“To plant trees then, is to restore the homes of the ancestors. To plant trees is to make vibrant again the available connectivity of the people and their belief system. It is reforestation, and it is ecological restoration, but it is also cultural restoration.”
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Sunrise in Uganda
We awoke to the sun rising, and the crisp air that accompanies it, at an idyllic homestead some few miles from the Ugandan-South Sudanese border, outside the northernmost town of Uganda, Kitgum. The mountains stood in stark contrast to the flat land surrounding them, and invoked awe in all of us: becoming clear why, for so long, the Acholi have revered these mountains as sacred and imbued them with a certain animated power.
We were at Nelson’s home, with his two wives and many children. With us were Michael and Lincoln, both Kitgum-born and raised, recent graduates of Forestry Management and our new tree nursery interns in partnership with the Ugandan organization, the Mvule Trust. There was Juliet, too: head traditional healer of the women’s cooperative, Wise Women Uganda (Mon Ma Ryek), our main partner on the ground.
What does an intact forest look like in Northern Uganda?
We were here to ask questions, and get a glimpse into the answer: What does an intact forest look like in northern Uganda? With so much of the forest having been cleared in recent years, this question has often seemed elusive. More tangibly, we were here on our first seed collecting mission to populate our two native tree species nurseries, which will have the capacity to produce 300,000 seedlings for reforestation each year. Many of the native tree species we aim to restore have not been directly hand-planted by local communities -they have been accustomed to these trees naturally occurring in their environment and the idea of planting them was one that had simply never occurred to them as an option. The rapid loss of forest cover, matched by the lack of propagation of these plants, has made seeds themselves hard to come by. The only way to acquire them is to find a tree still intact for harvesting.
Still early, I join the women in the kitchen hut to prepare fried goat liver for breakfast, a dish commonly and traditionally offered to guests as a gesture of hospitality. Robin and Julian, with Nelson, Michael and Lincoln, sit outside on a reed mat discussing the nearby forest and the plan for the day. By 8am, bellies full of hot tea and goat, we head out to the nearby forest.
But first, Juliet grabs a cheetah-print sarong out of the car and wraps it around her waist. To an outsider, this might just seem like a fashion statement. “Oh, she must like cheetah-print,” you might say. Oh, but it’s so much deeper than that.
When I saw her whip out her cheetah-print wrap, I smiled inside, knowing that something rooted, something immersed in the recondite relationship between the Acholi and their environment, was happening on this forest walk. Traditionally, healers in Acholiland have an array of items that hold power and invoke spirit in their work. Each item has a specific purpose, and these items are carefully tended to for an entire lifetime, intricately tied to the healer to which it belongs. This is still the case today, but as with all cultural acts, the symbol of the cheetah, embodied by its pelt, has also changed to fit current realities. Similar to the disappearance of the forests, cheetahs are no longer roaming the landscape en masse. Today, cheetah-print sarongs, likely produced in China, can be inoculated with just as much symbolism and power as the cheetah pelt itself.
After making her quick dress change, she skipped, wide-grinned, to catch up with us. Nelson was already naming and describing every tree in site, holding their leaves, one by one, as we listened and took notes. Before long, we were in the forest.
Collecting Seeds of Native Trees
The group collecting seeds, Juliet began rolling out her mat beneath a tree, calling out, “I think I am going to rest here for a while, you all go ahead. You’ll find me here.” Some words exchanged, the group went ahead, and I followed. Juliet began to laugh that deep-belly laugh, calling out for me to remain with her. I came to sit with her, beneath that tree, and with both a look of fierce knowingness and a lighthearted chuckle, she explained that she doesn’t need to rest. What she needs to do is to talk to the spirits here; to ask for permission to do what is is we are doing. And that, she said, is something that only women can do.
Taking off her shirt and bra, she instructed me to do the same, explaining that as women, we are more powerful, and more connected, when we are barechested. That our bodies mirror the plants and the forest as givers and nurturers of life. She began to sing as she prepared herself for the ritual to come, the details of which will forever stay beneath that tree. From there, without words, she asked the spirits of the forests and the spirits of the ancestors who live there for permission to do what we are doing, together as Wild Forests & Fauna and Wise Women Uganda. To ask for permission to collect and propagate native tree species in the name of ecological restoration. She asked for the plants whose seeds wanted to be collected for our reforestation strategy to reveal themselves to the men on their seed-collecting walk.
And she did exactly that. Silently conjuring a conversation with the forest, we sat as she transmitted our prayers. A subtle shift in the environment surrounding us was Juliet’s cue that it was time to lay and give the forest a chance to speak, to respond to her requests. Permission was given, which was further avowed by the wind tickling the new growth of the trees as the ancestors also nodded in approval.
Before we knew it, with a bag of seeds in hand, the men were approaching, returning from their walk. We got up, rolled up our reed mat, and seamlessly joined back into the group’s rhythm. We looked at each other with a simple smile, tucking our good omen into our knapsack of understanding, a gift to share with the other women when we returned to Gulu.
To you and I, this can seem exceptional, something out of a tale. But to her, and to most Acholi, it is not. It is simply the way things are. The forests speak, and they are the home to the ancestors. They are alive. It is a wisdom that, like in many other societies around the world, has not yet been lost in the sequestering search for modernity. It is ordinary magic.
Connecting Conservation, Reforestation and Native Healing
So, what does this have to do with planting trees and supporting an organization that is dedicated to protecting our world’s forests? Let’s fast forward a few days. We’re back in Gulu, having an evening work session with Juliet, mapping our conceptual framework and theory of change, sketching venn diagrams to make cohesive the multiple project components that comprise Native Seeds. Our approach is holistic, taking into account that one cannot, and should not, separate a landscape from the people that inhabit it. The mainstay of the Native Seeds Project’s is to reforest the region, mimicking the forests of the past to create forests for the future. But this goal can only be met through the weaving of a complex web of other relevant pillars. In a place like northern Uganda, where poverty rates are the highest in the country, and access to healthcare is limited at best, meeting basic needs is a very real concern for these families. Concern about the future of their forests is secondary to the constant worry of how they are going to pay their child’s school fees next term, or put food on the table that night, or scramble to procure enough cash to treat their toddlers respiratory infection that just won’t seem to go away. These everyday realities inform the question we need to be asking: how can we utilize reforestation as a platform for providing right livelihood to traditional healers and meet important basic healthcare needs to communities in northern Uganda? Ecological restoration then becomes reinforced by the project’s capacity to improve public health indicators and contribute to livelihoods that are both sustainable and sufficient.
Our venn diagram that represents our conceptual framework is made up of three spheres: Ecological, Public Health, and Livelihood. They are overlapping, and project components mingle with one another with fluidity. Take beekeeping for example: it is an economic motor and income-generating activity, but it is also ecologically sound, and the by-products of beekeeping (honey, wax, pollen) are used to solidify the value chain in creating herbal products that treat common illnesses among local communities. As we continued this mapping process, Juliet quickly jumped in, explaining that our main goal, while already complex, can’t easily be reduced to the three categories of Ecological, Public Health, and Economic Livelihood.
She saw something we couldn’t, and to her, the outcomes of this project include a component that to us may seem intangible, but that, to the Acholi, is just as critical as any of the others. Contributing to ecological restoration in a way that also addresses public health needs and economic incentives is the linchpin to our strategic thinking, yes. But let’s bring back into focus the reticent relationship between the people and their landscape. To the Acholi, a forest is not just a name that describes a bunch of trees in close proximity. They are the keepers of the medicine, they are the homes to the ancestors, they are living, breathing entities that make life possible. ‘The forests are disappearing,’ Juliet told us. ‘Which means that so too are the ancestors. Where else are they going to live? They no longer have their homes they’ve always had.’ It’s one reason Acholi culture is weakening, she explained, because the connection to the ancestors has been crippled by the clearing of the forests. The ancestors are leaving because their homes on earth are disappearing.
To plant trees then, is to restore the homes of the ancestors. To plant trees is to make vibrant again the available connectivity of the people and their belief system. It is reforestation, and it is ecological restoration, but it is also cultural restoration.
To sustainably harvest these trees for their medicinal value, providing affordable and local alternatives to pharmaceuticals in a systematic way is to provide an avenue to validate a long-standing relationship between people and plants in a way that harmonizes with current realities. It is to make viable a tradition and a knowledge-system that is at risk of being lost in the face of attempts at rapid modernization.
WildFF’s Native Seeds Project
This is what separates the Native Seeds Project from many others. Life is messy. We all know this: aspects of our own daily lives are impossible to compartmentalize, so why would we think that conservation-based development projects could be any different? Working with a community to reforest their landscape can’t be separated from the cultural perspectives that define what a forest is, and ultimately, how communities interact with and relate to that forest. The trees do not, and should not, exist in a vacuum. And neither can their reforestation strategy.
Wild Forests and Fauna strongly advocates the multiplicity of project outcomes, and the harmony of the conceptual frameworks that drive projects and the activities with close cultural understandings. To me, that is what holistic and endogenous development is all about. That is what letting communities develop and direct their own development processes looks like. That is creating true change in our world.