“Our children must go to the forest; they must know about everything in the forest. Everything about being Xhosa is from the forest; it is the isithethe [the manner of doing things] of Xhosa people.”

—Xhosa Elder

The People


The Xhosa people (or AmaXhosa, as they call themselves) are a Bantu-speaking ethnic group now located mainly in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces of South Africa. Their language, isiXhosa, is the second most widely spoken language in South Africa, following Zulu, and is one of the country’s eleven official Indigenous languages. Like several other languages in southern Africa, isiXhosa is characterized by distinctive speech sounds known as “clicks”: unique “popping” consonants that are produced by first obstructing and then releasing air in the mouth.

Xhosa people are thought to have reached southern Africa during a historic migration of Nguni people (a Bantu-speaking group) from east-central Africa that took place over several centuries. The land the Nguni came to wasn’t empty: their migration displaced the original inhabitants of southern Africa, the San hunter-gatherers and Khoekhoe nomadic pastoralists. Contact with Khoekhoe and San peoples left a trace, however: the click sounds in Xhosa and other southern African Bantu languages are believed to have been borrowed from Khoesan languages, which have large numbers of them.

By the mid-1600s, the Xhosa were well established in the eastern part of southern Africa, practicing farming and animal husbandry. That’s when the influx of other newcomers began: European settlers. First the Dutch and then the British established colonial dominion in the region, displacing and coming into conflict with Xhosa and other southern African peoples.

The turbulent colonial era ended with the creation of an independent country under white rule, which had at its core the racial segregation and discrimination system known as apartheid. Under apartheid, different ethnic groups were confined to “homelands,” separate territories akin to reservations, often established in less productive areas of the country. Xhosa people were assigned to two such homelands, Ciskei and Transkei. In cities, Black South Africans were forced to live in segregated, impoverished “townships.”

Apartheid lasted from 1948 to 1991, when changing political circumstances led to it being rescinded. In 1994, in the first general elections in which Black South Africans were able to vote, Nelson Mandela, a Xhosa, was elected as South Africa’s first black President (1994–1999).

The Challenges


Xhosa people still experience the legacy of apartheid in many ways. An important one is the erosion of intergenerational transmission of cultural values, knowledge, and practices that is especially felt in the impoverished urban townships in which many of them still live. In turn, the breakdown of cultural transmission across generations leads to a loss of pride in Xhosa biocultural heritage among youth.

For urban Xhosa, living removed from their rural setting means lack of direct, everyday contact with the natural environment that is most closely associated with their cultural identity: in particular, the “Xhosa forest” (ihlathi lesiXhosa, botanically known as the Albany Thicket), a unique and highly diverse ecosystem that is considered sacred as a place of the ancestors and essential for spiritual health and well-being. As well, Xhosa people have traditionally relied on it for both material and non-material sustenance — from food to water to fuel to plants used for medicine or in rituals. That deep connection has permeated the Xhosa language, imbuing idioms, proverbs, riddles, names of months and times of day, stories, legends, songs, chants, and more.

People in Xhosa townships have sought to maintain their cultural identity by continuing to perform key rituals and other practices that involve the use of forest resources. The demand for those resources by urbanized Xhosa has in fact led to the rise of an extensive informal plant trade. The flip side of that “biocultural continuity” from a rural to an urban setting has been a discontinuity in the supply chain: the people who extract plant resources in the countryside are not the same as the people who use them in the townships. Without direct stewardship and care by the end users, excessive extraction has been taking place, outpacing the forest’s ability to regenerate.

Ultimately, this trend poses a threat for both nature and culture: it endangers the conservation of culturally important species and the overall health of the forest ecosystem, and at one and the same time it also jeopardizes people’s long-term ability to hold on to their cultural and spiritual traditions and to maintain the related traditional knowledge.

In that particular context, biocultural conservation takes on a special twist: in order to sustain and revitalize land-based cultural traditions and traditional knowledge, it becomes necessary to foster environmental awareness and seek to re-establish a sense of “cultural custodianship” toward the natural world on which people still depend.

The Responses


The Inkcubeko Nendalo (“Culture and Nature” in isiXhosa) Bio-cultural Diversity Education Program was created by South African researchers at Rhodes University in Grahamstown (Eastern Cape Province) to address that challenge. The program aims to reconnect Xhosa high school students from low-income families in Grahamstown to their biocultural heritage, while promoting the conservation and the wise use and management of culturally and spiritually important natural resources.

All the students (called “learners” in South Africa) are first-language speakers of isiXhosa, and many of them have absorbed from their families some knowledge of traditional nature-based customs and spiritual activities, as well as some of the references to nature found in isiXhosa words, proverbs, and so forth. Because learners live in urban townships and attend resource-poor government schools, however, they lack opportunities to go to the natural areas with which such customs and activities are traditionally associated, and therefore lack both connection with those places and awareness of their conservation status and of the need for stewardship. Inkcubeko Nendalo seeks to build on the learners’ existing knowledge as a basis to introduce and promote the idea of biocultural conservation.

biocultural diversity
Credit: Tony Dold

The program includes both curriculum lessons that are used in classroom settings and outdoor activities on communal lands in the outskirts of town. Classroom lessons focus on the richness of the region’s biological and cultural heritage and how the maintenance of one is dependent on the maintenance of the other. They also stress the value of traditional knowledge, which is not widely acknowledged in the official curriculum. Outdoors activities center around visits to a small patch of indigenous forest near Grahamstown, during which learners gain first-hand experience of the links between biodiversity and culture, and can also share the cultural knowledge they have about plants and animals found there. Issues of overexploitation of medicinal and other useful plants are discussed in both contexts.

Learners are encouraged to share what they learn with family and elders, which contributes to strengthening and affirming their experiences. Feedback from both youth and adults attests to the perceived value of this program.

Inkcubeko Nendalo Video Project


In 2013, Terralingua teamed up with the Inkcubeko Nendalo program on the production of a participatory video in which Xhosa learners attending the program would express their interests and aspirations for reaffirming Xhosa cultural traditions and sustainably using and conserving biodiversity.

The video was meant to give voice to youth who were regaining awareness of the importance of protecting natural resources and reviving Xhosa traditional knowledge. The expectation was that being able to tell their own story about themselves, what they were doing and learning in the program, and why it mattered to them would strengthen the youths’ sense of identity and pride and foster their involvement in sustaining their biocultural heritage.

biocultural diversity
Credit: Inkcubeko Nendalo

In brainstorming sessions with their teachers, the learners planned the script for the video and then participated in filming and editing with a professional crew. The resulting 14-minute video provides a brief introduction to who the Xhosa people are — their culture, land, history and traditions, and some of the current issues — as seen with the learners’ eyes. The learners also introduce the Xhosa language, demonstrating some of the distinctive click sounds and offering vivid examples of nature-based knowledge and lore found in words, phrases, and proverbs in their language. They illustrate their experience reconnecting with the forest and its ancestral cultural significance, and express their views about the value of the Xhosa language and culture, the traditional links between Xhosa people and the natural environment, and the importance of protecting and sustaining their biocultural heritage.

The making of the video was an empowering experience for the participating learners. “The world is changing, so we need to adjust to the way the world is changing, but not forgetting our culture as the Xhosa people,” says Sibusiso Matiwane, one of the learners, in the video. As a tool in the Inkcubeko Nendalo program, the video now serves to inspire other Xhosa youth to take pride in their biocultural heritage and be good stewards of it.

Here you can view the video, and also find other relevant resources.


Xhosa Youth Reconnect to Their Cultural Heritage (2013)
13:40 minutes