The god Kithasamba sits atop the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains in western Uganda. According to the cosmology of the Bakonzo ethnic group, ice and snow – believed to be Kithasamba’s sperm – melts and carries life down through the valleys lined with giant heather trees and bamboo thickets, and into the savannah below.
“The water gives us life; it fertilises our land,” said Baluku Mikayir, a community elder and spiritual leader of the Ekisalhalha kya Kororo waterfall, his hoarse voice barely audible above the roar of the cascading river.
“After elders sacrifice to Kithasamba you see the snows shining bright, telling you that the planting season is starting. If the snows aren’t visible it’s a sign of calamity.”
For at least a thousand years, this ethnic group has flourished in the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains. Now climate change is threatening not only their lives and livelihoods but also the Bakonzo’s cultural existence.
In May 2020, unusually heavy rains provoked landslides high in the mountains. Five rivers burst their banks, triggering floods not seen in a generation that displaced more than 100,000 people. The destruction followed a series of flash floods that have hit the Bakonzo’s homeland over the last decade.
“The long dry spells are becoming longer, and the rainy season is coming at a time when it never used to,” said local cultural historian Stanley Baluku Kanzenze. “Nature is shifting.”
Each part of this vast and diverse ecosystem is inhabited by its own deity. For example, Kalisya is the spirit responsible for wildlife and Ndyoka is the water spirit. Water threads through Bakonzo cosmology. Where rivers meet, spiritual leaders consult with these gods; hot springs are spiritually and physically healing; while the Ekisalhalha kya Kororo waterfall is a site of conflict resolution for the community, and one of Ndyoka’s many homes.
Many of these sacred sites are now under threat. Last year’s floods changed the course of rivers, and so their confluences shifted with them, hot spring ponds became silted and unusable, and boulders crashed down waterfalls carrying away Mikayir’s votive shrine. Medicinal and ceremonial plants that line riverbanks were uprooted and taken by the deluge too.
“We felt terrible as we lost a lot of important plants,” said Mikayir. “We fear that in the future the waterfall will be destroyed,” added Mary Kyakimwa, another custodian of Ekisalhalha kya Kororo, wearing a ceremonial crown of plants dotted with small yellow flowers.
Rising temperatures are also causing the Rwenzori Mountains’ glacial peaks to melt without being replenished. If, as geologists predict, they disappear totally within the next decade it would spell extinction for a worldview intimately woven into ice and snow. “This is a threat to Bakonzo identity itself. We can’t say they’ll be Bakonzo when the ice is not there,” said historian Kanzenze.
Meanwhile, spiritual leaders like Mikayir continue to carry out rituals at these sacred sites, speaking to the spirits to appease them. “We believe that the rivers are flooding and the snows are melting because the spirits are angry. Current religious practices are affecting us. Religious leaders are saying: ‘Don’t go and make sacrifices,” said Mikayir.
“The spirits are angry because no one is talking to them. We feel their anger.”
A loudspeaker blares out gospel music from a small aluminium-roofed church sitting atop a hill that overlooks the Nyawamba River, its banks now bare and boulder-strewn. Continuing further up into the mountains, votive shrines are dotted throughout the dense Afromontane forest, where offerings are still made to the many Bakonzo deities – but less often than before.
Since Christian missionaries arrived in Uganda in the late 19th century, their religion has come to dominate society. According to the 2014 census, 85 percent of Uganda’s population is Christian, 14 percent Muslim, and only 0.1 percent follow traditional local religions.
“The present heritage is a kind of motley between the West and what is remaining of African heritage,” said Kanzenze. “African cultural systems could not withstand the onslaught of Western religion.”
Bakonzo spirituality is a form of animism, which gives agency to the material world – whether animals, plants or rivers. “There is a connection between humanity and the nature from which humanity emanates,” said Kanzenze, suggesting that solutions to climate change may come from forging relationships with this larger-than-human community. If the natural world is respected, it is also protected.
Over the last few months, the Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU), in partnership with the International National Trusts Organisation, has sought to bridge the gap between conventional approaches to climate change and the motivations of indigenous communities.
“On the one hand, you have conservationists who are interested in biodiversity and global warming; concepts which are very foreign,” said Emily Drani, the founder of CCFU. “And on the other hand, for different reasons, a community is contributing to those objectives by caring about the forest and making sure water bodies are clean – because water is also considered sacred.”
Through discussions with Bakonzo leaders, CCFU has documented more than 50 cultural heritage sites around the Rwenzoris, while supporting local communities to plant trees and regenerate vegetation. “As someone born in the Rwenzoris I was surprised. I didn’t know so many cultural sites existed along the rivers,” said Ronah Masika, a local project coordinator for CCFU.
Masika leads a group down a steep path to the Rwagimba hot springs below carrying with them a dozen bamboo saplings. Deep holes are dug along the river that borders the hot springs, and the saplings are planted in a protective line, pushed firmly into place with bare feet.
“We make sure we use cultural knowledge to mitigate the effect of climate change,” said Masika. “They told us there are special types of vegetation that can be planted by spiritual leaders, and when the river floods it doesn’t go beyond there.” Soon more than one thousand indigenous trees will be planted in the local area, chosen for firm roots that hold soil in place, or their medicinal or nutritional value. By replacing the forests that once lined rivers with species holding innate cultural value to the Bakonzo, they hope to deter those who would cut trees for timber or charcoal.
As well as a healing centre, these hot springs are a meeting point for the local community to discuss the way forward during times of crisis. A group of men bathe in one pool – rust red with a faint whiff of sulphur – reflecting on last year’s floods that ruined three of Rwagimba’s six ponds.
“People have been making mistakes by destroying the habitat of the spirits, especially the trees,” said Rangoni Jiringabagwa, the spiritual leader of Rwagimba. “We also need to revive making rituals, here and up in the mountains.”
Another bather chimes in: “The community cleans and looks after the area. But the government should build a barrier to stop the ponds flooding. We are ready to join hands.”
The relationship between the central government of Uganda and the local Bakonzo Kingdom has a complicated and troubled history. Disputes over governance, land and natural resources have led to a secessionist struggle that continues to provoke violent responses from government armed forces. In 2016, according to Human Rights Watch, more than 100 people were killed in the nearby town of Kasese, including many Bakonzo Kingdom guards and officials. “The chieftains are still around, and still have respect, but in the modern political system they have lost their power and agency,” said Kanzenze.
Tensions also permeate relationships between other local ethnic groups, such as the Basongora, the Bakiga, and Batooro. In the Kasese district, two national parks account for over half of the land coverage; if you add prisons and other government institutions into the mix then less than a third of the land is available for local communities to use. “Competition over land is quite high and conflict over land is inevitable,” wrote a report by the Kabarole Research and Resource Centre in 2012. As the local population grows rapidly, but with little land to support them, encroachment into ecologically and spiritually important areas is, perhaps, inevitable.
CCFU are lobbying the Ugandan government to seek recognition and protection of these cultural heritage sites. “The government inherited responsibilities in terms of caring for the environment and natural heritage,” said Drani, noting that, despite the political intention, policies designed to do this are often not put into practice. “We have the challenge of finances. The culture sector gets very minimal resources from the state,” she said.
Catherine Ajambo, a research officer for the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, told VICE World News that “we are doing a feasibility study for all the sites of cultural heritage in the country. So we hope once we know the challenges they're facing then, as a government, we can come in and sort this out.”
Without substantial financial support from the central government, local communities are finding their own ways to protect Bakonzo cultural sites against the threat of climate change. At the Ekisalhalha kya Kororo waterfall, Mary Kyakimwa runs a savings and credit circle, encouraging local community members to invest in the upkeep of the site and to see the potential economic benefit from visiting tourists.
“We fear that if people are not sensitised about the importance of cultural sites, especially the youth, then they will be neglected and disappear,” said Kyakimwa. Rooted in oral traditions, cultural histories fade when community elders die.
Despite his old age, spiritual leader Mikayir is confident that the line of duty will be continued by his son Ntinisyo. True to his word, Ntinisyo wades out to the foot of the waterfall draped from head to waist in ceremonial plants. Sitting on a boulder, drenched by the spray he lifts his sceptre made of omuramura leaves – which translates as “the judge” – and resolutely gestures to the water spirit Ndoyka.
“I inherited the position from my father, who inherited it from his father,” said Mikayir. “From the ancestors until today the waterfall has been protected. Future generations will see its importance too.”