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The sacredness of water as I have been learning from the Bagungu  indigenous communities of Bullisa, Uganda.


By Tabaro Dennis of African Institute for Culture and Ecology (AFRICE); Earth Jurisprudence Graduate from Gaia Foundation training for EJ Practitioners. 

24th September 2019


Our changing climate and global population (which is growing by approximately 85 million people a year) are often cited as the main causes of today’s global water crisis. 

But neither climate change nor population growth alone can account for reality that one third of the planet’s 37 major aquifers are being sucked dry, and many of the world’s major rivers no longer reach the sea.  A major culprit is the (often silent) the problem of the industrial growth economy, especially mining – from open pit mining, to underground mining, and the drilling and fracking to extract minerals and metals.

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What I want to share with you today is my experience working with and learning from indigenous communities around Lake Albert in Uganda, who are resisting the threat of oil mining and are reviving their traditional practices and governance systems, which revere and protect water sources and the ecosystems which they nourish.

Uganda is a country that is very well endowed with water systems. On the western side of the country is the Albertine Graben, a huge Valley rift that is home to some of the most important waterscapes on the planet. And yet, 23 million people in Uganda still do not have clean water, and the country is likely to suffer from water scarcity by 2025.

The lakes, rivers and wetlands in Western Uganda include two of Africa’s Great Lakes, Edward and Albert, and a section of the Nile River system. Lake Albert, is the 27th largest lake on this planet, and is strategically important for Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan – not to mention its role in climate control and the global water cycle. 

The Ugandan government has licensed oil blocks in Lake Albert and oil extraction has been put firmly at the heart of the country’s national development agenda.  If large-scale oil production becomes a reality across the Albertine Graben, more and more communities, and the ecosystems that sustain them, will be deprived of life-giving fresh water.

But what of the rights of water – the rights of the lake and rivers? What of the rights of the custodians to fullfill their role as guardians of their ancestral territory?

Already, in the last 30 years over 11 rivers, their tributaries and three swamps that flow into Lake Albert, have dried up completely.

Aside from their role in providing life sustaining water, these rivers and swamps harbour many sacred natural sites, which are magnetic  Earth centre points that are also traditional spiritually potent places . 

My work is with the traditional custodians of these sacred natural sites, whose role is to guide communities to abide by the laws of  Nature. These are the protectors of the inherent rights of the rivers and swamps and the living communities which they sustain to continue to exist, not to be tampered with. For example,  it is forbidden to fish at certain times in the life cycle of the fish; permission is required when people go fishing; and it is forbidden to plant crops near the river bank. These indigenous communities know that water is sacred because of its spiritual values in relation to their culture, to their livelihoods and to life itself and they understand the laws – even if they do not use the language of ‘rights’ – they effectively embody respect for other’s rights in their practice.

One custodian, Mzee Wendi Kazimula, explains their work like this, he says:

“One of the major tasks of a custodian is to visit the shrine embedded within that sacred natural site and ask the Earth to forgive her people. We go and hold a traditional prayer near the lake so rain comes and rivers remain alive.” (Mzee Wendi Kazimula, a custodian at Lake Albert.) 

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So, the Bagungu are the indigenous people living in the Bugungu region along Lake Albert, known traditionally as Mwitanzige, in the present Buliisa District, Western Uganda. 

The Bagungu have 59 clans and 21 sub-clans, living in different districts under one traditional kingdom, Bunyoro Kitara. They havea strong traditional culture which includes their spirituality, food, language and relationship with their sacred natural sites and ancestral territory.

In fact, the Bagungu lived in harmony with Nature, with their territory for generations,  like other indigenous peoples of the world. For them their lives were inseparable from Nature, and Nature is inseparable from their spirituality. What is called ecology, biodiversity and food is seen as part of a wider community of life who live together, participating in maintaining life in that territory. (lovely dennis, poetic!)

The strong attachment of the Bagungu people to their culture was one of the reasons the ancient Bunyoro Kingdom resisted colonial powers that were enforcing Western religion and education. But while the Bagungu spirituality is still present, it became hidden because it has been strongly demonized and despised by foreign religious beliefs and education. I have worked with them over the years to build back their confidence to play their role as custodians of their ancestral lands. 

Among the elders of the Bagungu there are spiritual leaders, known as Balamansi (Custodians of Sacred Natural Sites). Balamansi literary means “people who pray for the Earth who have natural powers to interpret message from the ancestors and Nature”.

The Balamansi conduct prayers on behalf of the community to maintain a healthy life, stability in homes and the community, good harvests, rain and vitality in the land and the lake for all species. Most of the prayers are done in the Sacred Natural Sites where sacrifices or offerings are made in form of chickens, seeds, and certain animals. All offerings end up in Mwitanzige (or Lake Albert), the sacred lake. Mwitanzige is the major sacred natural site in the landscape. The Bagungu knew that when the lake was not paid homage, then calamities would happen in the community, households or in the land because there was an imbalance. Calamities happen to those households who violate the customary laws which maintain the order or health of the lake, such as fishing

regulations, which guide people on what to do and not to do while near or in the lake or when to fish, or abstain.

The Bagungu know that their source of law is Mother Earth, the Universe– (all of Creation which is not human made) which is read from Bugungu, the territory which gave birth to them. The customary laws come from the Bugungu Indigenous Laws of Origin, from their ancestors and from their detailed observation and relationship with their land over generations. They understand how the patterns and cycles of life are part of a complex system which includes the solar, lunar and celestial cycles. 

The indigenous governance system of Bagungu is rooted in what they now call Biragiro byensi( laws of Nature )– recognising that the Earth shows them her laws and how they are born into an ordered Universe. This is why they recognise the Rights of Nature to have ‘places where the Earth rests’ including Mpuluma (sacred Natural sites) and other areas too.

The elder of the custodians, who has been my great teacher and guides the other custodians, at 85 years says:

Nyamuhanga (Creator)created everyone, not just humans – so all Creation has inherent, equal rights to exist. Our indigenous laws recognise the Rights of Nature such as the rights of rivers, mountains, lakes and swamps to exist, and the rights of all species to habitat, and to participate in evolution. Recognising these rights is for us a natural way to show respect for all of life.  When these deep values of life are broken it is our responsibility to insist that the rights of Nature are recognised, for the viability of our Earth Community. When we say the violation of a river is hurtful to us, it is because we are born of our Butaka (Land) and feel the rights of every element of Mother Earth, the Universe – (all of Creation which is not human made) to exist, have its territory, and participate in evolution  – not for our human satisfaction or understanding but because all of life has an inherent right to live. “Kiiza Aaron, the 85-year-old Chief Custodian.

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The Bagungu people, along Lake Albert, are very attuned with water in all its forms.

  • The Bagungu know very well the different winds that blow across the land. They know which wind carries rain, and they know that a specific time in the year a certain wind from which direction of the Lake will bring rain. 
  • The Murchison falls – a big waterfall on the River Nile, at the top end of Lake Albert, also communicates to the local communities. The falls make different sounds which signify different things – the coming of rain, the beginning of drought, or disastrous winds sent by the ancestors because of wrong doings by the community. 
  • The Bagungu take indigenous seed to the lake for sacrifice, to appease their ancestors believed to be in this Lake for good harvests, good health and wellbeing.
  • The rivers that end up in the Lake cleanse the land and the entire community by washing away whatever is believed by the community as unholy. 
  • The Bagungu use pure water for splashing on people’s head or whole body to bring good luck.
  • Animals living in water and any other aquatic or marine creature are respected as sacred creatures. They are believed to represent the ancestors for different clans; a reason why most of the Bagungu clans’ totems are aquatic creatures.

* * * *

As part of their journey to revive their cultural identity and restore their territory, custodians of the sacred natural sites have been mapping their ancestral lands along the shores of Mwitanzige (Lake Albert). Their maps show the sacred sites along the lake and those in the Murchison National Park. The map also shows the sacred sites where the oil industry has plans to extract or build roads and pipelines; and it shows where the rivers and wetlands used to be when the land was healthy and intact, before the breakdown. 

This process of mapping (what we call eco-cultural mapping) makes it clear where the restoration has to take place, where areas have dried or been destroyed and need to be regenerated. The clans  developed their future maps and plans for how they wish to see their territory restored to its former vitality. They have gone further to document their ancestral customary laws which were presented to the speaker of the Buliisa District Local Government Council just last week on 20th September, 2019. The Custodian clans have also registered an Association of Custodians as a legal platform to assert the need for recognition of their customary governance system to protect the lake and its ecosystem.

In relation to these efforts, the civil society groups worked together, supported by the Gaia Foundation, AFRICE and Nape   and led by Advocates for Natural Resource and Development (ANARDE) who engaged the government of Uganda to adopt a Rights of Nature clause in the Environmental Law (Act 4 of the National Environmental Law).

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In Conclusion:

Across Africa, traditional communities have conserved water sources which include rivers, springs and lakes as part of natural systems that form part of their lives. Water sources have not only been conserved but respected as sacred natural places where their spiritual powers emanate. They are the dwelling places for their ancestral spirits without which the connection between the present, past and future generation would not be complete.

The strong movement by the Bagungu to document their customary laws on water, forests, rivers and especially L.Mwitanzige, is a clear manifestation of how they respect the rights of water and its community of life, and the vital role that water plays in sustaining life.

The great concern that the Lake is desecrated shows how deeply they are disturbed by disrespect displayed by other people and fellow Bagungu who have neglected the ancestral laws.  

I have three Message to the viewers and listeners

  1. We need to support the revival of indigenous cultures where water is respected and revered as life support for ecosystems; and for those who are distant from their indigenous roots, there needs to be a ‘new water ethic,’ to rediscover our sense of water’s own laws and cycles, and rights and our responsibilities to water systems.
  1. Water is a common source of life for all species and should never be privatised or treated as property. 

Water has a right to fall from the sky, to flow through the land and fly over it, to remain clean and to course through its cycle constantly.

  1. Even 20 years ago international reports were stating that:

“There is a strong link between indigenous peoples – their culture and language, their ecological knowledge and their traditional management systems – and the biodiversity of their marine and aquatic environments. – UNEP 1999. Now its time we take this seriously, as the young people on the streets are calling for!



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