We are thrilled to share the news that in a ceremony taking place in New York this evening, South African indigenous leader Mphatheleni Makaulule will be awarded a Global Leadership Award by the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (FIMI). The award celebrates the impact of indigenous women leaders and is being given to Mphatheleni in recognition of her work with women and communities in the VhaVenda region of South Africa.

Mphatheleni Makaulule (known as Mphathe) has been working closely with The Gaia Foundation and our partners across the African Biodiversity Network for almost a decade. She is the daughter of a traditional healer and hails from vhongwaniwapo (indigenous) clan of the VhaVenda nation, in northern South Africa. Since 2005 she has been igniting tremendous enthusiasm among the local clans “to bring Mupo back into our lives”. Mupo means bowl of life all of creation, including the cosmos. It is a name, a principle and a practice.


Mphathe works closely with the Makhadzi of the communities – women who are the custodians of sacred natural sites such as indigenous forests, rivers, springs and wetlands. The Makhadzi are custodians of traditional knowledge about seeds and soils – including planting, harvesting, seed selection, storage and saving. Together they are now recuperating local seed varieties, especially the sacred finger millet (known locally as Mufhoho) in order to secure food sovereignty and continue the rituals in which the plant is used. Mphathe’s organisation, The Mupo Foundation, has been working with the communities of VhaVenda and with Dzomo la Mupo, a community-based organisation, to revive their confidence and stand firm against some of the threats to their land, culture and livelihoods, such as mining projects in the region. Mphathe previously received a Bill Clinton Fellowship to study leadership in the USA, and in 2012 she was one of the UN Forest Heroes Program & Award finalists.

Mphathe will be joined at the Award Ceremony by fellow winner and Chair of the UN Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues, Dr Mirna Cunningham – a renowned indigenous medic from Nicaragua. Mariana Lopez from FIMI comments “We are celebrating indigenous women who have implemented creative ways to address pressing social issues, demonstrating courage, creativity and vision. Indigenous women desire to no longer be viewed as vulnerable victims. They must be recognised as having huge capacity as catalysers of socio-cultural change. The stories of Mphatheleni and Mirna will leave a legacy for future generations and their experiences will inspire or empower other women at the ‘Global Leadership School of Indigenous Women’ to assume leadership.”

Moved by this recognition Mphathe commented, “I say ‘Aa, Ro livhuwa’ (Thank you) to FIMI. We, as women, hold the responsibility for the custodianship of life. To all women around the world, we must remember our role as mothers and healers. I believe that women need to stand up now as never before, against mining and all that is destroying life. We must do this for the sake of future generations of all of life. I never thought that my vision and being a Phangami (a leader from behind) would be recognised in this way and I would like to acknowledge the Makhadzi and communities of Venda, and all those who are committed to reviving their ancestral path. This award from FIMI is a great motivation to continue to stand for the real role of indigenous women in protecting life.”

More about Mphathe and The Mupo Foundation

In 1999 Mpathe built the ‘Luvhola Cultural Village’ with the help of community members. In 2006, Mphathe met with the African Biodiversity Network and The Gaia Foundation who have been working together to seek African solutions to the ecological and socio-economic challenges that face the continent. A partnership developed and in 2007 The Mupo Foundation was formed and registered in order to further facilitate this work. By 2009 Mphathe, with other traditional women leaders called ‘Makhadzis’ formed a group known as Dzomo la Mupo to protect a network of sacred sites in the Venda region which are under threat from development.

The Mupo Foundation works to preserve and revive cultural and biological diversity in South Africa. Its Venda Programme, led by Mphathe, is based in Limpopo province. Here, the organisation works to strengthen the food sovereignty of local communities by reviving indigenous seed; facilitating and encouraging intergenerational learning; rebuilding confidence in the value of indigenous knowledge systems; and rebuilding the confidence of the Makhadzi (women community leaders and traditional knowledge holders). The protection of sacred natural sites is at the core of the work and Mupo are part of the growing global network of communities and their allies saying “Yes to Life, No to Mining!” They are also currently campaigning against Australian Mining company CoAL of Africa who plan to open a mine in the region. http://mupofoundation.org/2013/dzomo-object-to-coal/

More information about Mphatheleni Makaulule and her organisation The Mupo Foundation can we found at www.mupofoundation.org

Films featuring Mphathe and her work include Seeds of Freedom (June 2012, narrated by Jeremy Irons), Sacred Voices(October 2012), Reviving Our Culture, Mapping Our Future (2010) and No To Coal (April 2012).

Mphathe Defender of Sacred Sites – Article featured in the South Africa Mail & Guardian in 2011: http://www.mg.co.za/article/2011-03-11-defender-of-the-sacred-sites/