South Africa


Indigenous voices speak the truth that can help save our planet

Indigenous voices speak the truth that can help save our planet

As we enter the talks next week of COP26, we should pause and hear the indigenous voices of wisdom — lest we repeat the mistakes of our past.

In the mystical and magnificent indigenous forests of Venda lies a jewel of biodiversity that has been protected by gogos (women elders) for generations. It is sacred to them.

“We are connected to our forests that hold the spirit of our ancestors. We commune with everything in the forest — the trees, the wild animals, the snakes, the bees, the rivers and mountains. It is our pharmacy and supermarket. We do not see timber to be cut down to sell. It is a sacred site. It’s about our human wellbeing for ourselves, our children and grandchildren, including all life in Nature. It is intertwined with our life here,” says the diminutive and elegant environmental warrior, scholar, maine (healer) and sangoma Mphatheleni Makaulule. 

Here in Venda, spirituality and environment are indivisible. It is a way of life, drawn from a deep lineage of ancestral wisdom passed on from generation to generation orally. It is a deeply matriarchal tradition. The Makhadzi are the defenders of the sacred sites and are the guiding hand of the VhaVenda culture. 

Makaulule has fearlessly fought powerful politically connected developers and even traditional chiefs who want to tear down the indigenous. 

“If we don’t protect our forests, where will we get our food and especially water?” she asks. “We are experiencing droughts now since we started to cut down the forests for farming and development, especially in the fragile river systems.” 

The Makhadzi are a very special group of elderly women who are famous in South Africa for their powers, one of them being their ability to invite the clouds to open and bring rain to the region. For the VhaVenda, practices such as these play a vital role in maintaining the health and connection with the community and nature. 

Makhadzi are the mothers and spiritual leaders of the community and are in close connection with living a life of Mupo. The VhaVenda believe that in nature there is an order of things. An interconnection with everything. Mupo is the universal law of the sun, moon and stars and plays a huge role in the growth and integrity of the community. 

These days the women who make up the Makhadzi, the defenders of the sacred land, are coming under threat from modern, detached society. The sites that have been sacred to the Venda people for hundreds of years are being ruined by mining and development projects. 

“When you cut down a tree you are destroying an ecosystem. Destroy the sacred sites, you extinguish the power of the community. If we protect the environment we protect ourselves,” the wise and soft-spoken traditional chief of Vhutanda, Vho Nkhetheni Nevhutanda, says. 

In 2008 a road was built across a sacred rock and river, near the Phiphidi Falls, one of the sacred sites where the Makhadzi carry out their rainmaking rituals, their prayers for the quality of crops and their prayers for life. The sacred rock was broken up to make way for a road, and hotel rooms for tourists have been constructed beside the Phiphidi Falls. 

The Makhadzi are deeply pained by the destruction of their traditional territory and sacred sites. These destructive projects caused the Makhadzi, along with Venda community members, to form an organisation called Dzomo la Mupo or Voices from the Earth. 

In 2009, to help rebuild the confidence of the community, a project to help fight for the rights of these sacred traditions and rights was launched by Dzoma la Mupo. 

As I travelled in the company of these wise women, I realised how our arrogance has led us to this precipice of an ecological emergency. 

Humanity is obviously deeply out of sync with Mother Nature. I feel the serenity of these sacred forests. It’s a living ecosystem. A sentient being. What right have we to go on treating Nature as a commodity? To own, tear up mountains and forests to feed our insatiable appetite? To own, abuse, plunder and rape? It’s a testament to the damaging toxic masculinity that permeates everything we do. From family and even religion to business, politics and community.

We need to reimagine, reorganise and redesign a new world. The old one is crumbling. But these communities are the green shoots of a new way of us living and sharing our Mother Earth with every other species — transforming from an aggressive predatory species back to the original nurturing role symbolised by the Makhadzi. 

Our world, and more so our humanity, cannot survive our patriarchal violence. “Our role is to transfer the culture. I carry the wisdom of my parents and grandparents. I am the collection of everything my ancestors carried. When I am in the sacred forests, I know who I am. I am preserving my culture. And my role is to pass this knowledge to the children. We are planters of the seeds of life,” echoes an elderly Makatzi gogo, Vho Tshisikhawe Nembulu Netshidzivhe.

Seated in a circle under the trees the hours move swiftly. I am learning how to be in the present, undisturbed by the trauma of the past or the anxiety about the future. 

A young farmer adds, “Global warming is a huge challenge. The forests regulate the temperature of the planet. Yet we prioritise profit over the natural environment. 

“When we die we become part of the sacred sites. Our bones are eventually part of the forests. The trees give us life. We exchange our carbon dioxide for their oxygen. It’s symbiosis. The forests are also where we first get our water that flows into the rivers to support our population’s needs.”

Another Makatzi, Vho Nyadzanga Nevhutanda adds, “There are protocols in visiting the sacred sites. Yet there are religions and modern society that do not respect our ageless traditions. They come to have parties, weddings and throw their rubbish here. This is our shrine. We pray here. We have our own gods that are handed down from our ancestors. It is important that our indigenous cultures are respected by other religions, government and business.”

As we enter the talks next week of COP26, we should pause and hear these indigenous voices of wisdom, lest we repeat the mistakes of our past. Climate renewal and protecting our natural environment and stopping global warming will not be decided in air-conditioned hotels and with a coterie of politicians, billionaires, bankers, celebrities and civil society bureaucrats. 

It’s painstaking work in communities like these. In the messiness, noise and violence imposed on it from the outside. It’s about tapping into the indigenous wisdom of such cultures and communities to understand the principle of reciprocity. We live in communities. These are where we face challenges. We live in a circular ecosystem. We cannot sustain a linear trajectory of growth. We are in partnership with Mother Nature. And we should let go of our false notions of dominion over all we share our Earth with. 

And for those who are too stupid to understand — well there is no economy, money or jobs on a dead planet. And you don’t have the social licence to impose your short-sighted ignorance on the rest of humanity. Our solutions have always come from the bottom. It’s time to listen to indigenous voices now. DM

[hearken id=”daily-maverick/8821″]

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Marianne McKay says:

    Thank you, Jay and the Makhadzi, for a small ray of hope that there are people who deeply care about nature and its immense importance in all our lives, whether we realize it or not.
    Let us please hear more of your voices!

  • Bruce Danckwerts says:

    I am sorry but this craze of treating Indigenous Knowledge as the savior to our problems is just romantic wishful thinking. I fully agree that we need to protect our forests and other natural resources from exploitation, but we are going to have to make scientific fact-based decisions rather than listen to the out-of-date views of rainmaking sangomas.
    This craze is manifesting itself in both Australia and California, where it is hoped that Indigenous Knowledge will help them solve their wildfire problem. In the case of California, one piece of Indigenous Knowledge offered to the problem appears to be that, if the strategic early burn is to be successful, it must have been lit from a wreath woven from a particular grass! What utter nonsense.
    With close to 8 billion people on this planet (and rising) we need to use ALL the tools at our disposal to monitor our natural resources, and, where we can see a decline in any parameter, we need to intervene, to reverse that trend. If Indigenous Knowledge was all it is cracked up to be, why is it that in most of the traditionally owned (and so managed) parts of Africa, the destruction of natural resources is so bad? Soil, trees, grass cover, all these ESSENTIAL resources are in worse decline in traditional areas.
    Yes the modern world has got many of its priorities wrong, and yes there is a lot of destruction of essential resources in the name of progress, but it will only be the WISE application of science that will fix it. Bruce D.

  • Philip Mirkin says:

    Stunning article Jay.
    Thank you for bringing a true indigenous voice to DM.
    Our current global thinking has yet to engage meaningfully with the deep wisdom in this voice. Lifting the indigenous voice into a realm of intellectual debate might just help some folk to see how they can immerse themselves into a meaning-rich, indigenous-like connectedness to their own lives, God and nature. Please don’t let this be the last article on this important topic.

  • Peter Geddes says:

    There is no need to go to Japan to learn how essential the forests are to our wellbeing.

    The knowledge and insights are here … the forests are here.

  • John Cartwright says:

    There may be a kind of romanticising enthusiasm about indigenous knowledge in some circles, but it’s far from a ‘craze’. It’s an extremely serious process of climbing down from our know-it-all increasingly wobbly patriarchal throne and doing some respectful (but not credulous) listening. Modern science is amazing and obviously has an important role to play, but it’s not enough – it has brought thoughtless destruction as well as benefits, and it’s time we learnt some humility. The process of rethinking the nature and application of indigenous knowledge, especially in Australia and Canada, is already changing ‘settler’ attitudes for the better, and that’s a good start.

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