Farmer, leader, custodian of sacred natural sites and seed: Kagole’s calling in life was clear from birth. She was named after her father’s aunt, a custodian of the Wandyeka sacred natural site in Kisyansya, in western Uganda. She carried the mantle of this responsibility for protecting Nature, her culture and the traditional wisdom of her Bagungu people, until her passing on 7 November 2022.

“I am so passionate about reviving our ancestral knowledge before it is lost forever. Our generation has a huge responsibility. The next generation will not be able to survive without this knowledge. But it is also about our heritage, our identity, our confidence in who we are. And to keep this, it is so important that we keep working with the sacred natural sites.” Kagole in Terralingua

Kagole’s home was close to Murchison Falls National Park and Lake Mwitanzige (Lake Albert), some of Africa’s natural treasures. The wider region of mountains, valleys, wetlands, and savannah, known as the Albertine Rift, supports some of the greatest biodiversity on our planet. It is also a contentious oil frontier, and explorations are now well underway to tap into the vast reserves of crude that lie below the rift as covered by National Geographic.

At just 54 years old, she leaves behind a remarkable legacy, having inspired the revival of her own Bagungu traditions: encouraging the custodians of sacred natural sites to restore their confidence and ceremonies, women seed custodians to regenerate their lost seed diversity, and the clans to rebuild their spiritually- centred governance systems. A phenomenal organiser, she was also elected to the local government, where she garnered the support of the district council to recognise the Bagungu customary laws.

Gaia is privileged to have worked closely with Kagole over the last decade, together with partners from AFRICE and ANARDE. Above she is pictured with our Founder and Director, Liz Hosken.

In 2015, we accompanied her to Ethiopia, to meet other custodians of sacred natural sites from across Africa. Kagole was so inspired by their stories, from Benin, Kenya, South Africa and Ethiopia, about how they were turning the tide from loss and despair to hope and revival. She returned home fired up to start elder-centred community dialogues among the Bagungu clans, so that together they might embark on a journey to restore and enhance their knowledge, traditions and document their customary laws, to protect their ancestral lands. “Sacred sites and our rituals keep the land and the local climate in balance,” was a popular phrase from Kagole.

She was one of the co-creators of the landmark statement by African custodians that set the path for the African Commission’s Resolution on the protection of Sacred Natural Sites and recognition of custodial governance systems. When she attended one of the meetings of the African Commission, she asked “How can we protect human rights if we do not protect the rights of Nature, on whom we depend for life? “. Her confidence and passion, which inspired so many, shines through in this film:

Early on in the elder-centred community dialogues led by Kagole, women seed custodians identified the loss of indigenous seed varieties. These had been replaced by government-promoted and distributed hybrid seeds reliant on chemical fertilisers and pesticides that dried the soils, made them thirsty and killed benevolent insects. Kagole led other women farmers in a search amongst the elders to see who might have some of the now-rare varieties. They formed the Tulime Hamwe Mbibo Zikade Women’s Group, started a community garden, and built-up seed stocks to be shared with communities in the surrounding area. Before long, as we recount in this article, they had revived traditional cereals like endemesa, many types of beans, locally-adapted maize, local groundnuts, cassava varieties, sweet potatoes, a watermelon called biwacho, and their own locally-adapted cucumbers. As she once said:

“It is so important to revive the indigenous seeds now. We have lived with these seeds and our grandparents have lived with these seeds. They were so useful and so nutritious, but with the introduction of hybrids, we have seen that our indigenous seeds can disappear and are going extinct.”

Kagole understood that indigenous seed diversity is not only vital for nutrition and navigating climate change, but is also central in the various cultural celebrations, from rites of passage to sacred natural site rituals. She played a vital role in enabling her community to weave back these interconnections.

In our report, Celebrating African Rural Women, Theo Sowa, wrote that “Agri-culture is a way of life for Africa’s majority rural population. It has evolved over millennia, establishing the diverse cultural food systems of the continent and is central to all facets of people’s lives – and women have been at the heart of this.”. Kagole echoed these words.

“The issue of food insecurity mainly touches the hearts and souls of women because they are the main providers of food for the table. If the children begin crying it is the women who are going to feel this pain. Even if you ask our husbands, few of them could even mention a few seed varieties, whereas us women know many because we pick the seeds, we live with the seeds, we know which variety works for what and where, we know which varieties are useful.”

For us, Kagole has been a shining light, embodying the dignity, confidence  and joy that traditional knowledge engenders in communities who choose to re-embrace their rich cultural, ecological and spiritual heritage.  We will  miss her dearly, but her spirit lives on through the inspiring legacy she leaves and our fond memories.

Photos © Ben Gray