A Zimbabwean Association is leading the process of recovering traditional knowledge, rehabilitating sacred places like the mountains, and reviving the culture and cosmovision of the Shona people, all aiming at an endogenous development of rural communities.
10 / 2006
Could you introduce yourself and your work?
I hold a university diploma in agriculture, and I am specialized in sustainable management. I first worked for the Natural Farming Network of Zimbabwe, then in 1993 I have joined the Association of Zimbabwe Traditional Environmental Conservationists (AZTREC).
AZTREC is a community based organization (CBO) whose aim is to revive African knowledge systems that where degraded during colonialism and to promote endogenous development. I am the coordinator of AZTREC’s agriculture programmes, which involves doing research on indigenous knowledge and facilitating programmes on the ground, such as wetland rehabilitation, sustainable agriculture, agro-forestry or traditional ceremonies.
In your opinion, which are the main problems affecting the mountain territories in Zimbabwe?
Mountains have a central role in Zimbabwe’s endogenous culture. Great Zimbabwe, the ancient city that was crucial for the development of the Shona state and today is one of the most important archaeological sites in Sub-Saharan Africa, was situated among a complex of rocky hills and valleys. After the decline of Great Zimbabwe, all the Chiefs spread all over what is today’s Zimbabwe, but they all followed the pattern of settling on a mountain. The mountains in the Shona culture are sacred places, Chiefs live on top of them and are buried in the caves that are at the bottom of the mountains. In the mountains there are also sacred groves, which are passages underneath the mountains known to link the hills and mountains throughout the country. These groves are bigger than the caves, and are where the most important rituals and ceremonies are held. Mountains are also an habitat for wildlife, including the animals that are sacred for the Shona. Mountains are the source of our life, and where we communicate with the spirits.
The indigenous African cosmovision consists of three worlds: the spiritual, the natural and the human, and tof he relationships between them. It is believed that if the people perform the required rituals and ceremonies, the spiritual world rewards the natural world with good rains, good harvest and food security; while if the traditional values and norms are not upheld it can bring famine, war and diseases.
Colonialism had a devastating effect on the preservation of the Shona culture and cosmovision. People were removed from their land and confined into reserves, including the Chiefs, who were formerly living on the mountains. This meant to destroy the communication between the people and the spirits, as the mountains where the sacred places to do so. Also, the white settlers brought Christianity with them, forcing baptism and placing most of the missionary schools on top of the mountains, in order to control the power of the indigenous people.
The result of the colonial period was the extreme degradation of cultural values and beliefs, but also the physical degradation of the mountain sacred places and biodiversity. We believe that this led to famine, unnecessary drought and spread of diseases.
Which initiatives are being carried out at the moment that could improve the situation in the mountains?
Shortly after Independence, in 1985, the Association of Zimbabwe Traditional Environmental Conservationists (AZTREC) was founded by the tripartite relationship between Chiefs, spirit mediums and war veterans, with the aim of recovering African knowledge systems.
The AZTREC work focuses on an endogenous development of rural areas, from and for the local communities. It implements programmes in five thematic areas: conservation of sacred mountains and wetlands, sustainable agriculture, local technology knowledge, traditional health delivery systems, culture and cosmovision. AZTREC officers act as facilitators, counselling communities on how to recover their traditions and make use of them. Some examples of the programmes that AZTREC is implementing are the recovery of local seeds and crop varieties, the rehabilitation of sacred caves and wetlands, the establishment of community laws to protect resources, or the recovery of traditional techniques which have been lost, like making pottery. In terms of the management of ordinary and sacred mountains, the association facilitates local communities to identify the cultural values of sacred mountains, to develop and implement action plans towards their management and to develop sacred sites into educational and eco-cultural tourism initiatives.
The difference of AZTREC from other development agents is its consideration for spiritual elements, ritual calendars, astrological data and sacred places. It also incorporates socio-cultural issues such as taboos or gender differences in order to avoid resistance during the project implementation.
AZTREC is the only organization with this philosophy of endogenous development in Zimbabwe, and after twenty years of operating, it has been proved to be successful in bringing back power and pride to the people. We are proud of our achievements during this time: the government is now recognising our work, and granted us a Service Provider status to the Resettlement Process (land reform). The Chiefs have been recognised officially in a government Act, and for the past five years we have been operating a nationwide television programme about endogenous development in Africa, in collaboration with other countries. AZTREC is part of a large network of organizations in Zimbabwe, it is also a member of the Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) Association in Zimbabwe, and it is linked with universities for the research on culture and cosmovision, which help the organization to upscale its activities.
Which actions do you think should be prioritized to improve the situation in your sector?
There are really important cultural and spiritual relations between communities and the mountains. For this reason, culture and cosmovision is crucial, and should be one of the most important issues to be taken on board by any action or policy involving mountain people. This also applies to the creation of an international network of mountain people, which should not forget about the spiritual and cultural dimension of the mountain communities.
How do you see the future?
The world is going to change, and there is going to be recognition of every single culture. So far many development methodologies have failed for the simple reason of not considering the importance of local knowledge. But I believe that the dominance of conventional science in the world is going to stop, and there would be a situation of co-evolution of science, where the endogenous knowledge will take over, operated locally but being part of a global village. There will be inter-cultural dialogue, and every single culture will be able to come out and be recognized, all at the same level. Scientific technologies will help to strengthen traditional cultures but will never replace them.
All this will though be achieved if the importance of the mountain in the indigenous culture, and of the spirituality behind it, are acknowledged.
This interview has been realized by ALMEDIO Consultores with the support of the Charles-Léopold Mayer Fondation during the regional meeting organised by the World Mountain People Association - APMM.
Interview to Nelson MUDZINGWA, Coordinator of the agricultural programmes of the Association of Zimbabwe Traditional Environmental Conservationists (AZTREC), 39 Connemara Road, Clipsham Park, Masvingo, ZIMBABWE - Phone: (+263) 23 25 70 79/39 25 26 97 - aztrec [at] yahoo.com
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