African Communities Living in Harmony with Nature

"Living in Harmony with Nature" episode, at Acton TV

This post provides a glimpse into how African ways of life are environmentally sustainable, and less dependent on money and industrial products.

Vivian wearing the bark cloth f
rom Uganda
Perhaps this contributes to many cultures on the continent being labeled as primitive or poor.

For centuries, Africans’ way of life of has rotated around making friends with nature in various ways that sustain the livelihood of the people. Communities are aware of what natural resources they have and creatively use those resources for their survival.

In many traditional African societies in sub-Saharan Africa, the communities engaged in numerous activities involving music, dancing, sports and weaving.  These activities continue to be supported by the environment, which provides raw materials for traditional African instruments, costumes, tools and toys. Many of these are made out of plant and animal products.

An African mother, teaching her children
household skills
Creativity and craft skills were passed on from one generation to another by the parents, clansmen, members of the extended family, or older siblings of the same sex, depending on the skill being taught.

It was common for children of the different sexes to learn the same skills until they got to a certain age where the boys were expected to take on more masculine roles like building huts or dwellings, hunting, carpentry, blacksmithing work, or training as warriors, while girls focused more on crafts that were used in the day-to-day activities of the household.

These creations and skills were applied to transforming the natural resources into practical tools for the communities.

Let me take you through some examples of what I mean.

Gourds and Calabashes:

One of the common crafts made out of plants among people of the various cultures in Sub Saharan Africa, is the gourds and calabashes that have historically been used for drinking and storage. 

A boy drinking from an
Ankole gourd 
A baby with an Ankole gourd
Among keepers of cattle, gourds have, traditionally been used for storing milk, churning ghee, which in the west is referred to as clarified butter, storing home made moisturizers, scented products and many other things.

"Eshabwe" in pots, and
gourds in the background
They were and still are used for serving and storing millet and sorghum beverages in many cultures.

Banana Plants:
 "Matooke"- Green plantain
These are a staple crop in East Africa. There are many varieties of bananas and plantains in the region.  These  provided bananas for food, snacks, alcoholic beverages, and ingredients preparation for medical procedures for the communities that grew them
"Gonja" - Yellow plantain

Bananas are culturally interplanted with cover crops, usually legumes like beans, peas and  ground nuts (peanuts), which provide plant protein, to the family's diet.

In some communities, weeds were controlled through established field mulching, dry seedless grasses, elephant grass  and coffee husks, before and even after the introduction of chemical weed killers. At my grandmother's garden, and my secondary (High) school, unwanted banana leaves  were also used for mulching. 


During my undergraduate studies, I conducted research on “contribution of indigenous knowledge to social economic development, with Masaka, Uganda, as a case study”. I focused on how indigenous ways of life contribute to the sustenance of communities.  One of my findings was that many rural communities used natural fertilizers like animal urine, in their gardens. These were non-toxic, low-cost and sustainable, since they used animals that were already on their farms.

Scrubbing dishes: 

The "Oluwawu" plant
Washing dishes is a regular activity in any household. One might wonder how dishes are washed in societies or communities without dishwashers and soap, in rural Africa. 
I do not know what every culture on the continent used, but I can share my personal and family experience.
At my grand mother and mother’s homes, as needed, we used the “Oluwawu” which is the “Ficus exasperata“ species. It is also known as the “sandpaper leaf.” It is native to tropical Africa. The main pupose of the "oluwawu" was to scrub dirty dishes. It works great and does not have to be manufactured. It is also biodegradable since it’s a plants so it does not damage the environment. 

Someone pounding friend cassava with
a mortar and pestle
The stump of the “Oluwawu” tree was also traditionally used for making “ekinu” (pestle) for pounding peanuts and (sesame), to make a powder for making peanut sauce, or a paste similar to peanut butter.

Extracts from the tree have also traditionally been used to treat ulcers and for anti-inflammation.

Using my experience, again, all my life in Uganda, my family and I used “ekyangwe”, also known as sponge gourd, vegetable sponge or loofah, to scrub our bodies.  These sponges have become popular in the west, where they are commonly bought at stores, rather than grown at home.

"Omweso" - A board game, on a woven mat
In addition, many African communities today have carried on skills of using plants to make crafts such as woven mats, baskets, dolls, toys, bark cloth, and many other things that are significant to everyday life.
Children creatively using a rock
to play a board game, called "Omweso"

So, this has been a brief intro into the way African societies relate with nature. Imagine family life where the community uses plants, animals and nature in general, in the day-to-day activities.  Imagine not having to go to any stores to buy these things. The amazing part is that all these products are kind to the environment, because they are bio-degradable.

Teaching morals:

The natural environment also provided themes for storytelling and poetry, usually around a fire, in the evenings, shortly before dinner. These stories encouraged ethical and moral behavior. For example, among the Banyankole and Bakiga people in western Uganda, there is a poem that children were taught, to encourage them to work for what they eat. It goes:

Kikyere zakuhiinga,

tinyine agahiinga.

Kikyere zakushenya,

tinyine agashenya.

Kikyere zakushoroma,

tinyine agashoroma.

Kikyere ija turye,

kanfe kugurukyeera ndeebe!

Literally translated,

Woman: “Frog, go to dig”
Frog : “I do not have energy to dig”
Woman: “Frog, go fetch firewood”
Frog: “I do not have energy to fetch firewood”
Woman: “Frog, go pick vegetables”
Frog: “I do not have energy to pick vegetables”
Woman: “Frog, come let’s eat”
Frog : “Let me try to hop around and see”

I hope this has taught you something new about the way of life of the African people.

The Caucasian-South African Cultural Experience

There are many caucasian South Africans, whose ancestry is the English and Dutch settlers. I got the opportunity to chat with two of them, Kate and Twane, about their cultural experiences both in New England-USA, and South Africa.

Traditional Knowledge and Africa's History of Innovation

How did people learn life-saving skills in communities that did not have formal schools?

Like many indigenous societies worldwide, African societies have a strong tradition of storytelling, for passing on knowledge and information from one generation to the next. Today, it is supplemented with modern formal education. Societies throughout sub-Saharan Africa have preserved knowledge about the past through verbal, visual, and written art forms, giving Africa has the world's oldest record of human technological achievement. What history books and modern narratives have labeled primitive African activity, I call innovation of the time. Let me share some stories of knowledge in sub-Saharan Africa, and how it has influenced the world we live in.

Vivian Kobusingye Birchall,
 demonstrating how to use a grinding stone
in Acton, MA, 2017
I have childhood memories of watching family members in southwestern Uganda using grinding stones (“orubengo”) to grind millet and sorghum into flour for home consumption. The oldest stone tools in the world have been found in eastern Africa, and evidence of tool production from available materials has been found across sub-Saharan Africa. Some of these stone tools have existed for centuries, and many tribes in sub-Saharan Africa have continued to use them, even after interaction with Europeans. Mechanized grain mills, turned by hand, mule, wind or water, function on the same principles.
Vivian, demonstrating how to use a grinding stone,
at Lesedi, in South Africa, 2008

Another childhood memory is of my mother applying traditional knowledge to cure different ailments, in the absence of modern medicine, or when modern medicine did not work. This happens in many African communities.  It is common to see multi-pupose plants grown in the yard and around African homes. For thousands of years, Africans have had a wide knowledge of medicinal plants that they still use, especially in areas that do not have access to modern health facilities.

"Omujaaja" Plant
Photo: Prossy Namirembe Byarugaba
(Copyright: Africa2U) 
For example, at her  house, my mother, Prossy, planted aloe vera, banana trees, and African basil (“omujaaja”). This native plant is used as a tea spice, but also has medicinal uses, to treat flatulence (“okutumbira mu lubuto”), constipation (“obuteyabya”) and toothaches. Our ancestors learned these things not in school, but through their own investigation, and knowledge passed down orally from their elders. Today, pharmaceutical researchers around the world have confirmed that extracts from this plant have a range of potential uses against pain, bacteria, parasites and diabetes.

Even various traumatic wounds could be treated. Traditional physicians would squeeze plant juices with antiseptic properties into the open wound, then use a red-hot metal tip to cauterize bleeding points and burn away damaged tissue. They would then stitch the wound closed with a tough thorn or awl and fibrous sutures. Finally, a fiber mat would be wrapped tightly around the wound to apply pressure and stop bleeding. These capabilities were not merely applied to injuries!

Robert W. Felkin (1853-1926), an expert and advisor to the Lancet on tropical disease, first traveled to Africa in 1878 with missionaries as a medical student. At the time, Europe and the rest of the world thought of the caesarian section as a last resort, to save the baby of a mother whose own life could not be saved. But in the Banyoro kingdom of western Uganda, he witnessed a caesarian as a routine procedure performed by a skilled, experienced practitioner and assistants, with both mother and baby surviving.

Banana wine served as an anaesthetic and antiseptic, the incision was sparingly cauterized and fastened closed with sharp spikes, and the mother’s abdomen was wrapped tightly. Within six days, the fasteners were removed, and when Felkin left after monitoring the mother for eleven days, both she and her baby were doing well. Felkin’s description and sketches of the procedure were published in the Edinburgh Medical Journal in 1884, the same year he gave an address, Notes on Labour in Central Africa, to the Edinburgh Obstetrical Society.

Banyoro knife used for caesarian section in 1879. Presented by Dr. R.W. Felkin to Sir Henry Wellcome, now in the Wellcome Collection, London. (Copyright: The Wellcome Trust.)

Of course, there have been many surgical advances in the last 150 years, but one does not usually hear that Europeans learned how to perform successful caesarian sections by watching Africans. Nor do we hear of ancient Egyptian medical records describing material from the papyrus plant being used to make tampons, or of many African tribes practicing inoculation against smallpox long before Edward Jenner’s vaccine, or of Masai surgeons drilling into the chest to partially collapse a lung as treatment for pleurisy or pneumonitis. But we must acknowledge the skills of pre-colonial Africans. They were experts, and innovators, in their time.

But knowledge and learning in Africa is not limited to food production and medicine.  During the golden age of the Mali Empire between 1300 and 1600, the city of Timbuktu, located at the border of the Sahara and the Sahel, was a center of trade and education. Scholars at its university had access to all the mathematical learning of the Islamic world at the time, including algebra, geometry and trigonometry.

Looking even further back, some of the oldest mathematical tools in the world, dating to the paleolithic era, have been found at the Uganda-Congo border and in Swaziland.  The Ishango and Lebombo bones are lengths of bone with series of notches carved on them.  Several theories of their purpose have been put forth, ranging from prime numbers or multiplication devices to tracking the phases of the moon.

Ishango Bone
(Afro Legends)

Another possibility is that the markings on the bone were used to track a woman’s menstrual cycle. Many African tribes associate menstruation with the moon; the Banyakitara, my father’s kin, call it “Okuza omukwezi,” literally translated “Going into the moon.” Of course, this could also imply that the bones were the first astronomical records – or that the first mathematicans and astronomers were women. That is a conversation for another time.

We may not know what they were tracking, but one thing is for certain – whatever it was, they invented a mathematical tool to track it, and that influenced how African people and communities tracked things.  As you can see, there is much to learn about past and present African ways of life. Some traditions have given way to modern ways of doing things, but others are deeply rooted in our way of life and are still applicable today.

Vivian Kobusingye Birchall

Traditional Knowledge and Africa's History of Innovation