Trunk Line to the Spirit World

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania -- The tree, being a baobab, is a huge and ancient thing, its massive trunk maybe 30 feet around and tapering hardly at all as it ascends. It is as much wall as tree, and people remove their shoes before kneeling in front of it, their eyes closed, their backs to the Indian Ocean, and their money in the pocket of the witch doctor who invariably brings them to this enchanted confluence of sea, earth and commerce.

"This place is like a mosque," said Ally Selengia, standing barefoot in the lengthening shadow of the great tree on Kenyatta Drive. The light was fading, and business was picking up.

His wife, Rykia Selengia, a traditional healer, passed a coconut around and around the head of her kneeling client. The coconut went around the man's left arm, then the right, then each leg. When she handed the coconut to the client, Mussa Norris, he hurled it onto a stone.

It shattered, releasing his problems to the winds.

"Today, myself, I have some evil spirits that are making me ill," Norris explained. "So I came here."

Here is known as "the magic corner," a strip of land between the turquoise sea and a row of luxurious white villas north of downtown Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's sun-splashed capital. The U.S. ambassador lives around the bend. Roald Dahl, author of "James and the Giant Peach," spent a couple of years in the house directly across the street in the late 1930s, when he worked for Shell Oil. An astonishingly large baobab dominates that lot, but it is not as close to the sea as the one visited by at least 10 traditional healers and their clients every day.

"It's where many spirits stay, in the big tree," said Rykia Selengia. "So if you have a spirit inside you, it's easy. He's going to find his friends in the tree.

"And some," she added, "go the ocean."

Nominally, Africa is a continent of Christians and Muslims. But Arab traders did not introduce Islam until the 10th century, and Christian missionaries had little success spreading their message until the end of the 19th. Neither faith has quite managed to overcome the spiritual connections fashioned in the previous 130,000 years.

"I am a Christian. My family is Christian," said Laurent Vacolavene, a witch doctor or "traditional healer" who led three young women to the tree one recent afternoon. "But this comes from the tribe. The spirits forced me to do this business. They made me sick. I was too thin. After working this job, I got fat."

He wore polished leather shoes and a dress shirt and carried a fountain pen that matched his burgundy slacks. He had arrived with Elisa, Rose and Rehema, who were seeking help finding a good man. Each had paid the doctor -- "a specialist!" Vacolavene chirpped -- the equivalent of about $2 to be bathed in seawater, then sat before the tree in hopes of correcting the situation.

"But if things are going well she might pay any money, maybe 30,000 shillings," or $25, Vacolavene said with a smile.

The tree shows evidence of very heavy use. Hundreds, possibly thousands of iron nails protrude from the trunk, a few still holding in place folded squares of paper. The scraps bear wishes -- some for relief, others for revenge. But the writing is legible only to the spirits.

Furkia Selengia produced a sample page, produced when a spirit moved her hand, she said. The red lines of Arabic-looking characters framed a simple sketch of a body, with more writing inside it.

"If you write it on a coconut, it's for good things," said Msafiri Ramadan, yet another witch doctor on hand for the evening rush. The same writing on a rotten egg, however, will bring a fatina, or curse. Crushed eggshells stained with red ink glint from a cleft of the trunk.

Other tokens are more cryptic. Feathers stuffed in a seashell and left on the ground. A broken clay pot containing ashes and rusted razor blades. The dried carcass of a puffer fish dangling from a high branch, a scrap of paper in its mouth.

Rupert Watson, a Nairobi lawyer who is writing a book about baobab trees, said that in the semi-arid Sahel region of West Africa, the baobab has a strong utilitarian function. Its great trunk may be three-quarters water, sucked up by a massive root system. Its seed pods are valued for food – the seeds ground to flavor drinks, the white pith far richer in vitamin C than any orange.

The baobab's core, which hollows as the tree ages, provides a burial ground for griots, the tribal praise singers and court jesters whose remains are suspended inside, "because they were neither fit for heaven nor hell," Watson said.

But in the lusher sections of East Africa, where other plants provide readier food, the baobab is valued chiefly for its fabulous size. The trees grow so large that one Kenyan highway map includes the biggest along main roads. A felled baobab -- several along the highway from Nairobi to Mombasa have been reduced to stumps to make room for a power line -- is a profoundly unsettling sight.

To Africans, great size is naturally associated with great age. Those who believe that spirits inhabit specific places see the baobab as a reservoir of forces surpassed only by the ocean.

"We believe that those spirits are in the tree from a long, long time ago," said Suleiman Hamisi, 19, who calls himself an apprentice healer. He wore a colorful Muslim cap and a watch bearing the name Calvin Klain. "There are so many big trees, but this one is good because it's near the ocean."

That could change. Gloria Mawji, a Dar es Salaam resident who is writing a book on the city, said developers plan to fill in the bay beyond the baobab. The project would destroy "the magic corner" by putting rows of houses and a shopping center between the ocean and the sacred baobab.

The corner's future, Mawji said, appears to rest with Tanzania's elected officials. But who or what controls those officials' future? One idea was offered by Shabuni Haruni, a private security guard stationed by the shore one recent afternoon.

"Have you seen it?" Haruni asked. "It is a wonderful tree!

"For women, if they are not married, they come and are begging through that tree for someone to marry.

"For those who are married, they come to beg for peace in their houses.

"Even those top leaders of the government come to that tree," Haruni said. "Yes, during the election."