Acquiring knowledge by being in nature
ABN’s General Coordinator, Dr Fassil Gebeyehu shares the wisdom he gained through observing nature during his recent visit to Global Initiative for Environment and Reconciliation GER in Rwanda. He speaks of the complex web of interconnectedness of various living things with nature, relating his observations to Stephan Harding’s philosophical observation that a harmonious correlation among living things would restore a balance in the nature.
As Animate Earth author Stephan Harding explains, understanding the complex web of life cannot be achieved through a narrow-based explanation because it cannot bring the elements of intimacy and communication. The problem is that we cannot understand the meaning of what has been explained unless we participate through various ways of knowing. For example, thinking, feeling, intuition, intimacy and imagination. This idea of being present with nature and using our unused senses is a powerful tool to learn the importance of understanding. When Harding studied the behaviour of Muntjac deer, he spent much of his time in the forest. He observed that “data collection was just mind numbering.” It was used for systematic analysis in the process of his PhD write up. He underlined that the intensive learning by being seated with those Muntjac deer, observing their detailed behaviour was the most important part of his study. He further observed,
“Understanding is not concerned with telling us how a thing has come to be or how it works – it seeks only empathy and a sense of mystery. Explanation is rational; understanding is intuitive.”
Harding’s story reminded me of my experience in Rwanda. I was invited by one of our Kenyan partners, the Institute for Culture and Ecology (ICE), to represent them at the African Protected Areas Congress (APAC), from 18–23 July. This opportunity gave me the chance to visit an ABN partner in Rwanda, Global Initiative for Environment and Reconciliation (GER) in Rwanda to observe how they are implementing ABN’s methodologies as part of our project of Conserving Bio-cultural Diversity through Strengthening Community and Ecosystem Resilience in Africa.
While with GER in the field, I was accompanied by the Chairperson of the GER Board, Shyikiro Gimu and their Project and Communication Officer, Aphrodis Nshimiyimana. Together we visited Nyandungu Urban Wetland Eco-tourism Park. This park was inaugurated, the only one of its kind in Kigali, for the purpose of conserving wetlands, biodiversity and protecting the area from being invaded and eroded. It is 5km from Kigali City Centre and has 70ha of wetland and 50ha of forest. It is home to more than 100 species of birds and 62 species of plants most of which are endemic. It also has many indigenous plants, few small trees, grasslands and ponds.
While walking through the forest, a phenomenon towards the edge of the pond attracted my attention. I noticed about 50 bird nests on a tree over the water. What surprised me was that all nests were built on the branches by the side of the water body and not one nest could be seen on the branches on the land side. Just as I was thinking this, the driver who had brought us to the park asked the same question as to why were there no nests on the land side and many on the side of the river. A long discussion ensued. Some said it might be just by incidence that if a bird built a nest first on the side of the water body, others would follow. Others assumed that birds could be aware of danger from the land side and decided to build their nests from the side of the water body. We also observed more nests built on other trees with the same pattern of building by the water side. We all agreed with the opinion that birds know danger through their instinct.
The protected areas also contain a variety of indigenous trees that have meaning in the traditional Rwandan culture, beliefs and norms. We saw a tree known locally as “Umuko” with multiple meanings based on traditional beliefs of Rwandans. One of the stories about the tree is that it helps farmers to differentiate seasons. For example, dry and wet seasons by observing the colour, flower and branches of the tree. The tree is regarded as “Umurinzi” (The protector). According to Gimu, the tree was named after the widely known story of how the tree protected “Ryangombe”, the Ancestor that connected people with God, after an attack by an angry buffalo. Since then, this tree was planted in the yard and on the compound as its thorns would grow to protect the house, the cattle against the hyenas and from other animals that could attack the house.
Lessons I learned from through observation
I learned from my short visit in Nyandungu Urban Wetland Eco-tourism Park, that as humans, if we wish to bring a change to us and the environment, we need to develop a habit of connecting with nature and experience it through deep exploration. Nature has its own inspiring way of teaching us. This would lead to behavioural change and an understanding of things, their interconnectedness with nature and help us to embrace responsible actions towards nature and ourselves. This could be achieved through active participation, thoughtful about our actions, view all living organisms as equal, being a part of nature and not through the lens of humans being superior to other beings. The challenging task we all encounter is a lack of passion and commitment to living what we preach. This is mostly associated with influence from various aspects of socio-cultural, worldviews and religious perspectives. As Steven Harding clearly expressed, “Deep experience lies just below the surface of everyday awareness…deep experience is easily evoked, but its ethical implications are more difficult to assimilate.”
GER is an ABN partner in Rwanda. Through this partnership, ABN envisions reaching out to many communities in the country to build their resilience to climate crises among other pressures to seed and food sovereignty.
Stephan Harding’s Animate Earth is a core text studied in the Earth Jurisprudence Training, which Dr Fassil Gebeyehu took part in from 2014-2016.
- Animate Earth:
- GER website: