The Talking Baobab Tree
Folklore / Picture Book
June 2, 2020
A rabbit, lost in the desert and saved by a baobab tree, outwits a stronger, envious neighbor.
The Talking Baobab Tree is a re-telling of a tale author-illustrator Nelda LaTeef heard while visiting a Wolof village in Senegal close to the Sahel (shore of the Sahara). The re-telling effectively uses three familiar West African elements, the Baobab, the Trickster Rabbit, and Luck.
The baobab tree is omnipresent throughout Sahel Africa. It is huge and long-lived despite prolonged droughts. Highly valued for its nutritional and medicinal benefits, it also has immense social and spiritual value. For example, it offers two key elements vital to human communication: a place in the shade to organize community meetings and lalo. Made from baobab leaves, lalo makes food palatable and is used metaphorically to smooth social relationships. In Senegal, one often hears the expression: “Put some lalo in our relationship.” In the ‘Author’s Note’ LaTeef provides useful factual information about the baobab and its many uses.
The Rabbit appears in many West African tales as a trickster, wily and smart despite its small size. Trickster figures are known to overcome the most formidable/seemingly impossible challenges and situations through sheer cleverness, wit and cunningness. Rabbit in The Talking Baobab runs true to form. She tricks a wicked hyena and escapes with her life. The trickster rabbit was also paramount in Leuk, the Rabbit by Leopold Senghor (the first president of Sénégal). Teachers used the book to teach the basics of the French language and to introduce aspects of culture and traditions through a series of stories intimately mixing education, moral reflection and popular tales. Metaphorically it was a “manifesto” on how to strategically deal with the colonial power of France before independence.
Luck, some Senegalese say, is better than being smart. Others say luck is the crowning result of effort, or in other words “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” In this story, only after a hard, hot struggle does Luck appear.
The Talking Baobab is well written and suitable for children of all ages. The book has easy-to-understand moral lessons that can be of benefit to all. Johari, the rabbit, shows how to handle bullies with your brain rather than brawn. The hyena, a model of bad behavior, reaps the ill-will he sows and loses everything because of his greed. Baobab, naturally endowed with life-sustaining resources, is generous and kind but no fool. Proverbs are sprinkled throughout the book: “A good neighbor is better than a relative who lives far away …. Deeds speak louder than words …. An egg shouldn’t wrestle with a rock.”
Illustrations are often as important if not more so than the actual words in books focusing on distant cultures. Lateef’s illustrations and color selections are representative of the Sahel region. The drawings – clear, clean and easy to follow – show the differences between the Sahel, a semi-desert belt with vegetation that supports animal and plant life and the Sahara, a true desert with little vegetation.
I highly recommend this picture book to children of all ages and anyone who desires to have a glimpse of West African cultural wisdoms drawn from nature: Trees and Animals.
Notes: Some points about the Wolof language:
- Concerning the word “Oubi”:to command or ask to open the door: the word is “oubil”; the “L ” seems to be missing in the text. The letters ”ou” read as “u” in English.
- Concerning the word “Jerry-jef”; The closing order “Jerry-jef” could be written as “Jarra- Jef” meaning “ Thank You”. The vowel “a” in “Jarra” reads as “ah” in the Wolof language.
Reviewed by Hamé Watt, Ph.D.
Published in Africa Access Review (January 21, 2021)
Copyright 2021 Africa Access
I very much appreciate this compelling scholarly review by Hamé Watt of my picture book, The Talking Baobab Tree, inspired by Wolof folklore. As an aside, I’d like to note that Wolof is predominantly an oral language, rarely written, and therefore spellings vary from place to place. The information about lalo, and President Léopold Sédar Senghor’s book, Leuk, the Rabbit, was fascinating. I spent several years in Senegal while Senghor was president and greatly admired his literary erudition as well as the fact that after more than two decades as president of Senegal, he left office on his own volition. Again, many thanks for a wonderfully incisive review.