Ode to the Kola Nut

Abstract painting of figures gathered around a bowl of red kola nuts, fruits that are cherished throughout West Africa.
“Red Kola Nut” by Nigerian painter Gbenga Offo

“The word friendship in our society comes from this fruit. You must split it in two; one hand cannot clap; it takes two to make a sound. Everything that I do in art, as a visual form of expression, is [inspired] by this fruit. The kola nut, which has ritual and divine representation in the society where I come from in West Africa is my medium … a gift that has fallen from the gods to the African people.”

― Senegalese Kola Textile Artist, Gade Diouf
Abstract textile dyed with kola nuts.
“Duality” by Gade Diouf

Beyond its artistic use as both medium and muse, whether enriching the color palette of Bambara bògòlanfini rouge, Serer kola/indigo batik, or Limba/Yalunka huronko cloth ― and even well beyond its past use as a form of currency, much like the cowrie ― the kola nut, once presented and split, plays a role in virtually every aspect of West African life, from birth to death.

“No socio-cultural activity is held in our country without the kola nut; no other fruit has played such a crucial role in the Sahel.”

― Mamady Kouyate, Malian Griot

The Breaking of the Kola Nut

Generations of proposals have been accepted or rejected, compliments or insults exchanged, birth and death rites performed, and even wars declared and avoided by the ritual presentation and breaking of the kola nut, in all its subtle color-coded symbolism. Carefully unrolled from its goatskin wrapping, with incantations in the air, symbolic chalk traces on the ground, and alligator pepper on the tongue, the kola nut is ceremonially broken*, then savored, throughout all of West Africa.

A man keeping a kola nut between his lips to cherish it as long as possible, in Mali.
Savoring the Kola Nut, Mali. Photography by Frank Janssens.

“The kola nut lasts longer in the mouth of the one who cherishes it.”

― Nigerian playwright, Ola Rotimi, The Gods Are not to Blame

The Kola Nut: Omnipresent, Omnipotent

Cast upon a Yoruba Obi divination board or scattered by a Fon clairvoyant; distributed formally by a Mamprusi chief or used informally, remedially, as a stimulant ; carried as an emblem of prestige by Wolof youth on the streets of Dakar or elevated to an Akan adinkra symbol, bese saka, the kola nut is everywhere … ubiquitous, pervasive, powerful. Akan adinkra symbol, bese saka : sack of kola nuts.

Onye wetara oji wetara ndu.”

(He who brings kola brings life.)

Igbo Kola Blessing
Vodoun devotee cleansing ceremonial kola nuts, Ouidah, Benin
Vodoun ritual cleansing of the kola nut, Ouidah, Benin. Photography by Jason Florio.

“Oji Anaghi Anu Oyibo”

The kola nut does not hear, speak, or understand the English language [Ásụ̀sụ̀ Ị̀gbò, Igbo] 

So intertwined are culture and language that only the highest level of autochthonous oratory can bless the kola nut. As for the word, kola, itself, both English and French have respected and preserved its West African etymological origins: Temne kɔ̆la, Malinké kɔ̆lo.

Two Yoruba men attempting to divine the future with Kola nuts, Ifa
Yoruba Ifa divination and offering. Photography by John Pemberton III.

“This is the kola nut. This seed is a star. This star is life. This star is us. The lgbo hold the kola nut to be sacred, offering it at every gathering and to every visitor, as a blessing, as refreshment, or to seal a covenant. The prayer that precedes the breaking and sharing of the nut is: He who brings kola, brings life.” 

― Graceland by Chris Abani, Nigerian author, poet, playwright

Sources and Further Reading

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