God, ancestors, and nature

Environmental protection is deeply-held practice in African spirituality. What happens when it is re-shaped by Christianity and capitalism?

Tsodilo Hills Okavango River, Botswana, February 2004. Credit Wildlife Wanderer on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed

In her 2017 song “Freedom,” Motswana singer Thato Chuma-Mogotsi questions why governments make promises they never keep. Chuma-Mogotsi didn’t wait for the government to answer, however. In 2018, she founded a social enterprise, The Local Slice BW, that raises visibility around local products and services. The 32-year-old Chuma-Mogotsi is a practicing astro-numerologist and was formally initiated as a traditional healer (sangoma) this year.

Does she want to be free from a government system that has stripped her and other sangomas (or shamans) of their duties as custodians of culture and African Traditional Religion, defined as ancestor worship and or animism by scholars? Chuma-Mogotsi wants to urgently reframe these terms: “I don’t consider African spirituality a religion because it is a holistic way of perceiving and living. It is a connection to one’s power and purpose, which cannot be prescribed,” she says, highlighting the urgency to reframe the terms.

Before the advent of Christianity and colonialism, traditional healers, working in harmony with chiefs, were considered high-ranking members of society. Their work extended to the management and preservation of the natural environment. This was before Botswana became a republic in 1966, and before chiefs became government officers with titular powers (compared to the past). To this, Olekae Thakadu, professor and deputy director of the Okavango Research Institute, adds the impacts of Western education, acculturation, and globalization that further reduced sangomas’ status.

Traditionally, ancestral worship was carried out in caves, on top of mountains, near bodies of water, and in secluded forests, such as the Okavango Delta and Tsodilo Hills—also known as the Mountain of the Gods. These places of worship were as revered as churches and temples are today, if not feared more. They were associated with ghost sightings, snake gods, and possible ruin (such as drought, bad luck, and death) that would befall an individual or community if these holy places were dishonored. 

According to Chuma-Mogotsi: 

Such places are known to retain specific energies that carry information about our origins. They are also reservoirs of energies that assist us to be connected to ourselves, and hence, they are said to be “healing places.” By them being sacred is an act of conservation.

At Tsodilo Hills, ancestor worship by the Hambukushu and the Ju/’hoansi—hunter-gatherers and descendants of the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa who belong to the oldest cultures on earth, dating back to the Stone and Iron Ages—tribes are said to have significantly contributed to the conservation of the mountain. Tsodilo Hills was declared a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2001.

Vasco Baitsiseng, the coordinator of the Department of National Museum and Monuments (DNMM) in the North West region of Botswana, explains that when someone fell sick, hunter-gatherers would congregate at the hill at night and dance until their shaman entered a trance. “While in the spirit world, he would get instructions on how to heal the diseased person and directions of where to get the herbs.”

From this trance, a shaman often woke up to share admonitions given by the ancestors, including instructing those gathered together on what to do and what not to do in their area of residence and worship, thus conserving the ecosystem and biodiversity of their environment.

“Even in harvesting herbs, there were guidelines determining how medicines were sourced and the quantities to use. In most cases, traditional doctors were custodians of the places of harvest,” environmental scholar Olekae Thakadu explains.

Rock paintings contributed to the profound veneration of Tsodilo and its consequent conservation. Vasco Baitsiseng points out that the most prevalent drawings are of bleeding elands. “Those who have studied the paintings say the animal represented the shaman’s spirit, while the oozing blood symbolized the pain that the shaman went through when traversing the spiritual world.” Tsodilo boasts more than 4,500 rock paintings spread across only 10 square kilometers. A referral by a traditional doctor is one of the common reasons why people travel there. At least 10,000 people travel to Tsodilo annually, including those from neighboring South Africa and Swaziland.

Joseph Gaie, a religious studies professor at the University of Botswana, argues that Christianity has “watered down” traditional religions: 

The reality is that African-initiated churches combine Christianity and African traditional religions. Traditional doctors and traditional medicine are part of the religion. I even know a Catholic Christian who wants to visit a shaman to free themselves from an ailment that modern medicine cannot cure.

At the same time, Gaie points out that Christianity has had to come to terms with coexisting with African traditional practices. “When someone becomes a widow, they are considered sick, and certain rituals must be performed. They are not just prayed for. Since Mission and Pentecostal churches do not provide that [service], African traditional religion comes in handy.”

James Amanze, one of Gaie’s colleagues at the University of Botswana, has studied the persistence of ancestor veneration among Batswana identifying as Christians. Amanze’s research credits the resilience of the belief in ancestors to the fact that it gives people a sense of identity.

This idea of “Modimo le Badimo” (God and Ancestors) is very popular among young Batswana; however, it proves problematic for conservation efforts and climate action. As Baitsiseng points out:

Some regular local tourists do not revere the place. They just come to enjoy the landscape amidst picnics and loud music, which local communities say disturbs the ancestors. These tourists end up picking up relics they should not and touching things they should not.

Churches are also guilty. “Because they come at night, they are not accompanied by local guides. They burn candles and leave the place untidy after their rituals,” he decries. Numerous churches visit Tsodilo. One of these, the Zion Christian Church (ZCC), headquartered in South Africa’s Limpopo Province, is one of the largest African-initiated churches operating across the region. Its members value the coveted natural spring water near the Female Hill at Tsodilo Hills for its healing powers. The belief is it can remove bad luck, help with romantic lives, and improve job prospects. Baitsiseng explains that Zionists, or maZion as the members of the ZCC are also known, claim that they get permission to fetch the water from two pythons that reside in a small cave. 

In addition to human visitors, Tsodilo Hills faces a more significant threat from climate change. The area is prone to wildfires. Vasco Baitsiseng points to the fate of a nearby lake. “Thousands of years ago, it attracted many animals depicted in rock paintings. They have since migrated, some deep into the Okavango Delta.” Due to limited rainfall, some wild fruits such as mongongo (manketti), synonymous with the “rock that whispers” (Tsodilo), have become scarce. As a result, local communities dependent on this natural resource are disadvantaged.

For Baitsiseng, it is imperative that the state, church, communities, and tourists come up with a management plan that considers different conservation modalities. Policymakers working in partnership with the Tsodilo Community Trust, he says, are currently exploring a balance between the good practices from Indigenous knowledge systems and modern-day international conservation strategies. For example, Indigenous knowledge systems used to limit the number of people visiting Tsodilo, and stipulated what to touch and what not to. “This is something we are now doing, as also endorsed by UNESCO. We also teach locals not to start wildfires, though it was culturally acceptable among them, and we teach churches and regular tourists to clean after themselves.”

Scientist Olekae Thakadu is a Christian but applauds the collaboration between Western and Indigenous approaches:

The arrival of Christianity, as good as it is and I subscribe to it, also demonized certain practices and beliefs which acted as conservation measures without fully comprehending their motives. Though ancestor worship is not in line with scripture, I see nothing wrong with totemism, for example, if the symbol is an animal, not an object of spiritual significance. 

What Thakadu finds contentious about the conventional approach to ecosystems and biodiversity conservation is the use of conservation agencies such as departments of wildlife and national parks and paramilitary bodies, whose personnel tend to be located far from remote areas and thus fail to consistently monitor groups that harm the ecosystem, such as poachers. 

“Let’s revert to paramount chiefs, headsman, and their mophato (regiments). This is if we truly want to conserve resources. It is better to work with the people who use them.” 

Joseph Gaie, the religious studies professor, agrees: 

When missionaries came to convert people, they thought they could do it without the kings, but when kings called meetings on Sundays, people would honor the king’s call and not go to church; that’s when missionaries realized that the king was central to the lives of Batswana. To achieve this, they went to kings like Kgosi Sechele and converted them. Once you convert the king, the custodian of the culture, the head of the military, and the head of economics, the masses follow.

The introduction of Christianity also meant discarding Tswana beliefs. For example, certain trees were not cut at given times (especially those that people used a lot for hut construction), and some birds and animals could not be hunted, among other embargoes that encouraged regeneration. 

Thakadu believes that the powers of the chiefs were usurped and given to forestry and wildlife departments. “Who cares about officers and directors, people used to care for the chiefs. If the collaboration of Western and Indigenous knowledge systems can factor in traditional structures that once were, I think we can do better conservation.”

“Indigenous technologies could accurately predict rain, droughts, and many more occurrences that allowed us to plan and prepare,” adds Chuma-Mogotsi. “Astrology is one such science, it assists us in knowing when to plow and harvest relative to nature’s energies.”

Is collaboration the political freedom that Chuma-Mogotsi hopes for? “A lot of knowledge has been lost and corrupted, and it’s only now that we are seeing a global resurgence of the ways of our ancestors and why they are crucial to our inner peace and foresight.”

According to the World Council of Churches, people of faith make up more than 80 percent of the world’s population. The figure for Botswana is roughly the same. Yet, there is no dialogue or engagement about the environment between the Botswana government and people of faith. However, there is a strong consensus that a meeting of this nature would significantly advance climate action. “As Christians, we are custodians of the environment, God never desired that people should be irresponsible in the way that they interrelate with the environment,” says Thakadu.

He believes that decolonizing school curriculums is part of the solution. “Science should not be prescriptive and exclusive of the Indigenous context. It must value all knowledge and hypotheses to avoid being one-ended and stagnant in its dogma. We must all be open-minded, regardless of our paths.”

Gaie believes that capitalism, which has resulted in the affluence that scientists such as Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Center attribute to the anthropocene, is at the root of the problem.“We cannot succeed in an environment where everyone is self-centered. Let’s revisit the “motho ke motho ka batho” concept, which means “I am because of you and through you,” and then extend it to “I am because of my environment.”

Further Reading

We shall overcome

One cannot fully appreciate Kenya’s normative Christianity and its particular obsession with public piety without appreciating the legacy of the East African revival.