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from: Western Africa
Kola nuts (or cola nuts) are the seed pods of various evergreen trees that are native to Africa; Sterculiaceae cola vera is the scientific name of the most common species. The kola nut trees, which grow as tall as 60 feet (18 meters), are most common in Western Africa and the Atlantic coast area of Central Africa.
Kola nuts are important in many African societies, particularly in Western Africa. Besides the fact that Kola nuts contain caffeine and act as a stimulant and anti-depressant, they are also thought to reduce fatigue and hunger, aid digestion, and work as an aphrodisiac. In some parts of Africa, kola nuts are given as gifts to visitors entering a home, usually with some formal ceremony. Offering the kola nut is a gesture of friendship and hospitality. The kola nut ceremony is similar to the traditional American Indian peace pipe or breaking bread in a religious context. Elsewhere, before a marriage, a bag of kola nuts are often given by a groom to the parents of the bride. Kola nuts are a used in rituals performed by religious healers. Besides the ceremonial uses, many Africans consume kola nuts regularly, even daily, for the medicial effects described above. Kola nuts are a common sight in African markets in cities and villages. They are often sold by street vendors at bus and train depots. On a train or bus, a traveler with a kola nut will often offer a piece to the others nearby, whether he knows them or not.
Kola nuts are consumed by breaking them open and into pieces, then chewing the kola nut pieces as one chews gum. Most people find the taste very bitter, especially at first. Sometimes a knife is needed to cut the nut into pieces. The stimulative effect is similar to a strong cup of coffee.
Kola nuts are produced commercially in the African and American tropics. In their raw form they are rather hard to find outside the tropics, though some specialty/import grocery stores might sell them.
Kola nuts are best known outside of Africa as an ingredient in cola beverages. There is some evidence that the first kola (or cola) beverage was made by Western Africans who mixed water with dried or fermented kola nuts. Today, homemade cola drinks are very rare in Africa, though store-bought cola drinks are very popular. (Besides water, the most popular drinks throughout Africa are bottled soft drinks and beer.) Commercially produced cola drinks were developed in the late 1800s, when chemists and inventors the world over used kola nuts (as well as other exotic ingredients) in various drinks and tonics. The most famous of these is Coca-Cola, which has become a truly global beverage. More recently, kola nuts and kola nut extract have become popular in Europe and North America as a natural or alternative medicine.
Circa 1990, Eddy L. Harris traveled solo across Africa, from Tunisia to South Africa. He recorded his thoughts and impressions in Native Stranger: A Black American's Journey into the Heart of Africa (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992). In this excerpt, traveling in a truck in Guinea, he tries kola nut for the first time.
In the back of the truck, someone offered me a little purple piece of something. It was shaped like garlic but looked like a radish. He cut it in half and gave a bit to me, popped the rest in his mouth. I did the same. And oh my God! what a horrid taste. It was like a jolt of lightning, the essence of bitterness. My body shuddered head to toe. We were so crowded in the back of the truck that the man next to me felt the violence of my shuddering and, by the way he looked at me, he must have thought that I was having some kind of seizure. There was no place to spit out this thing I was eating and I had to keep it in my mouth until finally I chewed it up and swallowed it. I thought to myself: I've got to stop putting strange things in my mouth. At least until I know what they are.
"What was that?" I asked.
"You don't know?" asked the astounded man who had given it to me. Perhaps he was astounded that I would eat something without knowing what it was. "It was cola nut. It gives you energy. It wakes you up."
"It certainly does," I said.
(The Misfortune in Men's Eyes: The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau)
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