After three years of intensive intergenerational dialogues, this November indigenous communities living along the shores of Uganda’s Lake Albert came together to map their future; a future of abundant food, ecological regeneration and the restoration of indigenous ways of life.
So far, theirs is a remarkable story of revival in the midst of adversity.
Origins of revival
In 2015, Kagole Margaret Byarufu travelled to Ethiopia from her village in western Uganda to meet other custodians of sacred natural sites from across Africa.
In the beautiful Bale Mountains, Kagole had the opportunity to visit a sacred site, and to hear from custodians from Ethiopia, South Africa, Benin, and Kenya. These custodians shared how, after years of dedicated work, their communities have succeeded in reviving their damaged sacred natural sites and the ecological governance systems through which they’ve retained a balanced relationship with Nature.
“I was so inspired by their stories of how they too had lost their traditional practices and how they had revived their sacred sites, which are now growing back. We visited one and you could feel it is coming back to life. Many people from the community were there, we were eating traditional foods, many young people were participating and dancing traditional dances, and the women were strong and proud,” says Kagole.
When she returned to her home, Kagole gathered other custodians of sacred sites and of seed diversity and told them about what she had experienced in Ethiopia. This was the first step on a journey of revival, accompanied by Gaia and NAPE Uganda, that is now bearing fruit.
Re-discovering seeds and seed knowledge
In Uganda and elsewhere, the process of reviving ecological governance systems has begun with holding regular community dialogues with knowledgable elders. In these dialogues, generations come together to reflect on the root causes of the problems they face, what they have lost, and to re-make the connections that will help bring health back to the community, their lands and waters.
One common challenge identified early on in the dialogues by women like Kagole living in villages along the shores of Lake Albert, was the loss of their traditional, indigenous seed varieties. These had been replaced by government-promoted and distributed hybrid seeds reliant on chemical fertilisers and pesticides that the women observed dried the soils, made them thirsty and killed many benevolent insects.
Lamenting the loss of varieties they said were more nutritious and better adapted to the local ecosystems and climate than the hybrids, the women resolved to search amongst the elders to see who might have some of these now-rare varieties left.
“Through experience I have observed that these hybrids don’t last long”, says Bayabutumbuzi Plaxeda, “These ones that the government give us decay, rot. Through these dialogues I have re-appreciated our traditional crops and our indigenous seeds.”
The community dialogues, which periodically bring together several communities, have become impromptu seed fairs. They are spaces where women inspire, challenge, celebrate and exchange the seeds and the related knowledge they have re-discovered in their own stores and the houses of their mothers, grandmothers and neighbours. Together these women are building back diversity into their gardens and increasing the resilience of their food growing in the context of a changing climate.
“We have so many (indigenous seeds) now”, says Kagole.“We have cereals like endemesa, many types of beans, locally-adapted maize, local groundnuts, and many cassava varieties. We have more than four types of sweet potatoes. We have a watermelon called biwacho and also our indigenous cucumber and many other varieties.”
In Kagole’s home area, Buliisa, women involved in the dialogues have founded the Tuliime Hamwe Mbibo Ziikade Women’s Group, making the revival of seed a collective effort. They now have a shared garden of their own where they plant, multiply, store and transfer their returning knowledge about indigenous seeds to others.
“Our purpose is to grow those indigenous crops so that we can teach the younger ones how to grow them, how to keep them and the main use of these. Because there are some who do not know this and we want those indigenous crops our grandmothers used to grow”, says the group’s chairperson, Kunihira Mildred.
Read More: An interview with Tuliime Hamwe Mbibo Ziikade
Caring for a great diversity of seed varieties requires extensive knowledge not only of the plant world, but also of the wider ecosystem; the animal and insect indicators of seasonal change, the cycles of the moon and constellations. Making ecological calendars, using a methodology developed in the Colombian Amazon, the seed custodians of Lake Albert are also building back their knowledge of this wider world.
The calendars provide a structure for the custodians to map out when their grandmothers used to plant, where and why, appraising the loss of knowledge that has taken place and planning how to re-sync farming with the evolving rhythms of Nature. They evidence, for the communities themselves, the seed custodians’ returning eco-literacy and their capacity to produce food in a changing world, by maximising diversity in the fields and in the wild.
This work to revive both seed diversity and the art and encyclopaedic knowledge of seed custodianship is particularly important at a time of climate change, says Kagole.
“We think reviving our indigenous seeds will go a long way to curbing such calamities because they are many in number and type. They are pesticide and herbicide free, both of which we believe contribute to the effects of climate change. Reviving indigenous seeds will help us achieve food security and food sovereignty.”
Sacred natural sites and their custodians
Another central dimension of the community dialogues is the revival of of sacred natural sites- critical wild places where sacred site custodians hold rituals and prayers in order to maintain harmony between the land and the community.
As focal points of ecological richness and spiritual power within the wider ancestral territory, sacred site custodians from the communities along the shores of Lake Albert are responsible for strictly protecting these areas. In doing so they have, until recent times, conserved critical ecosystems such as wetlands, fish spawning areas, waterfalls, forests and rivers for generations.
Find out more: What are sacred natural sites and why are they important?
The dialogues revealed that, since British colonial rule in Uganda, sacred site custodians have experienced forced dislocation from their ancestral lands and intense, ongoing demonisation by some followers of Western religion. Many sacred site custodians and clan leaders have been forced into hiding or stopped practicing altogether. Participants in the dialogues reflected that, without the holders of the customary governance systems, many communities had become fragmented and the land had suffered as a result.
“Much has changed since I was young”, says Alon Kiiza (85), an elder and sacred site custodian. “People joined western religions and abandoned traditional practices, like contributing seeds as offerings to the sites. Things became hard for us (custodians). Even people who don’t belong to Christianity have belittled the work of sacred site custodians like me… Before these dialogues we custodians were timid. We didn’t speak, we didn’t come out, we feared performing our roles, because members of the community labelled us satanic.”
The dialogue process has provided a community space for people to re-appreciate the role of sacred site custodians and their practices, allowing the custodians to de-mystify their work and to grow in confidence again. Many custodians who had become cut off from one another have reconnected through the dialogues. They have now formed an association to better coordinate their work.
As a result of this reconnection and renewed practice of rituals at the sacred sites, the custodians and community members say they have observed positive changes in their ecosystems and the climate.
“We experienced an intense, long dry spell. We lost fields of crops, became food insecure. All our cows died because of lack of water”, says Alon.“But when we started the dialogues, we got energised, started performing the rituals and the weather changed. The rains began to come back.
Three years ago, just seven custodians attended community dialogues regularly. But this November over thirty custodians and clan leaders came together to develop their eco-cultural maps and document their customary laws and clan constitutions.
Like the calendars, these maps are powerful tools that assist custodians and their communities to visualise how their territories and sacred sites were in the ancestral past; how they are now after the disruptions of (Neo)colonialism and globalisation; and to draw maps of the future they want to see. These future maps help create a shared vision for the community to unite around and to develop specific plans to continue their path of revival, asserting with confidence their own ‘life plan’, as a guide and legacy for the next generation. .
Find out more: bringing nature and culture back to life using eco-cultural maps and calendars
With confidence returning, at the end of this November’s map-making gathering, sacred site and seed custodians a-like held an meeting with government officials, representatives of the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom and the media. The custodians gave an impressive presentation of their maps and calendars of the past, the present and the future – which together demonstrated their detailed knowledge of their land and food systems and their life plans for continuing the revival process.
The custodians also presented a resolution detailing how they want the government and the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom to support them in protecting their sacred natural sites and ancestral lands from the imminent threat of oil drilling, pipelines and roads. They were clear that this is a responsibility they have inherited from their ancestors and the spirits of the land.
The custodians will now compile their maps, calendars, customary laws, clan constitutions and life plans, with support from Gaia and ANARDE, to present for legal recognition.
Across Africa, a growing movement
The communities living along the shores of Lake Albert are not alone on their journey. Across the continent a growing movement of communities, trainers and even decision-makers are on the path to revival of Africa’s rich, symbiotic diversity of culture and nature.
Earth Jurisprudence Practitioners, trained by Gaia in the dialogue methodology for revival of indigenous traditions, are accompanying communities from Zimbabwe and South Africa to Kenya, Ethiopia, Benin and Cameroon to restore ecological knowledge, practices and governance systems and their territories of life.
Read more: meet the Kenyan community mapping their past to navigate the future
These practitioners are now sharing their work and the achievements of the communities they are accompanying around the world, including at the UN, where Gaia’s methodologies and trainings have been commended by the UN Harmony with Nature initiative.
Meanwhile, a coalition of sacred site custodians and Earth Jurisprudence Practitioners has been working with the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights to establish new protections for both sacred natural sites and the ecological governance systems of the communities that protect them.
The first success in this process came in 2017, when the Commission passed Resolution 372 which calls on African States to recognise and protect sacred natural sites, territories and governance systems.
Find out more: What does Resolution 372 say and do?
Now custodians are developing a new ‘model law’ that would facilitate the implementation of this resolution to formally recognise and protect sacred sites and ecological governance systems of traditional and indigenous peoples.
“We have started a very serious journey to help generations to come to understand the importance of indigenous knowledge”,says Kagole, who recently travelled to the Gambia to represent her community at the Commission.
“Respecting our sacred sites is a normal thing and rejuvenates the energy of the world. Just as a priest goes to the church to pray for their parishioners, when we go to the sacred sites and worship there, we bring health and well-being to our communities and all of Nature.”
Find out more…
A film sharing the story of indigenous Ugandan communities’ efforts to revive culture and nature will be released in 2019. Sign up to our mailing list to stay up-to-date.