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Longer, analytical article.  Environmental conservation anchored in African cultural heritage

Summary & Comment: In the contemporary African world, there is a dichotomy between what is secular and what is religious. People’s view of the universe has changed. Nature now is viewed in terms of exploitation of natural resources. Contemporary Africans should borrow a leaf from traditional Africa where great value was attached to nature. They can use their African cultural heritage in to preserve and to rehabilitate the environment that has been destroyed and degraded by the selfish economic motives and actions of few people. B.T.

Author: Bakanja Mkenda, OSB Date Written: 1 April 2010
Primary Category: Interfaith Relations Document Origin: New People magazine No. 125
Secondary Category: Ecology Source URL:
Key Words: creator, worldview, land, traditional, religious, sacred

African Charter Article #17: Every individual shall have the right to education, cultural life, and the promotion and protection of values. (Click for full text...)

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1. Environmental conservation anchored in African cultural heritage
2. Worldview and conservation

1. Environmental conservation anchored in African cultural heritage

In the contemporary African world, there is a dichotomy between what is secular and what is religious.  People’s view of the universe has changed.  The world is no longer viewed in the religious sense but rather it is looked at as something to be totally exploited for the benefit of the human being.  Nature now is viewed in terms of exploitation of natural resources. Africans in the contemporary time should borrow a leaf from traditional Africa.  They should use African cultural heritage in preservation and rehabilitation of the environment that has been destroyed and degraded by selfish economic motives of few people.

The efforts of different organizations like Green Belt Movement, churches, United Nations Environmental program and world commission on Environment, to preserve and rehabilitate the environment should take into consideration the attitude of the Africans.  These efforts should learn from traditional ways of nature conservation and try to come up with modified attitudes suitable to the contemporary African world. The African worldview and beliefs that encouraged the sacredness of the universe and all created beings should be taken into consideration if contemporary Africa wants to preserve the environment.  African religious heritage, which links Africa with nature and God, should be the point of departure in preserving the environment.

The late pontiff Pope John Paul II called the world to undergo ecological conversion to protect the environment and make the earth a habitable place for human life. To an audience of several thousand people in the Vatican on 17th January 2004, he said, “Man has devastated without hesitation plains and forested valleys, polluted the waters, deformed the earth’s habitats, made the air unbreathable, disturbed the hydro-ecological and atmospheric systems and turned green space into deserts.”  Therefore, Africans, as well as other people of the world need ecological conversion so as to safe human life.

Traditional religion and life

The prominent scholar of African Traditional Religion, John S. Mbiti, started his book, African Religions and Philosophy (1969), with the statement “Africans are notoriously religious” to imply that religion permeates and penetrates the whole life of an African. African traditional religion is a religion typically integrated in daily life. For the Africans there is no clear-cut separation between what is secular and what is sacred. Everything and every act are looked upon in a religious perspective.

It is true that traditional African religion is found in peoples’ daily activities. It is a religion centered on the human person. It is oriented towards preservation of life and promotion of whatever enhances life. In promoting life, African Traditional Religion is connected with the environment because it is through healthy environment that life is enhanced. Environment is part of life. As a communal religion, African traditional religion is concerned with whatever affects human life. In this view then Africans view the universe as a profoundly religious universe, hence they treat it as such. The Africans view the human person as part of the environment. Environment to an African means a whole life. Everybody then in traditional African culture had a religious and moral responsibility towards the environment. They knew that to destroy the environment meant to destroy the human person.

In the contemporary African world, there is a dichotomy between what is secular and what is religious. The people’s view of the universe has changed. The world is no longer viewed in the religious sense but rather it is looked at as something to be totally exploited for the benefit of the human being.  This view has caused environmental problems in Africa, such as soil erosion, de-forestation, water pollution and desertification.

Relationship between God, man and nature

Africans view themselves as part of the environment. Man is conceivable only in this cosmic interweavement. This web of relation is what makes Africans view the earth as their mother and themselves as her children.

This means that, though God, humanity and nature are distinct concepts they are ontological categories that are interrelated and interdependent. Therefore plants, animals and other non-living beings are part of nature, which is the product of God’s creation deserving to be respected as much as human beings who are also part of nature. The relationships between persons and nature are rooted in God as the creator of all. So plants, animals, minerals and other inanimate beings form a unity and depend on each other. This is what makes Africans regard themselves as being in close relationship with the entire cosmos. Professor Mary Getui affirms this by saying that “Africans, especially in the traditional setting, were nature-oriented.” A person in the African sense is the one who is in good relationship with nature.

Human person

In the traditional African culture, the human being was not isolated from nature. Human being as a creature of God was the part of the whole creation. Though the human being was regarded as part of nature, the Africans traditionally viewed him as the center of the universe. Everything in the universe exists in relation to human beings. In this African worldview, beings were made to strengthen human beings. All beings lived in peaceful and harmonious connection leading to the strengthening of humanity. In other words, the world in traditional African societies was regarded as a gift for the benefit of humanity.

This is shown by the way most African ethnic groups define a person. For instance, the Akamba will define Mundu (a person) according to his relation to nature and to others. One co-exists peacefully with other people, other living beings and inanimate beings within his or her environment. Good acts are those that keep harmony and peace in the web of relationship within the community.

In traditional Chagga society, when the weather was good people felt to be in peace and harmony with nature, their ancestors and God. If there was drought, famine and floods then the Chagga believed not to have a right and good relationship with nature ancestors, God and others. They believed people’s evil deeds towards nature upset the natural order which God had set in the creation where human person should be the center. To abide to the order set by God every individual in traditional African society had to strive to live in upright life. Each individual tried to keep the harmony in the community by struggling to be an environmental keeper.

In my experience, I remember when I was young my grandparents used to tell me not to burn the bushes around our home because God would be annoyed and He would punish me. This made me fear the punishment from God and therefore taught me to be in good relationship with the vegetation around our home.

Nature as a sacred element

In traditional African societies, many people believed that trees and forests were the manifestation of the power of the Supreme Being. They saw these things as ideal places to meet God. Traditional African societies had many shrines, which were associated with big trees such as fig trees and baobabs. These trees together with the vegetation around were preserved as sacred places for worship.

Traditional Agĩkũyũ regarded trees, shrubs, grass and forests as valuable gifts from God. They respected big trees especially mũgumo (fig tree) as a place to meet God. Thus, sacrifices and offerings were done under the mũgumo tree. Until today, it is a taboo to cut a mũgumo tree because it is a sacred tree.

The Chagga are not much different from the Agĩkũyũ as far as respect to sacred trees is concerned. They associated extraordinary trees with God. They had much respect for these trees and no one was allowed to cut them nor to collect firewood from the dry branches of these trees. Under these trees, people worshipped and offered sacrifices. They called these places Kiungu or Kitasioni (places for offering sacrifices). For them, trees and the shrubs around the trees were regarded sacred. This attitude preserved the trees, vegetation and ecology.

The Africans did not attach much importance to trees and herbs just for spiritual purposes, but also because trees, herbs and plants in general were useful in enhancing human life. Apart from being symbols of God’s presence among people, trees were seen as medicine to man and animals. Trees, leaves, roots and grasses provided herbal medicines to human beings and to wild as well as domestic animals.

When I went to Matuu for field research, my Akamba Informant, Mzee Martin Ivui, 82, showed me some medicinal trees (muteta), which are preserved in the kiumo (shrine) where nobody is allowed to cut them, neither to collect firewood from them. It is only himself as an elder who is allowed to collect firewood from the shrine. He told me that he found the trees the way they were when he was born. He said as an elder he has the responsibility of making sure that the shrine and medicinal trees are preserved for enhancement of human life.

This attitude is not different from the attitudes of the Maasai. Among the Maasai who live in Kenya and Tanzania, trees and shrubs were respected and are still respected because they provide shade for various social gatherings. The main social gatherings in Maasai communities are held under trees. The Maasai have also strong respect and love for grass as a blessing from God for their animals, which they consider a valuable wealth.

Apart from providing shade for various social gatherings, trees are also used by Maasai for some purification ceremonies and rituals. The community protects trees used for this purpose. The wood, bark and leaves of trees may be used in naipok, certain purification ceremonies, to avert supernatural misfortune. Trees and shrubs are thus good and their special ritual value is closely associated with certain notions of Maasai cosmology.  generations.

The Chagga of Tanzania used trees in rituals and reconciliation ceremonies. A green leaf from Isale (dracaena tree) accompanies every sacrifice. Isale is a tree with green leaves, which are used even today in all rituals, ceremony blessings and on other occasions, which may involve forgiveness, requests and reconciliation. If one has a grudge with somebody, he/she can simply take Isale leaf to the offender and then he/she is immediately forgiven. Even today in Chagga land, Masaale trees are preserved and respected. They are used in ordination, marriage, birth, initiation and graduation ceremonies.

In order to preserve trees, shrubs, grass and vegetation in general, several strong taboos against cutting certain useful and sacred trees or destroying the vegetation were formulated. Among the Akamba the medicinal plants were not harvested by uprooting the whole plant, but by removing a small fraction of the roots, bark or leaves so as to let a plant survive for further use in the community. Saveguarding of the plants was a matter of concern. It was held that if one cut some of these trees, he or she might bleed to death.

Therefore, because of the importance of trees, shrubs and vegetation, as having religious, physical, and cultural values, it was a moral obligation to preserve them in traditional African societies.

Land and water

For traditional Africans, land and water were precious gifts from God the Creator. Africans have a strong connection with the land not only as an economic resource, but as a home, a place of sacrifice and offerings. When traditional African people struggled or fought for land, were not simply struggling or fighting for it economically but for social, moral and religious motives.

One Agĩkũyũ elder said “land is a sign of identity in Agĩkũyũ community. God gave it to the Gĩkũyũ ancestor so that he may use it for his well-being and for the community’s well-being. That is why the placenta is buried into the soil to connect the new born with God and ancestors. Nobody is allowed to play with land.”

The Chagga of Kilimanjaro regarded land as the central focus of people. Every mature man was supposed to have kihamba (a piece of land) allocated to him by his father after initiation into adulthood for building a home, raising a family and growing  crops to sustain life. One without kihamba would not get a wife and eventually he had no place to build a home and raise a family. As a result, he would die, as he would not have a place to cultivate crops for sustaining his life and children to be named after him.

As land was strongly connected to life, then traditional African people had moral responsibility to take care of it. Land bound people together in one community. Its absence threatened to tear them apart. This was because for many Africans, land was communal property. Land belonged to the community and God alloted it to the community through ancestors. Land was respected because it produced plants, which sustains human life.

As a God given gift, Traditional Africans attached great value to land. It had religious significance and therefore sacred. That is why the Agĩkũyũ used soil in swearing rituals. Some traditional Agĩkũyũ oaths were administered by the practice of people biting some soil and swearing to bind the terms of the oaths. Similarly, the Mau Mau fighters are said to have died while holding a fistful of soil.

Besides land, many African ethnic groups regarded water as a symbol of life.  Watering places were approached with respect. Most of water sources belonged to the whole community. Nobody was allowed to cultivate around these places. Trees were not cut and vegetation was kept to ensure that water was not disturbed. To protect the places and the water from being polluted, many myths, taboos, proverbs, idioms and riddles were formulated to educate or to make people aware that those places had to be preserved.

For instance the Chagga of Kilimanjaro formulated a taboo to ensure that people do not pollute the water. One taboo is, “utawaame mringeni, mama afo nyeshinda na mringa.” literarily meaning that people should not urinate into water because they might fall in danger of their mother being carried away by water. This taboo was formulated to make sure that people do no pollute the water.


In traditional African societies, animals were viewed as creatures of God. That is why many myths and stories use animals as main characters. They were respected as part of the whole creation. Some ethnic groups believed that fierce wild animals such as lions, leopards, buffalos, and elephants were just manifestation of the great power of God. Therefore, they would not kill them.

Some totemic beliefs and taboos helped in the preservation of some animal species. For example, for the Ngoni people, who are named after names of animals, were not allowed to kill or eat meat from animals and birds, which they were named after. They considered themselves to be bounded together by not eating the animals. They respected these animals. This attitude helped in preserving the animals. The Bukusu of Kenya believed that Wele (God) forbid them to eat all animals that crawl, for instance, snakes, lizards and snails. They were also not to eat scavenger birds, like crows, vultures and hawks. They were supposed to eat four legged animals, slaughtered after asking permission from ancestors and God as the owner of all animals. All these helped consequently in protecting and preserving many animals’ species and therefore the environment in general.

The Sources of environmental conservation

As a practical religion, African Traditional Religion involves many beliefs and practices, traditions and customs, which are the ways people express their religion. Religious values beneath these beliefs, customs and traditions helped people to have a good relationship with their environment.

During my university study at Mwanza, Tanzania, I discovered that the traditional Sukuma believed that some wild areas have a spirit force and so nobody was allowed to hunt, cultivate or cut trees in those places. In addition, agriculture was taboo in those places. They had a cult for the spirits of the land who were the protectors of the soil and keepers of the nature where traditional plants and animals lived undisturbed. This cult involved offering sacrifice to appease the spirits of the land. Goats and cows were slaughtered for the cult. All these were done to ensure that human activities do not disturb this environment.

During a public lecture at Tangaza college on the Future of African Spirituality, Bishop Patrick Kalilombe said that some ethnic groups, like Chewa in Malawi, consider the forest as the sacred place where there is a hut where the chief offers sacrifice, praying for rain, fertility and new life for all on behalf of the whole community.  So, forests were seen as places of abundant life, places for reverence and honor. Nobody was allowed to disturb the forests because by disturbing them, one was disturbing life. Sacrifices were offered to divinities, the ancestors were venerated and traditional Africans worshiped God in order to maintain ecological balance. Through the traditional rituals of the community, ceremonies, sacrifices and prayers, a person would establish a good relationship with his or her environment.

The African beliefs and taboos helped in the environmental preservation because people refrained from using resources carelessly. Respect for sacred places helped those places.


Contemporary Africa is facing many environmental problems. Human activities cause environmental hazards, which have negative impact on human beings and other beings of the universe. The negative interaction of the human being with his environment affects negatively. This causes soil erosion, deforestation, pollution and desertification. Individualistic and utilitarian attitudes towards nature have led people to plunder the environment recklessly. People are after economic profit through natural resources rather than being responsible taking care of the resources. Land grabbing for economic use causes problems. The land grabbed is used recklessly in the way the owner desires.

The African worldview and beliefs that encouraged the sacredness of the universe and all created beings should be taken into consideration if contemporary Africa wants to preserve the environment. African religious heritage, which links Africa with nature and god, should be a point of departure in preserving environment.

Africans revisiting their traditional religious heritage should recover the African spiritual wisdom, which has been affected by contemporary scientism, and draw from it what is proper and blend it with contemporary ways of environmental preservation. Traditional religious education is important in environmental preservation. Traditional African education focused on preserving the sacredness of life and whatever enhanced it. The system of education emphasized respect and reverence to the nature as one aspect, which enhances life. Contemporary Africa should borrow a leaf from traditional education systems as far as environmental conservation is concerned. African traditional education can be integrated in contemporary environmental studies.

2. Worldview and conservation

Africans regard God as the Creator of the universe. Many myths of creation portray God as the maker, molder, carver and the architect of the universe. God is regarded as the source of all things. Having brought the world into being, Africans believe that God is the sustainer, provider, nourisher and protector of all creation. In this research, my informant, a Gĩkũyũ woman from Kiambu, affirmed this by saying that “Ngaĩ ni Mũmbĩ”, emphasizing that God is the molder or creator of all things.

Another Gĩkũyũ woman emphasized that God is the creator by narrating the following creation myth: In the beginning, Ngaĩ, who is God the creator and divider of the world, called Gĩkũyũ the father of the Kikuyu nation. Ngaĩ was kind and he gave Gĩkũyũ his land, which was good with rivers, valleys, and big forests with good fruits and animals of all kinds. Ngaĩ moved to reside on Mount Kĩrĩnyăgă. However, he was going around every day to inspect and protect the beautiful earth. When walking around, one day he took Gĩkũyũ on the top of Mount Kĩrĩnyăgă (Mount Kenya) and showed him a place in the center where there were many big mikuyu (fig trees) and so it is believed that the name Gĩkũyũ was derived from those trees. A Gĩkũyũ person is a Mũgĩkũyũ, which means literarily the person of fig tree. The man was happy to see a beautiful land like that.  Ngaĩ told Gĩkũyũ to go and build his homestead on that place with many trees. He called the selected place Mukurwe wa Gathanga meaning Mukurwe tree of Gathanga.

This short creation myth shows that God gave the environment or nature to human beings as a gift.  God gave to the human person a beautiful earth to sustain him. God did not provide the land to human beings and then left. He is still around on Mount Kĩrĩnyăgă, moving around while inspecting and protecting the beautiful earth. This shows exactly what Kwesi Wiredu meant when he wrote, “creator God is not seen outside the world but rather with it though not identified with it.”

For the Africans, God is not an outsider to creation but he expresses himself through creation. Creation that is nature is like the autobiography of God. He is encountered through it. God created the universe full of rocks, trees, mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and oceans to show his very majestic presence in the world. During my field research in Machakos, Kenya, one informant said in Kiswahili “ninapoangalia umbaji, najua kweli Mungu ni wa ajabu,” which means, “when I look at the creation I know that god is marvellous.”

To show that God in an African sense cannot be imagined without his creation, when I visited Matuu in Machakos for field research, one elder and African Traditional Religion practitioner said that the Akamba people refer to God as Mumbi (creator or maker) and Mwathani (the greatest ruler). They saw God as sustainer of the whole creation, which he made.

In the same line the Chagga from Kilimanjaro have a phrase, “Ruwa ni mwumba uruka woose” meaning that God is the creator of the whole world. For them God is seen in the whole creation, hence they usually say “vindo vyoose ni fyafuma kwa Ruwa” meaning that all things are from God. They regard God as the owner of the universe, hence they usually say “mwoni uruka ni Ruwa” meaning that the owner of the world is God. Like the Agĩkũyũ who associate God with Mount Kenya, the Chagga associate God with Mount Kilimanjaro. They regard it as the dwelling place of God and so they respect the mountain and the environment around it. In the past nobody was allowed to go near the place where God was living. Therefore, the vegetation and the environment around the mountain remained untouched for centuries. This attitude preserved the environment and ecology around the mount which is a water catchment area.

Generally many ethnic groups in Africa believed that God is the sole owner of the universe. He created it and so He automatically owns it and does what He wants with it. Because God owns the universe, He is immanent in it. He dwells in the universe in special places, like mountains, rocks, valleys, or trees. That is why traditional Africans considered the universe sacred. Therefore, nobody had the right to destroy it. They believed that the power to create and destroy the universe belonged to God alone. Therefore, man had no right to abuse, spoil, destroy or squander what God has made to manifest His glory.

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