In Langscape Magazine Articles

Voices from the Field: African Rural Women, Custodians of Seed and Traditional Knowledge

February 14, 2017

by Kagole Margret Byarufu

My name, Kagole, was given to me upon my birth. It initially belonged to my father’s aunt who had died a few months before I was born. She was herself a custodian of the sacred natural site cared for by my family, so the other members of my clan in the Bagungu tribe of Uganda were so excited when I was born. They named me after her and initiated me to become her successor in regard to this traditional responsibility.

Kagole Byarufu

Kagole Byarufu, Custodian of the Wandiyeka Sacred Natural Site in Western Uganda. Photo: The Gaia Foundation, n.d.


Receiving the name of your forefathers or lineage ancestor is a great investment in protecting the Earth’s nature and its rules: it means the ancestors are still living in you through their names. Having such a name means you must do what your ancestor did and protect nature in order to not disturb their peace.

Today I am the custodian of the Wandyeka sacred natural site in Kisyansya, Bulisa District. My role is to lead the worship of our lineage of ancestors who reign in here and guard our sacred site. Sacred sites are areas with special spiritual significance to us, the custodians, and also our communities. Here many sacred natural sites are areas of great importance for the conservation of biodiversity.

These sites are instrumental in promoting co-existence and living in harmony because they help in protecting the spiritual connections between us, the people, and Mother Earth. When people visit these sites and humbly worship, they get cleansed of their misfortunes, and then peace is restored in their families or communities. This gives us responsibility and courage as custodians to keep caring for and protecting the sites.

The names you use for the sites and in rituals depend on what Giver you want to worship and what you want the gods to give you when you visit the sacred site. Different sacred sites have different roles. Some are for the main community rituals for seeds, harvests, and rain. Others we go to for healing people or the land.

Our ancestors and forefathers are many, and they have interconnected power, but their names are unique. For instance mine is called Wandyeka, meaning the giver of peace, food, and wealth. Others take care of different parts of nature. For example, there is a site called Tikimu-titytyalo, who is one of the biggest spirits and is responsible for solving all the problems moving in the air space. There is another called Mutyoome, which means “spiritual winds.” If you transgress against the Mutyoome gods, they hit you hard and you fall down.

Dr. Rimberia Mwangi

Dr. Rimberia Mwangi, Sacred Site Custodian, Meru, Kenya. Photo: Jess Phillimore/The Gaia Foundation, 2012


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, for example, after crop fields are attacked by pests and too much sunshine. We go and hold a traditional prayer near the lake so rain comes. A crucial part of this ceremony is that we take seeds there and use them to ask for multiplication of food in the coming season, pouring them into the water for the ancestors to receive and multiply them.

Many varieties of seeds are needed in our sacred site rituals, to give thanks and to ask for them to be strong and productive when we plant them. We normally use simusimu (millet), and enkoore (pigeon peas), but other seeds, including potato and banana, are also used for other ceremonies.

When administering the rituals, we normally prefer the small seeds, because they are so small and too many to count. When the custodian is performing rituals with these seeds, he or she recites words such as “May you send uncountable luck like these millet grains. May they germinate in plenty to feed all your people.”

There is a very close link between Mother Earth, sacred sites, seed, and food.

There is a very close link between Mother Earth, sacred sites, seed, and food. When I grew up, I learned with my mother and aunts how to prepare the traditional dishes. I also learned about the different varieties of seeds, when to plant them, and how to store them. At harvest time we would first select the best seeds, before we harvested for food.

I remember we had seven different varieties of cassava and many types of millet, sorghum, beans, sweet potatoes, and others too. They all had names which explained them. One sweet potato was called Kansegenyuke, meaning “I make as many as I can”; another was called Kanyerebalye, which means “let me grow and people will eat”; and then there was Ndabirisoha, meaning “grow me and you cannot finish me.”

When I was young, I also learned about the medicines and the wild foods and where to find them. You had to study the plants and animals carefully, to be able to read them, what they were telling you about when the rains would come or if there would be a drought. Also the moon cycles and the stars, they all have signs which tell you what is happening. Everything speaks to you if you know their language.

Everything speaks to you if you know their language.

Since I grew up, things have changed a lot. People today eat new foods, which are not from traditional seeds, and because of this, our seeds have slowly disappeared. This affects our sacred sites because we cannot do rituals with foreign seeds.

Also, people have lost interest in traditional ways. Many follow Christianity and do not agree with the rituals in the sacred natural sites. They say this is backward, and our sites have suffered because people no longer respect them. Many have been destroyed. The trees have been chopped down for agriculture. But then these farmers complain that their new crops do not grow. They do not understand that if you destroy sacred sites, there is a cost, not only to those who do it. This has pained me a lot.

People today eat new foods, which are not from traditional seeds, and because of this, our seeds have slowly disappeared. This affects our sacred sites because we cannot do rituals with foreign seeds.

I am so passionate about reviving our ancestral knowledge before it is lost forever. Our generation has a huge responsibility. The next generation will not be able to survive without this knowledge. But it is also about our heritage, our identity, our confidence in who we are. And to keep this, it is so important that we keep working with the sacred sites.

Lake George

Two fishermen on Lake George, Western Uganda. Photo: Hal Rhoades/The Gaia Foundation, 2016


When I go to the sacred site, I kneel and call all the names of gods I know, depending on what I want them to do. Because there is a rain-giver, a wealth- and life-giver, and the god of food. Then I meditate with the Earth because, unlike other religions, our tradition tells us the spirits live with us on Earth, but easily connect with us through custodians and only when they appear in sacred sites. So that way, gods of this sacred site will restore health. The weather will change back to normal, epidemics will go; but, most importantly, such changes show the community that protecting these sacred sites of Mother Earth is the best hope for their lives and that destroying them will bring severe punishments from the ancestors.


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Kagole Margret Byarufu, from the Hoima region of Uganda, is a custodian of seeds and of a sacred natural site. Under the shadow of oil mining and land-grabbing, she has gathered her clan and Elder women from other communities to reaffirm their knowledge, revive indigenous seeds, and rehabilitate the land.

Further Reading

Rhoades, H. (2015, November 20). Our roots, our responsibility: Indigenous custodians call for recognition and protection of sacred natural sites. Intercontinental Cry. Retrieved from

The Gaia Foundation. (2012, September 7). Sacred voices [Video file]. Retrieved from


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