African indigenous knowledge: claiming, writing, storing, and sharing the discourse.
Commitment to a fundamental vision, a profound project, a spiritual quest, is the king of commitment that demonstrates vision ... a visionary aspect to a relationship establishes a purpose outside of and beyond the daily considerations of living. ... Visionaries do not simply work for others, they extend what they find. ... The visionaries say we shall do such and such and believe that it will be done because all things are possible. (Asante, 2003, p.69)
In indigenous ways of knowing, the self exists within a world subject to flux. The purpose of these ways of knowing is to reunify the world or at least reconcile the world with itself. Uniting these ways of knowing is necessary as each contributes to human development and requires its own appropriate expression. These ways hold at their teaching source a caring and feeling that survives the tensions of listening for the way of living within the context of flux, paradox, and tension; they respect the pull of dualism and reconcile opposing forces. In the realms of flux and paradox, 'truthing' is a practice that enables a person to know the spirit in every relationship. To develop these ways of knowing leads the person to a freedom of consciousness and a union with the natural world. In African systems of thought, the ontological position emphasizes that to understand reality is to weave a holistic view of society, that is, to accept the need for harmonious co-existence between nature, culture and society. Similarly, the epistemological position asserts that there are differing ways of viewing reality. Therefore, in the African context, knowledge is seen as cumulative and (is formed) from our everyday experiences (Scheurich & Young, 1997; Arewa, 1998).
This paper centers around two questions: (1) How can we utilize an indigenous African knowledge base in the academy? and (2) How can we bridge communications gaps between generations, diverse cultures of peoples of African ancestry and Canadianism? My engagement with these questions focuses on African indigenous education and community solidarity as I examine African indigenous knowledge as a form of epistemological recuperation for peoples of African ancestry. When I talk about indigenous knowledge, I do so as a counter-hegemonic challenge to the conventional discourse on African people. I do not exaggerate when I say that the cultural resource base and local knowledge of African people are the least analyzed, considered, or understood for their contributions to knowledge production or even to the survival of our communities, specifically when compared to other bodies of knowledge.
The goal is to dissect and examine the academic imperialism that currently controls and shapes the social, economic and political expressions of Africans and then create indigenous tools for teaching, learning and educating future generations.
I examine the utilization of African Indigenous Knowledge as a strategic tool that may be effectively employed in
1. Decolonizing ways of knowing, teaching and learning within the academy.
2. Creating African awareness both in the academy and globally.
3. Challenging the institutional powers and imperialistic structures that have prevented many African peoples from realizing the importance of dismantling the structures left behind by colonizers after the attainment of political independence.
4. Evoking alternative paradigms of education and social growth.
5. Acknowledging the current role of the educational system in producing and reproducing racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, gender, sexual and class-based inequities in society.
I refer to this strategy as the rewriting of history and the repositioning of African indigenous knowledge, a strategy crucial to social transformation. I use the terms indigenous and traditional interchangeably and, in this sense, traditional denotes a continuity of cultural values honed from past experiences and which shape the present--that is, how indigenous peoples have accommodated their new form of neo-cultural experiences. At the same time, the indigenous past offers a space to articulate an identity that has been and continues to be constructed in western or Euro-American ideology. This form of knowledge recognizes the multiple and collective origins of knowledge, and affirms that interpretation and analysis of social reality is subject to different and sometimes oppositional perspectives (Dei, 2000; Nathani, 2000).
I invite you to consider how an African indigenous knowledge base may offer alternative approaches to education and community solidarity. I stress the need to extend our analytical debates on issues concerning people of African ancestry by connecting the innumerable threads of indigenousness to both the objectives and practices of social, intellectual and emotional development of youth and community.
It is important thereby to acknowledge the following:
1. People of African ancestry are not homogenous and typify cultural diversity.
2. Some common elements exist between them.
3. African indigenous knowledge systems and traditions have been subjected to different forms of colonialism, neo-colonialism and consequent distortion.
4. African cultural resource knowledge is neither frozen in time nor space.
With these points in mind, let me define the essences of indigenous knowledge. George Dei (1999) describes it as a worldview that shapes the community's relationships with surrounding environments. It is the product of native people's direct experience with nature and its symbiotic relationship with the social world and, as such, is crucial for community survival. This knowledge, ancient, proven, and based on cognitive understandings and interpretations of social, physical and spiritual worlds, encompasses concepts, beliefs and perceptions of local peoples and their natural human-built environments (Dei, 1999). Capp (1997) notes that indigenous knowledge is generally transmitted orally, experientially, and is not written, but is learned through hands-on experience and not taught in an abstract context. Its parameters are holistic, non-linear and reflect a qualitative and intuitive mode of thinking. Rather than rely on explicit hypotheses, theories and laws, indigenous knowledge is spiritual, cumulative and collective knowledge that is constantly renewed. Traditional knowledge tries to understand systems within a framework of wholeness rather than isolate interacting parts (Capp, 1997). To put it concisely: indigenous knowledge is indigenous cultural synthesis.
Working Definition of Indigenous Knowledge
While various scholars articulate different denotations, many agree that indigenousness may be defined as knowledge consciousnesses arising locally and in association with long-term occupancy of a particular place. It is also referred to as local or traditional knowledge, or a large body of knowledge and skills that have been developed outside the formal educational system. The term indigenous has often been associated in the western context with the primitive, the wild, and the natural. But for millions of indigenous peoples all over the world, indigenous knowledge "is an every day rationalization that rewards individuals who live in a given locality" (Dei, 1999, p. 1). Indigenous knowledge "reflects the dynamic way in which the residents of an area have come to understand themselves in relation to their natural environment, and how they organize that folk knowledge of flora, fauna, cultural beliefs and history to enhance their lives" (Dei, p. 1). Often, when the topic of African indigenous knowledge is raised, we are expected to define the meaning of the phrase, but it is important to remember that because of the cultural diversity of African peoples, African indigenous knowledges are very specific to local areas. Molefi Keti Asante explains:
To understand African ways of thinking it is necessary to suspend for a while linearity and to consider the entire world, even the universe or universes, as one large system where everything is connected and interconnected. This is the principal African view of reality. ... Africa is a multi-plex of cultures. This does not mean that the underlying values of the various cultures are significantly different, as some have tried to contend. Everywhere in Africa there seems to be, from the earliest times, a commonality in the ways humans have approached the universe, environment, society, and the divine. (2000: 1-2)
It is this commonality that allows us to examine our comprehension of African cultures, politics and economics from the standpoint of African indigenous knowledge. This makes such knowledge dynamic because its prototypical elements include diverse life experiences that defy rigid conventions. As a result, codifying one specific and neatly packaged definition is not only difficult, but essentially inaccurate (Asante, 2000).
Embedded in culture, and unique to a given location, it is context-specific, and as previously noted, orally disseminated. This underlines the importance in understanding the specificities of indigenous knowledge in relation to specific locations, and in this particular context, Africa. When viewed from an international or universal perspective, indigenous knowledges have the following characteristics:
1. People have knowledge of and belief in unseen powers in the ecosystem.
2. All things in the ecosystem are mutually dependent.
3. Personal relationships reinforce the bond between persons, communities and ecosystems.
4. Persons who know these traditions are responsible for teaching/ passing them on.
5. Indigenous knowledge is generated within communities; however, it is location and culture specific; is not systematic or documented; is oral, holistic and stresses the principle of totality; it has no separation between science, art, religion, philosophy, aesthetics or spirituality.
It is important to note that outsiders to indigenous communities may, for example, know the name of indigenous medicines and even understand how they are applied. However, as Battiste and Henderson (2000) and Malidoma Some (1994) have stressed, without ceremony and ritual songs, chants, prayers, and relationships that accompany the healing ceremony, they (outsiders) cannot achieve the same effect.
This is but one example that illustrates the essence of indigenous knowledge as a complete knowledge system with its own concepts of epistemology, philosophy, and scientific and local validity and can only be fully learned or understood by means of the pedagogical tradition employed by indigenous peoples themselves; to learn indigenous perspectives requires a different method of research--such as extended conversations with elders, a willingness to put aside judgments, and take up the responsibility to apply the knowledge in daily practice.
In order to utilize African indigenous knowledges, it is important to keep in mind the need not to romanticize the past, but instead interrogating the know how of African indigenous knowledge in relation to their application to contemporary living. Additionally, peoples' interaction or engagement with such knowledge, crises and poverty, must also be examined in relation to the deconstruction of representations of neocolonial structures (Cesaire, 1972; Dei, 1993; 1999a; Mudimbe, 1988, 1994; Mudimbe & Appiah, 1993).
Colonizing the Mind and Its Impact on Indigenous Knowledges
Ngugi Wa Thiongo (1985), among many others, argues that the essence of colonial education was to dominate and control one's mental ability and self-definition in relationship to others. What the colonizer succeeded in achieving was destroying and undervaluing ways of knowing and teaching of not only African peoples, but other indigenous peoples of the world. The use (insistence) of a foreign language and concepts as mediums of education served/serves to make a student foreign within her or his own culture, environment, and created/creates a colonial alienation. The neo-colonized subject thus views the world and his place in it through the implanted eyes of the colonizer. This disintegration of self is compounded when the neo-colonized student is exposed to images of her or his world mirrored in the written language of the colonizer, wherein his own culture, history, and people are associated with low status, slow intelligence and barbarism. Yet, as Battiste and Henderson (2000: 105) have indicated, despite the Eurocentric compulsion to drive indigenous thought and formalize its spiritual teaching into a theology, many indigenous teachers have rejected the ideas of canonized, authoritative codifications and universal principles.
With everything I have examined this far, I would like to explore how African indigenous knowledges may be integrated into theorizing, knowing and conceptualizing the world. The reason for doing this is to lay the grounds for questioning the means of how we are taught to privilege certain ways of being, often at the expense of others, within sites of higher education. It is my belief that by simply raising the issue, we could begin to resist outside forces that prescribe the ways in which we (should) approach our work. This type of conversation is critical, as it impacts the forms of knowledge legitimated within the academy.
The role of African indigenous knowledge and its ways of knowing in teaching, learning and researching, does not take place in a vacuum, but rather within the context of a history of colonialism, imperialism, neocolonial, post-colonial, and anti-colonial discursive frameworks. Encounters between the colonizer and the colonized resulted in disrupting ways of knowing and teaching for most of the world's indigenous peoples. Therefore, in order to promote meaningful teaching and learning, educators must rethink how indigeniety may be infused within a Eurocentric curriculum.
Once one acknowledges the validity and potential of indigenous African knowledges and incorporates it across a broad spectrum of our current ways of learning, teaching and living, inevitable questions surface. For example: To what degree would its influence be felt within our educational systems, and our ways of relating to others, both living and non-living? What would occur if indigenous practices were valued within their long-standing cultural, ecological and spiritual contexts, and combined with existing or appropriate technologies, innovations, or approaches to address environmental degradation?
I believe that with an African indigenous concept of wholeness, and its negation of fragmentation, the ultimate result would be to influence change in the general mind-view of our society, education, environment, culture, and spirituality. It would, I propose, engender a positive reorientation of our ways of thinking, and refresh possibilities so long ignored. Eurocentric discourses serve the purpose of justifying a neo-colonial agenda, and further, inform research and policy that influence our current educational thought. Many theorists contend that we live in a post-colonial world, implying that we have somehow risen above the problematics of colonialism (Ashcroft, Griffiths & Tiffin, 1995). I argue that colonial processes of domination and imposition are as real today for African peoples as they were more than a century ago.
Indigenous knowledge is viewed as an ambiguous topic that immediately places analysts on dangerous terrain. In spite of this, I believe that the discourse is intellectually evocative and warrants reflection despite its complexity. I also believe that an understanding of indigenous epistemology provides scholars with another view of knowledge production in diverse cultural sites. Indigenous knowledge holds transformative possibilities because it provides an overt understanding of cultural processes by which information is legitimated and delimited. Learning from indigenous knowledge, by first investigating what local communities know and have, can improve understanding of local conditions and provide a productive context for activities designed to help these communities.
Recreation of indigenous knowledge in daily oral stories in indigenous languages, in daily agrarian work, in daily cures with indigenous plants, are ipso facto evidences that indigenous knowledge is alive, and indigenous peoples are actors through their knowledge use, and not passive repositories of a knowledge separated from their daily activities. This symbiosis of ideas and practices is holistic, presenting an encompassing knowledge circle of disciplines such as religion, law, economics and arts. Holistic-based knowledge is produced and reproduced within both human relationships and relationships with nature, its very character suffusing ecology to indigenous education. The home, rivers, gardens, and forests are settings for indigenous education by which indigenous knowledge is learned in a dialogical relationship with nature. Many indigenous scholars such as Some (1994) and Cajete (2000) note that because most indigenous peoples are still recovering from centuries of colonialism, we need a perspective from a higher place to understand where we have come from, where we are, and where we wish to go. Indeed, life and knowledge are ways of knowing ourselves within the context of rich relationships that make up our communities, environments and world. As we navigate our inner and outer landscapes, we move towards a greater understanding of ourselves.
There is a shared body of understanding among many indigenous people that education is really about helping an individual find his or her face--which means finding out who they are, where they originated, and their unique character. Education thus becomes a vehicle for helping them find their heart, that passionate sense of self that motivates them and moves them through life. Indigenous education is also about a sense of being multifaceted, essential to healing inner and outer fragmentation and honoring each person's humanness.
Indigenous Knowledge, Spirituality and Health
For many of the world's indigenous peoples, including Africans, we have maps in our heads. For some of us, these maps have been altered, landmarks changed, familiar routes redrawn; but the maps remain, inherited and enfolded within our genes, with the knowledge contained accessible to us when needed (Cajete, 2000). It continues to evolve and develop. So this map in our heads is really what we have to begin to deal with (Cajete, 2000: 190). We must remember that due to our various contacts, we carry something very subtle within us, but at the same time yearn to be a person centered in an African indigenous epistemology. As Malidome Some (1994) argues,
Each one of us possesses a center that he/she has grown away from after birth. ... The center is both within and without. It is everywhere. But we must realize it exists, find it, and be with it, for without the center we cannot tell who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. No one's center is like someone else's. Find your own center, not the center of your neighbour, not the center of your father or mother or family or ancestor, but that center which is yours and yours alone. (199)
What indigenous Africa offers to the modern world is a renewed understanding of the concepts of healing, ritual, and community. Healing is central, the fulcrum on which we turn, because it was learned very early that human beings are vulnerable to physiological and spiritual breakdown, and that this general instability touches all human existence. African peoples, as with many indigenous communities, have learned and accepted that their natural environment comprises subtle invisible energies which, when manipulated through ritual, can be harnessed for healing. Such concepts, when approached from a Eurocentric framework, are generally ridiculed, denigrated as 'superstition,' or labeled 'primitive,' and the inherent possibilities of alternate, ancient, and viable healing strategies are thereby invalidated.
The general health and well being of an individual are connected to the community and are not maintained alone or in a vacuum (Some, 1994). When, for instance, villagers act in concert toward a need for healing, they request the presence of invisible forces. According to Some (1994), ritual is an art that weaves and dances with symbols and, as it helps to create that art, rejuvenates participants. Rituals are aimed at increasing our awareness and freeing us from the rigidity of that part of the ego that wants to limit growth and experience. Rituals provide not only healing for participants but facilitate access to transformation, the recovery of memory, and the reaffirmation of each individual's life purpose.
African indigenous spirituality offers us a space where we can go beyond our social locations and limitations, and interconnect at a different, even higher level. This spirituality allows us a different entry point toward understanding our world. It is individual and collective consciousness affording us to see that we are a part of the cosmos and the cosmos is a part of us. It is dynamic, exhilarating, liberating (Wane, 2002).
Spirituality offers us an emancipatory mode of knowledge production with the goal of empowerment; hope triumphs, and depression is dissolved. Despite social and environmental dissonance, the aim is to achieve harmony with self, others, and nature. If we are to change our environment for the better, we must strive to change or heal ourselves. Spirituality allows us that space. Indigenous African spirituality is not outside oneself, but is an integral part of us. By being awake and present in the moment, one is able to free the spirit within by listening to that which cannot be spoken in words. When we achieve the state that transcends emotional constructs such as likes and dislikes, we can listen deeply and learn.
As we move through the inner and outer landscapes, we move towards a better understanding of ourselves (Some, 1994). People are our mirrors, like reflections in water. bell hooks sums it up thusly: "to live a life in the spirit, to be true to a life in the spirit we have to be willing to be called on--often in ways that we may not like" (2003: 158).
Indigenous Health Practices in Africa
Healing was very sacred work in ancient times and continues to be so today. Healing arts fell within the domain of priests and priestesses, medicine men and women, shamans and others who were respected for their knowledge of sacred mystery systems. Sick bodies, sick minds, and spiritual depletion are all indicators inviting healing interventions. Our African ancestors paid attention to all these aspects, because they knew that when one was awry, all other areas were affected (Arewa, 1998).
In Africa, more than 80 percent of the continent's rural population relies on plant and animal-based medicine to meet health care requirements. For the most part, the plants and animals used in traditional medicine are collected from the wild, and in many cases, demand exceeds supply. As Africa's population grows, demand for traditional medicines increases, and pressure on natural resources becomes greater. Throughout the continent, many health-oriented ministries are now encouraging the use of local medicinal plants and have established departments of traditional pharmacopoeia within the ministries to implement policies that are prime examples of practical ethnobotany.
We are well aware that many modern and ancient medicines have a plant origin and were/are utilized in treatments for illness and disease. Plants and their derivatives contribute to more than 50 percent of all drugs used worldwide; some well-known examples of plant-derived drugs include quinine, morphine, codeine, and aspirin. Recently, new anticancer drugs such as Taxol have been derived from the Yew tree. It is estimated that 70 percent of South Africans consult traditional healers, use traditional plant-derived formulas.
Traditional healers use plants in myriad ways: parts of plants can be applied directly to wounds, prepared as powders that are used like snuff, inhaled in the form of smoke or fumes, or drunk as an infusion. When we examine African indigenous knowledges, we should resist the immediate temptation to condemn and dismiss, and equally, to justify, idealize or romanticize. Although all of us recognize and frequently depend on the efficacy of modern medicines, this should not negate our bringing open minds to the present and future potential of traditional medicines.
Indigenous Knowledge, Nature or Environment
The cosmology or belief system of ancient African peoples has relevance to how African people understand and conceptualize ecosystems, environmental change, and conservation today. Women, in particular, were/are held as custodians of the land, their knowledge passed on through generations in the forms of stories, riddles, proverbs and folklore (Wane, 2002). As a result, throughout the ages, African children were taught to value the earth. Arewa (1998) eloquently captures this by explaining how Mother Africa taught her children to respect the earth and all that dwell on her; she taught them the laws of nature and helped them to understand cosmic rhythms. Ancient Africans lived closely with nature and they realized that internal energies are also governed by the four elements--water, earth, air and fire. Owing to the absence of written records, explorations of ancestral teachings have been limited. However, we do know from archaeological research that ancient Nubians believed in a close connection between themselves and the universe. They arrived at this knowledge by paying close attention to their relations with self, the universe, and creation (Arewa, 1998). Unfortunately, many people today have lost this sense of connection. Afua Cooper (2000) suggests that close attention to body, mind and universe will bring us to the place where we will start experiencing sensitivities toward the earth. For thousands of years, ancient and indigenous societies have viewed physical and biological environments as linked in a web of relationships. Ancient Egyptian, as well as Nubian and Ethiopian kingdoms are three of the greatest contributors of indigenous African knowledge. African peoples contributed to ancient Egyptians in the areas of geometry, science, philosophy, architecture, writing and organized religion. The Nubians brought to Egypt the monarchy, and a belief in divine kingship. Africa is also rich in every aspect of human art. As the cradle of civilization and the home of many art forms, it has shared its artistic spirit with every continent.
Centuries of association with the environment have produced a deep understanding of the inter-relationships between landscape elements and or habitats. Because fluctuations in the environment require adaptive responses, communities have evolved a wide range of diversified survival strategies at both intra- and inter-household levels as well as at that of the community. Western systems of knowledge in agriculture and medicine were/are defined as the only legitimate scientific systems; indigenous systems of knowledge were/are defined as inferior and unscientific. Thus, instead of strengthening research on safe and sustainable plant-based pesticides such as neem and pongamia, the focus was exclusively on the development and promotion of hazardous and non-sustainable chemical pesticides such as DDT and Sevin.
Many now recognize that the current chemical route to preserving agriculture is failing, is dangerous to human health, and should be abandoned. This allows an opportunity to re-evaluate indigenous knowledge systems and move away from the falsely-constructed hierarchy of mainstream knowledge systems. Scientists are awakening to the viability and importance of indigenous knowledge as a valuable alternate strategy toward promoting sustainable agriculture. Thrupp (1989) has noted that the identification, recording, and use of indigenous knowledge is receiving increased institutional support. But what has happened since? Did this apparent re-valuing of indigenous knowledge and its ecological application to die on the vine? Or have scientists decided that genetically manipulated plants are a better choice? The answers to these questions remain, in part, unclear.
Clearly, it is necessary to understand traditional knowledge systems of agriculture before they are applied as adjuncts to new strategies involving existing local agro-ecosystems. Put another way, we must shift from the less productive top-down development approaches to a more realistic bottom-up strategy. An improved flow from farmers to researchers will greatly increase the likelihood that technologies developed are appropriately suited to low-input conditions (Thrupp, 1989). It is now realized that indigenous knowledge systems, though complex, are rational and functional, and instead of being viewed as part of the problem, can contribute to the solution of sustaining the world's food supply.
Indigenous knowledge systems aimed at local self-reliance in nutrition and health care need criteria for protection that differs from western models based mainly on patents. A primary quality of indigenous knowledge lies in collective innovation that does not ignore heritage and community rights. This knowledge continues to evolve by modifying, adapting, and building on existing knowledge. Thus, when we discuss innovation, we must redefine what we mean and reject the notion that innovation is a 'one shot' process, for neither indigenous systems nor western scientific tradition regard innovation as an isolated activity in the temporal or social context.
Traditional uses of natural resources developed over centuries when human settlement was sparse. During the last several centuries, the rapid expansion of farming, industry and towns resulted in the over exploitation of natural resources and drastic reductions of the supply of traditional materials. With current pressure on valued raw materials, there is danger that many will disappear. If this environmental onslaught continues unabated, traditions will also gradually recede and our cultural heritage will further diminish.
Indigenous Knowledge and Poverty
Many young people have refused to embrace indigenous knowledge practices because they associate them with poverty, scarcity, and lack of material wealth. This is because when missionaries first came to Africa, the first thing they talked about was spiritual poverty. Their misguided ignorance, arrogance, and lack of respect ensured that Africans became even poorer as their natural African spirituality and religions came under deliberate attacks. Then government workers came with their knowledge about food production, and Africans were told that their indigenous food production techniques were inferior. The assault continued as Africans were pushed into cultural poverty as their knowledge was replaced by that of the colonizer. The result was large scale poverty among most Africans.
One strategy for addressing this is by prevailing upon African governments to look into the causal issues related to material poverty, as well as issues related to knowledge, skills and spirituality. In other words, local people who are the fount of indigenous knowledge and skills should be commended for maintaining that which has ancient and viable roots. These custodians should be encouraged to find new ways of sustaining their livelihood and culture, rather than being labeled 'backward' as their knowledge is discarded. This is particularly relevant to youth who need motivation and wisdom in order to take pride in developing the valuable aspects of traditional life-styles. Change agents who want to introduce new ideas must deal creatively with local knowledge, practices and beliefs.
In today's world, globalization has accelerated the flow of indigenous knowledges across geographical, political and cultural borders. The commodification of knowledge across space and time has implications far beyond maintaining the integrity of indigenous African knowledge production. African people, have a mandate to confront insidious attempts at cultural, economic and political recolonization. There is a need to conceptualize the repositioning of African indigenous knowledges, despite the fact that we are faced with the devaluation and fragmentation of traditional values and beliefs, the erosion of spirituality, and the distortion in local, regional, and national economies. However, Africans need to re-articulate a theory for social development that (re)centers local people's worldviews. This theory must be culturally specific and address social, cultural, economic, political, spiritual and cosmological aspects of African realities.
I must place emphasis on internal debate within traditional cultures in order to develop new alternatives (Hountordji, 1994). That is, ways to support the innate dynamism of indigenous practices must be fostered so that they can achieve acceptance and parity in the modern world. How can traditional beliefs be applied to conserving national resources and yet allow preservation of indigenous cultures? In most African countries environmental abuses threaten the livelihoods of the most marginalized societal groups. Is it possible to ask traditional elders and spirit mediums to guide Africans in healing their land? Indigenous educators have to be encouraged to closely scrutinize the fabric of history--its stitches, its seams, its patterns. We all must adopt views that allow us to understand the oppressive nature of the compact. Only through deep reflection and commitment can necessary changes be effected beyond the merely superficial. This demands a virtual reinvention of habitual thought processes inculcated by the Western educational system that conditions us to think in prescribed ways about education, life, spirituality, the environment, and even ourselves. Changes must begin within each of us, and we must be honest through the process.
However, there is indeed hope just over the horizon, for despite the growing evidence of deteriorating biodiversity and assaults on cultural mores, an increasing number of peoples worldwide are engaging alternative developments and repositioning indigenous knowledges. This is witnessed in the efforts of local and indigenous peoples, grassroots organizations, activists, scientists and policy makers. An encouraging example was the Congress on Cultures and Biodiversity held in Yunnan, China in 2000, to assess indigenous knowledges.
What does communal solidarity mean and what benefits are accrued through such a discourse? Community solidarity is a very important feature of African indigenous ways of organizing. Among many Africans, traditional social groups and clans acted together to protect their resources, preserve their identities, and provide moral and physical support to those needing it. Mutually beneficial action encompassed all aspects of life, and was marked by creativity, resourcefulness, compassion, hospitality and generosity. In Kenya, for example, women and men assisted, and still do, each other in clearing land, harvesting in times of sickness, comforting each during moments of grief, assisting in childbirth, so forth. In today's world, this mutual assistance has been conceptualized nationally to form what is known as "Harambee"--"Let's pull together." Hospitals, schools, roads, homes, have been built by pooling community labor and resources. Equally, many children in Kenya have benefited from this basic, yet profound concept. Thus, when Africans say it takes a village to educate a child, they do not merely utter the words they actualize them.
Other examples of self-help may be found among the Chagga of Tanzania (Bendera 1991: 126-127) [Upatu], Susu among the Akan of Ghana, and the Esusu among the Yoruba of Nigeria. In contemporary Africa, traces of voluntary social group actions continue to enhance communities' limited economic resources. The indigenous African epistemological construct embraces the rights of citizenship and insists on matching obligations and responsibilities to the community in which one resides. This is the essence of collective responsibility (Dei, 2000; Wangoola, 2000; Smith, 2000).
Historically, Africans were socialized to define themselves by their social obligations to the wider community (Mbiti, 1982). African indigenousness cultivates respect for the authority of elders for their wisdom, knowledge of community affairs, and closeness to the ancestors. In the African traditional worldview, elders instructed youth, and youth respected the knowledge imparted. Indigenous African cultures have a spiritual grounding that incorporates a deep reverence of the universe, creation, the living and the dead, and acknowledges and respects forces (supernatural powers) that threaten people and communities with calamities. What, then, will it take to (re)implement this concept in different parts of Africa, utilizing it as a rejuvenatory process to extricate entire communities from current problems?
I believe social and ecological unity among African peoples and habitats are critical. Social transformation encompasses social as well as ecological unity and is only possible if it unfolds from our spiritual values and embraces community. Unfortunately, many African leaders operate not from a mindset of African spirituality and practices, but from a concept owing its origins to indoctrinated Eurocentric perspectives of power and control. Those leaders who lack social transformation will find it difficult to implement social justice, political democracy, and economic fairness that emphasize communal solidarity.
Including Indigenous Knowledge in the Academic Curriculum
In Africa, the assimilation of western formal education into the school curriculum has often served as an obstacle to the process of cultural transmission and intergenerational communication. It is an accepted fact in educational circles that the school is/should be an active participant in perpetuating the nation's cultural heritage and developing within youth the skills and knowledge for preventing ethnocide. However, there has been a precipitous decline in intergenerational communication, attributed to educational systems adopted from colonial models. Thus, with generations uprooted from their traditional centers, there is little doubt that there is a need to reclaim indigenous educational institutions and reinstate understandings of norms, values, ritual and ceremonies, essential elements in cultural growth and stability (Boateng, 1990). An analysis of traditional oral literature and education reveal their effectiveness in ensuring an intergenerational communication enhanced by storytelling, observation, ceremonies, myths, legends and proverbs. As a result, children exposed to these teachings will absorb the intrinsic values of their culture, values reinforced by adult living. Why can't we revisit these teaching forms? What would it take to embrace and incorporate these practices in our curricula and our daily experiences?
While a wholesale revival of the past is unrealistic and unacceptable, educational planners should note that a total rejection of African heritages would leave African societies in a vacuum that can only be filled with confusion, loss of identity, and a total breakdown in international communication and education (Boateng, 1990). Indigenous knowledges encourage the construction of just and inclusive academic spheres. Indigenous educators bring a new dimension to the academy, as they use subjugated knowledges to reconceptualize academy practices (p.37).
The rate of erosion of indigenous knowledge has never been as high as is exhibited in the current generation. Several factors explain this:
1. The changing family structure from extended to nuclear families has consequently weakened links between grandparents and grandchildren (parents are already alienated from these knowledge systems due to the heavy influence of modernity);
2. The lesser esteem held for this knowledge in primary school curricula;
3. The transition from oral to written culture; and
4. The inability or unwillingness of many older healers and herbalists to share their knowledge because of an historical devaluation; this unwillingness arises because outsiders extracted local knowledge, commercialized or published it without attribution, reciprocity, or benefits sharing.
Knowledge erosion is a serious threat for obvious reasons: if there is no knowledge about given resources, plants become weeds and proverbs become meaningless. It becomes not only difficult to locate what is useful or known, but the incentives for conservation are reduced. In ecological economic terms, lack of knowledge by the current generation is the byproduct of a loss of applicable knowledge about resources. Conserving indigenous knowledge without the preservation of associated knowledge systems is akin to establishing and maintaining a library without a reference section. Such a section might develop over time, but until then library users would suffer (Battiste, 2000). So it is with those who apply indigenous knowledge without the sound and accurate knowledge base accumulated over centuries by indigenous peoples and within local communities. Formal scientific knowledge of human beings, plants and animals is complex; however, the foundation of knowledge established, classified, organized and practiced by different indigenous communities is similarly complex and dynamic. Indigenous knowledge should be augmented at all levels and requires that educators should research subjugated knowledges. This is essential if indigenous-informed teachers are to free themselves from a Eurocentric paradigm. Indigenous knowledge will open for them a new dialogue about the very nature of knowledge and the purpose of education. Battiste (2000) argues that cognitive imperialism is a form of cognitive manipulation used to disclaim other knowledge bases and is validated through its pre-eminent position in the public education curriculum. She recognizes that cognitive imperialism denies people their language and cultural integrity by maintaining the legitimacy of only one language, one culture, and one frame of reference (2000). Many indigenous peoples of the world can identify with the ways in which their knowledges have been omitted from what is considered a valid curriculum.
"Under the guise of equality, mainstream education has been used by both external and internal oppressors to suppress and destroy cultural identities of Indigenous students who are taught that their traditional values, cultures, languages, religions, histories, art, music and knowledge are beneath those of the dominating invader" (Kameelebhiwa, 1992).
In the same way mainstream education is used to persuade indigenous students that they are inferior, it is also used to instill a sense of superiority in students from the dominant culture (Greaves, 1994). Traditional school curricula, based on the perspective of the dominant culture, exclude or isolate indigenous perspectives and contributions. Dominant students learn that their culture is the only one of value and their views are the only ones that should be respected (Reyhner, 1992).
Understanding diverse ways of knowing and seeing will assist teacher and learner to clarify the purposes of their own educational activities and facilitate their attempts to answer the question: What are schools for? The curricular inclusion of indigenous knowledge will grant westerners a needed interaction with 'difference'--a conversation we believe will lead to a heightened western consciousness and an empowering pedagogical force. Transformative curricula must not be viewed as an exercise in toleration, but must be cultivated as a catalyst to creativity and insight.
The globalization of western culture constantly reaffirms the west's view of itself as the center of legitimate knowledge, the arbiter of knowledge itself, and the source of 'civilized' knowledge. However, many indigenous communities today, like the Shuar peoples of Ecuador, are reclaiming and finding ways of incorporating indigenous knowledges into their educational curricula. The Shuar, through radio, general education programs, and lessons on their history and culture used in tandem with textbooks written by the Shuar themselves, are educating both young and old. Previously, Shuar students were educated in predominantly non-indigenous classes at boarding schools which was a major cause for their low academic performances (Reyhner, 1992).
Incorporating indigenous knowledge in the academy may be viewed by many as provocative. Dei (1999) asserts that a profoundly challenging task in this regard is to facilitate the recognition and validation of the legitimacy of indigenous knowledges as a pedagogic instructional communicative tool in the processes of delivering education. The challenge starts with hiring indigenous and racial minority scholars to join teaching faculties, and integrating indigenous knowledges into the curriculum as well as into the instructional and pedagogic practices of educators and learners. As Dei puts it, ultimately one has to consider the role of indigenous knowledges in the academy as primarily one of resistance to Eurocentrism, that is resistance to the dominance of Eurocentric knowledge as the only valid way of knowing (Dei, 1999). However, I believe that both indigenous and non-indigenous learners can benefit and flourish from learning about indigenous knowledges. The objective here is that indigenous knowledges, practices and traditions, as with any other form of knowledge, be given credible places in schools and institutions. This amalgamation of indigenous knowledges into the educational system must begin in early childhood and continue through university. Without a thorough integration, students and educators would continue to question whether a systemic review and transformation of the curriculum is needed (Henderson, 2000).
Cajete argues that Eurocentric curricula and methods must renounce their assured higher authority. "To imagine the impossible and to talk about it effectively we must confront Eurocentric thought and its fragmented discipline. There is a shared body of understanding among many Indigenous peoples that education is really about helping an individual find his or her faces which means finding out who you are and that education should help you find your heart" (Cajete 2000: 164).
An understanding of indigenous ways reveals different perspectives of viewing the world. Indigenous knowledge is essential to social, educational and ecological health. We need to revisit the past, learn from it, adopt a code that values all peoples, and create avenues where elders participate in our schools and in our lives. We need to emphasize community solidarity and create linkages that extend beyond local communities, encompassing national and international arenas, as well as issues of poverty across gender, race and ethnicity. These threads of living should connect, and where they diverge, genuine efforts must be undertaken toward repair and consolidate. There is, therefore, a requisite to collaborate and work towards a social transformation that is individually conceived and communally actualized. In this, the academy plays a crucial role, for linking it to educational reform is part of a larger socio-political struggle. That, is, the scholars could add in their teaching, learning, and researching the following:
1. Acknowledge other types of knowledges;
2. Indigenous knowledges must not be presented as counterknowledges vis-a-vis western knowledges, but rather as an equally valid way of knowing;
3. Indigenous knowledges should be treated not only desirable in school institutions, but also as a necessary and effective form of teaching and learning in all schools;
4. Acknowledge that other knowledges, not just a Eurocentric framework, can result in transformation and offer additional insights to all students.
To preserve indigenous knowledge for future generations, we must recognize its transcendent qualities, its holistic nature, its reverence for the community, the earth, and the dignity it holds for life and living.
I would like to acknowledge the anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback, and Bathseba Opini, Erica Negan, and James Ziral for their reading and editing earlier drafts and commenting on them, and Joseph Mulongo who did a library search for this paper.
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Njoki Nathani Wane
University of Toronto
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|Author:||Wane, Njoki Nathani|
|Publication:||Journal of Thought|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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