Can stories save our environment?


The stories we tell define who we are. Grace Masuku was educated at school, but learnt her place among the land and its people from her elders. Storytelling instilled in her a sense of community and a commitment to protecting the earth. Having worked her entire life to preserve her culture and the environment, Masuku – now in her ninth decade – is focusing on her latest nation-building effort: a museum sharing indigenous knowledge. “I carry the traditions I’ve learnt to inspire people, to let people know themselves,” she says.

The Mphebatho Cultural Museum, containing artefacts of the Bakgatla-Ba-Kgafela people, is the first of its kind in the North West Province. It was inspired by the realisation that schools don’t teach traditions which still hold value today. As more people migrate to cities, a vast amount of important cultural knowledge with practical use is forgotten. The museum recaptures the history of Masuku’s people and provides a way forward. This is not the first time she has used her indigenous learnings to benefit communities. When a North West mine closed, Masuku helped over 1 000 households that depended on the mine to make a sustainable profit from a resource they already had – goats. Other villages soon followed her model, selling goat meat and milk and making handbags, purses and belts from goat leather.

A former school principal, Masuku works to sustain indigenous ecology and the economy. She conducts eco-tours, runs traditional conservation clubs at schools and has initiated a regional culture festival. Different Tswana tribes engage in friendly competition to highlight their similarities along with their differences, allowing them to learn from each other. “Life depends on the environment. And if you cannot protect our environment, we have lost the jewel of ourselves,” she says. Her efforts have been richly celebrated, earning her the Counsellor of the Order of Baobab in 2006 from the presidency and the 2012 Inyathelo Award for Lifetime Community Philanthropy, as well as being named a National Living Treasure by the National Heritage Council in 2005 and featured as part of the 21 Icons project. Her culture taught this environmentalist everything she knows. Now, Masuku continues to tell those stories to save her community and the earth.