In northern Ghana, coconut-bearing palm trees are very rare. They prefer humid forest climates and if they are found in the Sahel region it is near a water source.
We do have a palm tree that is found all across Sub-Saharan Africa that is often mistaken for a coconut palm by visitors to the region. This palm is known as the African Fan Palm or Rônier in French. Its Latin name is Borassus aethiopum and it is one of five Borassus palm species in the world.
A Delicious Snack – Twice Over!
The Mamprusi will collect the fruit of the African Fan Palm – which looks a bit like a large, dark-orange coconut – rip it open and suck the juice from its thick mass of fibrous pulp.
The taste is difficult for me to describe because it is so unique. To me it tastes nearly fermented. I found several descriptions that say it smells and tastes like therbenthine – yet I can’t figure out what therbenthine is (turpentine?)!
Here’s a video showing a Mamprusi woman in Tuzeaa, Ghana breaking a Borassus palm fruit open and eating it.
The second edible portion of the African Fan Palm is its young shoots. People will collect the nuts (there are usually a couple in each fruit), bury them, and then dig them up after a few weeks. They break off the shoots that are sprouting from the nuts and boil them. In December-February I see these being sold in the market.
I’ve read of others eating the shoots raw (as a salad topper, for example) but I have not observed that where I live.
Other Uses of Borassus Aethiopum
The rônier’s uses aren’t limited to eating the tasty fruit and shoots. There are a plethoral of other ways its parts are used across Sub-Saharan Africa.
- The large fan leaves are dried and woven into mats.
- Its leaf petioles (stalks) are used for small gates at the entrances of compounds.
- In Tanzania, its sap is tapped, fermented and made into a sweet, refreshing drink.
- Local healers use the roots as a treatment for stomach aches, bronchitis, sore throats and even asthma.
- The coarsely fibrous wood of the tree’s trunk is very hard and heavy and resistant to termites and fungi. The historic, mud mosque of Wuriyanga uses this wood as its ceiling support.
The Borassus Palm in West African Culture
Among many tribes of northern Ghana, the Borassus Palm Tree is believed to host bad spirits. There is even a Mampruli proverb to that effect:
I yi la kukpariga zugu n-lu kunkunni zugu.“You come from the top of the borassus palm and fall on top of the hillock. “
A hillock (small hill for us Americans) is also believed to be a dwelling place for bad spirits. So the proverb is the equivalent to our own saying:
“Out of the frying pan and into the fire.”
There are several other Mampruli proverbs that reference the physical features of the palm tree:
Kukpaariga maasim luri la ka kpaŋŋa.A borassus palm tree’s shade falls beside it.
Kukpariga gbaŋŋu ku dam yɔri.A borassus-palm’s branches won’t wave without cause. (ie ‘No smoke without fire.’)
And my favorite…
Wɔbgu yi makki la u gbinni ka vɔli kukpari.The elephant measures its anus before swallowing the borassus nut.