Trees, forests, beliefs and religions in Sahelian West Africa
El Hadji Sène is Director of the Forest Resources Division, FAO Forestry Department, Rome.
Sacred or powerful forces attributed to trees usually derive from observations of the species’ characteristics
It might be banal to say that many groups of people consider trees and forests sacred and mysterious. But it would also be wrong to make superficial generalizations, because sacred values and beliefs are so tightly woven into the values of any particular ethnic group. The sacred and mystical powers attributed to each species of tree always have their origin in careful observation of the species and personal experience with the given tree or plant group. The observed characteristics of the species, its relationship with other elements of nature – water, wind, animals – and the characteristics and appearance of its foliage, flowers and fruits are retained and transformed into the properties, forces and energies which are seen as power, inspiration or occult forces.
For example, in the arid regions of West Africa, Kigelia africana, a particularly productive tree, is noted in numerous beliefs for its large woody fruits which look like enormous bags hanging from the end of long stalks: it is the perfect fertility image. Women nursing children hang strips of fabric on it to ask for protection and numerous offspring. The popular subconscious has translated the tree’s exuberant image of fertility and the appearance of its fruits, which resemble male organs, into supernatural faculties beneficial to procreation.
The tamarind tree, Tamarindus indica, frequently found growing next to termite mounds, is always green. Characterized by its hard and durable wood, its acid leaves and fruits and its severe and imposing appearance, it is associated with the presence of spirits and djinns. Respected and feared, it has been endowed with values relating to tenacity. In certain cases its proximity with termite mounds makes it a symbol of solidarity under duress.
Sacred trees and forests exist everywhere, but their meanings and origins differ. A tree or woodland may mark the spot where a founding ancestor stopped or where a patriarch disappeared, or it may be the habitat for totemic animals, and so on. An individual sacred tree is most often a remarkable tree, “outstanding” in form or dimensions, or linked to a legendary or historical event. Sometimes the founders or guides of a group would pick out the site for a village after detailed observation of the terrain to note the trees that grew there and the signs regarding the presence of water and the passage of animals. Often a tree or group of trees would be chosen to become a place of worship or of thanksgiving prayers to ancestors.
The choice of plant species for medicinal uses is based on both mystical associations and careful observation. Thus a plant becomes a medicine not only because of its perceived characteristics such as bitterness, astringency, taste or smell, but also because of forces that it seems to emit in connection with its location, orientation and associations with other plants. Beneficial forces are then attributed to the plant which seem to enhance the effectiveness of its biochemical traits – these latter being the only values that medical doctors would take into account.
Trees are also significant in modern religions such as Islam and Christianity, but in West Africa their role in this connection is more often linked to historical reminiscences and veneration: a holy person stopped under this tree to rest and pray, and thus the tree has become a site for pilgrimage and meditation.
Certain countries have recognized the exceptional historical value or physical characteristics of trees and groups of trees and have tried to regulate the protection of this heritage. In Senegal, for example, a decree has established a procedure for identifying and classifying remarkable trees. More actions along these lines should be encouraged. The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage would be enriched by such initiatives.