Features

The baobab that swallowed witches

JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka
LEGEND has it that when God got tired of creating and planting trees, he just tossed the last one down to earth and it fell upside down, its roots pointing to the sky. And that is how the baobab tree came into existence.
Hence the baobab tree is also known as the upside-down tree because of its awkward structure, with its branches appearing like roots.
Baobab trees are also famous for their sheer size, growing up to 30 meters and with trunks that can reach 11 meters in diameter.
One African baobab tree in Limpopo Province, South Africa, is considered the largest baobab alive. The tree is said to have a circumference of 47 metres, and its diametre is estimated at about 15.9 meters.
Baobab trees usually develop hollows in their huge trunks where they store or trap water, which helps them to thrive in the most inauspicious dry environments.
Baobabs are also reputed to grow to be thousands of years old.
Luangwa district has plenty of these giant imposing trees. They stand conspicuously, like decorations or sign posts in the middle of nowhere.
And because of their strange appearance, the giant trees are also a subject of African folklore and myth, depicted in some children’s books as a tree that would swallow up bad people.
But legend, folklore and myths aside, one baobab tree in Chief Mburuma’s area in Luangwa keeps a real gory secret.
The huge tree, which now stands within the grounds of a secondary school called Mwavi, was used as a burial place for witches, wizards and lepers back in the 19th century.
According to Chief Mburuma of the Nsenga people who occupy this mountainous region, once a person was suspected of being a witch or wizard, they would be forced to drink a certain concoction made from a mwavi tree.
If the person died after drinking the concoction, then it was confirmation that they were practising witchcraft and they would be thrown into the hollow of the huge baobab tree.
Actually, it is believed that some of the victims were bound with rope and thrown into the tree trunk alive.
Over the years, the tree became known as Ca Mfwiti or the tree of the witches.
Lepers were also thrown into the tree when they died.
The gory practice was later stopped with the influence of Christianity, but the victims’ remains were never removed from their tree-grave.
“When I came here in 1995 to be installed as a chief, I found those bones inside the tree. They were still visible from outside,” said Chief Mburuma.
Today, however, the bones are no longer visible. They now lie under a layer of soil washed in by the rain.
Chief Mburuma says a long time ago, the mouth of this tree used to be very big, but it has reduced over the years.
But its hollow is still big enough to accommodate eight men standing shoulder-to-shoulder and is about three metres high.
At one point, the villagers of this area had hoped the tree would become some sort of tourist attraction, but it never did, but someone will charge a small fee to offer any explanation about the tree.
Further down at Feira, which lies at the confluence of the Zambezi and Luangwa rivers stands another of the giant trees with a sad past.
Over a century ago, this tree was used as a slave market by the Portuguese and Arabs.
Pitiful souls would be brought here in fetters and traded with other merchandise by the slave traders.
A few metres away, stood another baobab tree where the explorer David Livingstone is said to have rested when he made a stop-over as he navigated the Zambezi River.
That tree, however, has now disappeared. It died some years back and there is no trace of the giant tree.
But besides providing tales, the baobab tree is also a source of food and many other products.
Some of the most important products come from the bark of the tree, which contains a fibre that is used to make fishnets, cords, sacks and clothing. The bark can also be ground into a powder for flavouring food.
The leaves of the baobab were traditionally used for leaven but are also used as a vegetable.
Its fruits and seeds are also edible for humans and animals. The pulp of the fruit, when dried and mixed with water, makes a beverage that tastes similar to lemonade.
Baobab seeds are also a valuable source of vitamin C, while other products such as soap, necklaces, glue, rubber, medicine and cloth can be produced from the various parts of the baobab tree.



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