak no Maad, or King’s Baobab in Fadiout (ph. Francoise Rolland)

Dakar

The baobab remains something of a national symbol in Senegal, figuring for instance on official stamps. The trunk of one splendid baobab in the nation’s capital, on the Corniche Est just south of the Presidential Palace, has been painted with two patriotic images: a lion (another national symbol) and map of African unity.

One graffiti artist has added an expression of skepticism to the image of African Unity painted on the north face of Dakar's Corniche Est baobab. (ph. Eric Ross)

The painting of the Senegalese Lion, on the south face of the Corniche Est baobab has almost disappeared. (ph. Eric Ross)

When I first visited this painted baobab, in 1988, it stood in a little village. Perhaps the authorities considered it a squatter settlement. The tiny village beneath the President’s Palace has been removed.

Publishing the research

My research on Senegal’s historic trees was presented and published twice. I first presented it at the annual conference of the African Studies Association in New Orleans, Louisiana, in November 2004. The following month I was able to present the work in Senegal, in Saint-Louis to be exact, at an international conference in honor of Belgian archaeologist Guy Thilmans (1922-2001). The article was published in the ensuing conference proceedings:

  • “Le Pénc : élément du patrimoine et modèle d’aménagement urbain,” in Sénégalia: Études sur le patrimoine ouest-africain, Hommage à Guy Thilmans, edited by Cyr Descamps & Abdoulaye Camara, Saint-Maure-des-Fossés, Éditions Sépia, 2006.

The English version presented in New Orleans-before-Katrina appeared in an edited volume:

  • “Palaver Trees Reconsidered in the Senegalese Landscape: Arboreal Monuments & Memorials,” in African Sacred Groves: Ecological Dynamics & Social Change, edited by Michael J. Sheridan & Celia Nyamweru, James Currey & Ohio University Press, 2008.

Trees listed as historic monuments

Baobabs

  • the Guy Sambaye Karang, Keur Yéli Manel Fall ward, Diourbel
  • the Guy Woté, Ndiodione ward, Diourbel
  • the Guy Tékhé and Guy Ziarra, Touba (more on these in the next post)
  • the Guy Ndëng, on the Sanghay Battlefield, Lambaye
  • the Kanger baobab, Diakhao
  • the Guy Géwel, Toukar, sous-préfecture of Tataguine
  • the Guy Géwel, Senghor, sous-préfecture of Tataguine
  • the Guy Njulli, Kahone
  • the Front Bone baobab, Boutoupa Camaracounda, arrondissement of Niaguis
  • the Palm Baobab, Baligname, Département of Bignona

Kapok trees

  • Dialang Bantang, a women’s shrine, Niéfoulène, Ziguinchor
  • ancient kapok in Sindian, Département of Bignona
  • ancient kapoks of Kagnout, Département of Oussouye

Acacias

  • Kadd Gui, across from the train station, Louga

Species unspecified

  • Jab Ndeb, sacred tree in Ndiaye–Ndiaye, Fatick
  • Gagnick Godjil fetish trees, Département of Gossas

Many other historic and monumental trees in Sereer lands, not on the national monument list, have been inventoried by Charles Becker:

  • Martin, V. & Charles Becker, “Lieux de culte et emplacements célèbres dans les pays sereer”, in Bulletin de l’IFAN (série B), vol. 41, #1, 1979.
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About ericrossacademic

Associate Professor of Geography at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco
This entry was posted in field trips, trees and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Historic baobab trees of Senegal

  1. Ryan says:

    Great post and pictures, Thanks!

  2. Wow… The trees are amazing! I especially like the Guy Gewel in Lambaye picture. It looks like a portal is meant to open there and take you to other worlds.

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