The observatory seeks to pay attention to indigenous forms of ecology and how these served to conserve the environment and to create a balanced ecosystem. For example, in a number of African communities, attitudes towards land and indeed the totality of the environment was shaped by a complex and layered relationship between human beings, ancestors and a supreme being. This spiritual conception of the environment was central in positioning human beings as the custodians of land – not exploiters. Indeed rituals aimed at land restoration, healing or nourishment only helped to underscore human agency in land restoration, not simply as a social and economic necessity, but as a spiritual obligation. This is what has been called an African holistic cosmology, which encompasses the bonding of the entire God-created family: woman / man, animals, beast, bird, vegetation – all creation. Thus any agro-economic development and progress within a traditional context, was often meaningless unless it simultaneously underscored the sanctity of land, nature’s restoration and an ecological economy that sought to create a balance between mutual exploitation of earth resources for humanity’s benefit and earth restoration for continued sustainability.
The observatory is well aware that a number of the indigenous practices akin to the sustenance of the environment like with other institutions on the continent, may have been disrupted, repressed, deleted or simply mutated into different forms with the advent of colonialism and the rise of modernity and global capitalism. We are therefore interested not only in the surviving indigenous practices, but equally in the way new attitudes towards the environment have been shaped by change, leading to a new grammar of framing and speaking about the environment. Any meaningful intervention in Africa’s environmental state will have to register a nuanced historical perspective. Broadly speaking then, our research agenda is located at the intersection of indigenous conceptions of ecological systems and multiple histories of the environment in colonial and postcolonial contexts.
We are seeking to ask: who are the known Earth keepers within communities? How do they map out their environment? How do these stand against the colonial or apartheid maps? How do we digitally map out what has changed over time, ecologically, politically, socially or even medicinally? Essentially, can we draw or imagine a map of the earth we keep in terms of experiences lived within these environments?