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3.1 The tree’s significance as a link to culture and belief
3.2 The forest as a location for social, cultural and religious activities
3.3 The symbolic and sacred significance of particular forest resources
3.4 The judicial function of trees
3.5 The use of forest products in social, cultural and healing ceremonies

The variety of cultural values and symbolic functions ascribed to the forests are as numerous and diverse as the communities and cultures of the region. Physically and mystically forests have defined the environment of communities in the region throughout time. The distinction that has been made between cultural values and the forest’s functions is actually an artificial one. Tangibly and intangibly, forests feature in all aspects of culture: language, history, art, religion, medicine, politics, and even social structure itself. Forest trees may house the spirits of ancestors as well as those of the newborn. And forests are viewed in both positive and negative lights as sources of evil as well as power and munificence, as providers for, and hindrances to development. The mystical qualities of specific forest resources often play a crucial role in traditional healing practices. Forests provide the venue for religious, social, and healing ceremonies. Forest products such as tam-tams and forest foods such as palm wine are used in many ceremonies. Assessing the myriad of symbolic and cultural values of forests goes far beyond the scope of this study. However, this does not diminish their importance in terms of the value people place on forests and forest resources. The following discussion can only illustrate some of the ways in which forests are culturally and symbolically valued.

Information on the cultural significance of forest resources can be gleaned from anthropological, ethnobotanical, geographic, ethnomedical, and linguistic studies. Such studies generally focus on a particular community or ethnic group. Thus it is difficult to compare the cultural use of forests across the region. The literature does however provide invaluable insight into peoples’ often seemingly contradictory views regarding forests.

Abbiw (in progress) provides an interesting collection of information on the diversity of traditional values ascribed to forest resources throughout the region (more than 1000 species are described). For example, plants associated with marriages may be used to attract a potential spouse, during the marriage ceremony, to protect marriages, or to improve them (a talisman of Datura metel is believed to give patience so as to tolerate one’s spouse). (The Table in Appendix 13 shows the range of symbolic uses described by Abbiw.)

3.1 The tree’s significance as a link to culture and belief

Forest trees, the links between the sky and earth, often symbolise links between the spiritual world of ancestors and people. Rituals and ceremonies which draw on forest symbols often serve to link people with their cultural heritage, as well as their ancestral past (Calame-Griaule 1969, 1970).

In an extremely interesting study, Calame-Griaule uses traditional stories and myths to analyse the symbolic function of trees in African oral tradition. The tree features in many myths and tales. It consistently reflects a few important symbolic images. The tree stands between heaven and earth and is associated with creation as well as the underworld (“cosmic” tree). The tree is a maternal symbol: a protector and provider who gives fruit, other foods and medicines, provides a reservoir for water, protects against the elements and evil spirits. The tree often symbolizes human fecundity. It may also be a phallic and paternal symbol, symbolically linking people with their ancestors while being a symbol of political unity.

Finally, the deciduous characteristic of the tree gives it an ambiguous image which reflects the tree’s power to give life and rebirth as well as to bring about death. In many African myths and stories, the tree is portrayed as an ancestral symbol of wisdom, authority and custom, providing a bond between the dead and the living (Studstill 1970). Similarly, in other stories Gorog-Karady (1970) relates that the tree is often symbolises a mediator and judge.

Trees play a role in all facets and periods of West African peoples’ lives. The Oubangui (Centre Afrique) plant a tree in the bush for a newborn child. For female children a fast-growing profuse fruiter is planted. The child’s development is linked to the growth of the tree. If tree growth declines, people fear for the health of the child and a healer is called upon. When the child is sick it is brought to the tree for treatment. When the tree begins to fruit, the time will have come for the child to marry. Throughout a person’s life, gifts are occasionally left for the tree. When someone dies their spirit goes to reside in their personal “birthright” tree (Vergiat 1969).

Ficus sycamorus: a sacred tree which grows by rivers

3.2 The forest as a location for social, cultural and religious activities

Forests provide the venue for many cultural events. In many parts of West Africa, forest areas and specific trees are protected and valued for particular cultural occasions and as historic symbols. Each community has its own traditions associated with sacred areas and, as a result, the species that are found in them vary greatly.

In an analysis of traditional African political institutions, Niangoran-Bouah (1983) notes that there are two traditional sacred locations for reunion: sacred groves and “arbres a palabre.” The “arbre a palabre” is the venue for political and social meetings: the location where “elders sit under the big tree and talk until they agree.” It is the location where political, judicial, and social decisions are made. Visser (1975) notes that among the Ando of Côte d’Ivoire there are specific tree species which serve as “arbres a palabre” such as Microdesmis sp., Blighia sapida (also a symbol of fecundity), Cordia millenii, and Bombax buonopozense.

Sacred groves are the site of ritual and secret society initiations, a locale where social and political values, morals, secrets, and laws are passed on to the younger generation. Sacred groves house the most important religious and ritual relics. They are often the site of ancestral burials or places where people can communicate with their ancestors. Sanago (1983) describes sacred groves in Côte d’Ivoire, noting that they are places where moral values are taught and passed on from one generation to the next. The trees within these groves are viewed as sacred trees, housing spirits, and providing links to ancestors. In some areas, sacred groves are the only forested areas that remain (Koagne 1986). Although many cultural traditions are disappearing with the rapidly changing social and physical environments, sacred groves often remain as valued elements of cultural heritage. The groves are also often the site for ritual healings and the location where villagers find particular plant medicines. (The species that are often associated with sacred groves throughout the region are listed in Appendix 14.)

In a village in Northern Ghana, Ntiamoa-Baidu (1987) describes a sacred region protected by traditional beliefs: the villagers’ ancestors were saved from enemies when they hid in this sacred area. Now the spirits of these ancestors and gods live there. The area is never farmed and is burnt once a year to protect it from accidental fires.

Binet (1974) describes the symbolic and mystical use of forest areas valued by the Fang of Southern Cameroon. The ‘temple’ (the site of initiation ceremonies and rites) is always situated at the foot of a large forest tree where medicinal plants are often cultivated. This tree symbolises the forest which houses the body of god and was once the source of people’s food. During initiation ceremonies, the root bark of the species Tabernantha iboga (a hallucinogen) is consumed by ail initiates, so that they can see god. In this culture, the tree and forest medicines are believed to be vehicles through which people communicate with god.

In the Casamance region of Senegal, a traditional healer founded a healing village for mental patients at the foot of a large cottonwood tree (Ceiba pentandra). The village location was chosen because the tree and surrounding forest symbolised healing and protection, a peaceful place that linked people with their god and ancestors. Village dwellings are now built around the tree (Trincaz, J. 1980). And every day, at the foot of this large tree, patients discuss their problems, undergoing the equivalent of group psychotherapy. The study concludes that this ‘healing’ village demonstrates the fundamental mystical, religious, and social importance of trees in their culture.

3.3 The symbolic and sacred significance of particular forest resources

In some cases, specific resources serve as cultural symbols, linking people to a particular past. Some resources are valued throughout the region; others are only significant to specific groups (Ntiamoa-Baidu 1987).

In a study comparing the religious significance of different forest species for different West African cultures, Schnell (1946) found that Chlorophora excelsa was a sacred tree throughout the region. It was often protected, and sacrifices and gifts were given to it. Villages were often located near it, and in some cases the C. excelsa was planted in the village. The tree was especially associated with fertility and birth. For example, the Ibo (Southern Nigeria) believe that it furnishes the souls for the newborn (Andoh 1986). And in the Ho region of Ghana, it is (Asamoah 1985) believed to be dwelling for dwarfs; underneath it ritual sacrifices are performed. And its wood is used for making sacred drums and coffins. For the Gueré and Oubi (Côte d’Ivoire), C. excelsa is also the location for ritual sacrifices (Téhé 1980).

Ceiba pentandra is also a sacred tree throughout the West African region. It is usually associated with burials and ancestors (Schnell 1946). Asamoah (1985) notes that in the Ho region of Ghana, its bark and leaves are believed to expel evil spirits. (See also Cousteix 1961, Cameroon; deRosny 1981.)

Among the Beti of Southern Cameroon, Amat and Cortadellas (1972) report that the ‘oven’ tree Didelotia africana is sacred. It is thought extremely powerful and is used in many traditional healing treatments, especially those involving sorcery. It is approached for help with difficult problems (e.g. broken marriages), but can only be used by healers who have the power to communicate with it.

Mallart Guimera (1969) examined the symbolic importance of the “oven” tree (in this case Copaifera religiosa and sometimes Guibourtia tessmannii) to the Evuzok people of Southern Cameroon. For the Evuzok the “oven” tree is the most important of ail forest trees. Both C. religiosa and G. tessmannii are emergent species of the equatorial rainforest and occur at low densities. C. religiosa has a large red straight trunk. G. tessmannii is also an extremely tall species with large buttress roots. Its height, force, and uniqueness as compared to other species lend the ‘oven’ tree its title of “chief of all trees,” controlling fecundity, wealth, power, and fame. However, the Evuzok “oven” tree is also a fearsome tree whose force can be used by evil spirits. Thus, it is an ambivalent symbol: it can give life, but also bring death. This duality features in many Evuzok stories and myths.

3.4 The judicial function of trees

Trees serve both practical and symbolic judicial roles. Symbolically, they can represent mediators or decision makers. Practically, they are physical boundary markers that define property and provide evidence of usuary rights in judicial disputes.

The symbol of the tree as mediator is illustrated in Gorog-Karady’s (1970) examination of the justice and mediating role of trees in African oral tradition. There are some common elements in these stories (22 are analysed): an evil deed is followed by atonement in which a tree has a part; the tree can be giver of life, death or it can insure the hero’s survival; the tree intervenes in situations where man is not able to solve a conflict; the conflicts in which the tree acts as mediator are those where the rules regulating traditional society have been ignored.

In some cases the practical and symbolic roles of particular tree species are combined. For instance, in Western Cameroon, the tree Dracaena arborea is traditionally considered a symbol of peace and for this reason it is used to mark property boundaries (Depommier 1983) (See also Dongmo (1985)).

Among the Agni of Côte d’Ivoire, the Sereer of Senegal, and in the Boualé region of Côte d’Ivoire trees play a central role in the land tenure system. For the Agni, trees evidence land-use rights for an individual or lineage group. And, as in many cultures of the region, in the Agni culture, someone who plants a tree in a field has sole rights to its produce and sole rights to the use of the land it stands on. Thus land rights are established by collecting the harvest from planted trees rather than by bush clearing (Gastellu 1980). Boamah (1986) presents the results of two court cases which indicate that the planting or tending of naturally regenerating fruit trees on a piece of land for several years without interference effectively constitutes proof of possession in Ghana as well. These court rulings emphasize the fact that it is often the person who gathers the fruit of a planted tree who gains exclusive right to the land itself (see Section 6.2).

3.5 The use of forest products in social, cultural and healing ceremonies

Forests provide a range of products for traditional ceremonies from food and beverages to costumes and musical instruments. While some of these products are perhaps less often used on a day-to-day basis, they still form essential elements of a variety of cultural traditions. In a study of the uses of fallow tree species in Ho, Ghana, Asamoah (1985) found that half the identified species were valued in customary rites.

Forest products are used for healing throughout the region. The medicines and medicinal practices that were discussed in the first section, depend to a large extent on the mystical values associated with different forest species. Thus it is not possible to differentiate between the psychological and medical effects of a plant when investigating its effectiveness.

Forest foods also feature in many cultural ceremonies: marriages, funerals, initiations, installation of chiefs, and birth celebrations, to name a few. Palm wine and cola nuts are important symbolic foods throughout humid West Africa. In Nigeria, for example, palm wine is of paramount importance at most social functions (Okafor 1979). It is used in pouring libations, offering prayers, and heralding events. Cola nuts are regarded as important symbols of welcome and hospitality. For Muslims of the region, cola nuts are sacred: something given them by the prophet. They are a symbol of friendship and feature in all festive occasions. Among the Igbo of Southern Nigeria, all discussions, prayers, and ceremonies begin with the breaking of cola nuts. Without cola, these occasions are not regarded as serious (Okigbo 1980).

The seeds of Pentaclethra macrophylla are another example of symbolically important forest foods. In southwestern Nigeria, they feature in child-naming and girl’s initiation ceremonies (heralding maturity). Bread fruit (Treculia africana) is served at women’s burial ceremonies. It is also served during a festival staged to indicate a girl’s impending departure to her husband’s home (Okafor 1979).

Forests also provide the raw materials for many of the objects that are used in traditional ceremonies. Most musical instruments are made from forest products. For example, the Oubi (in Côte d’Ivoire) use Cordia platythyrsa for making tam-tams. The Boualé (also from Côte d’Ivoire) make a musical slide/rattle with the fruit of Oncoba spinosa and Glyphaea brevis and the seed of Entada pursaetha (Téhé 1980). Similarly, the seed shells of Chrysophyllum albidum and Mammea africana are worn by dancers as rattles and the wooden strips of Ricinodendron heudelottii are used to make xylophones in Igboland, Nigeria (Okigbo 1980).

Among the Mende and Dan (Côte d’Ivoire), masks play an important role in rituals and ceremonies; they often represent the spirits of the forests and ancestors (who reside in forests) and thus express and evoke cultural links to the past (Jedrej 1986). In Gabon, Perrois (1971) notes that wood sculptures and ceremonial objects serve as vehicles of communication with ancestors; the wood is used for different artifacts and is chosen according to the purposes and symbolic values of specific tree species.

Ceremonial clothing and costumes are also often made from specific forest products. Among the Ashante in Ghana, traditional cloth is still important at festive and ceremonial occasions. For example, the bark and stem of Lannea kerstingii are used for dyeing the funeral cloth kuntunkun. The bark of Bridelia ferruginea is used for dyeing Adinkra cloth, important at other ceremonial occasions (Annan 1980). Gara cloth is a traditionally valued indigo cloth. The indigo dye of Gara is derived from the leaves of the woody climber Lonchocarpus cyanescens. Finally, masks used in ceremonies throughout the region are often made with the wood of trees that are valued for their spiritual or mystical attributes (Jedrej 1986, Gollnhofer et al 1975).


Forests serve a variety of cultural and symbolic functions in West Africa. They are intimately linked with ancestry and cultural heritage. Forest symbols provide social structure and cultural identity in a rapidly changing environment.

There is little information on the ways in which these values are changing. No studies explore the implications of changing cultural values on forest resource use. And yet, there can be little doubt that values have changed and are continuing to change. With this evolution people’s perceptions of the surrounding forest environment will undoubtedly be altered. Some researchers do however suggest that forests and their products are and will continue to be valued, in part because they symbolize cultural cohesion.

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