Democracy in Africa: success stories that have defied the odds

Democracy in Africa: success stories that have defied the odds

Senegalese women cast their ballots in the presidential elections in February.
EPA-EFE/Nic Bothma

Nic Cheeseman, University of Birmingham

When I first said that I was going to write a book about the history of democracy in Africa, quite a few people responded with a joke. That will be one of the world’s shortest books, up there with the compendium of great English cooking, they would say.

But, it turned out that there was a lot to talk about: Africa’s past reveals more fragments of democracy than you would think. And, its present has a number of important things to teach the world about the conditions under which democracy can be built.

The poor quality of elections in many sub-Saharan African countries, combined with a tendency for the media to focus on controversy, means that Africa is often depicted as a bastion of authoritarianism. But, it actually has some of the most remarkable and important stories of democratic struggle.

Countries such as Benin, Botswana, Ghana, Namibia, Mauritius, Senegal, and South Africa have not only become beacons of political rights and civil liberties, they have done so against the greatest of obstacles. These experiences teach us important lessons about where democracy can work, and why.

Pre-conditions for a strong democracy

Political scientists like to talk about the conditions necessary for countries to build a strong and stable democracy. These lists are fiercely fought over, but there are a number of factors that most researchers would agree are probably important.

A cohesive national identity is likely to make it easier to maintain national unity, while wealth and economic success have been found to promote political stability. A strong national infrastructure, underpinned by respect for the rule of law, means that the government is likely to be effective without being abusive. And, a vibrant middle class and powerful civil society are usually seen as important to promote accountability and responsive government.

What is remarkable about the democratization of African states is that most did not enjoy a single one of these “pre-conditions”.

With the exception of South Africa, all of Africa’s democracies entered multiparty politics with low GDP per capita and high levels of unemployment. This was compounded by weak and underdeveloped states that had been designed – both in the colonial era and during the authoritarian rule of the 1980s – to exploit resources rather than empower citizens. In states like Ghana, this was compounded by a history of military rule, which heightened the risk of further coups.

Almost all of these states also featured civil societies that were fragile and fragmented, despite the strength of religious organizations. At the same time, in the early 1990s, the middle class was small. More often than not, it was also economically dependent on the government. It was thus poorly placed to fight against corruption or democratic backsliding.


These were not the only challenges that African states faced. With the exception of Botswana, they are all diverse multi-ethnic societies in which the question of national identity has been problematic. In Ghana and Mauritius for instance, ethnic identities have historically played a role in structuring political networks. This increased the tension around elections.

Worse still, under colonial rule and during apartheid, white regimes sought to entrench racial divisions and hostilities in Namibia and South Africa, creating a particularly difficult environment.

Against this backdrop, all of these states might have been expected to collapse into some form of authoritarian regime by now. Given this context, their success should be celebrated and studied for what it tells us about how democracy can be built even in the most challenging of contexts.

Bucking the trend

It is striking that, with the exception of Benin and possibly Senegal, these democracies have grown stronger during a period in which the world is supposed to be backsliding on democracy.

While Europe is convulsed by Brexit and the rise of right-wing populists, and Donald Trump is doing his best to undermine America’s reputation for political checks and balances, Africa’s most democratic states have proved to be remarkably resilient.

Ghana has experienced numerous transfers of power and, in 2016, the first ever defeat of a sitting president. Namibia has consolidated its position as a “free” political system with robust respect for civil liberties, according to Freedom House.

South Africa suffered politically and economically during the presidency of Jacob Zuma, but now has the chance to bounce back after the governing African National Congress (ANC) voted to pursue reform under President Cyril Ramaphosa.

For their part, Botswana and Mauritius – the continent’s oldest democracies – continue to combine respect for political rights with prudent economic policies.

Praising Africa’s democratic success stories do not, of course, mean that we should overlook its failures. A number of countries have taken steps backward in recent years, including Tanzania and Uganda. Authoritarian leaders also remain entrenched in Cameroon, Chad, Eritrea, and many more. But it is important to recognize that there is much more to Africa than authoritarianism.

Explaining success

In the absence of the conventional building blocks of democracy, we need to look elsewhere to explain these success stories. Some might be tempted to think that the role of the global community has been critical in keeping governments on the straight and narrow. But in reality, democracy is built from within, as the fact that aid-dependent countries such as Uganda and Rwanda have remained firmly authoritarian shows only too well.

We should, therefore, give greater credit to the politicians and people of Africa’s democratic states. African presidents are often lambasted for being corrupt and self-serving. But, in a number of countries, they have shown considerable restraint, establishing institutions capable of checking their power.

In Ghana, cohesive relationships among the political elite have underpinned a growing consensus on the value of democracy. In South Africa, inclusive leadership played a critical role in overcoming racial divisions and building trust in the new post-apartheid political system since 1994. In Namibia, successive presidents have refused to use the electoral dominance of the governing party to remove the opposition.

The role played by African citizens also deserves greater recognition. It was their willingness to take to the streets that forced democratic openings in the late 1980s. The same has been true in recent years, with mass action challenging authoritarian regimes in Burkina Faso and Sudan.

Despite economic challenges and democratic difficulties, high levels of public support for democracy in Africa mean that leaders understand the costs of backsliding.

At a time when people are questioning the value of democracy in many Western states, many African populations who have lived under one-party, one-man, or military rule are prepared to fight to prevent their return. This should serve both as an important lesson and a source of inspiration.The Conversation

Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy, University of Birmingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Hope springs from need: In Africa, wisdom from a street vendor

Hope springs from need: In Africa, wisdom from a street vendor

Street cobbler. Sam ‘Dele-Ogunti Documentary Photographer. Lagos, Nigeria., CC BY

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced in June 2019 that her country would shift its focus from traditional metrics of national development like GDP to a well-being budget that prioritizes the happiness of citizens over capitalist gain. Although this sort of state-driven pursuit of happiness might appear to be a novel idea, it actually began in the 1970s, with Bhutan’s King Wangchuck proclaiming that “gross national happiness is more important than gross domestic product.”

Humans seem to have always maintained an intense relationship to happiness. Research is converging on the key ingredients to a happy life, and they do not include increased consumption and more money. Other research indicates that we shouldn’t over-focus on happiness, as that can be counter-productive. Yet the more we seek happiness, the more it can elude us. No sooner have we found it than we begin to sense its fragility and certain end.

Measuring happiness

Since 2012 and the creation of the World Happiness Report, happiness has had a measurement, with Northern and Western Europe, as well as North America, and other democratic and wealthy countries regularly taking the top positions. This has left many of us scratching our heads. Does that mean that people in other regions such as Africa are necessarily depressed, sad or angry?

Chigozie Obioma, a Nigerian writer and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska, asked himself this very question. Obioma’s work explores the negotiation between tradition and modernity and the impact on happiness. In his 2019 novel An Orchestra of Minorities the hero of the novel, Nonso, is a poor, uneducated chicken farmer who stops Ndali, a well-educated young woman, from hurling herself from a bridge. The narrator of the story is Nonso’s chi, the equivalent of a “guardian spirit” that inhabits the human in traditional Igbo cosmology. Nonso’s journey from poverty and ignorance to striving for an education and recognition do not, as it turns out, bring more happiness to his life. Could ignorance really mean bliss?

Chigozie Obioma. Grasset

Having recently listened to a radio interview with Obioma, we were intrigued by his idea that happiness is “noisy and communal” in poorer regions of the world like Africa, whereas despair in wealthier countries like the United States is “silent and alone”. WHO research demonstrating lower suicide rates in Africa compared to Europe seems to back him up. We recently had a conversation with him to explore these questions.

How we face adversity

Obioma tells us that he has increasingly pondered hope and happiness while observing how people in the United States face adversity. Having counselled several depressed students and colleagues, and observing that each semester at least one student commits suicide, he wonders what sets us apart in our ability to maintain hope. The death of one of his students particularly shocked him:

“You know, this girl who killed herself had a job, was on a scholarship, had a car, she can take her passport from the US and go anywhere, anytime… she is in the richest country in the world.”

He suspects that the hopelessness comes from focusing on “external miseries”. So Obioma decided to investigate by going back to his native country to interview everyday people about hope, happiness, and thoughts of death. Once there, Obioma found the paradoxical coexistence of hope and deprivation.

He relates his exchanges with a particular street market vendor selling books (we’ll call him Chiso) in Lagos. Chiso is a father of two and his wife found herself unexpectedly pregnant with their third child and therefore unable to work. Obioma estimates the value of Chiso’s entire stock of books at around 200 dollars and his monthly salary around 80 dollars – at best. Yet despite being what Obioma refers to as the “wretched of the earth”, Chiso strongly believes that:

“tomorrow will be better… he believes that someday a miracle will turn his life around. It is an abstract idea; I mean, he has reasons to be sad too, right? He is unhappy with his situation. But he is deeply hopeful and can separate the difficulty of the now from the hope of tomorrow”.

Hope against hope

Obioma roamed Nigeria speaking with everyday people like Chiso on questions of hope and happiness, asking them “Have you ever considered suicide?” to which he received dozens of resounding “No!” responses. Many African countries like Nigeria are rife with grinding poverty, needless mortality, and high rates of violence. Yet for Obioma, hope is not about remaining complacent in in the face of great social ills. His is simply a story about radical hope and its implications for happiness in situations of far-reaching hopelessness.

Why then does Chiso continue to hope against all odds? Obioma notes that among the Igbo of south-eastern Nigeria, there is a belief in radical individuality tied again to the concept of the chi. It translates as “I have divinity in me; therefore, I am very important, and in some ways the centre of the world”. By extension, the Igbo believe that “if I strive, I can achieve this”. The fact that similar people have tried similar things and failed does not dampen this radical individuality.

Up to now, the Igbo individuality sounds a lot to us like the Protestant insistence on transformative individualism and direct access to the divine. Indeed, like much of southern Nigeria, the Igbo are now predominantly Christian. How does this affect how they see themselves? Whether Christian (in the south) or Muslim (in the north), Nigerians are highly religious. The kind of Nigerian Christianity that Chiso practices is a syncretic cocktail of European missionary-spread Christianity and traditional beliefs. In this way, Christianity does not negate the Igbo “divine individual” but seems rather to reinforce it, enabling people to harness a “all-powerful force to engineer the desired destiny”, says Obioma.

Hopeful on the streets of Lagos: tomorrow’s promise captured on a billboard.Courtesy Chigozie Obioma

Understanding the human experience

In the early 2000s, one of us carried out ethnographic research on West African traditions and aesthetics in Werewere Liking’s pan-African arts cooperative in Côte d’Ivoire. Liking’s Aesthetics of Necessity elaborate on how practical creativity is sparked in highly constrained, resource-strapped environments. For Liking, necessity is what spurs the self into creative action, and for Obioma, it’s what prevents a focus on ‘external miseries’ so prevalent among those living with plenty.

Like Obioma, we are struck by the tension between African “poor yet hopeful” and Western “wealthy yet depressed”. The Western philosophical tradition has always been concerned with the contradictions between wealth and happiness. Aristotle addressed this in his Eudemian Ethics, extolling the importance of “human flourishing”, or eudaimonia. In his Nicomachean Ethics, he establishes the negative relationship between the pursuit of wealth and flourishing, reminding us that the “life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking… ” The relevance of Aristotle’s vision holds well today if we consider the negative impact of modern environments in places where wealth abounds. Wealth and modernity do correlate negatively with flourishing: just consider economist Richard Easterlin’s 1974 formulation of the Easterlin paradox: life satisfaction increases with GDP in poor countries, but grows flat in richer countries. In other words, the richer we are, the less we can buy our way into happiness.

Dried fish seller. Sam ‘Dele-Ogunti Documentary Photographer. Lagos, Nigeria

Perhaps this may explain the contemporary renaissance of human flourishing as a discipline. Today we have Happiness Studies, subjective well-being studies, the World Wellbeing Project, and research by the Happiness Institute. The more wealth and technology we have, the more digital platforms we seem to be creating to better enhance and understand the human experience. The more we log on, however, the less happy we are. A variety of studies, some quite recent, suggest that social media usage has an adverse effect on happiness.

So the examples abound – we are in a new age of inquiry into human happiness, particularly abetted by technology, which also brings into focus global inequalities. Yet the fundamental question about whether life is worth living requires a more direct answer. Hope says yes, life is worth living because the best is yet to come. Striving through adversity means hustling on into the future. Some people, it seems, did not need to spend the past two millennia to figure that out. Just ask Chiso.The Conversation

Michelle Mielly, Associate Professor in People, Organizations, Society, Grenoble École de Management (GEM) and Prince C. Oguguo, Doctoral Researcher, Strategy, Collective Action & Technology, Grenoble École de Management (GEM)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

First ladies in Africa: a close look at how three have wielded influence

First ladies in Africa: a close look at how three have wielded influence

Former First Lady Grace Mugabe representing Zimbabwe at an Organization of African First Ladies Against HIV and AIDS summitEPA/Khaled Elfiqi

The role played by the wives of heads of state in Africa has been largely ignored. In a bid to contribute to this under-researched area we analyzed the political role, influence, and activities of First Ladies in a number of countries on the continent.

We put together the African First Ladies Database to analyze the functions, roles, strategies, and agency of some of Africa’s most influential First Ladies. Our focus was mostly on southern Africa. But our research also covered East and Central Africa. We included first ladies in our database based on their proximity to the executive and other decision-makers.

Three emerged as particularly influential. These were Janet Museveni, wife of Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni; Grace Mugabe, the wife of Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe; and Denise Nkurunziza, wife of Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza. All have been politically ambitious and actively supported their husbands’ rule.

Our paper addressed their political agendas, roles, influence, and accountability. We found that they were influential political actors who were active domestically, regionally and internationally. This enabled them to influence relationships and to extract political support, as well as financial gain through tenders and government funding.

Our findings raise questions about the accountability of first ladies and the transparency of their public duties and private interests. But Africa’s first ladies aren’t on their own. Similar accusations have been made against others elsewhere. For example, during the presidential tenure of her husband, Hillary Clinton was often described as interfering with White House politics and Capitol Hill decisions. Similar accusations were made against, among others, Imelda Marcos of The Philippines.

First Ladies as political activists

We found that the first ladies acted as power brokers and members of an inner circle. They actively mobilized support for their spouses. They used strategies such as their personal narratives, their country’s liberation history, religion and culture. They supported their husbands’ campaigns and downplayed, denied or simply remained silent on the failures of their husbands’ governments.

Grace Mugabe: Her political career spanned a mere three years (2014-2017) when she was elected as the President of the ZANU-PF Women’s League. This role meant that she automatically became a member of the party’s Politburo. She was successful in gaining support for her husband’s tenure as well as her own political ambitions from religious leaders, youth and the Women’s League, traditional leaders, and minority apostolic churches.

She made some noteworthy claims of support for her husband. For example, she publicly stated that even if he were to be incapacitated, Zimbabweans would vote for him because he was God-ordained.

Besides addressing religious rallies, she used nationwide “Meet the People” tours to brand herself and the President.

Grace Mugabe often welcomed and hosted foreign Heads of State and Government at her Harare home, and at State House. Her close proximity to the President gave her access to influential political networks that she exploited to buy properties and run businesses.

Denise Nkurunziza: She led the Burundi ruling party’s Women’s League (the Abakenyererarugamba). Like other African First Ladies, she used religion to endorse and support her husband’s rule. She is also an ordained Reverend.

Christians are a significant audience for the Nkurunzizas. They often hold prayer groups and wash the feet of members of the congregation. In 2017, the ruling party promoted President Pierre Nkurunziza as the “Supreme Everlasting Guide” (“Visionary”), adding to the personality cult that had been emerging around him. In 2018, Pierre Nkurunziza established Thursdays as a national Burundian Day of Prayer devoted to Christ and to fasting with prayers “without exception” for the ruling party.

Another key constituency for Denise Nkurunziza was influential women who held senior positions across the political and military spectrum.

The office of the First Lady was also used to bolster diplomatic relations between Burundi and the international community.

Janet Museveni: She was appointed as Minister of State for Karamoja by her husband in 2009. The Karamojong saw the move as a sign of the President’s affection for them.

She also served as a member of Parliament representing Ruhaama County in Ntungamo District between 2006 and 2016 and is currently the minister for education

Beyond her career in politics, she is revered by some as the “Mother of the Nation” thanks to her social outreach on maternal health.

In 2014, the Global Decency Index (GDI), invented by Decent Africa, an African fashion brand, announced that she was “the most decent African First Lady”.

Her pious, nurturing image contributes to her husband’s credibility locally and internationally.

Like her counterparts in Zimbabwe and Burundi, Janet Museveni believes that Museveni was ordained by God – as does he.

Patriarchy still rules

Despite their own political experience, ambitions and influence, we found that the three women we studied remained subordinate to the patriarchy in their societies. A few gender biases were evident.

One was in expectations of the role of the First Lady. They were expected to be spouse, mother, caregiver, and nurturer of the sick, young and elderly. Another was that the Offices of the First Lady were fully directed from within the President’s office. This meant that the flow of information about them was skewed to project as ideal woman, trophies and a trailblazer for issues stereotyped and associated with women.

In addition, none of the constitutions of the countries we examined referred to the position.

This, in our view, reflects an impression that the role isn’t important – because it is, by and large, held by women. It also undermines democratic accountability.

We believe there should be constitutional clarity and accountability – which would herald accountability – on the formal role, powers, and functions of First Ladies.

Arina Muresan was a co-author of this piece. She is a member of our team.The Conversation

Jo-Ansie van Wyk, Professor in International Politics, University of South Africa and Chidochashe Nyere, Lecturer, University of Pretoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

For Kenya’s Yiaku, medicinal herbs are their forest’s blessing and curse

For Kenya’s Yiaku, medicinal herbs are their forest’s blessing and curse

Naisimari Lentula, a Yiaku herbalist, with a community forest scout outside her house. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.Naisimari Lentula, a Yiaku herbalist, with a community forest scout outside her house. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.

  • The Yiaku, hunter-gatherers turned herders who live deep inside Mukogodo Forest in central Kenya, have relied on herbal remedies for ages, with knowledge passed orally from one generation to the next.
  • However, high demand for the herbs from neighboring communities is exposing the forest to new threats — a trend mirrored across the country.
  • Recognizing that traditional knowledge is crucial to forest conservation, the government has taken steps to protect it, at least on paper. However, the Yiaku have received little support, even as their most knowledgeable elders pass on and their community becomes increasingly assimilated to their pastoral neighbors.
  • This is the third story in Mongabay’s three-part profile of the Yiaku’s management of their ancestral forest.

LAIKIPIA, Kenya — Naisimari Lentula, 80 years old, strolls carefully along a narrow footpath through the forest. Suddenly, she stops, her eyes fixed on several aromatic shrubs with bluish flowers that are tumbled over near the path. “This is the work of encroachers,” she says bitterly, then neatly sets the shrubs back to rights with the help of her walking stick.

For Lentula, inspecting the condition of the plants around her homestead is a routine she has perfected and performed every other morning for decades. “I have been using these shrubs for medication and used their fruits and tubers as food all my life,” she says.

A mother of four and grandmother of a dozen, Lentula is a Yiaku. The indigenous group lives deep inside Mukogodo Forest in central Kenya. Traditionally hunter-gatherers, the Yiaku have embraced pastoralism in recent decades. Although the Mukogodo area is well served by several government and privately owned hospitals and clinics, the Yiaku tend to frown on conventional health care, instead sticking to herbal medicines they gather from the forest. Like many elderly Yiaku, Lentula is a walking encyclopedia of traditional medicinal plants.

“You have to know the value of each and every tree here in order to survive and sustain your family’s livelihoods,” she tells Mongabay while stripping a piece of lichen-encrusted bark from a tree to administer to her sick neighbor. Her concoction includes the boiled bark of several tree species, mixed with fresh goat blood and honey — an instant cure for diarrhea, she says.

Despite her frail appearance and failing eyesight, Lentula doesn’t plan to retire from her calling as an herbalist any time soon. Nor does she take lightly intrusions that interfere with Mukogodo’s forest ecosystem. Like other Yiaku, Lentula has made it her sacred duty to monitor the 302-square-kilometer (117-square-mile) forest and ensure it remains intact.

In fact, the Yiaku are the only indigenous group to whom the Kenyan government has given full responsibility for managing its ancestral forest. They have been so successful at doing so through forest patrols, strategic placement of defensive beehives, and traditions such as the designation of sacred shrines and taboos against cutting trees, that the government plans to spread the model to other communities around the country. Medicinal plants are an important motivation for the Yiaku to conserve Mukogodo.

“We can only access medicinal plants if we protect this forest,” Lentula says.

However, high demand for the herbs, from neighboring communities, is exposing the forest to new threats. In addition to regular small-scale disturbances like the one Lentula observed, community members say outsiders in search of medicinal plants felled several cedar and olive trees in the last year. What pains Yiaku elders most is that some of these were highly treasured trees in a sacred shrine that serves as a water source for the community. They say the intrusions occur mainly during dry seasons when other communities’ habitats have been devastated by drought. The forest suffered the longest spell of intrusions in recent memory this past year.

“The encroachment by outsiders in search of herbs could put us on a collision course with the authorities and affect our livelihoods,” says Matunge Manasseh, a Yiaku elder. “We harvest these herbs with a lot of caution so as not to affect the life of a tree, but these encroachers lack the technique and know-how of which specific part of a tree has these medicinal values and instead they cut the entire tree while only the bark has medicinal value.”

Manasseh tells Mongabay that the Yiaku community has been generous with information about medicinal plants, but that in return the recipients have ended up using it to damage the forest. “We are now becoming cautious about who we share this knowledge with and for what purposes,” he says, adding that the community must focus on protecting rare tree species that are most sought after by outside herbalists.

To combat incursions from herbalists, the Yiaku have become more vigilant. They don’t allow strangers inside the forest without the elders’ consent. Early this year, the community’s forest guards arrested three intruding herbalists, turning them over to the council of elders for disciplinary action, which typically results in the imposition of curses.

It is unclear how many other arrests the guards made recently. Forest encroachment is a politically sensitive issue nationally, and especially in Laikipia county, where Mukogodo is located, and it’s common for conflicting accounts to emerge. The Yiaku forest guards claim to have arrested several individuals cutting down trees or taking medicinal plants in Mukogodo and to have handed them over to local authorities. However, the guards couldn’t say how many arrests they had made or when, and the provincial administration chief and Kenya Forest Service (KFS) conservator both denied having received the alleged culprits.

Map shows Laikipia County in Kenya, where Mukogodo Forest is located. Image courtesy of Google Maps.
Map shows Laikipia County in Kenya, where Mukogodo Forest is located. Image courtesy of Google Maps.
Map of Isiolo, Meru, and Laikipia counties in central Kenya shows Mukogodo Forest (center). Cick here to enlarge. Image by Yvonne A. de Jong and Thomas M. Butynski,
Map of Isiolo, Meru, and Laikipia counties in central Kenya shows Mukogodo Forest (center). Click here to enlarge. Image by Yvonne A. de Jong and Thomas M. Butynski,

A national problem

The Yiaku aren’t alone in facing down forest degradation for medicinal plants, and the trend has drawn the government’s attention. In Kenya, as in many African countries, the use of herbal medicine is on the rise, in part because conventional health care is unattainably expensive for many, or simply unavailable, especially in rural areas, according to a 2008 government brief. With just 15 doctors per 100,000 people, “The conventional system provides for only 30 percent of the population, implying that more than two-thirds of Kenyans depend on traditional medicine for their primary health care needs,” the brief states.

That reliance is taking a toll on the country’s forests.

“We are losing important medicinal tree species to commercial herbalists who are overharvesting trees that are premature,” says Peter Kitelo, a member of the Kenya Forest Indigenous Peoples Network, a Nairobi-based advocacy group. Kitelo says unscrupulous herbalists are exacerbating forest destruction and the loss of medicinal plant biodiversity in the Mau Forest Complex, home of the Ogiek indigenous group to which he belongs, as well as in other forests across the country.

The view is shared by conservationists, who note that rising human populations are raising the pressure on forests.

“Communities are increasingly encroaching on forests due to climate change and to expand their agricultural land, thus putting pressure on forests and medicinal plants,” says Joseph Mungai, a technical consultant with USAID who is advising the Kenyan government on forest conservation and climate change resilience.

By the same token, because traditional medicinal knowledge among the Yiaku and other indigenous peoples plays a vital role in their conservation of forests, researchers are concerned about the rate at which this knowledge is being lost. Over the past century the Yiaku have adopted the culture and language of their pastoral Maasai neighbors, and most of their old people have died without passing their immense wealth of traditional knowledge on to the next generation. Currently there only two remaining elders who can fluently speak the Yiaku language.

Yiaku elders Moses Litiku (left) and Naisimari Lentula (right) walk in Mukogodo Forest. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.
Yiaku elders Moses Litiku (left) and Naisimari Lentula (right) walk in Mukogodo Forest. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.

Edmund Barrow, an independent community conservation and governance consultant based in Nairobi, says the traditional knowledge of indigenous communities is crucial to sustainable land and natural resource management. Indigenous people know more plant species and their medicinal properties than most researchers do, he says, adding that this knowledge should be incorporated into forest policy, both to safeguard it and help conserve the forest.

He also says it should be added to school curricula to keep it alive. “We need to bridge this gap in order to ensure the knowledge doesn’t die with the elders,” he says.

“Traditional knowledge about biodiversity is inadequately protected” and used, says Barrow. “We have very good laws [and policies] on paper but implementing them remains a challenge.”

Since 2009 Kenya has enacted progressive laws and taken other steps to protect and conserve indigenous and local communities’ intellectual property rights over their traditional knowledge, skills and practices, including traditional medicines. However, implementing them has remained a pipe dream, despite the formation of institutions dedicated to the effort.

For instance, in 2009 the Kenya Industrial Property Institute (KIPI), the government agency in charge of patents and trademarks, introduced the Traditional Knowledge and Genetic Resources Unit. One of the unit’s main initiatives was to establish a comprehensive national database of traditional knowledge, in partnership with various Kenyan research institutions, according to Stanley Atsali, a patent examiner with the KIPI.

But nearly a decade later, nothing has been done. This despite the country’s adoption, in 2016, of the Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Cultural Expression Act, which specifically mandated the establishment of the database and gave the national government powers to consult with county governments to make it happen.

“We are yet to kick off the process,” Atsali tells Mongabay. “We are working with county governments and research institutions to fast-track this process.”

None of the high-level initiatives have trickled down to the Yiaku. They say they have yet to receive any support from either the national or county governments in documenting and protecting their traditional knowledge, despite the government’s acknowledgement that it has been so critical to conserving Mukogodo Forest.

Article Courtesy of Mongabay.  Shadrack Kavilu is a freelance environmental journalist based in Nairobi. He has published in local and international media outlets, including the Mail and Guardian and Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

A view of Mukogodo Forest, a 302-square-kilometer (117-square-mile) tract of largely intact dry forest that is home to 45 mammal species, including threatened elephants, buffaloes and leopards, as well as around 200 bird and 100 butterfly species. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.
A view of Mukogodo Forest, a 302-square-kilometer (117-square-mile) tract of largely intact dry forest that is home to 45 mammal species, including threatened elephants, buffaloes and leopards, as well as around 200 bird and 100 butterfly species. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.
For Africa’s people, culture and heritage are a form of liberation

For Africa’s people, culture and heritage are a form of liberation

Malagasy people take part in famadihana, the ritual of the dead, to honor their ancestors. Tee La Rosa/Flickr

Today, much effort is made to retell the stories of political activists who advanced the liberation of South Africa from apartheid. The heroic actions of Steve Biko, Chris Hani, Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, as well as lesser-known activists like Dulcie September, are being excavated. They’re presented in memoirs, recovered sites, and memorabilia.

The thinking is that the journeys, actions and philosophies of these activists are the nation’s “liberation” heritage. But the reality is that the country’s “liberation” heritage goes much further back, and far deeper. For centuries, ordinary South Africans have used culture to liberate themselves from the yoke of oppression.

In this, they echo Africans the world over who have employed language, belief, ritual, clothes, hairstyles, stories and food to resist and transform colonizers’ religions and cultural practices. From Candomble and Capoeira in Brazil to Santeria in Cuba, from blues and jazz music among African-Americans in the southern states of the US, to the dub culture of black British Jamaicans in the United Kingdom, Africans have steadfastly responded to oppression through culture.

In the African diaspora of the southwest Indian Ocean, islanders have relied on culture in times of slavery and colonization. The Malagasy still practice rituals that revive belief, emphasize self-knowing and obtain the ancestors’ blessings. Through famadihana, the ritual of the dead, the Malagasy honor their ancestors.

Mauritians also commune with their ancestors. Every January 2, Mauritians of African descent visit the graves of their loved ones. There they place cigarettes, alcohol, food, and special gifts; things that their loved ones would have enjoyed. The ancestors are regularly spoken about and unusual events are discussed as potential intervention on the part of the dead.

Evidence of culture as liberation can also be seen today in the revival of indigenous dress and hair styling. These communicate alternative worldviews and challenge dominant style and beauty norms, globalizing the rich material and symbolic culture of Africans.

South Africans are no different. They also use ritual and other cultural practices to respond to and challenge oppression. This is revealed in a recent survey by graduate students from Nelson Mandela University in the Eastern Cape province. It reveals the liberating potential of intangible cultural heritage.

The case of South Africa

In South Africa, inhabitants developed beliefs and practices that breached already porous “racial” boundaries. The apartheid state could not manage such practices. It was impossible to police millions of people into cultural submission. No amount of ideological work and violence could achieve that feat.

For example, some Christian churches advanced apartheid ideology but could not stop people from venerating their ancestors or blending indigenous and colonial belief systems.

Ironically and despite the social fragmentation caused by apartheid, a rich cultural heritage flourished in South Africa. The reason? Apartheid’s ideologues depended on the preservation of culture, believing it to be necessary for achieving segregated development.

In a public lecture, the South African storyteller, playwright, director and author, Gcina Mhlophe said that heritage is key to South Africans’ dignity, identity, and sanity. She added that through songs loosely described as “spirit callers”, Xhosa and Zulu people can connect to an ancestral world that lies beyond their present, often difficult reality.

Burning imphepho, a herb which the Nguni people use as a ritual incense with the purpose of invoking the ancestors, some South Africans are able to connect with the world of the dead.

Today, imphepho still provides many with a means to escape the realities of life after apartheid, as it spiritually transports believers to a world beyond the present reality. The smoke from the herb facilitates communion for believers with spirit beings in the ancestral realm.

In some groups, grandparents are equally important to the liberation process. Their stories and ancient ritual practices activate memory, evoke symbolism and impart wisdom. Their sharp admonishments also liberate through humor. For instance and as Mhlophe tells, grandparents are known to have scolded by saying, “you can never earn a cow by sleeping” (meaning that one cannot achieve greatness by being lazy) or, “you are a like a buck in an endless forest” (referring to someone who is shiftless and indecisive).

Cultural riches

Understanding, valuing and embracing these parts of South Africa’s cultural heritage is crucial. The richness of those cultures and their persistence to this day, compels a rethinking of the idea of liberation heritage.

The cultural evidence shows that, for centuries, Africans and South Africans have been liberating themselves through their heritage of music, song, dance, poetry and language. Instead of promoting a narrow conception of freedom, those in power should use this knowledge to diversify perceptions of liberation in the country.The Conversation

Rosabelle Boswell, Professor of Anthropology and Executive Dean of Arts, Nelson Mandela University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.