West Africa // monumental trees // embedded cultural functions

essay response //

In West African settlement  monumental trees have been endowed with significant identities linked to specific cultural  functions.  The arbres a palabre, or palavar trees, mark the central location for political gatherings, judicial administration, social networks and spiritual centers for Senegambia and Madagascar.   The etymology of palavar is Portuguese meaning speech, parley or discussion.  On multiple levels the foundation of the community is connected to the monumental trees. The trees are the physical foundation and the point of departure for the development of the community.  The longevity of the trees symbolizes a balanced relationship with nature that helps to build spatial order from the ground up.   The use of monumental trees in West African society for political, social and spiritual centers provides an interconnected framework, rather than a bifurcated structure, of environmental and social organization.

The tradition of an interrelated relationship between the environment and societal organization significantly influenced the spatial organization of West African settlement.   In Senegambia human constructed public architecture lacks monumentality or permanence that is associated with many western and eastern cultures.  In contrast to built architecture baobab trees, one of the main species for arbres a palabre, are monumental and persistent living structures within the context of the savanna landscape.  (Ross 2008, 134) The growth pattern of baobab trees can be easily adapted to articulate basic architectural forms and functions.  As baobab tree mature the center of the trunk dies, creating a multifunctional void that can be occupied or serve as the symbolic center for gatherings.  The openings in the trees trunk symbolically represent a doorway connecting individuals to inner structure of the tree. The interior of the monumental trees provide an intimate setting for spiritual rituals.  The architecture of the individual baobab trees has been adapted to different societal functions.  The essential concept of monumental trees is the connection between nature and social organization at multiple scales.

The arbres a palabre is a metaphor for participatory democracy and governance.  Monumental trees provide the architectural framework and the soul of democratic governance in West Africa.  Within the political realm the monumental trees provide the spatial foundation for participatory politics and they are the heart of political ceremonies.  The network of tress and the political engagement that it engenders has resulted in a strong decentralized government in the region.  Political gatherings are egalitarian including individuals of all ages, gender and economic status. Everyone is encouraged to participate in the discussion and debates. In 2004 Simon Obanda, an African philosopher, argued that the palaver tree was Africa’s contribution to global politics because it inspired organization structures for international organizations like UNESCO. (Ross 2008, 133) On a smaller scale the concepts associated with palavar trees has been adapted by grassroots organization to further democratic governance.   The trees are the genus loci of local politics, which has given rise to the name ‘constitution trees’. (Ross 2008, 139)  In addition to serving as political centers arbres a palabre are the places where judicial decision are made and disputes are settled.

Although the use of monumental trees is well know for its political significance the practice is a vital part of the cultural landscape. Historically the trees mark the origin point of the community because their canopy provided shelter and the center of the tree can be a source of stored rainwater. Over time, without grandiose built architecture, the trees became the cultural monuments for the community.  The tree monuments provide a public venue to share the rich oral history of the community. The shared public experiences aggregated into a collective memory for the community.  The function of these trees are know as Lieux de memoire, or places of memory, and they are used as passive gathering sites. (Ross 2008, 144) Under the canopy of the monumental trees has developed into places to study literature, read, write and exchange knowledge in public setting.  Individual trees can also be religions, spiritual and cosmic centers for the community.  The spatial and cultural structure developed around the monumental trees blurs the boundaries between public and private spaces because there is an ongoing dialect between the two spheres.

In West African culture the network of monumental trees lays the political, social and spiritual foundation for the communities. The monumental trees function as markers and monumental for the development of collective politics and memory. The monumental  trees facilitate the development of community identity though an ongoing cultural narrative. Physically the trees link vital societal functions with cultural and spiritual values.  The trees are the embodiment of social, political and spiritual concepts that continue to adapt in function and use.  The network of trees, with their embedded functions, create meaning in the landscape and influences the spatial pattens in the settlements.

Ross, Eric. “Palaver Tree Reconsidered in the Senegalese Landscape.” In African Sacred Groves Ecological Dynamics and Social Change, edited by Michael J. Sheridan, 133-148. Oxford: James Currey, 2008.

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