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.

1 comment:

  1. Watching this has made me miss ho.e that much more. There is no place like home. Thank you for this compilation and post.


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