Inter-connectedness of people’s traditional cultures, food and biodiversity
Most indigenous peoples and communities, especially in Africa, know and look at the universe as one community. Discussions with elders in these communities reveal deep relationships and the elders’ unique interconnectedness with food, soil, plants, animals and humans. All these are embedded in their traditions and beliefs. This relationship is manifested in different forms of human bio-cultural activities, as Dennis Tabaro, the Executive Director of AFRICE in Uganda, explains.
Clan totems and taboos
In Africa, traditional communities are clustered in small units called clans. These clans are as old as humanity and developed from the first human beings. Of course, a family grows and expands as children are born. They mature and marry, produce, have grandsons and daughters. In the traditional community setup, most clans grow and expand from the male side. The son grows to produce the clansmen and women, while the woman, although, she maintains the clan of her father, she is married to sire children of a different clan. Each clan has a totem, a natural symbol that will never be destroyed, killed or disturbed because it is known to be a close relative, a brother /sister.
A taboo, on the other hand, is similarly an animal, a plant or a non-living object which when a member of a given clan eats, touches, sees or comes near to it, will have a devastating effect. The effect ranges from becoming lame, blind, barren, dumb or a person dying.
Totems include animals, plants, insects, forms of physical features like rocks, types of soils, water sources, etc. Elders in each of these clans will swear and warn everyone never to violate the dos and don’ts associated with these totems and taboos. Evidence of those who have violated them, face associated negative consequences. When someone in the clan, for example, kills a bird knowing that it is their totem, it is an abomination. It is believed that something bad must happen to the family where they come from or to the person who killed that bird.
Among the Baganda of Uganda (a tribe very rich in traditional culture) new born children are given the names of totems, symbolizing the relationship between humans and nature. The same thing happens with other tribes.
Food and culture
Traditional people revere food and soil as they know them as sacred. The different stages for food production, starting from seed preparation, planting, tending of crops in the garden, weeding, harvesting, eating the first harvest, storage of the seed, are all accompanied or associated with a traditional practice. There are dos and don’ts (practices, traditions and beliefs) that must be observed at each of these stages. It is strongly believed that those who fail to observe these, something goes wrong with the culprit family, clan or individuals. It is always common to hear elders talking in low tones after calamities have happened to someone when they associate them with failure to observe certain practice: “s/he ought not to have done this”, “s/he should have asked the elders”, “s/he made a grave mistake”, “I wish s/he had asked.” Such comments are always made when a crop has failed to yield or when a calamity befalls a household because they have not observed a certain practice. Such practices include cultural ceremonies and rituals done before planting or harvesting. Others include avoiding performances of acts such as sex, theft, deception, etc.; when a crop has not matured, is not yet harvested or officially known for eating by family members.
Interpretation of such practices include, among others, observation of fidelity and morality whereas others would include giving enough time for seed to dry or enough for land to rest before another seed is planted there. For example, it is forbidden for a woman to buy seed from shops or markets because when your mother-in-law or your own mother is alive, she is the one to give you the seed to plant for the next season. The idea behind this is that each seed is sacred and is planted after due cultural processes have been performed, otherwise who knows which practice/ritual was done or not done on that seed you bought from foreigners. There is a strong connection between the living (mothers) and the dead (ancestors). The living must seek blessings from the dead before food is consumed.
There is always the conscious consideration of the presence of other forms of living (non-human) when traditional communities grow and eat food. They are aware that birds and other animals depend on the food human beings grow. Birds are not killed for eating millet, maize, peas or other foods in gardens. They are just scared away. When food is plenty in a community, birds will sing and celebrate because they also have food. Small insects will come from the soil to eat crops (of course they will never finish the whole garden) and birds will feed on them. Some birds have disappeared because some crops are no longer planted, or the birds have died because crops are sprayed with chemicals.
Besides, birds, insects, animals and weather are important components for traditional climate change prediction mechanisms. Among the Bagungu and Banyabutumbi indigenous communities in Uganda, elders, especially women provide timely information for community on weather forecast. They are the traditional meteorologists!
The elderly and the young women who have been tutored by their mothers and grandmothers, will tell you when it will rain and if it does, if there will be a storm, hailstone or if it will be a calm rain. They will tell you if the draught/dry season will be longer or shorter and so does the rainy season. This prediction is made by a critical observation of the new and old moon in the sky. The size of the moon, how it behaves on its maiden appearance and continuous behavior until it disappears. This helps them to know how the subsequent seasons will be.
Along with watching the moon, the behavior of the insects, animals and birds is also watched. The elders watch certain birds’ movements and their behavioral patterns. Similarly, some animals and insects are followed by what sounds they make or the direction they move to at certain periods. The appearance of some birds is a sign that a certain crop will have high yield or will fail. The appearance of some insects is a sign that rain is coming, famine will hit hard or bumper harvesting is assured, and so forth.
The African Institute for Culture and Ecology (AFRICE) is based in Uganda and is a partner of the ABN. AFRICE and the ABN are currently partnering to implement a bio-cultural diversity project, with funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).
Look out for Part Two of this article in October Edition.