The African baobab has found a comfortable home on Chole Island in the Mafia Archipelago, Tanzania. They stand tall and unchallenged on these East coast islands in the Indian Ocean, thriving singly and in groves. All ages, shapes and sizes of this magnificent tree flourish. There are more than 100 trees on 2.2 sq. km island of Chole, only 2m above sea level.
The biggest baobab, with a girth of at least 12 metres, suggests an age of more than 2000 years old. They shed their leaves once a year and then resume full canopy, producing flowers that bloom in the early evening, enticing the giant flying foxes to visit for their pollination. Their fruits are collected for local use or sale for medicine. They can be used to make a local sweet delicacy ‘ubuyu’ or even used to make cream of tartar powder that is rich in vitamin C.
The giants tower over the landscape, standing sentinel to the passing ages. They eldest could have been here since the times of early settlement by seafaring people boating in from near; Rufiji river delta, Songo Song, Qilwa, Mozambique, the Comoros, Madagascar and from far, the monsoon-wind traders of Northern Indian Ocean, all the way to China. The Persian and Arab traders that settled on the island in the 13th century would have marvelled at them, as did the Omanis and Ismaili traders who moved in from the Zanzibar archipelago to build the town of Chole Mjini in the 18th and 19th century. The Germans arrived in the 1890’s, after a fiendish swap of land with the British that won them Heligoland in the North Sea as well as Mafia. They built a court, jail, a school and a bank to drag this isolated community into the 19th century turning it into the administrative headquarter of the area. The bustling entrepot of the 19th century was abandoned as the British, who took over in 1916 when Chole was the first territory to fall to them during the Great War, decided to relocate the District Headquarters to Kilindoni, on Mafia Island.
Nature took over, and strangler figs took possession of the buildings once occupied by fabulously wealthy traders in gold, slaves and ivory leaving a remnant built heritage on Chole that is a mixture of Persian, Arab and German. The town’s population dwindled from 5000 people in its hay day to just three families in the late fifties. After Tanzania independence in 1961, and the Ujamma/ decentralization program of 1976, Chole village was again settled and the population began again to grow to the 1000 of today.
The baobabs live on through all the drama. It is inconceivable in this culture to fell a baobab for fear of dislodging the spirits that might live there. The Chole Mjini lodge site, since 1993, now shares land with 10 adult baobabs. Blending into their space three of the tree houses nestle at canopy height bringing to the houses a sense of awe and timelessness that has inspired poets, artists and forged spiritual connections. Other baobabs are features in our wild garden. One that has fallen over continues to grow as a hedgerow lining the path to Tree House #3 and our favourite reclines on the beach, as if sunbathing.
The baobabs have survived generations and generations of people and we wonder if they will be the silent witnesses of a renaissance of Chole Mjini. Tanzania has shed her socialist past and the economy is growing in leaps and bounds. In twenty years Chole has gone from a situation with not one high school graduate to one now of 14 university graduates. Will the baobabs witness our graduates take the rural community of Chole into the 21st century and reconnect them again to the international economy. Or will the challenges of global warming, or something else be their and our nemesis!
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