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The Kola Nut: a Significant Token in Gambian Tradition

My Magazine 2023/02
3 min
Kola Nut, referred to as 'Gurru' in The Gambia and Senegal, is a common and popular nut in many African countries. It plays an essential part in certain social occasions in The Gambia, such as naming ceremonies, weddings, funerals and when seeking someone's forgiveness. It is also commonly used as a gift to show respect. For instance, when visiting an Alkalo (village chief), it is wise and polite to present him with a few kola nuts.

Kola nuts are also used as a form of currency or to reinforce social contracts. One visitor to The Gambia noted that the kola nut was sworn upon as the Bible was in western countries — people would swallow kola nuts to convey their honesty.

Their value is also in rich orange tint, extracted by pounding and soaking in the water, preferably overnight, to obtain the natural dye used for traditional tye-dye and batik techniques of material dyeing. Unfortunately, there are only a few skilled individuals left that master the secret to acquiring the rich colour from this valuable nut. 

The kola nut trees are evergreen, growing to 20m tall, with glossy ovoid leaves up to 30cm long. About the size of a large walnut or small golf ball, they vary in colour from pink to beige. They are the seed pods of various evergreen trees; Sterculiaceae cola vera is the scientific name of the most common species. Some trees, which grow as tall as 60 feet (18 meters), are most common in Western Africa and the Atlantic coast area of Central Africa. The flavour is extremely bitter; most people say the taste is acquired. They pack a punch with a chemical that is similar to caffeine.

There are innumerous health benefits of eating Kola nuts-

  1. The seeds relieve nausea and hangover, and the roots are used as chewing sticks to clean teeth and freshen breath.
  2. Short-term relief of fatigue, depression, melancholy, lack of normal muscle tone, exhaustion, dysentery, weight loss, and migraine headaches. 
  3. They are thought to promote the production of gastric acid, which increases the effectiveness of digestive enzymes in the stomach. 
  4. The Kola Nut contains around 3% caffeine and around 2% theobromine. Both of these compounds act as “vasodilators”, widening the blood vessels and increasing blood flow to the brain. This raises the oxygen levels in the brain, boosting cognitive function and alertness.
  5. This nut boosts metabolism, improves heart rate, improves immunity, boosts energy, prevents certain kinds of cancer and helps keep the eyes healthy. It can also speed up the nervous system. 
  6. It is a hunger suppressant. 
  7. In pregnant women, the Kola nut helps to alleviate morning sickness and dizziness during the first trimester. It also helps to reduce labour pains.

Due to their bitter taste, they are often dried and boiled to make tea, mixed into beverages or taken with sweeter foods. Kola nuts can be processed into a fine powder. Mixing one teaspoon of this powder into coffee, tea, or hot chocolate adds more stimulating kick to these beverages.

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