Partnerships for Indigenous Knowledge Landscapes

Partnerships for Indigenous Knowledge Landscapes

Résumé en français

Les systèmes de connaissances indigènes (SIK) sont des systèmes dans lesquels les connaissances nourries par les ancêtres par l'expérimentation et la providence, sont transmises de génération en génération. Celles-ci s'étendent des connaissances écologiques, spirituelles aux connaissances médicales; une sagesse héritée transmise à l'âge adulte. Un schéma récurrent sur le continent africain place le Paysage au cœur des traditions utilisées pour transmettre les savoirs indigènes. Étant donné que menacer les processus et les rituels traditionnels utilisés pour transmettre ces connaissances, c'est menacer les connaissances indigènes, le rôle des architectes paysagistes consiste à aider àla protection des paysages indigènes dans lesquels les processus et les rituelsse produisent par la conception et le plaidoyer.

Dans cet effort, le partenariat entre les protecteurs des paysages indigènes et les architectes paysagistes est un partenariat inestimable. D'une part, ces protecteurs se voient des connaissances autochtones approfondies concernant le territoire sur lequel les générations passées ont vécu. Cela s'avère précieux pour la protection des paysages. D'autre part, les actions des architectes paysagistes peuvent soit miner, soit protéger et renforcer les valeurs inhérentes aux paysages culturels. Deux typologies de paysages culturels indigènes sont donc abordées dans cet article: l’urbain et le naturaliste.

Le site patrimonial de Mothong dans la zone urbaine de Mamelodi, à Tshwane, sous la garde du Dr Ephraim Mabena, est présenté comme un paysage culturel indigène servant un ensemble de cultures mixtes. Le Zwifho de Vhembe, anciennement l'état Venda, sous la garde de Mphatheleni Makaulule, est présenté comme une approche de nombreux paysages indigènes encore à l'état naturel, au service d'un groupe culturel particulier avec une philosophie adaptable plus large.

Les paysages indigènes sont des paysages culturels, formés par les générations quise succèdent et chargées de transmettre les connaissances. Par conséquent, aucun professionnel ne peut créer des paysages de connaissances indigènes. La contribution des professionnels à l'IKS consiste plutôt à protéger et àconcevoir la poursuite des rituels aux côtés des gardiens de l'IKS et àpermettre à ces processus de créer des paysages évolutifs.

Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) are systems in which knowledge nurtured by ancestors through experimentation and providence is passed down through generations. Indigenous knowledge stretches from ecological, spiritual to medical knowledge; an inherited wisdom passed down in the coming of age and other fora. A recurring pattern in the African continent finds the landscape at the core of the traditions used to pass on Indigenous knowledge. The role of landscape architects lies in assisting the protection of indigenous landscapes in which processes and rituals occur through design and advocacy. In this effort, partnership between custodians of indigenous landscapes and landscape architects is an invaluable partnership. On one hand, custodians are entrusted with an in-depth vault of indigenous knowledge regarding the land which past generations have lived on and shaped, which proves valuable in protecting landscapes. On the other hand, actions by landscape architects can either undermine or protect and reinforce the values resident in cultural landscapes. Two cultural landscape typologies are discussed in this article: urban and naturalistic. The Mothong heritage site is discussed as an indigenous urban landscape serving an assemblage of mixed-cultures. The second, Zwifho of Vhembe, is discussed to illustrate an approach to indigenous landscapes in their natural state and which serve a particular cultural group with a wider adaptable philosophy.


The persistence of Indigenous knowledge through time is one of the greatest gifts passed down to future generations. In Indigenous knowledge, time matures wisdom, reinforcing the harmonious ties that current and future generations have to the land. The distinction between Indigenous and Western academic knowledge lies in the physical, cultural and spiritual proximity Indigenous tribes have to the landscape in which they live. Their lifestyle, through layered generations, has formed the cultural landscapes on which Indigenous knowledge is based. This relationship is stored mainly in the memories of the custodians of Indigenous landscapes and assists those who find themselves defending cultural landscapes. Custodians are people tied to their land through the trust elders have bestowed on them to carry forward the wisdom contained in Indigenous landscapes.

Like custodians, landscape architects are tied to the land in a shorter period, primarily through their professional training and practice.

The ability of landscape architects to gauge and respond to users' needs across a cultural spectrum and align this knowledge with environmental and other site-specific regulations is their contribution to a society that aims to live harmoniously with the land.

However, the connections made by custodians through generational proximity yield contextual knowledge incomparable to that only accessible through professional training or practice. In this respect, the foundation of a complementary partnership between custodians of Indigenous landscapes and landscape architects is that where Custodians reach deep, professionals stretch wide. This partnership is necessary to protect natural and cultural landscapes in the multicultural society in which we live.

This article discusses the potential of this partnership in two parts. The influence of culture on the spatial characteristics of cultural landscapes will be addressed first. Next, it will be more explicit about what Indigenous custodians must confront when protecting their local traditions and cultural landscapes. The two examples fall within two landscape typologies: urban and natural. The projects are Mothong Heritage, an urban site in the mountains near Mamelodi, South Africa and the Zwifho, natural places found throughout Limpopo Province, South Africa. In the discussion, the indigenous custodians of these projects give insight into the spatial characteristic of the landscapes they protect. The article also explores the contribution of landscape architects to protecting and restoring cultural landscapes in partnership with IKS custodians.


Part I: Understanding Culture and Custodianship through Existing Cultural Landscapes

Culture forms when a group has shaped their customary way of life. In urban culture, this translates to behaviours that have been influenced by a palimpsest of critical historical events, or mundane daily practises. In Indigenous culture this is most notably associated with the practices of ritual and ceremony. Intangible connecting people to their land. Mphatheleni Makaulule best summarises this:

"Sacred sites are places that make evaporation that makes rain. If you don't protect the pools and waterfalls, where do the people get clean water to drink? Rituals aren't empty things. They're the Earth wisdom of hundreds of generations of wise people, especially Makhadzis" (Ecologist, 2011).

Cultural Landscape and Spatial Characteristics: Mothong Heritage Site

The Mothong Heritage Site in Mamelodi is an excellent example of an indigenous cultural landscape in an urban context. The site is in the Gold Reed Mountain Bushveld and Central Bushveld bioregion (Mucina & Rutherford, 2006), which is characterised by sweeps of golden veld grass with spotted heavy, green-leafed trees. Before  custodianship was taken of the site in 2001, illegal dumping had disturbed its ecology. However, the custodian had begun restoration efforts. (Tuke, 2018; Lucas, 2018).

The significance of these efforts is manifest through the return of cultural practices to the site, which in turn contributed to spatial characteristics new to the landscape. The return of both ritualised practices, such as initiation campus and prayer pits, are seen alongside non-ritualised activities, such as cattle herding in kraals and meeting in Lekgotlas (Tuke, 2018). The importance and difficulty of preserving a cultural landscape in an urban context is that it serves an array of groups who all identify the sanctity of the landscape in diverse ways. For instance, the initiation camp is part of a Xhosa practice, the Lekgotla is a Tswana term referring to meetings held under shade trees, and the sanctity of cattle herding has been a profoundly spiritual Nguni cultural practice (Tuke, 2018). On this mountain, which serves these diverse groups, a palimpsest of cultural activities overlaps to form a unique landscape setting that provides a place where Indigenous practices can be retained and accessed by people living in an urban environment.

Figure 1: Summary of spatial qualities of all sites in Mothong

Notable amongst these activities, is the male initiation camps of Xhosa adolescents. The ascent into the mountain for three months as part of their coming-of-age ritual. A mark left on the landscape is the burning of veld grass at the end of the three-month period. In addition to the cultural significance of the burning, which falls at the end of the winter period, is the benefit that the fire gets rid of redundant plant material that cannot be removed by grazing. It also eradicates invasive plants that would compromise the condition of the veld (Max, 2020). The alignment of these times stems from Indigenous wisdom tying people to their landscape (Tuke, 2018).

Figure 2: Analysis of spatial characteristics of initiation camps
Figure 3: Boulders remaining from the initiation camps on the mountain

Indigenous Custodianship and the Landscapes Protected: Mothong Heritage Site and the Zwifho

Indigenous custodianship occurs when a person or more members of an Indigenous group defend the character of the landscape to allow for cultural activities to continue or to evolve in a traditional manner.

Traditional healer Dr Ephraim Mabena at the Mothong Heritage Site illustrates the necessity of custodianship. The site is located at the eastern end of the Magaliesberg mountain range. Whereas the western sections of the mountain range have been declared a UNESCO world heritage site, the eastern areas have been degraded (UNESCO, 2017).  Unfortunately, the Mothong site was used for informal dumping over an extended period and illegal activities ran rampant.  Traditional cultural practices in the area disappeared (Lucas, 2018). Subsequently, Dr Mabena's actions as a custodian of the site has resulted in the re-surfacing of cultural practices by nearby communities.

Had he not taken up custodianship, it is highly probable that the site would have continued its downward spiral and become a place where illegal squatting could take hold along the mountain's southern slopes (Tuke, 2018). In addition, no government or local organisation had the scope to draft plans that would return the area to its original bio-diverse character. (Maree, et al., 2012). However, Dr Mabena, led by his spiritual and ancestral connection to the land, was able to restore the landscape to the healthy state necessary for cultural practices.

Similarly, in Vhembe, Indigenous custodian Mphatheleni Makaulule created an organisation advocating for the protection of sacred sites; the Dzomo la Mupo, which means 'Voice of all creation from natural origin' (Mupo, s.d).

In Vhavenda spirituality, Zwifho is a term used to refer to the entire network of sacred natural sites (waterfalls, rivers, lakes,mountains, wetlands, of the region). This reference includes the Zwitaka, or the Holy Forests of the Vhembe District, which are believed to be the home of guiding spirits (Makaulule, 2022) (Knight, 2020) Makaulule, 2022;Knight,2020).

The task of Dzomo la Mupo is to grow sacred seeds, plant trees, document customary practices, lead training sessions and field trips, and plan workshops connecting the youth to the sacred sites of Zwifho (Dzomo la Mupo, n.d.). The organisation's mission is to spread its philosophy to all people, including those outside their tribe. The purpose is to have people recognise that they are spiritually tied to the land that should be protected (Makaulule, 2022).

Threats to Cultural Landscapes: The Zwifho

The greatest threat to the Indigenous cultural landscape in Southern Africa, as with most Indigenous landscapes, is the philosophies of Western-globalisation and the capitalisation of land. Common in history, was the stigma attached to Indigenous practices, which spread globally wherever colonisation and Western globalisation had an influence. The weaponisation of Christianity during colonial rule also contributed to this threat. These perceived humiliations are so deeply embedded in people that they present major challenges to custodians trying to review Indigenous cultural practices. Speaking to researcher Rachel Knight, Makaulule explained the sentiments of shame which threatens indigenous knowledge and cultural practices, “When we first sat to talk about sacred sites and Zwifho, women would say to me, 'Don't talk about Zwifho! The Christians will be angry at us!'… because that time was when you say 'Zwifho', you will be an outcast of the community. People at that time who were doing the rituals -people would say to them, 'You are a demon person.’" (Knight, 2020).

Makaulule states that the Zwifho has undergone three periodic layers of historical disruption: Colonisation, Apartheid and Democracy (Makaulule, 2022). Professionals and outsiders to an indigenous group, bear the responsibility of acknowledging the biases they bring to planning and design partnerships with indigenous people. The alliance should share a common goal to protect sacred spaces, not allowing discomfort or prejudice to lead the engagement as this reinforces the stigmas that Indigenous custodians have worked to overturn.

The Zwitaka in Vhutanda 1 and 2 within the Tshvivahase Tea Estate is the case study used to discuss the conflict between cultural landscapes and the capitalisation of its land. At Vhutanda, the once expansive Zwifho has shrunk to comprise only the forest, surrounded by the tea estate.

Figure 4: Vhutanda located in the Tshvivahase Tea-Estate

The tea estate was founded in 1973 as part of a partnership agreement between the state and local governments for the rural development of the then Republic of Venda. Both the Vhutanda 1 and 2 belonged to the Nevhuanda clan who were displaced from the area when the estate was established (Sinthumule, 2022). After decades, the only remains of Zwifho are the two Vhutanda parts separated by the estate, as illustrated in Figure 5. The Dzomo la Mupo now advocate protecting what is left of Zwitaka in the Vhutanda sites.

The pristine ecological condition of the Vhutanda has survived due to local myths. In research conducted in the Vhutanda by Innocent Sinthumule, an elder warns of the consequences of harvesting wood from the Zwitaka;

"If you cut wood in sacred natural sites, they will change into venomous snake[s] on arrival at home. You will be shocked to find out that you have been carrying snakes. This is not a joke; it is the truth. If you don't believe me, try it." (Sinthumule, 2022).

According to elders, the Vhutanda Zwitaka is part of a resting place for spirits who will get angered if their homes are disturbed. An elderly custodian elaborates on this thought: "… Our Zwifho is everything to us. When we are born, we are announced to our Vhadzimu (ancestral spirits) and connected to Zwifho and our spirits will return there when we die. We are alive and healthy because our Vhadzimu protect us. In addition, our Zwifho have survived since time immemorial because they are also protected by our Vhadzimu. Without Zwifho, we will perish." (Sinthumule, 2022).

Sinthumule's studies concluded that what protects Zwifho, besides being protected by spiritual governance and beyond legal authority, are the cultural customs, taboos and myths found within the community's cultural practices. These practices help enforce the protection of sacred places and the retention of the character of their cultural landscape (Sinthumule, 2022).


Part II: the Contribution of Landscape Architecture

The opportunities for landscape architecture to contribute to the preservation and expansion of cultural landscapes is vast. Based on my discussions with Mphatheleni Makaulule, I contacted the Indigenous cultural custodian of Zwifho and shared the work that the Dzomola Mupo's initiative is doing to protect the Zwifho. When introducing myself to her, I explained the work that landscape architects do and presented an outline of shared goals in preserving sacred places. We then discussed the tasks that Dzomo la Mupo has undertaken, the roadblocks it faces and the opportunities for external partnerships to help conserve cultural landscapes.

The Extent Zwifho is being Threatened and the Consequences

During our interview, Mphatheleni explained that the core concern is that the Zwifho is being threatened by encroaching development and the re-purposing of land around the areas. Informed by her elders, she clarified that the Zwitaka is the heart of the forest within the greater Zwifho. The phenomena occurring with the Vhutanda sites, where the forest is being exposed, is a sign of ecological disorder as the Zwifho has been eroded to the extent of ‘exposing its heart’.

She explained that the erosion is manifest in the poor physical health of the people, most notably by the elders who live in those areas and who are directly tied to the Zwifho: "Doctors, psychologists, all modern [medicine] cannot cure these sickness[es] which affect us ... our sicknesses are spiritual sicknesses, it's not a headache or wound that can be cured by medicine, its spiritual sicknesses." (Makaulule, 2022).

Makaulule then relates her experience of deteriorating health after she was awarded a Bill Clinton Fellowship to study leadership in the USA, which included time at Harvard University (Ecologist, 2011): "That is why myself when I finished university in 1998, I [came] back to the community because I was affected by this inter-generational trauma. I was having a degree; I was having many opportunities ... but I was sick. I went back to the elders and asked 'what do we do to keep connected with our rituals? What can we do to keep connected with the forest?' That is why, if you read about me, I spent two years staying in the forest in our sacred mountain. We are telling the government and anyone, up to international conventions that we the indigenous.... we cannot have any well-being; it will continue to be inter-generational trauma affecting generation after generation," (Makaulule, 2022).

Disturbances to the Zwifho, and the disharmony it creates in the ecosystem affects the food, water and life in the landscape [and communities] depended on it. Spread across the former Venda State lies over forty-eight Zwifho. As of 2022, there is not a single untouched Zwifho (Makaulule, 2022).  Makaulule elaborated:

"We are saying please, leave this remaining heart of the Zwifho, because we no longer have the real Zwifho, the landscape has changed deeper. Where we have now remained with the heart of Zwifho, is like a human being only remaining with a heartbeat but [has] not yet died … we are then saying to the government, please, let us save the heart of Zwifho" (Makaulule, 2022).

To this point, allyship, (the active and consistent practice of unlearning and re-evaluation of a position of privilege and power that seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalised group) is required from landscape architectural professionals who would be willing to engage with the philosophy of Dzomo laMupo. This could entail the organisation of workshops, and events or even publishing articles where this topic is researched and discussed. Professionals could also aid in alerting governmental agencies to this relationship with the landscape and that it still exists within Southern Africa; and that these sacred places are valuable and require protection.

Figure 5: A dance ceremony at a sacred site in Vhembe, Venda

The Art and Action of Saving the Zwifho

The Dzomo la Mupo has been intentional about the action required to save the Zwifho. A map has been drafted that identifies the geographical location and narratives associated with all the Zwifho areas. Using this information, Dzomo la Mupo approached the government to propose an ecological buffer zone around the sacred sites. Even given the large expanse of the former Venda State, this has not been an easy task. The process of developing the buffer zones is complicated and uses indigenous ways of comprehending space. Mphatheleni, explained that Dzomo laMupo has broken up the task into smaller goals:

1.      Generating and teaching how to work with the ecological calendar

2.      Mapping of all Zwifho and documenting their associated narratives

3.      Presenting the map findings along with buffer zone proposals in the government.

Makaulule explained that she learnt to draft a contextual ecological calendar from a skilled Shaman based in the Amazon Forest during their collaboration (Makaulule, 2022). The calendar is a chart graphically summarising the results of calculations for the ecological circadian rhythm of an ecosystem throughout one calendar year (Africa, 2019). These cyclic charts reflect a joint rhythm shared by the cosmos, climate, breeding cycles of animals, sowing and harvest cycle of crops and the Indigenous rituals which move to this rhythm (Africa, 2019).

Mapping aligns with the production of the ecological calendar. It is a group activity fostering inter-generational dialogue, with knowledgeable community elders taking the lead. Along with showing the geographical position of the Zwifho, the process entails three layers:first, the mapping reflects the landscape through the lenses of its past, recording, its customary laws and its ecological integrity; then, the reflection of the transformation, changes and damages inflicted on the landscape are added; and lastly, the inter-generational groups are tasked to envision a resilient, bio-diverse and culturally vibrant future, which is transferred onto the map (Africa, 2019).

The maps and ecological calendars are then used to support and designate an ecological buffer zone around the position of each Zwifho. These buffer zones, along with the research accumulated from the inter-generational dialogue, are used to lobby the government to control development and mining activities proposed near the Zwifho.

Figure 6: The ecological calendar drawn during a Dzomo la Mupo workshop
Figure 7: A sketch the Vhembe district during a Dzomo la Mupo mapping session

When discussing the contribution that landscape architecture could make to the preservation of the Zwifho, Makaulule referenced her collaboration with the Shaman in the Amazon Forest as an example of a positive collaboration with people from outside her tribe. She said that she cherishes these partnerships as they give her unexpected insights (Makaulule, 2022) and emphasised, "We[the Dzomo la Mupo] welcome all collaborations that will lead us to protect our landscape and sacred sites" (Makaulule, 2022).

 Conclusion - The Possibilities

Protecting Indigenous landscapes is largely about preserving their spatial characteristics, qualities and ecological integrity so that cultural activities can be practised and survive. Landscape architects have the skills to aid in this endeavour. Using their design expertise and by practising advocacy, the profession, working in partnership with non-professional indigenous peoples, can influence government agencies to develop policies that will ensure the protection and long-term survival of these sacred and productive landscapes.


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Figures 1, 2 and 3 - Sarah Luposo Tuke (2018)

Figures 4 - Sinthumule (2022)

Figures 5 and 6 - Africa (2019)

Figure 7 - Dzomo la Mupo (n.d.)