This story, written by Earth Jurisprudence Practitioner Samuel Nnah Ndobe, was first published in the spring 2024 issue of Dark Mountain

I remember, vividly, the moment I found my place in the world. The moment when I stood, shaken, next to the lifeless giants and could not see my sister on the other side. I was just ten years old and had never encountered elephants before. But the pain of their death would change my life, by revealing our connection.

My name is Samuel Nnah Ndobe and I come from the west coast of Africa, where bright streams flow down the volcanic rocks of Mount Cameroon, across black beaches into the Atlantic Ocean.

This is one of the wettest places in the world. The rains water rich forests, home to beings as tiny as butterflies and as huge as elephants. Human beings have flourished here too, for as long as our soles have walked the Congo Basin. Indigenous communities, like my own Nninong clan, hunted and gathered in balance with the ecosystem, danced and sung in celebration of the ever-renewing cycles of life.

But the abundance gifted by land and water made Cameroon ripe for colonial exploitation. Large areas between the mountain and the ocean were converted into palm oil and rubber plantations by the British authorities and, after the colonial era, handed to the state as part of the Cameroon Development Corporation.

My early years were spent on one of these plantations, where my father was a clerk. They drew in workers from far and wide who settled alongside the region’s native fisherfolk, so I was surrounded by people from the places now called Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Equatorial Guinea. This cultural diversity matched the ecological diversity of the landscape beyond the plantation; I fished in the rivers, swam in the sea and foraged in the forest, and also played games with my peers by day and heard stories from elders by night.

I still remember the teachings of Pa Agbankor, a Ghanaian fisherman. As we helped him mend his nets he would recount the origin story of our weather system. The rains, he explained, fell from the clashes between our ocean and mountain spirits. This was a life-giving force that fed the seas, the fish and us. But when the spirits’ clashes turned violent, the resulting storms could claim the lives of anyone who had been evil. Stories like these taught us many things. About the resounding impact of our actions, about our reciprocal relationship with elements other than human beings, and about the interconnectedness of all existence.

My father was among the few ‘educated people’ who left our village for his job as the plantation clerk, so over the years various relatives would visit in the hope he could open doors for them, too. Amongst them was Pa Richard, a cousin who came to stay and was eventually recruited as a lorry driver for Debundscha Palms Estate.

One day, he was due to drive a lorry full of workers to an ‘elephant saraka’. Intrigued, my sister and I pleaded with Pa Richard to squeeze us into the front seat. We drove down dusty roads through the palms, spotting machines that Pa Richard told us were detonators – making noises like gunshots in the night to scare elephants away from the crops. I had heard these sounds from the village and seen the same machines in the company’s garage, stored there for maintenance. It also made me think of the dung we had found in the primary school compound one morning, and how desperate that elephant must have been to pass all the detonators and reach the school.

When the lorry road ended we continued on foot, leaving the plantation and entering the last patch of forest along elephants’ tracks, dung piles popping up every so often. The trees were the biggest I had ever seen, so huge that they hid the sky. A shout eventually announced that we had reached our destination but to my horror, I faced the terrible sight of dead elephants, killed for their ivory. I learned that an ‘elephant saraka’ was a ‘free elephant meat feast’, and that poachers send word to the plantations so workers can collect these carcasses. The company had even allocated Pa Richard’s lorry for the task. The elephants stand little chance of survival – having been forced into the fragments of forest that remain, they are an easy target. Men took out their knives to carve up the animals. Their tusks had already been taken.

The path that led me to these dead elephants would change the path of my life: the pain I felt for them made me profoundly conscious of our connection. Even though I was young, this was the moment I was ‘Gaia’ed’, as Stephan Harding described Aldo Leopold’s moment of awakening. It explains the profound shift in perspective that can result from an intense feeling of connection with, and compassion for, our animate world. This can enable us to feel the sense of participation that is lacking in our industrial growth society – the sense that we are all members of the same community on this bluegreen planet.

Later in my childhood I began to learn about traditional life in my tribe and what struck me most, compared to the plantation, was their communal way of living and the generosity of spirit that emerged. Back in my village you could harvest vegetables and even hunt in someone else’s field if you needed food. Bananas and other fruits were hung by the roadside for any passerby to eat. But, like the crops restrained to their production lines, our lives at the Debundscha Palms Estate were shaped by colonial, industrial ideas of scarcity, competition and growth. And these values have spread – even in my village today, spare bananas are sold.

Now I understand the real cost of reducing those elephants to the monetary value of their tusks.

I realised I must work towards a shift from extracting to sustaining life, for the benefit of all, and began by returning to the roots of the first people who called the Congo Basin home. At the School of Agriculture I specialised in economics and rural sociology, and, during a project around the Dja Reserve of Southeast Cameroon, I met the Baka Indigenous Forest Peoples.

Sam (centre) with the Baka Indigenous Forest Peoples

These hunter-gathers had been ‘othered’ – physically branded as pygmies and demonised for their spiritual beliefs. Even my mother demanded to know ‘who has sent you to go and work with these dangerous people, who can make you disappear or impose an illness when they are not happy?’ In reality, I was overwhelmed by the Baka’s welcoming spirit. My first night with them was spent under a full moon in 1999. All these years later I am considered family, and can act as a bridge to the agrarian neighbours, national government and international policymakers from whom they have faced systemic discrimination.

From that very first visit, I realised how intricately intertwined they were with the forest. Over the coming years I bicycled between all the villages in the Fang, Zamane and Bulu cantons, to understand this relationship and support them in gaining recognition. Through this work I learned just how vital it is to honour different ways of knowing the land, reflecting the richness of our human diversity, and feel deeply committed to defending indigenous territories and their custodians.

Together, we have mapped the Baka’s ancestral lands. Creating these participatory maps brings entire communities together to visualise their home – the rivers and tributaries, the forests and clearings, the sacred sites that are the beating heart of ecosystems all over the world, having been protected since time immemorial. This experience strengthens their confidence and collective courage. It is a first step towards safeguarding these ancestral lands, and their protectors, from the harm threatened by logging, mining, agriculture or infrastructure development.

The Baka draft maps in the sand

They entrusted me and I have gone on to amplify the Baka’s voice in international policy forums like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, REDD+, and as coordinator for a global coalition of over 100 civil society organisations called the Accra Caucus on Forest and Climate Change. We have succeeded in securing some strong safeguarding mechanisms in principle, such as the Cancun Agreement of 2010, yet these have not amounted to such strong safeguards on the ground.

One of the Baka’s maps

The chasm between the words and actions of society’s leaders spoke to me of a missing link. From what I remembered of elders growing up, words had strength: they were spoken, they landed, and they created change. But these days words were weak, intentions unravelled by forces competing for profit or power. I knew I needed to get to the root of this unravelling, and embarked on three years of Earth Jurisprudence training with The Gaia Foundation.

Jurisprudence is the philosophy that defines how we live and govern our lives, according to beliefs about who we are. Western jurisprudence is anthropocentric, considering humans as separate from and superior to Nature. The ethics and laws derived from it have legitimised the destruction of our home. The philosopher Thomas Berry advocated for a transformative shift to an Earth-centred perspective, which he called Earth Jurisprudence. This philosophy returns to the guiding principle that sustained indigenous peoples for millennia. It recognises humans as an inextricable part of Nature, and understands that we must derive our laws from the laws of Nature if we are to thrive. Such systems, established by communities such as the Baka and characterised by these values, maintain the resilience of ecosystems over generations to the mutual benefit of human- and more-than-human-kind. They also hold the key to our future.

Participating in the Earth Jurisprudence training decolonised my mind and body. I relearned so much about the skill of observation, the depth of African cosmologies, and the sophistication of pre-colonial customary governance in which the rights of nature are embedded. Rituals such as steamings, vigils and ancestral practices reconnected me to Mother Earth and enabled me to walk my talk.

Now, as a graduate and Earth Jurisprudence Practitioner, I accompany traditional communities in their own journeys of decolonisation. These journeys begin with community dialogues to revive wisdom, confidence and practices, and develop into mapping ancestral lands, reviving customary governance and restoring food sovereignty – all processes which ultimately reweave healthy biocultural systems.

I do this as part of the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective, with dedicated Earth Jurisprudence Practitioners from East, West, Central and Southern Africa, all of whom have facilitated or undergone the training. Rather than relying on top-down ‘conservation’ or ‘development’ interventions, we walk alongside communities as they lead us from the grassroots. In restoring the knowledge, practices and governance that have always woven people to place, they are bringing complex cultures and diverse landscapes back from the brink of extinction. This enhances their resilience to climate chaos in a uniquely African way, both innovative and ancient.

One day, while walking with the Baka to one of their sacred sites, we stumbled across an elephant path, called mokongo in their language. For the second time, I followed it, but this time we tracked life, not death. The path opened out into a glade where elephants drank from a stream beside buffalo, antelope and duiker. A paradise protected by Baka custodians. It revealed the abundance that is possible on this bluegreen planet, if we can track our way back to balance, integrity, and home.

You can watch a short animation about Sam’s encounters with elephants here:

And see more stories of decolonisation from the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective here: