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Baobab: The sacred tree

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Nature’s inventiveness has given this amazing tree a special place on Madagascar soils. There are six endemic species here, out of the eight known to exist. The giants of Morondava are famous the world over but other varieties are little-known, sometimes even secret, like the baobab citerne - the water-tank baobab - that attracted photographer Pierrot Men down to the deep south to record the forestry heritage of his country. Here, he tells the story of his quest.


Baobabs mainly grow in the west of the island, a long way from where I live. I first photographed them in 1976 and was captivated. I must have used around twenty colour Ektachrome films. All my negatives got destroyed in the laboratory in Tana. That's why until digital appeared I always preferred to use plain black and white. Today I am concerned about the baobabs and all the other trees in Madagascar. Little by little, the island is going up in smoke. Deforestation and bushfires are disfiguring and impoverishing it. The mythical baobab, our tree of life, and iconic silhouette on Madagascar's skyline, is the victim of collateral damage. People come from all over the world to admire the giants in the famous Alley of the Baobabs in Morondava. Their slender trunks and strange crowns that reach heights of over thirty metres have given rise to many legends. One particular legend holds that God, irritated at hearing the tree complain about the place where He planted it, pulled it up and threw it some distance away where it landed headfirst. Ever since, its roots have pointed upwards.

 

Ampotaka, October 2014

Hollowed out, the baobab fills with water during the monsoon season. The opening is easy to reach, its shutter keeps animals away.

'' Each family has its own tree. There are dozens of baobabs to be found around the village.''


At the end of the road, the water-tank baobab

Of the eight species of baobab in existence, six grow only here in our country. Bottle- and column-shaped colossi, potbellied, rugged old men, twins with intertwined trunks called baobabs amoureux – baobabs in love –, hundred, or even thousand-year-old trees. One of them, known as Grand-Mère, found to the south of Toliara, is said to be 1600 years old – I know all of these trees. And then when I was preparing my book, I heard about another variety, a tree from the very dry regions, the baobab citerne or water-tank baobab. I could hardly believe it. I set off to track it down. It's a tree that's worth the effort. I finally found it after a rather difficult two-day journey. Car to Toliara, ferry to Soalary, 4WD on sandy tracks in amongst the cactuses of Mahafaly Plateau – Mahafaly means “that which makes happy", although in reality, there isn't an awful lot to be happy about in that arid landscape. The
village called Ampotaka doesn't live up to its name either. It means "full of mud" despite the fact that it hardly ever rains there. Perhaps the locals are hoping that when God hears them saying the word over and over again, he'll send them some nice rain showers.

 

Morondava, 2012 
Men and livestock always travel along the famous Alley of Baobabs - Adansonia grandidieri. Here, a herd of zebus and their guardians evokes a biblical scene.

'' Today I am concerned about the baobabs and all the other trees in Madagascar ''

 

The villagers emerged from the 40 or so simple straw-covered earth huts and came up to me. As I'd bought them supplies for the school, slates, coloured pencils, exercise books, they took us for their benefactors. "Yes, I explained, these are gifts, but I have come to photograph the venerable baobabs that provide you with fruit, fibres, shade and I've heard that they also store your water supplies."

 

Morondava, 2017
Two youngsters have climbed up baobabs in love to look out for tourists and offer their services as guides. These baobabs are the sole survivors of a group which once was monumental.

'' Their slender trunks and strange crowns that reach heights of over thirty metres have gicen rise to many legends ''

 

In the 1920s, a terrible drought destroyed everything including the cactuses that the villagers used to eat and where they found a little water. If they hadn't then discovered that they could store rainwater in these trees, they would have left. The first water tank probably came about by accident: a baobab split apart by lightning stored the water from a short-lived downpour. This gave the villagers an idea. They hollowed out the trunks of their potbellied baobabs. Each family has its own tree. There are dozens of baobabs to be found around the village and hundreds in Mahafaly country. In the monsoon season, the villagers dig holes in the ground that fill up during the isolated rain showers and they then carry the water over to the baobabs and pour it in. This has to be done quickly because in one or two days, the ground would have soaked up all the water. These natural water tanks contain up
to 9 m3. The dirty, earth-red liquid settles and becomes clear water for the children to drink. And here's me thinking that if you wound a tree, it perishes! In fact it's quite the opposite: the sacred baobab of the Mahafaly people regenerates itself. The villagers revere it, comparing it to human beings whose wounds heal. With time, the bark grows back and the cavity gets smaller as the tree grows inside. Every five years, the villagers have to hollow it out again to enlarge their life-saving water tank.

 

 

Andavadoaka, May 2015
On the south-west coast of the island, this man, wearing a protective necklace, is posing in front of the bottle baobabs.

'' To the village revere it, comparing it to human beings whose wounds heal''

 

Each time they do so, they perform the same ritual. They kill a cock and pour some of its blood on the trunk of the baobab, while talking softly to the tree as if to a protective spirit: "Listen, I'm going to hurt you but you won't feel it for long and we need you, we need you to keep the water for us. To enable us to live. To save us."

 

Ampotaka, October 2014.
This water-tank baobab is 10 minutes’ walk from the village. A young woman is going there to bring back some water for her small children.

 

Words and photographs by Pierrot Men
Interview Joëlle Ody