If only trees could talk, they would have so many fascinating stories to tell. One such tree is the Ombalantu baobab tree that can be found in Outapi, Owamboland, in the far north of Namibia.
This gentle giant, said to be the oldest baobab tree in Namibia (at least 800 years old, 28 metres tall and 26.5 metres in circumference), has witnessed so much history and provided shelter to many people – not only from the heat of the day but also from attacks during times of war.
Tree of Life
During tribal wars in the 19th century, the headman of the Ombalantu people decided that a hole should be cut into the top of the tree and hollowed out so that women and children could hide inside, whenever the village was attacked. It is said that about 45 people could fit into that space. It literally saved lives – no wonder the tree is also known as the Tree of Life.
But the tree also played many other roles in its lifetime. In 1940, a small entrance was carved into the tree trunk and the tree became Outapi’s first official post office, which was used by Owambo families to receive money and goods sent to them by their men, who worked in the cities.
Chapel, bar and prison
In later years, when South Africa occupied ‘South West Africa’ (as Namibia was known before it gained independence), the tree served as a chapel, bar and even a prison (when it was integrated into the South African Military base). The tree must have a serious identity crisis by now!
However, on a much more serious note, the Ombalantu baobab tree also bore witness to a part of history that I, as a South African, don’t feel proud of.
South Africa Border War
The South African Border War, also referred to as the Namibian War of Independence, took place on the border of South West Africa and Angola, and the people who lived in this area suffered greatly. During my visit to Owamboland, I heard some truly heart-rending stories. I am also very aware, though, of South African men who fought in this war and returned home so traumatised by what they saw and experienced, that they simply cannot talk about it – ever! The many conflicts and troubles that led to war in this region are complex, something I can’t pretend to fully understand. What I do know, is that war is ugly and there are no victors –everyone suffers.
Ombalantu healing from the inside out
Today, this huge baobab tree is a national monument and tourist attraction managed by the people of Outapi (also known as the Ombalantu people). The tree (just like the region) is slowly healing itself by growing back and closing up the space that once was hollowed out inside. According to the Owambo tour guide, the tree will not be cut again, as they are afraid it might die…
The Ombalantu Baobab Tree Heritage Centre is a fascinating place to visit and includes a small craft shop and even a camping and picnic spot close by. Whereas the giant baobab tree could easily fit 45 people in the past, it can now hold ‘only’ 35 people.
Stepping inside this incredible tree was like stepping inside a sanctuary. We fell silent and took it all in: two small benches, a cross and a simple altar with two old Bibles (one in Oshiwambo and one in Afrikaans). The temperature was lovely and cool, while the light, streaming in from the side entrance, revealed the tree’s wonderfully textured walls before disappearing into the darkness high above us.
One of my friends paged through the Bible until her eyes fell on the following verse, which she read out loud to us:
“Vind jou vreugde in die Here, en Hy sal jou gee wat jou hart begeer.”
(Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.)
For a brief moment, time stood still. It was just the four of us, one South African and three Namibians, standing inside a giant old baobab tree… and it was perfect.
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