CUSTODIANS OF LIFE How the Bagungu People are reviving sacred custodianship

As part of the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective's 'Decolonising stories' animation series, Earth Jurisprudence Practitioner Dennis Tabaro describes how the Indigenous Bagungu People in Buliisa, Uganda, are restoring their sacred natural sites, respect for elders and clan governance systems in the shadow of oil extraction.

In my youth I was taught to aspire to western ways of living. So when it came to choosing a career, I decided to become an accountant

Dennis made his transition from accountant to Earth Jurisprudence Practitioner by joining The Gaia Foundation's 3-year Earth Jurisprudence training course.

I enjoyed my work, but I felt that something was missing. So, in 2014, I began training to become an Earth Jurisprudence Practitioner.

I started looking into the roots of my culture and exploring how many Indigenous traditions in Africa respect Earth’s laws.

As part of Gaia's Earth Jurisprudence course, participants take a journey back to their village roots, speaking to elders and spending long periods of time re-connecting with Nature.

The course led me to western Uganda, where I began working with the Bagungu People, who live on the shores of Lake Mwitanzige.

Like me, the Bagungu had been told their traditional ways of living were backward, even satanic. Elders who still held deep knowledge of how to care for Nature were called witches and had to hide away.

Despite the persecution they have faced, a handful of Bagungu sacred site custodians have kept their traditional practices alive.

This persecution had a terrible impact on the land.

Many of the fish spawning areas, wetlands, forests and other sacred natural sites that the elders were once custodians of had been damaged.

People no longer respected the elders, or the ways in which the Bagungu lived in harmony with Nature. Most Indigenous seeds had been lost and food was short.

When localised, knowledge-rich ecological governance systems are dismantled and broken down, ecosystems also suffer. Without strong custodian communities, they are opened up for exploitation.

I spoke to some of the custodians and we began holding regular community dialogues. In the beginning, there were only a few of us and many of the custodians were afraid to talk about about the old ways.

But as the months went by, more people began to join us, just as a custodian called Alon Kiiza foresaw in a dream.

Alon Kiiza is an elder who holds an immense amount of Bagungu traditional knowledge. He and other like him have played a central role in the revival of Bagungu culture and territory so far.

We met often to discuss how to revive sacred natural sites, seed diversity and Bagungu ways of life so the land and the lake thrive again.

Since then, custodians have begun re-establishing their relationship with the territory.

Women elders are organising seed exchanges, dramatically increasing the diversity of indigenous food grown locally. Custodians are reclaiming and protecting sacred places, where fish are spawning and birds are nesting once again. Elders have documented their customary laws, which guide the Bagungu in caring for their territory.

The Bagungu have utilised participatory ecological mapping, calendar making and community dialogue techniques developed by Amazonian communities to understand the impacts of colonialism and extractivism, and to chart a course into the future.

They have gained confidence and the local government is listening to them – a law has been passed to protect their sacred natural sites that recognises the role of the custodians.

This is a first in Africa. The Bagungu are walking a path towards decolonisation that others will be able to follow.

Find out more

Visit the website of the African Institute for Culture and Ecology (AFRICE), Dennis's organisation.

Learn more about the Bagungu's precedent-setting efforts to legally protect their territory and their role as custodians.

Watch 'Custodians of Life' a mini-documentary exploring the Bagungu's revival work, featuring Dennis.