Around our planet home we are witnessing an on-going mass extinction not only of species, but of the deeply entwined ecological and cultural knowledge that has enabled human societies to live in harmony with Nature.
This process is not progress. It is neither normal, healthy or inevitable. And it can and must be halted and reversed.
This October, communities from the shores of two of Africa’s Great Lakes, Albert and Edward, came together to begin mapping their ancestral knowledge about their territories, seeds, sacred natural sites, the seasons and the stars.
For these three communities this is the latest stage in an on-going process of cultural and ecological revival under challenging circumstances in what is known as Uganda’s ‘oil region’.
Here Gaia’s Liz Hosken, who helped facilitate the mapping, describes the journey so far, the power of the process and the surprises that mark the way.
How did the work alongside communities in Uganda’s Great Lake Region begin?
Gaia has been accompanying the process of revival alongside newly graduated Earth Jurisprudence practitioner Dennis Tabaro for several years now. The work has been with communities from three different areas: Buliisa and Kabaale along the shores of Lake Albert, and the Banyabtumbi communities of Lake Edward further to the south.
The work began slowly in the Buliisa area, with men and women elders coming together to reflect on their situation and sharing stories of how communities in other parts of Africa were beginning a journey of reviving their traditional knowledge and practices.
At the beginning things are often slow. The process of decolonisation takes time as the communities have suffered a great deal of trauma as a result of colonisation.
How have things been progressing since then?
As interest and confidence grew, communities decided to meet regularly in what we call ‘community dialogues’ to deepen reflections together. They have been exploring questions like: What were the diverse seeds we used to sow? Did we have sacred sites and regular rituals? How did we govern our lives according to Nature’s cycles. Why did we stop doing our practices?
Seed and agriculture have been an entry point into the revival process for women. The community began by discussing how ‘government seeds’ have been promoted as modern and productive. This led to people abandoning their traditional seeds.
Through the dialogues people have begun to revalue the diverse traditional seeds they used to plant – for medicine, nutrition, cultural activities, storage, drought or pest resistance – becoming aware of the multiple consequences of their loss.
Sacred sites and their role also emerged as a critical issue through the dialogues. But at first people were not willing to say much because these sites and related practices have been stigmatised as backward, related to witchcraft and being ‘of the devil’.
Have things changed in the communities as a result of the dialogues so far?
The most significant change we have seen is the confidence amongst those involved in the dialogues. There has been a breakthrough in the last 6 months,
Since we last met in April this year (2017), the women from Buliisa have formed a group and secured communal land to multiply the lost seeds so they can share them and teach the younger ones. By November they already had seeds to share and so many more women are now interested that they are thinking of forming another group.
The custodians of sacred natural sites are now willing to speak in the dialogues. They explained that their traditional name means ‘Earth priest’ or ‘Earth communicator’ and that their role is to keep the land, lake and food systems healthy and thereby look after the health of the community too. Since April the group has doubled and clan leaders are inspired to participate, which is important for restoring the governance systems.
Now both women and men from Buliisa speak with pride and delight about how they have been reviving traditional practices and are eager to learn from each other. Their confidence and enthusiasm is attracting more people from the communities to participate.
Those from the Kabaale and the Banyabatumbi community are inspired to see how much has been achieved in Buliisa and how confident the custodians of sacred sites and seeds have become. They began their journey of revival later than Buliisa and they say they can see now the direction they are moving in.
What role does eco-mapping play in the knowledge revival process?
The idea of introducing eco- cultural maps and calendars to the communities at this stage is to enable the elders especially, to visually represent the picture they have in their minds about the original order of the territory.
This helps to bring the knowledge together from different elders, to verify how things used to be before the disorder of colonialism and everything since – the state of the ecosystem, where human communities lived, fished, hunted, planted and which areas were out of bounds, such as sacred sites, fish breeding areas, wetlands or springs. This is what we call the ancestral map.
The eco-cultural maps and calendars also reveal where there are gaps in the knowledge the communities have been reviving together, and where they need to do more research.
Where does this approach come from?
Our particular way of developing eco-maps and calendars is inspired by Indigenous Peoples in the Colombian Amazon. They developed these as a tool to reflect their relationship with the land and the seasonal cycles, once they felt they had revived enough of a picture to draw their ancestral maps and calendars.
In this approach, the ancestral map becomes the ‘baseline’, which the whole community can visualise, especially important for the young people, who would otherwise not know how it used to be. It is the reference point for their future plans and how they can restore the land, the lake and their traditions to their former resilience.
How did the eco-mapping in Uganda go?
The mapping was a joyful process, concentrating all the positive energy that has built up along this journey.
Two groups of women from Buliisa and Kabaale focused on their eco-cultural calendars. These are circular calendars which show how the seasons change over the year and what the main indicators of change are– constellations appearing in the sky; changes in the weather, types of clouds and winds; or the behaviour of insects, birds, frogs, plants or animals.
These observations are signs from Nature, as some said ‘everyone speaks to us if we have the ears and eyes to see’. These signs are the way Nature communicates – to humans too, if we are conscious, to prepare for planting, or to plant certain seeds, or perform a seasonal ritual. In each group there were animated discussions and sometimes disagreements as they wrestled to recall how the finer details of these cycles.
The custodians of sacred sites spent their time drawing a map of the ancestral territory, including the locations of sacred sites, the rivers, hills, wetlands, forests and other features of the ecosystem; the clans are responsible for which areas; where the homesteads were, the fields, fishing and hunting areas and the wild spaces.
In each case there were elders who had never held a pen, but were encouraged by the group to have a go at drawing. They were thrilled to realise that they could participate by filling in the colours of images and one elder found he could draw fish beautifully. These were thrilling moments for all. Some had their children with them who helped to draw and became very active assistants to the process.
What comes next?
Each group is now inspired to do more research to fill the gaps revealed in the maps and calendars. Once they feel they are ready, the next step is to do a final, complete version of the ancestral maps and calendars.
Then the communities will map the territory in the present, to explore what has been lost. This is usually a shock – to see the contrast with the ancestral maps and how much destruction has taken place.
They will then develop their future maps and calendars, which will be the vision of how they want to restore their land, the lake and ways of living. Based on the future map and calendars, they can then develop their life plans for reaching this vision.
As part of this process the communities will be documenting customary laws and their clan governance systems in their dialogues. This enables the clans to clarify their roles and relationships with the territory to bring back order through regenerating their bio-cultural systems.
This journey of enabling bio-cultural systems to weave back to life in Uganda has affirmed the principle of ‘emergence’ underpinning this process of regenerating complex systems – be they ecosystems or biocultural systems. At first the process is slow, but as the revival process begins to reconnect elements in the system, so change can happen suddenly, unexpectedly, and the system shifts to another level of complexity.
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