As part of their journey to revive their cultural identity and restore their territory, custodians of the indigenous Bagungu People have been mapping their sacred lands along the shores of Mwitanzigye (Lake Albert) in western Uganda. Dennis Tabaro reflects on the process.
From strength to hopelessness
The Bagungu are the indigenous people living in the Bugungu region along Lake Albert, known traditionally as Mwitanzigye, in the present Buliisa District ,Western Uganda. The Bagungu have 59 clans and 21 sub-clans, now living in Buliisa, Masindi and Hoima Districts. The districts are under one traditional kingdom, Bunyoro. The Bagungu had a strong traditional culture which included their spirituality, food, language and relationship with their ancestral territory.
The strong attachment of the Bagungu people to their culture was one of the reasons the Ancient Bunyoro Kingdom resisted colonial powers that were enforcing Western religion and education. While the Bagungu spirituality is still present, it became hidden because it has been strongly demonized and despised by foreign religious beliefs and education. Yet it underpins their close connection with Nature and maintained a healthy landscape for generations. Clan leaders were highly respected and believed to be intermediaries between the people, the ancestors and the Creator and Nature. Among the elders are the spiritual leaders, known as Balamansi/Balegezi. Balamansi literary means people who pray for the Earth who have natural powers to interpret message from the ancestors and Nature.
The Balamansi conducted prayers on behalf of the community to maintain a healthy life, stability in homes and the community, good harvests, rain and vitality in the land and the lake for all species. Most of the prayers are done in the Sacred Natural Sites where sacrifices or offerings are made in form of chickens, seeds, and certain animals. All offerings end up in Mwitanzigye, the sacred lake, which is recognized as the major sacred natural site in the landscape. The Bagungu knew that when the lake was not paid homage, then calamities would happen in the community, households or in the land because there was an imbalance. Calamities happen to those households who violate the customary laws which maintain the order or health of the lake, such as fishing regulations, which guide people on what to do and not to do while near or in the lake or when to fish, or abstain.
It was understood that the health of the ecosystems and the health of the Bagungu and other members of the community, and inextricably interconnected. Destruction of a forest, which are usually sacred sites, or in any area where there is a sacred site, is recognised as discretion of a temple of the Creator or home of ancestral spirits and they react when tampered with, even today. A network of sacred sites are located along the lake, in the forests, in and along rivers and wetlands, that are part of the Lake Mwitanzigye ecosystem.
The early 1900s’ western Colonial interventions and subsequent weakening of the Bagungu traditional culture and their strong spirituality has steadily resulted into weakening and subsequent disappearance of many of the Balamansi. The ones now existing are very old and are either performing the prayers and sacrifices in hiding or have given up the practices and are being haunted by the Earth powers because of their inactivity. As a result, many rivers have dried up, forests have been destroyed, wetlands have been turned into grazing land and gardens and the lake is severely overfished with stocks dropping dramatically. The sad stories from the remaining elders is about their sense of helplessness. “I used to do rituals, giving seeds to the sacred site and the lake when my clan would bring the seeds to me. Now clan members do not listen to me and they no longer have the traditional seeds. How can I take seeds bought from the market, or those supplied by government to Mpuluma (sacred site)? The ancestors will not accept them, they will disturb the site” Laments 83-old Kiiza, the custodian of one of the sites along the Lake.
The Bagungu lived with Nature like other indigenous peoples of the world. For them their lives are inseparable from Nature, and Nature is inseparable from their spirituality. What is called ecology, biodiversity and food is seen as part of a wider community of life who live together, participating in maintaining life in that territory. The failure to perform seed rituals is associated with loss of the many seed varieties and consequent diminishing of food at household level in the community and in the wider ecosystem – all of whom depend on the vitality of sacred sites. When the relationships held together by the traditions are broken – the web of lives begin to fragment and unravel and everyone in the community of life is affected.
There is a wind of hope blowing through the territory – all is not lost.
In partnership with The Gaia Foundation and inspiration from Liz Hosken, the Director of Gaia, I have begun a journey with these communities as a member of the organization I work with, National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE). Since 2013 I began a journey with the Bagungu, searching for elders who might be interested to revive their almost dying knowledge and practices. Through a programme funded by European Commission (EC) and later European Union Ugandan Delegation (EU) and Open Society Institute For Eastern Africa (OSIEA) we initiated the Community Ecological Governance approach to accompany these elders to restore their cultural practices around the Mpulumas (sacred natural sites), ancestral lands and seed and agricultural traditions.
The journey began slowly. In the first year, the challenge was to identify the true custodians, but as they had been ridiculed for so long, they did not come forward. After some exploration, Kagole Margaret came forward with a few others, still not willing to be publically named as custodians, believing all they could do was their own prayers in their homes for fear of reaction from the community. It was a story of sadness and nolstagia, of helplessness. It was a story of remembering, telling the origin of the collapse of life around them, and how it had been before when the land, the lake and the people were healthy and strong.
Things began to accelerate in 2015 when there was a meeting in Ethiopia for Custodians of Sacred Natural Sites from the 5 countries in which this work with custodians was being carried out. The Bagungu allowed their daughter, Kagole Margrate, who is also a custodian, to attend. She was inspired to learn that there were custodians of sacred sites from many places, who had successfully revived their sacred sites and related traditions with their clans. She returned enthusiastic, and shared what she had learnt. This motivated her and the few other custodians she had gathered, to be more bold.
Since then, the dialogues with custodians has grown from a small group of 8 custodians to 20 custodians and clan leaders now, meeting every month. The monthly dialogues are now attracting more custodians to discuss ways and means of weaving back the basket of the Bagungu traditional culture by strengthening their ritual performances around sacred sites and their territories and reviving their traditional seed diversity, especially those needed for the rituals.
They have named their sites, the clans responsible and the type of rituals that need to be done. They have started performing the smaller rituals and are preparing for larger community rituals.
The Custodians have been able to meet local government leaders and presented their story and the recognition they require. They have asserted that the sacred sites need to be recognized as no-go- areas for the growing oil mining industry. They are calling for mutual respect from other religious faiths and beliefs. Alongside the Balamansi, are the women custodians of traditional seed varieties who provide the sacred seeds for the sacred site rituals. The understanding is that for the sacred sites to be alive and functional, and play their role in energizing the ecosystem, the rituals need to be carried out regularly. Indigenous seed varieties are part of the rituals, as an offering to the Ancestors who give blessings to the land and the crops, because the whole system is animated.
Mapping the past, mapping the future
The next step in the process of recognition is to map the network of sacred natural sites and clan lands within the Bugungu ancestral territory. This process enables the clans to recall the original order of the territory, as a ‘baseline’ from which to envision how they can restore the land, the lake and traditional practices. The custodians need to work hand in hand with their clans to map the sacred sites and the related ecosystems. The process requires that bigger community rituals be performed in order for ancestors to be appeased to bring sanity to the land, the lake and the people.
The customary laws derived from understanding the laws of the lake and the ecosystem, regulate access and fishing in the lake, in order to respect its life cycle and those of the fish. When these laws are followed, there is enough for everyone who depends on the lake, including other species. Only when these are respected, will sanity comeback to the lake and those dependent on it, including gaining back its traditional name. The vision of the custodians is for the Bagungu to assert the legal rights of the sacred lake, as a living being, not to be abused. The government authorities will receive the maps of the sacred sites and clan lands as well as the customary laws and governance structures, when complete.
First sketching of the Eco-cultural maps
In October 2017 the first community process of sketch mapping the Bugungu Ancestral Sacred Natural Sites network and Territories was carried out, led by Balamansi and clan heads. The ancestral map shows the sacred sites along the lake and those in the Murchison National Park. The map also shows the sacred sites where the oil industry is presently; and it shows where the rivers, forests and wetlands used to be when the land was healthy and intact. This makes it clear where the restoration has to take place, where areas have dried or been destroyed and need to be regenerated. All these will become clear in the next exercise, when the clans develop their future maps and plans for how they wish to see their territory restored to its former vitality.
The map drawn is a living map and will keep being updated by clan members until a final bigger and detailed one is done, together with the future map. The process of engaging government on legal recognition will then begin. We are hopeful that the process will continue smoothly because it is now being led by the true traditional leaders of the Bagungu – the custodians of sacred sites and traditional seeds and clan leaders and others in the traditional governance system. The passing of Resolution 372 by the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), for recognition of Africa’s sacred natural sites and territories and traditional custodial governance systems, is also a source of courage and support.
About the author
Dennis Tabaro Natukunda is a Senior programme Officer at NAPE. He is one of the first 6 African Graduates from the Earth Jurisprudence Training, organised by The Gaia Foundation, and recognised by UN Harmony with Nature Initiative.