Custodians of Zanzibar's Sacred Groves learn participatory film-making

Steeped in history and the aroma of spices, Zanzibar on the coast of Tanzania is a well-known tourist destination. The islands, however, also have a lesser-known side - their Sacred Groves.

Concerned that these Groves, both rich in nature and culturally valued, are suffering damage and neglect, villager leaders, traditional elders and young people recently teamed up with local and international organisations to document their oral history and plan for their better care.


Planning a storyboard Photo: Mwambao Network

Using a technique called participatory video (PV), members of Jambiani and Paje villages on the South East Coast of Zanzibar Island formed two film crews, each to record different aspects of some of their Groves. The training was given by Mwambao Coastal Community Network, a Tanzanian organisation based in Zanzibar. "There was quite a 'buzz' in the training workshop" said Mwambao Country Coordinator, Hajj Hajj, "The teams were very keen to learn about the equipment and keen to get going to make their own films".

When interviewed, the training workshop participants had the following to say:

“The village of Paje has forest groves, caves and open areas which are sacred. The custodians are in the family, a father finds his son to take over. The custodians guide the worshipers to the site, he opens the way, the women cook offerings and clean the path and the children follow” said Mzee (elder) Ame Haji. Mtumwa Simai, the village custodian responsible for all sacred sites, said: “There are 32 ancestral sacred sites, several of which are forest groves in our village of Jambiani, and 36 sacred sites in the sea”.

Despite the very long history of the sacred groves, things are now different. Hassan Ali Haji of Shotele sacred cave complained “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”.

Hoping that the participatory video will increase interest and knowledge of the groves, Mzee Ame Haji commented "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 groves”. Mzee Msellem requests the government to formally demarcate their boundaries and include them in recognized community forestry areas.

The work is part of a wider programme to support sacred groves on Zanzibar. The Zanzibar Zoological Society (ZAZOSO), who took part in the video training, is working with communities to record the cultural values and ecology of the groves and assist community members to plan conservation activities. This is in collaboration with IUCN's Sacred Natural Sites Initiative itself part of an international effort to recognise the cultural and conservation values of sacred sites in nature. The support to the Zanzibar communities came from a collaboration of different organisations, including Terralingua and the Sacred Natural Sites Initiative.

"Sacred Natural Sites are found in almost every society and every country, they can range in size from a small grove to a complete mountain chain, lakes, rivers and wetlands. They contain incredibly important wildlife and often form the backbone of our modern protected areas", commented UK based Robert Wild, Sacred Natural Sites Initiative Coordinator and Chair of the IUCN Specialist Group on the Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas.

"We were keen to support the Zanzibar communities" said Terralingua Director Luisa Maffi from Canada, "The goal of our Voices of the Earth project is to support efforts to document and revitalize indigenous peoples' oral traditions. The maintenance of oral traditions about the cultural and spiritual values of sacred natural sites is crucial for the conservation of these sites, and we hope that this collaboration with the SNS Initiative and the Zanzibar communities will demonstrate just that."

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). Terralingua is a charity based in the USA and Canada working for the conservation of biocultural diversity.

Funds were provided by Terralingua and The Christensen Fund and, for the ecological work, by the New England Biolabs Foundation.

Work area: 
Protected Areas
East and Southern Africa
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