By Robert Katemburura

The present day African population is several generations removed from its original land. Thus, many Cultural practices and habits have been lost, dropped or modified through either willful migrations due to population increase or external economic pressures. This greatly impacts on peoples cultures, and so is the protection of their sacred natural sites as most family institutions lose their regalia and connectivity to their ancestral sites.

Over the last 100 years for instance, Uganda has recorded more than 10 mass movements, with families shifting from their cradle or ancestral localities to new settlements either after facing evictions from Government or following natural calamities. The latest is the Bududa movement in 2011 and the 1992 Queen Elizabeth‘s Mpokya-Bunyoro movement where many families were relocated and assimilated into Buganda and Bunyoro cultures respectively.

According to the country’s latest census figures, Uganda’s total population was estimated at 39.0 million people in 2015. Looking back, in the year of 1960, Uganda had a population of only 6.8 million people. Apparently, the population of Uganda represents 0.50 percent of the world´s total population which arguably means that one person in every 202 people on the planet is a resident of Uganda.

This therefore explains the impacts such a huge population can cause on depleting natural resources for survival, without considering their connection with the mother earth, unless they are properly guided by the leadership either political ,community or family based. This has been the case in most Ugandan cultures, because many potent sites have been lost to the increasing extractives, infrastructural development, or individual human activities.

The greatest influence on many African families is the lifestyle of their parents or grandparents who lived there before. Because there is always a biological attachment from a generation to another, so is the spiritual connection.

With the current trend of environmental destruction, our attachment to nature seems to be completely losing truck, and the population is now enduring heavy punishments ranging from unpredictable weather patterns due to climate change, diseases and acute hunger-all culminating from long dry spells. The mother earth is definitely very angry with the current human activities that have irretrievably suffocated natural resources such as rivers, mountains, lakes, valleys, rocks, and natural forests among others.

These have definitely worked as havens for souls of our ancestors once they died and they would live there uninterrupted to guard their families left behind for all the years to come as their names were inherited by coming generations in lineage who must serve them.

These are called custodians of sacred sites but once their shelters and food (sacred natural sites) are interrupted they get angry and start punishing the custodians, according to 62 year old Maria Atwooki, a custodian of Kigoya sacred site in Bulisa district.

We the custodians suffer from harsh punishments whenever the spirits get annoyed with illegal human activities in or near the sacred natural sites.

Sometimes we are directed by the spirits of our ancestors to walk very long distances Like from here to Bungungu wilderness at night to put the sites to order and when we hesitate we are punished on behalf of others. There is a night the spirits sent me to take a white female hen to River Wambabya and drop it in the river alive so that the water takes it into Lake Albert to purify the lake. Those days the lake had turned against the surrounding communities and fishermen were drowning time and again. People had wronged the ancestors. I had to oblige. I took the hen at night and sanity was restored at the lake again. Throughout my life I had never been assigned such a terrifying responsibility.

That fateful night, all the spirits from the lake and Tonya sacred area jumped over my head and I started viewing all the deaths and problems affecting families at Kaiso-Tonya landing site yet I had never been there. I had to save them because I had been directed.

Asuman Irumba is the coordinator of custodians of potent sites in Bunyoro sub region. He says these sites are instrumental in promoting co-existence and living in harmony because they help in protecting the spiritual connections between the people and Mother Earth. His worry like any other custodian is the discovery of oil in the region. He says during the seismic exercise many traditional sites along L.Albert, like the Nsonga Ijumika in Kaiso-Tonya and Wandyeka in Bulisa among others were destroyed by oil companies. He says more land that harbors other natural sites is being claimed by the government, which puts their cultural sites at risk.

We still have a problem of land grabbing in Kabaare parish. Our sacred natural sites have already been destroyed by oil activities but the government wants more land to add on the 29 square kilometers that have been taken for refinery. This means more people continue to shift.

The National Association of Professional environmentalists-NAPE with partnership from Gaia Foundation of UK and supported by the European Union and other partners has come out with the Community Ecological Governance project specifically to support community efforts to protect these sacred natural sites and territories, and the rights of traditional custodians who feel belittled for their traditional beliefs, through legislation, policy, inter-generational learning and habitat restoration. The project promotes People and Women centered approaches to protecting food, land, Ecosystems and Peoples Livelihoods in the Districts of Hoima and Buliisa.

Dennis Tabaro Natukunda is the program officer at NAPE who also heads the Community Ecological Governance project. According to Tabaro, Sacred sites are areas with special spiritual and ecological significance to the communities and so they are areas of great importance for the conservation of biodiversity although the current political governance systems seem to neglect them.

People learn and are influenced by the place and the people around them. In Uganda here and Africa at large, many people have learned from stories told to them. These stories carry information and ideas about life and living and shared customs, traditions and memories passed on from parents to children.

Elders play a vital role in upholding the ecological knowledge and customs, practiced over generations, which sustain the wellbeing of sacred natural sites, ecosystems, territories and communities. At the moment NAPE is in its initial stages to conduct Eco-mapping to identify all the eco-systems in Bulisa and Hoima districts.

This unique approach and methods will bring the depth of connection that leads to the strong sense of caring for, and connection to, the land that is necessary if whole communities are to galvanize effectively towards management of their ecosystems. The Community Ecological Governance also calls for supporting small holder farmers, especially women, to enhance their indigenous knowledge and seed varieties, to be food secure and to safeguard diversity for generations to come.

Mbabazi Oliver a small holder farmer from Buseruka Sub County says guarding these cultural values strongly protects their livelihoods. She is worried that the introduction of hybrid crops has changed their traditional agriculture.

Generally, when I critically observe the trend we are taking, the situation is going to the dogs. our poor farming methods have even affected agricultural yields, the indigenous food crops that used to take us through hard times of dry spells like this, no longer yield due to harsh climate change effects.

But this is because we no longer respect the traditional practices that our fore parents used to observe. Because during my early years when we used to observe the earth laws and our cultural norms in the sustainable use of natural resources, the situation was very normal in terms of food and environmental stability. For instance there was a very close link between Mother Earth, sacred sites, seed and food, but now some seed varieties have since faced extinction. At some rituals like seed festivals, we would use a sweet potato specie called Kyebandira and a cassava variety commonly known as Bukarasa. Other food species included Nyaranda, noozimu and kidimu-which are all no longer seen in our gardens. In my observation our indigenous seed varieties have been replaced by hybrids manufactured through science and technology yet they are not sustainable. Iam worried our children will die of hunger in future. Because in the past we owned our indigenous seeds, and most of them would last longer in gardens during famine period. But now we are forced to plant every after season. This is dangerous.

AIsha Fwambwe another small holder farmer from Kabale Parish, Buseruka sub county in Hoima , says because of poor approach to the sustainable use of natural resources, getting indigenous food and traditional medicine is now becoming a challenge.

The current approach to the traditional healing of measles has completely changed. During our early ages before I got married, whenever there was a measles outbreak, our parents would rush to the anthills pick soil from there, mix it with water to make a brown solution, and then smear all our bodies apart from the face. They kept us indoor then they would place young reeds at the court yard a symbol that such a family was quarantined for measles.

They would then squeeze juice from other young reeds for us to take as a dose for 4 days on top of serving small wild mushrooms commonly known as Binyamwere. Nobody would have a glimpse of us until after 4 days especially if someone has taken goats meat.

They paid so much attention to measles and all the rituals were performed to the expectation because the elders believed measles was always sent by the ancestors as a calamity to their descendants after the custodians failed to fulfill their obligations.

These reeds and small wild mushrooms have since been slowly facing extinction thus people no longer perform rituals to turn away these epidemics. The reason behind this is the depletion of environment. We are now experiencing harsh long dry spells and many things have changed.

Iam even worried about the next generation!! We are heading for doom unless we restore and stabilize our ecosystems. The mother earth needs to gain shape again.

Kagole Margret Byarufu, from the Bunyoro region of Western Uganda, is a custodian of seed and Wandyeka sacred natural site in Bulisa district. With her homeland and culture now threatened by oil drilling and land grabbing, she has gathered her clan and elder women from other communities to rehabilitate local sacred natural sites and Mother Earth to save the coming generation from starvation and further ruins.

Also, people have lost interest in traditional ways. Many follow Christianity and do not agree with the rituals in the sacred natural sites. They say this is backward, and our sites have suffered because people no longer respect them. Many have been destroyed. The trees have been chopped down for agriculture. But then these farmers complain that their new crops do not grow. They do not understand that if you destroy sacred sites, there is a cost, not only to those who do it. This has pained me a lot.

There is growing recognition of the need to transition our governance systems from being human-centered to Earth-centered, which comply with the laws of our planet Earth to maintain the health and integrity of the whole.

The African Biodiversity Network (ABN) where NAPE is a strong partner, has already started facilitating practices that encourage young people to get connected to their roots and culture to give them a sense of identity especially in seed selection and food sovereignty.