Zanzibar

“We have made these films to record the traditions of our villages. We have interviewed those from Paje and Jambiani and we would like to inform neighbouring villages and all of Zanzibar so that we can save our ancestral sacred sites and sacred groves.”.

—Mzee Ame Haji

The People

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The islands of Zanzibar, in the Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa, are a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania. Steeped in history and once famed as a major center for the production and trade of spices, today Zanzibar is well known as an attractive tourist destination. Less well known and appreciated is its rich heritage of traditional cultures, originally represented mainly by Bantu-speaking peoples, and later also by people of Arab, Persian, and Indian descent.

Today, the large majority of Zanzibaris is made up of people from the Swahili ethnic group, speakers of the Bantu language by the same name. Most of the population lives on the two main islands of Unguja and Pemba, whose coastlines are dotted with fishing villages. Fishing and agriculture are the main subsistence activities. Spices remain an important part of the economy as export goods, along with other tropical crops.

biocultural diversity
Credit: Mwambao Coastal Community Network

A key aspect of Zanzibar’s historical heritage is the presence of numerous sacred natural sites: natural features such as caves and groves that are considered sacred according to Zanzibari cultural and spiritual traditions. There are marine sacred sites as well. The sites are cared for by families of custodians in the communities, who go to the sites to make offerings of food and drink and pray to the ancestors. Sacred sites thus provide a vital link to ancestral knowledge and values, and help promote social cohesion and well-being.

As community-protected places, subject to strict taboos on resource use, sacred sites also hold significant environmental values. Sacred groves harbor patches of mature biodiversity-rich forests in an otherwise degraded forest landscape, protect natural springs that provide dry-season water for people and livestock, and are important sources of medicinal plants and other forest resources. Sea-based sacred sites are sanctuaries for marine biodiversity.

The Challenges

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Rapid social and economic change, however, is increasingly affecting both the cultural and the natural heritage of Zanzibar. Growing urbanization has meant that forests, including sacred groves, are under severe pressure for fuel wood and building material to feed urban demand. Considerable pressures also come from Zanzibar’s expanding tourism industry, with a proliferation of beach-based tourism establishments that impinge on sacred sites. As well, intergenerational social change, the influx of new immigrant populations, and exposure to cosmopolitan values through tourism have led to a loss of connection with cultural and spiritual traditions, especially among the younger generations, and thus to declining respect for the sites.

Many sites have been damaged by encroachment of tourists as well as by unauthorized resource extraction; several are now at serious risk. Sacred sites custodians see preserving these sites and the related oral traditions as crucial for maintaining their communities’ cultural identity and spirituality. However, they have been fighting an uphill battle in efforts to continue to protect the sites, as well as to safeguard the traditional knowledge about them and transmit it to the younger generations. In the words of the custodian of Shotele sacred cave, Hassan Ali Haji: “Things have changed a lot, and the protection of the sites is a challenge. Young people don’t respect the traditions; many of the big trees have been cut. Tourists come and dive in our caves and we don’t benefit in any way, and a road has been cut which makes it easy to reach the caves.”

The Responses

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At the same time, around the world there has been growing recognition that sacred natural sites represent nodes of biological and cultural resilience with great potential for biodiversity conservation and ecological restoration, as well as for the reaffirmation of cultural heritage. Indeed, sacred natural sites are increasingly seen as quintessential places of biocultural diversity. The Sacred Natural Sites Initiative (SNSI), an offshoot of the Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s World Commission on Protected Areas (IUCN WCPA), was set up specifically with a mission to support the custodians of sacred natural sites.

Locally, the Zanzibar Zoological Society (ZAZOSO) had been working with communities on natural resource conservation, including in sacred groves. ZAZOSO teamed up with SNSI to work on the protection of Zanzibar’s sacred sites and their biocultural values. A focus emerged on documenting key management issues important to Zanzibar’s sacred site custodian communities and recording the oral traditions related to these sites and to their cultural and spiritual significance, as told by custodians. That’s when, in 2012, Terralingua decided to join the effort.

Participatory Videos on Sacred Forest Groves

Together, SNSI, Terralingua, and ZAZOSO sponsored the realization of a twelve-day participatory video (PV) training workshop for Zanzibari communities and the creation of two videos on the sacred natural sites of Zanzibar and the ancestral traditions that sustain them. PV is a film-making technique that involves training community members without the need for them to have any prior familiarity with filming, empowers local people to plan, tell, and edit their own stories, and leaves resulting films in the hands of the communities, for their use as communication and action tools.

biocultural diversity
Credit: Mwambao Coastal Community Network
biocultural diversity
Credit: Mwambao Coastal Community Network

PV training was carried out by a local organization, the Mwambao Coastal Community Network, an initiative of Sand County Foundation Tanzania that works to empower coastal communities in sustainable natural resource use and management and to support the development of community resilience to the environmental challenges facing Zanzibar. Mwambao had already been using PV to promote mutual learning, exchange, and self-development among coastal communities.

The project took place in Jambiani and Paje, two adjacent coastal villages located on the southeast coast of Unguja, Zanzibar’s largest island, where village leaders and elders had expressed concern that sacred natural sites were suffering damage and neglect. The two villages have a total of nearly 70 sacred sites, about half of them on land and half in the sea. Many of the land-based sites are associated with forests, and in several cases these sites are in fact the only areas where any forest remains. They represent sanctuaries for both plant and animal species, as well as some of the only remaining potential sources of firewood and construction materials for local villagers.

biocultural diversity
Credit: Mwambao Coastal Community Network
biocultural diversity
Credit: Mwambao Coastal Community Network

Mwambao staff met with villagers and custodians to organize the training. Thirteen participants were selected, including younger people. Two ZAZOSO members also took part. Selected participants formed two intergenerational film crews, each of which recorded different aspects of some of their sacred natural sites. The videos were planned and filmed by the participants themselves.

The project included visits to a number of sacred sites and interviews with village elders and custodians, who expressed their views about the precarious situation of and the challenges faced by the remaining sacred sites in the two villages. Elders and custodians also lamented that the oral history about the sites wasn’t being transmitted to the younger generations, and that there was an apparent reluctance by young people to respect the sites and the related traditions. They had witnessed much forest being cut for firewood and other uses and several sites being trampled by tourists. Their recommendations included education of both local people and tourists to stop the depletion and desecration of the sites, and action to protect the sites, particularly through the formal demarcation of sacred groves by government and their official inclusion in recognized community managed forest areas.

biocultural diversity
Credit: Mwambao Coastal Community Network

Film production culminated with the burning of DVDs of the two videos and with showings to crowds of enthusiastic community members. The films were subsequently subtitled in English and uploaded to the web, with the communities’ permission, with the aim to create more widespread awareness of the importance and value of Zanzibar’s sacred natural sites. Locally, the PV exercise and the resulting videos contributed to network building among the coastal communities and added to the body of knowledge available to the communities. It also provided a blueprint for action to conserve the remaining sacred natural sites in the area and the related oral traditions.

Resources

Guardianship of the Sacred Groves (2013)
18:29 minutes

Challenges of the Sacred Groves (2013)
16:34 minutes