Sacred spaces

Ian Mason | 13 years ago

In east Africa, where steps are being taken to protect terrain with spiritual significance, local discussions have global significance.

‘The trees are alive and we are alive. It is the same life. When we injure the forests we injure ourselves. That is why we must protect and preserve them.’ On the shores of Lake Victoria a group of village Elders is sitting in under the trees in the African fashion. They have come together from villages in Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia to discuss how to protect sacred places threatened with destruction by modern development. The meeting has been going on for two or three hours, and the current speaker is a Kenyan Elder from Giitune Forest, which lies to the northeast of Mount Kenya.

He is talking about the forest as a sacred place, respected as such for many generations. It is a community amenity: a place of worship, a meeting place, a place of recreation and a living repository of natural biodiversity. The forest is also a storehouse of traditional medicines and foods, and the textbook from which young people are taught about such resources. Above all, it is a place to commune with ancestors, who themselves once walked the forest paths, and sat and conversed in the shade of its trees.

Giitune Forest is a success story. For years the traditional customs and uses of the place were ignored and, increasingly, forgotten. Where the traditional way was only to take dead wood, people began to cut trees, and remove living wood from the forest. The area also became something of a local ‘lovenest’, a defilement at odds with the respect and reverence that used to be felt towards it. Local farmers started to encroach on the forest land and incorporate it into their fields.

Bylaws were passed, but they had little effect and were difficult to enforce. In the end, it was decided to conduct a ritual cleansing ceremony in the forest. About 400 people assembled for a day of singing, dancing, rituals and feasting. A curse was pronounced on anyone who misused the forest and disregarded its laws. The misuse came to a prompt end and the forest’s sacred status was restored.

Not far from Giitune there is another sacred place called Karima Hill, with a far bleaker story to tell. Much of the surrounding land is fertile agricultural terrain, which was cultivated by colonists for two or three generations. Even the colonists left the hill alone, recognising its importance to the indigenous community. At that time, 26 streams flowed from the hill  supplying water to the surrounding area. Again, the hill was a meeting place for rituals, discussions and storytelling. During the Mau Mau troubles in the 1950s the dense forest on the hill was identified as a possible hiding place for insurgents. Foresters moved in and were allowed to cut down all but a small area of the indigenous forest, and to replant the hill with exotic pine and eucalyptus. Today, because these trees are very thirsty, only five streams flow from the hill. The indigenous plantlife and wildlife has almost completely disappeared.

But here, too, a committee of local Elders is mobilising to reclaim hill and forest for the community. Already, many local smallholders are propagating and cultivating indigenous trees and plants to be replanted on the hill. Negotiations are in train to fell the exotic trees, which will enable the indigenous forest to regenerate. The effort is uniting local communities and helping them to rediscover and pass on their traditional culture. This is about more than the restoration of the forest: it is also about the rediscovery and reassertion of cultural values and belief systems that have guided their these communities for generations. The Elders are not blind to the advantages that Western culture and technology can offer but, equally, they continue to value their own culture and their own identity. A common view that Earth is ‘mother’ – the nurturing and sustaining womb of life itself. So much is this so that a close connection is seen between the health of the natural world and human health. How can people expect to be healthy, they ask, when the natural environment, their own mother, is sick and injured?

Cultural values such as these do not sit easily with Western cultural and religious values, which pervade much of Africa. The Elders, many of whom can neither read nor write, are acutely aware of this. They like the idea of Earth Jurisprudence, although it is not a term they would naturally use themselves. Nevertheless, it reflects something of their own understanding and outlook. They see it as relevant to the needs of the present time – not only their own needs, but also the needs of a globalised culture that urgently needs to find ways of accommodating diverse cultures within a unified legal framework. It touches them deeply that the simplicity of their traditional cultural framework may yet hold the key to a balanced and healthier future for nature and for mankind.

About the author

Ian Mason'