Everyone in Freetown knew the "Cotton Tree". Hardly any travelogue or book about the capital of Sierra Leone lacked a mention. The magnificent tree in the city center was several hundred years old, how old exactly, no one knows. Countless stories and myths surround him.

Claudia Bröll

Political correspondent for Africa based in Cape Town.

  • Follow I follow

But since the end of last week, he himself is history. Heavy rains and squalls have split the mighty tribe. As can be seen in pictures in the media, only one half of the trunk protrudes like a long broken tooth. From the lush crown of the tree, scrawny branches with some foliage are left.

The President of Sierra Leone, Julius Maada Bio, spoke of a "great loss for our nation". The tree was "a link between the past, the present and the future". Residents of Freetown liked to compare it to the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Big Ben in London.

"It symbolises freedom in Sierra Leone"

There were also international reactions. "He symbolizes freedom in Sierra Leone," wrote British actor Idris Elba on Twitter. His father is from Sierra Leone. It is a sad and symbolic end on World Africa Day, the day of remembrance of the unification of the continent. But the roots remained, Elba added comfortingly.

The "Cotton Tree" was a kapok tree, a deciduous tree from tropical rainforests. Its traditional history dates back to 1792, when more than 1000 former slaves from North America landed on the west coast of the continent. As noted on an information board on the tree, they ran towards the sturdy tree to thank God for their deliverance. It was on this site that they wanted to settle and found the city of Freetown. The slaves had escaped their owners in the War of Independence and had joined the British in the war. After the end of the war, the British government freed the loyal fighters as promised and moved them to the new colony founded in 1787. They were to try their luck in West Africa.

Since then, the Cotton Tree has been a landmark, a national monument and a meeting place for activities of all kinds. Just a few weeks ago, the journalists' association organized a march for freedom of the press and held a rally at the tree. Many inhabitants also attributed magical powers to it, they suspected that ghosts lived in the old wood. In the meantime, there were also calls to cut it down because it had brought misfortune to the poor country.

The tree survived superstition and a fire three years ago, as did generations of state leaders and the great historical events: the colonial era, independence in 1961, then military coups, an eleven-year-long civil war, the hunt for blood diamonds, unimaginable atrocities and Ebola outbreaks, but also the growth of Freetown into a pulsating metropolis with heavy traffic.

Today, the tree, or what's left, stands in a roundabout that forms the center of radially arranged main roads. On the way to the center, no matter from which direction, it was not to be overlooked until last week. In the immediate vicinity are the National Museum, the Court of Justice, several banks, government offices and the Peace and Culture Monument.

Many memories of the "Cotton Tree"

British author Tim Butcher described in his book "Chasing the Devil" how he had passed under the wide-spread branches of the Cotton Tree on Siaka Stevens Street, the main thoroughfare. "I looked up and saw thousands of large bats, each the size of a rat. They hung from the branches in furry, twitching bundles, unmoved by the noise of the road beneath them."

As the President announced during a visit to the site, something new is now to be created at this point that will remind us of the "great cotton tree in our history". The remains of the tree will be preserved by the National Museum in order to preserve them for future generations.

In an emotional report, the newspaper "Sierra Leone Telegraph" recalled that the roots and branches represented the peoples, cultures and languages of Sierra Leone. The tree now leaves many questions about the political and economic future. "Now only the tribe stands proudly, as if bowing one last time before leaving the stage."