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Threats to Vatsonga ecological Knowledge systems


By Steyn Khesani Madlome


African ecologies need a deep understanding of activities, the environment in which people live and their beliefs which cannot be underestimated. My research focuses on threats to Vatsonga Ecological Knowledge systems in the Zimbabwean context. It particularly explores the contribution of Vatsonga religious practices such as nkelekele, a raining petitioning ceremony and beliefs on sacred places. It interrogates how previous and proposed evictions of Vatsonga from their ancestral lands may jeopardise traditional ecological knowledge which is crucial to the preservation of the environment and mitigation of the effects of climate change.

As calls are being made to build knowledge from the Global South, other African countries tend to monopolise its production and dissemination. Important information from previously marginalised communities like Tsonga is not readily available in Zimbabwe’ s archives. As a result, their ecological knowledge systems are at risk of being side-lined.

Therefore, in my research, I seek to examine the state of affairs of Vatsonga’s contribution to the body of knowledge.  It further looks into factors which are a threat to the preservation of Vatsonga ecological knowledge systems in Chiredzi South’s Chilonga and Masivamele communities.


Historical background

Tsonga communities live along or close to wildlife sanctuaries in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. These communities used to live within and adjacent to what is known as the Great Limpopo Trans-frontier park, combining the Gonarezhou, Limpopo and Kruger National parks in three countries mentioned above respectively. A smaller population is also found in Eswatini. As if it is not enough, there are some further plans to evict a significant part of Vatsonga population which inhabits a place between sugarcane estates and the wildlife sanctuary in the eastern border. There is uncertainty and fears among Vatsonga who do not know what the future holds for them.

Academics have researched on ecology, relationship with the environment and evictions from ancestral lands. Iheka (2018:10-11) avers that Africa is viewed as a place which the colonialists sought to civilise its inhabitants and their environment, naturalising them in order to make global citizens which suit a modern state. My premise is that Africans like other human races were familiar with their environment and knew how to interact harmoniously with other forms of life in their surroundings. It is the colonial process which changed some of traditional beliefs which were upheld by Africans prior to colonisation and post-colonialism has left Africans detached from some of their valuable beliefs that could connect them to their environment amicably (Iheka, 2018:11). This not an exception to the Tsonga ethnic group, which shares boundaries which were only established during the colonial era.

It has been highlighted by other scholars that locals in various places, for instance the pastoralists, had adapted to local climates and they made use of their knowledge of the environment and neighbouring communities. They could move from one place to the other as a way of adapting to current climatic conditions (Oba, 2014). Claridge and Kobei (2023) have shown that in other countries like Kenya where the Ogiek were evicted from their ancestral lands,  the African Court of Human Rights ordered the government to grant them their land. My research draws some insights from the Ogiek experiences since it is faced with almost a similar situation where the Tsonga communities were removed from what is now known as Gonarezhou National park during the colonial era. They were then evicted again to pave way for sugarcane plantations.  There are further plans of displacing a bigger population of Vatsonga for the third time from their ancestral land which they thought was their final settlement now. Vatsonga tried to appeal against this move but their case was thrown away in 2021 (


Fears and threats of losing Vatsonga ecological knowledge 

Vatsonga have conserved the surrounding environment through the use of their vast experiences, coupled with their traditional religious beliefs such as nkelekele and sacred places. This would in turn produce an environment which was conducive for favourable climatic conditions and good health for both human and non-human beings. This was so, because when the ritual is done, it leaves the environment

clean and when rainfall comes the risks of spreading waterborne diseases are reduced. Nkelekele becomes one of very significant religious cultural practices which mirror the Indigenous knowledge systems of Vatsonga. This is the same with sacred places such as Mazwiyeti in Chiredzi district. People are discouraged to kill certain animals and they cannot use utensils and detergents which contaminate natural water bodies.

Now the impending evictions from Chilonga communal lands would detach Vatsonga from the land they have been used to for many years. This will cause a loss of valuable ecological knowledge which maintained good relations between human beings and non-humans. Since their removal from the Gonarezhou National Park and Sugar plantations in the 1950s, Vatsonga had at least adapted to the environment in between these two places. They managed to carry on practices such as nkelekele and managed to visit some sacred sites where they could perform their traditional rituals. Nkelekele was also done in response to some outbreaks of pandemics or plagues affecting crops in the fields and human lives. Now uncertainty on where they will be settled if the eviction plan materialises is causing psychological distress among inhabitants of this land.



Based on my research, I conclude that Vatsonga ecological knowledge systems, which are important for the preservation of the environment, are under significant threat. The threats of losing this valuable knowledge are looming following planned evictions of Vatsonga from their ancestral land. There is uncertainty on where these people will be settled. As a result, a lot of people are suffering and will continue suffering from psychological distress due to this uncertainty. Other religions and modernisation are also a threat to continuous practise of Vatsonga traditional beliefs which are crucial in the preservation of ecological knowledge systems.  In the light of this, I argue that Vatsonga should be spared from evictions so that they can continue to interact sustainably with their environment, performing their traditions which promote its preservation. If the Lucerne projects that are planned for this place are meant for national development, then the locals should also be considered as part of these developments in form of out-growers.


Steyn Khesani Madlome is a Senior Lecturer in African Languages & Culture and Xitsonga at Great Zimbabwe University. He participated in the "African Ecologies" writing workshop, hosted at the British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA), 29-31 July 2023 in collaboration with the Leeds University Centre for African Studies. This blog post is based on the paper he presented at the workshop and at the Africa Association for the Study of Religion (AASR) 2023 conference.



Iheka, C. (2018).  Naturalizing Africa: Ecological Violence, Agency, and Postcolonial Resistance in African Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Claridge, L and Kobei, D (2023). Protected areas, Indigenous rights and land restitution: the Ogiek judgment of the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights and community land protection in Kenya. Oryx Vol. 57Issue 3, pp. 313 – 324. DOI:

Oba, G. (2014). Climate Change Adaptation in Africa: An historical ecology. Routledge: New York.

https// | Zimbabwe told to “immediately” stop eviction of Chilonga people, 10 March 2021.

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