The Versatile Oil Palm
By Awake! correspondent in Nigeria
THE beat of the ekwe tom-tom grew in volume. This signal transformed the easy, nonchalant pace of the village into the hustle and bustle of a people in a tremendous hurry. The year was 1937, and the oil-palm harvest had begun in Igboland, eastern Nigeria.
Having received the report that ripe fruit had started falling in the wild palm groves, the village chief two days earlier had told the people to begin preparing for the harvest. Workers were organized, machetes sharpened, and climbing harnesses repaired. These harnesses—simple wooden hoops padded with ropes—would support the weight of the climbers as they moved with leaping motions up the tree trunks.
The Oil-Palm Harvest
Matthew, 12 years old, was eager to get started. He had been practicing with the harness. In previous years he had helped the women gather the cut branches, but now his father would permit him to climb the shorter trees. He would be paid for each bunch of fruit he cut down. However, his real interest was the thrill of being a climber, something all young boys in the village anticipated with joy.
At the sound of the tom-tom, Matthew raced out of the village with his father and the other climbers. Not only was this a job of reaping fruit but it was a contest between experienced climbers. Clambering up trunks more than 30 feet [9 m] tall and then up into the crowns of large, feathery fronds that added another 15 feet [5 m] to the tree’s height, they would get to show off their climbing skills.
Everything From Soap to Wine
‘Why,’ you may wonder, ‘do palm trees generate all this excitement?’ Because of the great value of this versatile plant to the people. The next morning the olive-sized palm fruit would be separated from the bunch stalks. These potassium-rich stalks would then be processed to make soap. While the bulk of the fruit would be sold for export, the rest would be processed right there in the village.
Matthew had often seen his mother boil the fruit to soften the fibrous outer pulp covering the hard nuts. This enabled her to squeeze the oil from the soft fibers with her hands. After this she cracked the nuts with stones so as to get at the kernels. From these she extracted the palm-kernel oil. She used the oil in cooking, as an ointment, and as fuel for her lamps. And the hard shells became fuel for the fire.
Matthew could also have pointed out a handy use for the palm leaves—roof thatching. He could run his fingers along the mat on which he lay and demonstrate that it too was made from palm leaves. Fibers from the leaf stalks could be twisted into ropes and woven into baskets or fish traps. What is more, palm-leaf fences protected the vegetable gardens from animals. Yam vines grew on simple frames made of palm-leaf stalks. And brooms for sweeping the home were made from the ribs of palm leaves.
No wonder the elders of the village strictly controlled the cutting of palm fronds! Wanton cutting of them would destroy the productivity of the trees and even threaten their life. That was why the weaverbirds were so unwelcome. They stripped the palm leaves for material to weave their nests, causing many trees to die.
Yet, even fallen palm trees served their purpose. Mushrooms grew from the rotting tree trunks. The trunks also harbored the large larvae of beetles—a tasty and nutritious meal when fried in palm oil. Sap drained from the male flower stalk was capable of yielding gallons of palm wine. When the sap was freshly tapped from fallen trees, or from living ones, it made a refreshing drink. Frequently, it was used to produce vinegar as well as kai-kai (ogogoro), a strong alcoholic drink that tastes like gin.
Many changes have taken place since 1937. People who paid for their schooling with earnings from the palm-oil trade have moved into larger towns. And the once joyous palm harvest is a thing of the past.
Extensive farms now use scientific methods to cultivate improved varieties of the palm tree. These new breeds are more resistant to disease, mature earlier, are higher yielding, and produce fruit almost at ground level. This makes reaping much easier. Special long knives and hooks are used for reaping the taller trees so that little or no climbing is necessary. However, the newer methods, though efficient, just do not have the charm or excitement of the old harvest!
Processing methods have also improved. In the large processing plants, heavy machinery easily cracks the nuts. The kernel refuse is then made into palm-kernel cake—an important ingredient in livestock feed. The different grades of the oils are used in making edibles (such as margarine, confectionery, and ice cream) and nonedibles (such as detergents, candles, perfume, cosmetics, and even industrial lubricants). Furthermore, the acetic acid from the aged palm wine has found a place in the rubber industry as a coagulant.
Matthew has welcomed all these developments that have taken place since he was a young boy decades ago in Igboland. In the meantime, he has come to know yet something else about the palm tree. Studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses, he has learned that God long ago said: “Let the earth cause grass to shoot forth, vegetation bearing seed, fruit trees yielding fruit according to their kinds.” (Genesis 1:11) Knowing how the palm tree got its start, Matthew can now do more than admire and appreciate this attractive tree. He can praise Jehovah God, the Creator of the versatile oil palm.
[Picture on page 20]
Harvesting one of the trees
Peter Buckley/Photo Researchers