Promoting Traditional Medicine, Indigenous Cultural Research, and African Spirituality in Uganda

Credit: THETA News

The traditional African culture that acted as a social security system for the weaker sectors of society has greatly eroded. In Uganda, the use of herbal medicine was labelled as “backward, uncivilized and unholy” during the colonial era, and traditional healers suffered much humiliation. However, the knowledge of herbal medicine did not diminish entirely, but rather flourished underground (Tumanyire, 2002). In the project “Promotion of Traditional Medicine and Indigenous Cultural Research and African Spirituality”, PROMETRA Uganda, a Ugandan NGO, works to protect and nurture the medicinal plants that are important to traditional healers according to traditional spiritual concepts, beliefs and practices. This ensures conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity by local people, specifically healers who use these plants. The project also encourages the documentation and recording of traditional information in the local languages. continue reading–>

Talking the Walk in Tanzania: Language as the Missing Ingredient of Biodiversity Conservation?

Credit: Samantha Ross

Project Contributor: Samantha Ross

A Women’s Focus Group Discussing Changes in Plant Abundance in Goka, Tanzania. Credit: Samantha Ross

The Eastern Arc Mountain Chain in Tanzania is one of the 33 global biodiversity hotspots and provides an ideal opportunity to study biological and linguistic diversity. The range spreads from Southern Kenya to Southern Tanzania and was formed as the Rift Valley took shape creating isolated mountainous blocks replete with unique ecosystems and biodiversity, prompting the moniker “The Galapagos of Africa”. The mountains are home to 200 endemic species of fauna and more than 800 endemic floral species, including the popular African violet (Saintpaulia) and Busy Lizzies (Impatiens), with new species still being discovered. Tanzania is also linguistically diverse, with more than 127 indigenous languages, although Kiswahili is the lingua franca, spoken by 95% of the population. President Julius Nyerere chose Kiswahili as the national language to promote peace, unity, national identity and tribal cohesion after Independence in 1961, as it is a neutral language, not favouring one ethnic group or region over any other. The many vernacular languages are used within ethnically homogenous groups, predominantly in family settings in rural areas.

In Tanzania, both the unique linguistic/cultural diversity and biodiversity are under threat. A major challenge concerning the safeguarding of linguistic diversity is the lack of documentation on languages and language speakers, and national linguistic policies that neglect the importance of African languages for development. Kiswahili has the advantage of being neutral, but without support for the other languages it dominates all walks of life – business, education, religion, entertainment and administrative duties. The local languages are not recognized in any official capacity and are actively banned from being used in education or the media. English is an additional threat, since it is the language of global development and cooperation. The views of local people on these processes of modernization and change and how these affect the younger generations reflect current feelings and can offer insights into the future of local languages and culture in the area: ‘Our children don’t want to learn about the plants and the environment because they watch TV and go to school. They don’t have time. They want to get jobs in the big towns.’ ‘Religion stops our young people from learning about their traditional knowledge. They listen to that God and not ours.’ ‘Traditional languages are out of date.’

Tanzania’s continue reading–>

Countering Local Knowledge Loss and Landrace Extinction in Kenya: The Case of the Bottle Gourd (Lagenaria siceraria)

Credit: Yasuyuki Morimoto/Bioversity International

Project Contributor: Yasuyuki Morimoto

Women displaying kitete gourds and kitete seed necklaces at community festival Credit: Yasuyuki Morimoto/Bioversity International

For the Kamba people in the Kitui District of Kenya, the bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) and its estimated 50 landraces are part of a rich cultural history, having been cultivated for approximately 10,000 years. Known locally as kitete, this plant is central to the material culture of the region and has much symbolic and cultural value, as illustrated by the complex belief system that underpins the role of this species in Kamba culture. Diverse utilization was a driving force for the cultivation of so many landraces, with a total of 61 different major uses documented so far by the project   “Community-Based Documentation of Indigenous Knowledge, Awareness and Conservation of Cultural and Genetic Diversity of Bottle Gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) in Kitui District in Kenya”.  Some of the uses include: kitete as food—some landraces are edible, typically eaten in sauces, or boiled or fried; and kitete as calabashes—the hollowed-out shells have traditionally been used as containers to hold water, honey, milk and perfume, to name but a few. The shells have also been used for many other purposes: beehives, washbasins, animal traps, musical instruments and masks. The beautifully decorated bottle gourd is also a popular item for souvenirs and sold in tourist markets in cities such as Nairobi.

Recently, however, these multiple uses and the value of kitete have been greatly undermined by the use of plastic containers. This is resulting in an erosion of local knowledge and cultural practices surrounding this species, which is threatening it with extinction. The Kamba culture is intricately intertwined with the kitete landraces, and therefore loss of the knowledge of kitete threatens the associated local culture, customs and identity and will have a far-reaching impact on the community.

In 2001, the Kyanika Adult Women’s Group (KAWG), a local women’s group, in partnership with Bioversity International (IPGRI) and the National Museums of Kenya, initiated a two-year project aimed at conserving kitete diversity and culture. Other objectives are to generate additional income through promoting uses of kitete, consolidating access to kitete landraces and retaining the indigenous knowledge of kitete within the local communities. During the project, nearly 200 gourd landraces were collected and taken for cataloguing and for propagation in community fields, to produce seed for distribution and exchange. The project teams also gathered information continue reading–>

Biodiversity Conservation Through Traditional Practices in Southwestern Ethiopia, a Hotspot of Biocultural Diversity

Project Contributor: Zerihun Woldu

The southern Rift Valley in Southwestern Ethiopia is known as one of the hotspots of biocultural diversity and of indigenous knowledge associated with the use and conservation of biodiversity through home gardens, agroforestry practices, and sacred forests. The project “Ethnobotany of Indigenous People of the Southern Rift Valley and Southwestern Ethiopia”  was undertaken in collaboration with the Hamar, Konso, Dassanetch, Mursi, Me’en and Dizi Indigenous Peoples of Southern Ethiopia, with support from The Christensen Fund.

The first phase of the project focused on the ethnobotanical knowledge of the Konso and Hamar peoples. Project results show that the Konso tradition of growing multipurpose indigenous trees in their crop fields and home gardens acts to maintain these trees, even after the species become rare or absent in natural stands. Such traditions promote biodiversity conservation through uses that are essential to the Konso’s livelihoods. The polycultural farming system, which minimizes the risk of crop failure, is also a means of diversifying crop niches. The subtle and active processes involved in the cultivation and gradual domestication of selected useful wild plants add yet another dimension to the local agrobiodiversity. Women play an active role in maintaining agrobiodiversity, a role not commonly recognized in research and development initiatives. There is also a tradition of recognizing and ensuring the continued existence of sacred forests in the Konso area, showing that traditional leaders and traditional institutions such as religious beliefs play a vital role in conserving these natural forests. In the highly degraded Konso landscape, remnant patches of natural forests are still found because of these traditional practices. In these sacred forests, there is less deforestation, since traditional spiritual values have influenced people’s behaviour and have played a role in protecting them and ensuring that some of the culturally valued trees and other medicinal plants are found on a sustained basis. Although they occupy a relatively small area, the sacred forests in Konso have greater woody species richness and taxonomic diversity than the communal grazing lands, bushlands and scrublands protected by the community. In the Hamar area, there is also a tradition of protecting large riverine trees through a system of taboos.

An important feature of the project is that it was conducted with the active participation of the Indigenous Peoples of the concerned communities as equal partners of the project team, and all findings, publications and patents will belong to all team continue reading–>

Indigenous Sacred Sites and Biocultural Diversity: A Case Study from Southwestern Ethiopia

Credit: Desalegn Desissa

Project Contributor: Desalegn Desissa

Community gathering in the Dorbo sacred pasture land to get blessing from indigenous religious leaders (sitting in the front row) Credit: Desalegn Desissa

Sacred lands in southwestern Ethiopia are in distress, due to the lack of respect for indigenous spirituality and the failure of the local government bodies to protect its indigenous peoples and their religious practices, as well as owing to pressures from tree cutting, cattle grazing, and forest encroachments. In response to these threats, a cultural movement is emerging at the grassroots level and among academic institutions and non-government organization whose focus is to recapture “whole indigenous landscapes” and their belief systems.

The Indigenous Gamo Peoples of Ethiopia have a long history of close association with nature, and their practices of worshipping nature continue today through the veneration of sacred sites (sacred natural forests, burial grounds, ponds, streams and other landscape features), which are the link between nature, culture and spiritual realms. Traditional religion is based on a system of taboos concerning the spirits that are believed to control the sacred sites. These traditional spiritual values have served to prevent people from over-exploiting certain areas. However, these customs and values are now changing because of the abandonment of traditional beliefs and the adoption of monotheism. The expansion of monotheistic religion and the appropriation of the venue of indigenous religion are worsening. The Ethiopian constitution grants the right of worship in any religion, but in practice this is not happening at the local level.

The project “A Collaborative Social and Biological Study with Gamo Elders of the Importance for Biocultural Diversity of Living Indigenous Sacred Sites in the Gamo Montagnard Region of Southwest Ethiopia” undertaken by the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society in collaboration with Gamo Elders, was designed to determine how indigenous sacred sites in the Gamo highlands maintain local biocultural diversity. Convincing the local government officials was the most challenging part of implementing the project. Most of them practice monotheistic religion and resisted the request of the research team to work with them on sacred site protection. However, after a series of discussions with concerned government officials, the work got underway.  To achieve the objective of minimizing the pressures on sacred sites and traditional beliefs, the project team has undertaken exhaustive field research and awareness raising. The team has categorized and mapped sacred sites that are still managed by continue reading–>