Conserving the Cultural and Spiritual Values of Sacred Natural Sites Through Oral History Documentation and Participatory Video

Shotele Cave sacred site in Paje with its custodian Hassan (front) and PV trainee Mzee Ame Haji. Photo: Mwambao Network

“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

Steeped in history and the aroma of spices, the islands of Zanzibar — a semi-autonomous region off the coast of Tanzania, East Africa — are a well-known and attractive tourist destination. Less well-known and appreciated is Zanzibar’s rich heritage of traditional cultures, today mostly represented by African people of Swahili origin. A  key aspect of this heritage are Zanzibar’s numerous Sacred Natural Sites, such as sacred caves and sacred groves—patches of mature biodiversity-rich forests in an otherwise degraded forest landscape. Cared for by custodian communities, these sites provide a vital link to Zanzibari cultural and spiritual traditions, and thus help promote social cohesion and well-being. They also protect natural springs and provide dry season water for people and livestock, as well as being an important source of medicinal plants.

However, rapid urbanization has meant that forests are under severe pressure for fuel wood and building material. Significant pressures also come from Zanzibar’s tourism industry, with both small-scale and larger beach-based tourism establishments impinging on the sacred sites. Intergenerational social changes, new immigrant populations, and exposure to cosmopolitan values through tourism have led to declining social respect for the sites. Several have been damaged, and many are at risk.

In a context of increasing interest in biodiversity conservation and ecological restoration, Sacred Groves represent nodes of biological and cultural resilience with great adaptation and restoration potential. Because of the strong cultural and spiritual values associated with Sacred Natural Sites, one essential aspect of their conservation is the documentation and revitalization of the oral traditions related to these sites and to their role and significance in traditional societies. That is why Terralingua teamed up with the Sacred Natural Sites Initiative (SNSI, which has emerged from the work of IUCN’s Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas), to promote the documentation of oral traditions relevant to SNS.

In the first collaborative project with SNSI, Terralingua provided partial support for the realization of two videos on the Sacred Natural Sites of Zanzibar. The aim of the project was to support the conservation of the biocultural values of the sites by documenting key management issues important to custodian communities and recording related oral histories and traditions as told by custodians. The videos, which made use of the technique known as Participatory Video, were produced in Jambiani and Paje, two adjacent coastal villages located on the south-east coast of Unguja, the main island of Zanzibar. The two villages have a total of 68 sacred sites, 32 of them on land and 36 in the sea. Many of the land-based sites have forest associated with them, and in many cases these sites are the only areas where 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. Concerned that Sacred Natural Sites, both rich in nature and culturally valued, are suffering damage and neglect, village leaders, traditional elders, and young people teamed up with local and international organizations to take action for the protection of the sites.

Custodians from these two villages had participated in a Sacred Natural Sites project conducted by ZASOZO, the Zanzibar Zoological Association, which has been working with communities on natural resource conservation, including in sacred forests. ZAZOSO recommended these villages for the video project as a suitable and practical location for collecting oral histories regarding the sites. SNSI then approached the Mwambao Coastal Community Network (Mwambao), an initiative of Sand County Foundation Tanzania, to carry out a Participatory Video training in the villages over the month of April 2012. Participatory Video (PV) is being used to help build the network, with the aim of facilitating exchange between communities on sustainable natural resource management and thereby building community resilience to the environmental challenges being faced in Zanzibar. Mwambao staff met with villagers and custodians to plan for the training, and 13 participants were selected. Two ZAZOSO members were also invited to take part. This PV exercise and the resulting videos will contribute to network building and add to the body of knowledge available to the coastal communities.

The selected participants formed two film crews, each to record different aspects of some of their Sacred Natural Sites. The videos were planned and filmed by the participants themselves. Village elders and custodians were interviewed and opinions and recommendations sought. The exercise included visits to a number of sacred sites and culminated in burning the films to DVD and an evening village showing. The films have subsequently been subtitled in English and uploaded to the web.

The exercise revealed the precarious situation and numerous challenges faced by remaining Sacred Natural Sites in the two villages. It also demonstrated that much of the oral history resides with elders of the village, and that there is an apparent reluctance by young people to respect the existing traditions and sites.  Much forest has been cut for firewood and other uses and tourism investment in the area has resulted in destruction of several sites. Villagers provided recommendations for actions needed to conserve remaining areas, including formal demarcation by government and official inclusion of sacred groves in existing “community managed forest areas”.

The Mwambao Coastal Community Network supports grass-roots initiatives on the coast of Tanzania promoting the role of community in natural resource management.  They have been training communities in video making on topics as diverse as coastal defenses, dynamite fishing mangrove reestablishment and now sacred groves. The Sacred Natural Site Initiative (SNSI) is a part of the IUCN Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas (CSVPA).

Resources and links:

Sacred Natural Sites and Indigenous Oral Traditions at WCC 5

Download Report: Sacred Groves PV report June 2012

Video links:

Guardianship of the Sacred Groves

Challenges of Sacred Groves

Mwambao Coastal Community Network:

Sacred Natural Sites Initiative:

IUCN’s Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas


Guardianship of the Sacred Groves

Planning a storyboard. Photo: Mwambao Network

Grove Custodian Fadhil gets to grips with a tripod, while Mwambao Coordinator Hajj Hajj looks on. Photo: Mwambao Network

Msellem, Ame and Hakiba (L to R) work out the camera. Photo: Mwambao Network

Bibi Asha leads making the story board. Photo: Mwambao Network

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