Reconnecting Youth with Their Biocultural Heritage

“Each time one of us touches the soil of this land we feel sense of personal renewal.”

~ Voices from the Forest

Ukuwa kwamanyakrini (the falling of the glossy starlings). The time when these birds leave their roosts. Photo by Tony Dold, 2012

Ukuwa kwamanyakrini (the falling of the glossy starlings). The time when these birds leave their roosts. Photo by Tony Dold, 2012

— The late Nelson Mandela, Xhosa, Nobel Prize, former President of South Africa
In indigenous and local communities worldwide, one of the greatest challenges in the revitalization of languages and oral traditions lies in rebuilding the connections between elders and youth, fostering young people’s pride in their biocultural heritage, and re-establishing the intergenerational transmission of cultural values, knowledge, and practices. That challenge confronts Xhosa-speaking youth in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa living in the impoverished urban townships that were created during the Apartheid era.

Removing people from their rural setting in that period broke their direct, everyday connection with the local environment, particularly the “Xhosa forest” (ihlathi lesiXhosa, botanically the Albany Thicket), a unique and highly diverse ecosystem on which the Xhosa had traditionally relied for both material and non-material sustenance—from food to fuel to medicines to ceremonial plants. That deep connection had permeated the Xhosa language, imbuing idioms, proverbs, riddles, names of months and times of day, stories, legends, songs, chants, and more. Much of the cultural and spiritual meaning of nature for the Xhosa people did persist in the townships, as people sought to keep their identity by continuing important rituals and other cultural practices that involved the use of many different species from the forest. That led to the rise of an extensive informal plant trade to supply the needs of urbanized Xhosa. The flip side of this remarkable “biocultural continuity” was that, without the direct, watchful stewardship and care of the end users of these plant resources, excessive extraction began to take place, outpacing the environment’s ability to replenish. Ultimately, this trend threatens the conservation of the culturally important species, the overall health of the ecosystem, people’s long-term capacity to hold on to their cultural and spiritual traditions, and the maintenance of the related traditional knowledge.

In this context, biocultural conservation takes on a particularly poignant meaning: sustaining and revitalizing cultural traditions and traditional knowledge requires at the same time creating environmental awareness and action in order to re-establish balance between people and the natural world on which they continue to depend. The Inkcubeko Nendalo (“Culture and Nature”) school program, created by South African researchers Michelle Cox and Tony Dold, seeks to address this challenge by re-instilling the value of nature and traditional environmental knowledge in Xhosa high school students (called “learners” in South Africa), while promoting the conservation of biocultural heritage and the wise use and management of culturally important natural resources. Many learners still have some knowledge of traditional nature-based customs and spiritual activities as well as of references to nature in the isiXhosa language. Inkcubeko Nendalo strives to build on this existing knowledge as a basis to introduce the concept of biocultural conservation.

In 2013, Terralingua teamed up with Inkcubeko Nendalo to facilitate the production of a video in which Xhosa learners attending the program tell their story about who they are, what they are learning in the program, and why it matters to them. In the video, the learners provide vivid examples of nature-based knowledge and lore in their language, 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, and helped strengthen their sense of identity and pride. As a tool in the Inkcubeko Nendalo program, it now serves to inspire other Xhosa youth to take pride in their heritage and be good stewards of it. And the video has an added value for Terralingua: linking this project to our own Biocultural Diversity Education Initiative, we are making the video the centerpiece of one of the high school curriculum lessons we are developing, which focuses on the interrelation between language, traditional knowledge, and the natural environment. This connection may appear obscure and irrelevant to the life experiences of students who live in urban societies and speak “cosmopolitan” languages that reflect an orientation toward a human-made, technological world rather than toward the natural world. The “Xhosa lesson” provides students with a prime example of this “inextricable link”, in the words of other youth. By illustrating and reflecting on the value of this interconnection for the vitality of cultural traditions and the health of the environment, this lesson aims to foster students’ understanding and awareness of the importance of sustaining the “inextricable link” for the benefit of local people and of the world at large, and to encourage youth around the world to become local and global advocates of biocultural diversity conservation.

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