Uzondu Emmanuel Muoedu - Soil scientist/agriculturist based in Nkpor, Anambra/Nigeria.

Using cultural knowledge for ecosystem protection

There are numerous proposals regarding the best way to protect the environment and ecosystems. Instead of inventing the wheel anew, our Nigerian author advocates reflecting on the cultural and religious concepts of his ancestors.

Every day, part of the ecosystem is destroyed through human activities in the environment. Many animals and plants are either extinct or have moved to other locations with a smaller population. Climate change is affecting our everyday lives, and people are coming up with all sorts of proposals to preserve the ecosystem.

Africans believe in their gods and ancestors. Most of these ancestors were scientists in the sense that they studied the environment and how to preserve and manage it, and find a way to ensure sustainability and healthy living. Day by day, more and more scientists are emerging with proof, theories, ideologies, findings, result, hypothesis, etc. of one sort or the other to better life – and to “make a difference”. The question is whether they are aware of all impacts their new technologies are going to have.

In Africa, every community has a variety of gods. Before the advent of Christianity, the ecosystems were preserved using the principles and doctrines of these gods. This also holds true for my home region, Anambra State of Nigeria. One example is the belief that there are large areas of land that the gods and their spirits occupy. You do not cultivate or hunt in that particular land because it is believed to be sacred. In his book entitled “Abatete Cultural Heritage”, published in the 1980s, Chief Obibuenyi Muoedu wrote: “Omaliko acquired two separate forests covering many acres of land.

Cultivation of food crops, hunting, fetching firewood and building dwelling houses are strictly prohibited in these forests.” Omaliko is a god in Abatete. Another example is that people in Idemili Local Government Area, which consists of more than 20 towns, do not kill pythons. Even the neighbouring towns have joined them in forbidding the killing of pythons. The animals are very docile and are easily encouraged to go away. If you do kill one of them, and the traditional people find out, you will be tasked with a lot of things to appease the gods of the land whether you are a native of the area or not. This law applies to everyone in the area. And then there are the people of Awka, where you must not kill monkeys. People from Umunya, again, are prohibited to kill catfish.

Every town has its particular interest in one or two animals, and it has serious laws to preserve these animals. However, some ancient and mysterious stories are connected to the reasons for these preferences. In some sacred forests, you can see a large variety of animals and plants. Any animal that runs into such forest can live there for many years without being disturbed by anyone. The Chief Priest of the gods of a particular forest or shrine does have access to go inside, but he needs to consult the gods to inform them first. A huge number of animals still exist in Africa thanks to its  cultures and tradition. Iin Idemili, you can see pythons in all sizes and of any age, and in Ogbunike of Anambra State, tortoises reach incredible ages because people don’t kill them.

The Amiagbo Stream is another good example of preserving nature. You are not allowed to fish in the stream or cultivate plants and fetch firewood near it. However, many activities do go on in the stream, such as washing plates or clothes, fetching drinking water, etc. Of course, you don’t wash your clothes where you fetch the water. Neither are women on their menstruation permitted to go into this section of the stream. You are not even allowed to dip your fingers in it here. And nobody may urinate in it at all.
 
On Eke market day, the first day of the four-day week, no-one is allowed to go near the stream let alone fetching water. Only the Chief Priest has the right to go to the stream on Eke days to perform various rituals. If you ever dip your hands into where the drinking water comes from, the volume of water emerging will automatically be reduced. If this does happen, the Chief Priest will go and purify the stream again, using a day-old chicken, white chalk, a Kola nut, a chicken egg, etc., to appease the gods of the stream.
A month after a woman has given birth, she will go to the shrine of Amiagba to purify her body before going to the Amiagba Stream. The Amiagba has up to 22 shrines in different locations of the town and occupies large stretches of land that are also sacred. The points where the stream comes out of these areas is usually demarcated with a treetrunk, and you must not pour water which has crossed the trunk of wood back to where the water is coming from. If any of these prohibited acts is done in the stream, this will eventually reduce the volume of water coming out, which I have witnessed.

One can conclude that all these laws are there to ensure hygiene and preservation of the stream. Thus they help to preserve both aquatic and terrestrial organisms. All cultures that forbid the killing of certain animals ensure a good continuity of the respective animal species. Sacred forests help conserve both plants and animals species for coming generations.

Today, some of these cultures are fading away in Nigeria because of foreign religions like Christianity. Some parts of the sacred forests are being tampered with by people some of whom do not even know that they are in part of a sacred forest, while others say that they do not believe in idol worshipping anyway. Perhaps their religious leaders – pastors, reverend fathers or priests have told them that the act of keeping the forest sacred amounts to worshipping an idol. A great number of people have joined foreign religions and adopted foreign cultures, and if they see individuals near the gods’ shrines’ or the forest, they will regard them as “unbelievers” or idol worshippers.

And people do tend to follow the masses and abandon their religion for another. Another issue why some of these vital cultures are disappearing in Nigeria is the influence of colonialism. Indeed, many African people tend to see much of what they have always had as fetishistic and useless, and prefer to wait for foreign impacts such as aid, ideas, etc. because their colonial masters did not encourage them to maintain their culture but replaced it together with their religion. 

“The people who have acquired a good knowledge of their ancestors and cultural heritage should be proud of this because they have acquired a most valuable legacy,” says Chief M.O. Muoedu. “Since the advent of Christianity in the town, about eight decades ago now, most of our customs and traditions have gradually been fading away. This is due firstly to the influx of Christian converts regarding fetish sacrifices and secondly to our knowledgeable youths lacking the foresight that a town without customs and traditions is bound to sink into oblivion. These customs and traditions go back to our forefathers and have been practiced for the realisation of certain objectives, including peace, love, unity, happiness and respect for the laws of the land,” Chief Obibuenyi Muoedu explains in “Abatete Cultural Heritage”.

Today, everybody is looking for ideas to preserve the ecosystem. Africans have known how to do this a long time ago. You know that fashion goes round, so let’s bring some fashions back.   


Uzondu Emmanuel Muoedu
is a soil scientist/agriculturist based in Nkpor, Anambra/Nigeria.

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