This is the story of our world:
For the first time ever, more than half of all people live in cities. Cities are simply something that didn’t exist for most of the human era – indeed, what we now mean by city has scarcely existed for a hundred years.
For the first time ever, most humans live within a landscape that was constructed almost entirely by and for humans. And cities are on the rise.
As just one example from around the world out of hundreds we could choose: Kampala, Uganda went from being a set of densely gardened and forested hills to what we now recognize unmistakably as a city – in the span of a mere four generations. The transformation has been total. Teeming slums and manicured golf courses have erased the memory of the intensive indigenous agroforestry systems and towering African mahoganies that shaded the well-populated hill citadels of the Baganda kings.
But Kampala is a capital and a former colonial seat, so perhaps its recent rise to metropolis status is unsurprising. For a more stark example of the unprecedented speed and span of urbanization around the world we can look slightly north to Gulu, Uganda, a frontier city of a hundred thousand that has sprung up in just a few decades. The circumstances of Gulu’s rapid growth are unique to Gulu – violent conflict, forced displacement – but the fact of its urban burgeoning is representative of an overwhelming trend repeated around the globe.
We can learn a lot about the world from Gulu’s example. In the era of cities, this small newcomer’s rise has been concurrent with the destruction of its forested hinterlands, felled to feed Kampala’s growing demand for charcoal – a commodity used for cooking and for industry (think charcoal-burning factories). In a familiar way, the forests are fueling the fires of progress.
On a human level, cash economies have penetrated into areas where barter and cashless self-sufficiency were very recently the norm. Traditional mechanisms for obtaining food and healthcare have quickly eroded. The setting of prices for goods and services that previously stood outside of a black-and-white valuation system often occurs with a sort of violence toward the have-nots. Traditional people are marginalized in the transaction, and expected to catch up or perish.
Gulu’s story is a microcosm of vast processes affecting the whole globe, and not just in the sense of urbanization. Gulu is a mirror of the world in which we live, unique to our time. In this young city just a few degrees from the equator, the weather is not as it once was. Droughts are becoming more frequent, and drought means crop failure and hunger. Age-old agricultural practices have become unreliable as if by black magic. The connection is not lost on farmers between the overall trend of a drying climate and the loss of the majority of Uganda’s forests in the last brief decades.
Often overlooked, a principle underlying factor in urbanization is desperation. As elsewhere, many people have moved to Gulu because the rural predicament became untenable, sometimes tragically so.
When I first visited Uganda in 2015, I heard stories that were familiar to me from other places in the world. I heard about a younger generation estranged from traditional ways and suffering from previously rare mental and physical diseases. I heard about the almost universal perception that the loss of trees has worsened the severity and damage of storms and droughts. I heard about languages dying out and places that were once considered holy desecrated to bulldozers. I felt echoes of a legacy of colonial oppression which could well be described as collective trauma.
This is the story of our world.
And I saw people doing something about it. I met foresters and farmers, women and men who have overcome extraordinary hardship and have seen a better way. I saw the spark of inspiration in people’s eyes and it was a sign in itself of healing having occurred. In Gulu, I met the Wise Women of Uganda, a group of traditional healers who heeded a calling to serve their communities as alternative healthcare practitioners – and, remarkably, to restore their forests by planting native trees.
In the few years since, when I have returned to Uganda I have seen, well, more. Burgeoning nurseries stocked with dozens of native medicinal tree species. Highly trained forestry technicians alongside medicine women – both with their hands in the dirt. People going out on a limb to plant trees that nobody has really even tried to plant before, knowing they’re doing the right thing. (You can hear more about their work in our past project reports.)
Our world is full of extreme forces, some of which are cataclysmic. But when I see what is possible with the work of our human hands I feel hope for the future of the story of our world. Cities can become intensive gardens again, and perhaps they will have to. In a crowded world, people will only need more plants that heal. Perhaps more of us will work toward a better way. Perhaps we will yet assume the mantle of responsible stewardship for the world that we as humans are uniquely capable of healing or harming.
This could be the story of our world.
Thank you for supporting the work of the Wise Women of Uganda, and thank you for all the ways you help make the world a better place.