The Oil Palm: Memories Uncovered

The Oil Palm: Memories Uncovered

In composing the first blog post of the year, it had to be about something defining – something which identifies the reasons why I blog and fuels my passion for writing and sharing! It was only a year ago, when we were all walking through what hashed my memories of a palm tree plantation. We were on vacation in Cameroon, in the rural parts of the Littoral province. On this day during our family vacation, we drove 1.5hours from Littoral to the South-West Province and one could not help but notice along the route, farms and plantations covered in these palm trees, more specifically, the oil palm, Elaeis guineensis. We reached our destination and met with family that afternoon. After a quick meal, we walked through the yard with several palm trees.

The oil palm species grows in the tropics, both wildly and cultivated, within 10degrees latitude of the equator in Africa, South/Central America, and Southeast Asia. Data collected and analyzed over time confirms the center of its origin and diversity to be in the tropical rainforests of west and central Africa. The “palm belt” of Africa runs from Guinea to Zanzibar and Madagascar and from Senegal to south of Angola. As I draft this post, I am cheered by vivid childhood memories of riding with my grandfather through an oil palm plantation accompanied by uncles, aunts, in the back of a truck. As an agriculturalist, he frequently went to survey and assess the farm work being done on his estate. These trips were filled with a naïve youthful excitement as the truck navigated windy, bumpy routes. I would listen to stories told by my seniors, full of folklore, and metaphors; stories interrupted by gasps as the branches of the palm trees brushed and beat about us more frequently the further and deeper, we got into the plantation.

When I was eight years old, I learned soap could be made from palm oil, and was able to observe that process on a small scale. I watched the extraction of crude palm oil from its kernels in smaller part of operations my grandfather had at the time. It was clear to me oil palm was special. Our most delectable cultural dish is primarily made with palm oil and can only be truly savored when eaten in the space between the warmed banana leaf and our fingers, safe from “foreign” utensils. This oil would again be the base ingredient to traditional medicaments for common ailments particularly those with involve the gastrointestinal system. Rich in pro vitamin A and vitamin E. micronutrients, and medium chain fatty acids, the nutritional benefits of crude palm oil cannot be ignored. Because of its versatile applications in health and wellness, it continues to be the subject of several research studies particularly since it has the highest yield per hectare of any oil plant.

The number one producers of palm oil globally are India and Malaysia. However, more specific to the African continent, Benin and Cote d’Ivoire export the highest volume of palm oil according to Statistica. Growing up in Cameroon, it was clear to me at an early age, the oil palm was unique and played a vital role in our nutritional sustenance and hygiene. A couple decades later I would learn its role in the mystical cultural application as a necessary ointment carrying the blessing for fertility in traditional weddings, a symbol of a truce such as an olive branch, an instrument of enhancing relations between two parties whether friend, family, or foe.

In the family of palm trees, the raffia palm species is especially known for its sap which is sweet, milky, and effervescent and can be enjoyed as a refreshing drink or fermented to produce an alcoholic beverage. In the Democratic Republic of Congo embroidery threads made from the raffia palm are woven into intricate rectangular or square pieces typically enhanced by geometric design. The Kuba cloth which is what this unique piece of fabric is called originated in the 17th century Kuba Kingdom in Central Africa. These tactile cloths are individually handcrafted in a traditional way using a technique called “cut pile” resulting in a fabric with a soft texture similar to velvet. The end products are often used as blankets, mats, body wrappers, wall hangings or even currency!

It is natural for a parent to wish for their child to experience one or two memories from their own childhood. Alas, my children cannot ride to the plantation with the excitement and carefree complacency I possessed as a child, the environments have since changed. We all miss the grandfather who many things to many people but in those moments on the farm was found in his purest of forms indulging in one of his greatest passions. In our current state of loss, I can still hope my kids will come to cherish these walks in yards full of palm trees. I hope they will someday cherish those memories of stopping in for lunch with family and licking their lips and fingers covered in “Njya nekyi” (Achu soup a.k.a palm oil soup), on a banana leaf. The truck rides through the plantation have come to an end but perhaps I can ensure they have the experience of watching me make the soap from the oil and still yet experience the mystic as part of the cycle of life, beyond the ephemeral.

~ Dedicated to my grandfather, His Royal Highness, S.A.N. Angwafo III, Fon of Mankon ~

Leave a Reply