African Environmental Tradition
Author: Credo Mutwa ~ African Sangoma
( Article Type: Sustainable Development )
Words of wisdom from Credo Mutwa ~ African Sangoma
The ailing future of living things
Respected friends, when most people talk about the extinction of wildlife as well as plant life on this planet of ours, they tend to make the mistake of talking about something, which happened in the remote past. These people miss the important and horrifying fact that extinction has now become a yearly, monthly and even daily process, which is going on even as I speak. The extinction of animals, the vanishing of valuable plants in our time, is accompanied by other things of an extremely disturbing nature. These ongoing extinctions are accompanied by worrying phenomena such as drastic and radical changes in the weather patterns of our country. They are also accompanied by attitudes within the minds of many people, that bode ill for the future of living things upon this Earth.
There was once a time in Africa
There was once a time in Africa, and in the lands of people such as the Celts of Europe, when the protection of living things was part and parcel of the religion of the people.In the land of the Xhosa people there is a sacred crane, a graceful long-legged bird, whose feathers were only worn by warriors who had proven their bravery in battle and their loyalty to the tribe many times. This was the blue crane, the Indwa, a bird symbolic of selfless courage and loyalty. A bird whose feathers were regarded by the Xhosa people and the Zulu people in the same way that British soldiers regard the Victoria Cross. If you injured this bird, if you broke one of its legs, your own leg was broken with a heavy stone; and if you were a wealthy man, 10 head of cattle were taken from you afterwards as a fine. And the injured bird was finished off and its remains were cremated inside one of your huts, which was afterwards burned to the ground.
Amongst the trees that enjoyed protection was a large acacia, which was especially protected and revered by the Batswana people. This tree is known as the musu, which means ‘dead person tree’, and a branch of this tree was only cut off from the tree when the tribal chieftain had died, and that branch was used in the sacred fire which was lighted for two nights next to the home of the dead man to light his soul back to the after world and then to light it again so that it would quickly return through reincarnation to the home of the dead one’s family. Even today you will find such trees standing in Batswana territory long, long after other trees of other kinds have been burned as fuel wood. And if you look closely at these trees, which the Batswana people protect so fiercely, you’ll find that they are the kind of trees upon whose branches migratory birds use to rest on during their long flights from we knew not where towards we knew not which destination.
Today it is quite common to see children urinating and defecating into rivers and streams in South Africa. In the olden days those children were often punished in a terrible way. They were buried up to their necks in river sand and then left there. If the child survived the horrible punishment, it was regarded as being a sign that the gods had forgiven him or her, but should he or she die, it was believed that the gods had taken the child’s soul as a sacrifice.
Africans were not the only people who protected animals and plant life with horrific laws such as these. The ancient Celtic people in Ireland, Scotland, Brittany and Wales had laws protecting nature just as Draconian as those that you found in Africa. Anyone caught cutting down an oak tree for pleasure in ancient Ireland, suffered exactly the same punishment that was inflicted upon African offenders. Their stomachs were cut open and their entrails tied around the tree in order to appease the fearsome goddess Danu.
Religion and nature: are we master or servant?
The ancient Greeks also revered nature and had laws against its destruction and debasement. But, as the winged centuries went by, there rose religions in the Middle East and later in Europe, which viewed nature as an enemy, as something outside man’s orbit, something to be mastered, conquered and exploited. The Christian Bible says that man was given mastership over the Earth and everything living that there was upon it, be it plant or animal. But, we in Africa were not taught that kind of thing. We were not told that man was the master of creation, we were not told that man could do whatever he wanted to the animals, the fish and the fowl and the trees of the Earth, on which he found himself. No, we were taught that man was the caretaker of all living things, and far from being superior to the animals and to the birds and the fish, far from being the master of trees and grasses, man was the servant, and a very weak servant at that, of life on Earth. It was no accident that when the white man came to South Africa, he found the land teeming with animals of all kinds. He found millions of springbok and wildebeest, of zebras and elephants, swarming upon the face of the African veld. Africans protected animals. Africans regarded the existence of animals on this Earth as ensuring the continuing fertility of this Earth. Even those great destroyers of African crops in olden days, locusts, were viewed as a necessary part of existence with the human or the animals on the earth. I remember when white farmers cursed and wept at what the locusts were doing to their crops. I remember my grandfather saying to me in a beehive hut in Natal: ‘Son of my daughter, these grasshoppers are known by the Zulu people as the Izinkunbi, the fertilizers of the land. The white men should not kill these grasshoppers; rather they should allow them to come and go, because when the grasshoppers leave after eating almost all our crops, they will leave the land more fertile than ever before, because the grasshoppers, the Izinkunbi, defecate and their droppings are in every nook and cranny of the country and their dung will make the green maize plants of next year carry heavy cobs of maize.’ My grandfather’s words proved true. Those parts of the country over which the locusts had swarmed in 1937 enjoyed good rain as well as good harvests.