• emeagwali@ccsu.edu

African Indigenous Knowledge Systems



In the first part of the paper, we examine conceptual issues associated with Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IK), including the nature of the intersection between Science and IK. We reflect also on methodological pluralism, and knowledge production. Intellectual property rights and empowerment are also examined. We then explore the multiple linkages between IK and the curriculum, in terms of needs, goals, teaching strategies and instructional resources of various kinds. We reflect on anticipated outcomes and methods of evaluation. We also discuss the role of the library media center, and the library consultant, in curriculum planning with respect to IK. Our emphasis is on those components of IK which describe, explain, predict and try to negotiate nature. In the first section of the paper, we also explore some curriculum models and approaches relevant to our discourse, and various dimensions of teaching, learning and researching AIK, through the use of ‘oral traditions’ and other methodologies. In the second part of the paper we provide specific instructional guidelines on African Traditional Medicine, Mathematics, Food Processing, Metallurgy and Building Technology. Selected readings and multimedia resources are identified along with current instructional and research challenges. In the course of the paper we specify that AIK, whether institutionalized or not, structured or unstructured, has specific implications for democratization, community empowerment and nation building. We argue that it also has implications for sustainable development, capacity building and intellectual development in Africa, in the 21st century.

Indigenous Knowledge (IK) and Science

There are intersections between mainstream science and IK. At the core of mainstream science is the desire to negotiate nature, through sequential processes such as hypothesis formulation, experiment and prediction. The process of discovery may be intuitive, accidental, conjectural or inspirational but outcomes are generally predictable and repeatable, although some scholars argue that the general thrust of mainstream science, is to explain regularity, and to deliberately exclude the unique and intractable. Knowledge production, in mainstream science, includes phases of experimentation through trial and error or otherwise. But there are some areas of non-convergence as well between IK and discovery and experimentation and the mode of transmission and sharing is often collective rather than individualistic. Embedded in the products and services associated with IK are proprietary systems which are often more flexible and negotiable than its western counterpart in some cases and non-existent in others. The engine of growth and sustenance is neither the market nor the profit mainstream science. IK seems to be relatively less transferable than conventional science, given its holistic socio-cultural and even spiritual dimensions. IK appears to be largely communitarian in terms of motive, nor is it prone to large-scale mass production and economies of scale. IKS provides excellent examples of community based, and community biased research. Its weakness lies in its close reliance and over dependence on demographic stability and morality. The community is a source of strength for IK in terms of the discovery process and knowledge production. For methodological pluralists such as Paul Feyerabend, by implication, IK is science because it functions. For some ‘unified theorists’ who believe in the concept of a single science, IK may probably be construed as scientific in the light of some of the common features associated with the enterprise. One perspective suggests that IK should be integrated into the mainstream whilst another implies that IK is science – separate from the mainstream, but equal.

African Indigenous Knowledge Systems (AIK): Goals and Outcomes

Resolving theoretical and conceptual issues about the identity of African Indigenous Knowledge Systems (AIK) is in fact one of the many challenges confronting African philosophers, historians, anthropologists and educators. There are numerous other theoretical and methodological puzzles, most of which would best be resolved in structured discussions within an institutional framework, in the context of a planned curriculum and formalized discourse. European philosophers of science from Popper to Lakatos, and Kuhn to Feyerabend have spent an inordinate amount of time discussing the nature of rationality, objectivity and problem solving in mainstream science. We need to do the same for AIK, rejecting, accepting, modifying or adapting relevant conceptual baggage in the field, and creating entirely new constructs of analysis for understanding the phenomenon, where necessary.

The need for the inclusion of AIK in the curriculum goes beyond the above issue, however, no matter how significant the latter objective may be. There are psychological, intellectual, and economic reasons, which basically stem from the mode of evolution of the historical process in the continent, as well as the structures of intellectual dominance and dependence associated with colonial and postcolonial hierarchies and power elites. We have elsewhere identified several strategies of disinformation embedded in eurocentric, colonial and post-colonial education, including the selective omission of non- European achievements, inventions and technologies; the distortion of data; surreptitious naming; and several other strategies of colonization and recolonization. The recognition and appreciation of IKS is a source of healing of therapeutic import, in the context of unhealthy imbalances, distortion, trivialization and neglect, as inflicted by eurocentric education and governance. Tapping into the intellectual resources associated with IK is not only cost effective but also relevant and indispensable, for environmentally and ecologically sensitive activity.

It is at the level of economic sustainability, self-reliance, and cost effectiveness, however, that AIK continues to prove its viability and strength. The most vibrant sectors of African economies, at this present time, are the informal sectors, sometimes referred to as the second economy. In some cases over 50% of total economic growth takes place in this arena of small-scale producers, manufacturers and bankers. Specialists and technical operatives include metallurgists, textile manufacturers and food processors. The interesting issue here is that many of the agents and agencies associated with the second economy, tap into the accumulated skills and expertise, and indigenous knowledge systems, from traditional Africa.

The fact is that Africa in the 20th century was afflicted by 2 major externally derived economic models of exploitation, namely, the colonial model of exploitation and neo-colonial models aimed at recolonization. The economic and epistemological or knowledge oriented aspects of those models were aimed at exploitation and mal-development. Built into those models were negative and unwholesome presuppositions about race, gender and segregationist policies, and discriminatory modes of allocation of space, resources and infrastructure prevailed. Export- oriented growth, monoculture, and outward-bound programs for the export of first stage mineral and agricultural extraction, were the dominant trends in most parts of the continent.

The survival of the informal sector took place against the odds. Its survival is a testimony to the strong capacity for resilience and growth, of AIK, which invariably persists ,not only at the level of material culture and the natural environment, but, also, in fields such as business management, banking, and hospitality or service. Jeffrey Fadiman points out in ‘South Africa’s Black Market’ (Fadiman,2000) that African business methods include a people- centered approach, which places people above the product. In a reversal of western business strategy, personal relationships precede product presentation. He identifies indigenous management strategies that are the result of indigenous commercial value systems, and ethics ‘refined’ over several millennia. Fadiman’s text is geared for the business traveler from the West, but it is an excellent springboard for in-depth research into IK, at the level of management and business administration.

The entrenchment within the curriculum and the educational milieu of structures for the critical evaluation, understanding, and revitalization of AIK, must necessarily be an important challenge for 21st century policy makers and educators. The end result could be the consolidation of self-sustaining networks of local researchers, democratically engaged in research, and compatible with community values, aspirations and goals. It could also establish a pathway towards the consolidation of democratic forms of knowledge production, if done within the framework of openness, and empathetic critical research. Research that matters in this context would also include discussions about intellectual property rights and the nature of compensation for indigenous knowledge workers and experts. At the moment, institutional science is taught in the context of a eurocentric paradigm that carries along with it, disdain, disrespect and arrogance. It is hoped that respect, humility and openness would be some of the values permeating the new curriculum.

The Curriculum and AIK

Whether one views the curriculum as an academic plan, a map, or a sequence of steps, the reality is that theoretically speaking there are various models to choose from. We shall discuss two of these and reflect on the implications for teaching and learning strategies, content, evaluation and anticipated outcomes, with respect to Africa’s IK. The two selected models, models ‘A’ and ‘B’ do not constitute all possible approaches to the curriculum, but they seem to be amongst the most dominant. The first model implies that knowledge consists of an independent body of facts that can be assimilated and transmitted through a good teacher, and, by means of thorough coverage of specific textbooks. Students are effectively assessed by occasional exams, that may be objective tests, or essays. This particular model is generally teacher- centered, and the instructor is a major actor in the learning process. The content is generally logically arranged in a sequence of units. Educational content may be identified with specific disciplines in this teacher- centered ,and subject- based model. It is quite feasible, though, to have variations of the model, which utilize student, centered learning strategies, within the context of core areas of study. Use of the Library Media Center may be relatively restricted, in this approach, given the emphasis on one or two textbooks, identified by the teacher as exemplary. To teach AIK in this classroom environment entails the discovery of one or two outstanding texts which would have incorporated identified core areas. At its worst, the textbooks, if eurocentric, place the entire enterprise at risk – through insinuation, ridicule and negative representations aimed at perpetuating eurocentric superiority and triumphalism. In this case, both teacher and student may be hostages to text. At its best, however, the student emerges informed, although not necessarily critically aware of societal improprieties, and prevailing power relations.

In the case of the more critically engaged model, however, the focus is socially oriented. Students are encouraged and trained to challenge existing relations of power and domination in terms of a transformative epistemology. Awareness of societal ills at local and global levels preoccupies discourse, and, the curriculum is viewed as an instrument of empowerment. Consciousness raising, and so, too, the development of social awareness, become part of the mission of the curriculum and curriculum planning. With this model, the use of the library media center is extensive. Learning and teaching strategies are decisively student centered. There is a greater range of methodological experimentation and more willingness to utilize student centered resources. This model also aims at developing the mind and the intellect, in the context of rigorous intellectual activity, and community-oriented research. Its implications for indigenous knowledge are manifested in affective, cognitive and methodological approaches, including a more experimental use of instructional resources. There is a keen awareness that knowledge production is socially derived, and that relations of domination and oppression could affect content. Evaluation in the context of this approach is not associated with objective tests, and the like, but rather, with measuring attitudes and social consciousness, and, as pointed out by Susan Toohey, this is sometimes negotiable through dialogue. For the first approach, AIK may be structured along the lines of conventional disciplines. In the second, a more decidedly problem -oriented approach is undertaken. The concept of praxis is a prominent item on the agenda, and so, too, are community – based projects. For the first model, the structure of knowledge is logical. For the other its basis is social.

Oral Tradition and AIK

The most significant information gathering exercise for AIK is Oral Tradition, namely, the collective testimonies and recollections of the past, inherited from earlier generations, and transmitted in various forms of verbal testimonies. Orally transmitted information inherited from past generations may be shared in both structured and unstructured contexts. It constitutes a major resource and has been classified by many different scholars. Vansina’s thoughtful classification is still handy. His five categories of Oral Tradition include formulae embedded in slogans, ceremonial or spiritually derived language, poetry, leadership lists of reigning monarchs, narratives or tales and commentaries. Narratives may be historical, instructive, artistic or personal and commentaries legal or non-legal. Needless to say, that 27 types of Yoruba poetry have been identified by one researcher, including poetry for wedding ceremonies, for relaxation and entertainment, for funerals of well known personalities, and poetry for the ‘Orisa’ of wisdom, IFA.

The most relevant kind of poetry for indigenous knowledge research, of the kind emphasized in this paper, seems to be praise poems, poetic invocations for traditional healing, and poetry expressing deep thought and philosophy. To tap the resources associated with Akan Oral Tradition, one must understand and identify the various specialists associated with the enterprise, such as minstrels, masters of ceremony, royal drummers, royal horn blowers, spokesmen of the king, the funerary priests of the king, the king’s carrier, the female soul bearers, the masters of ceremony to the divinities, and various court functionaries and administrators.

There are important ground rules for researchers into indigenous knowledge systems who utilize Oral Tradition. At a preliminary stage, researchers must be fully sensitive to the status of the provider of information, his or her stake in the system and the various versions of the traditional explanation given. Preliminary questions should be asked about the ethnic identity of the group or community associated with the orally shared information. There should be a clear understanding of whether or not the orally transmitted information is myth, legend, proverb, chant , praise song or of unidentified or unidentifiable origin. The researcher should determine whether the information has relevance for researching genealogy, traditions of origin, migration patterns, settlement patterns, biography , spiritual and religious trends, medical techniques, food processing, textile, building, botanical or other methodologies, general lifestyle or otherwise. Particular attention must be placed on time- specific references such as natural disasters, eclipses or contemporaneous events. Ambivalent concepts must be identified and so, too, distortions, if any, in the translation process. Gender, racial or private biases must be recognized, and so, too, the extent to which such biases are associated with the community, the presenter or the translator of the oral document. The nature of transmission of the document is significant because court historians tend to interpret differently from unofficial griots or institutions such as specialized training schools. If the data is associated with collective memory, one should be aware of that.

Instructional Resources and AIK

No longer is the library primarily a depository of books, nor the librarian mainly a caretaker and custodian. The profession is in a stage of great transformation. According to Carol Kearney, the librarian of old is being transformed into a curriculum planner, and a media specialist, significant in the use of a wide range of resources such as computer generated programs, and a wide range of internet derived resources, including virtual museums, virtual laboratories, and even virtual libraries. Audiotapes retain their appeal, and, so do more conventional resources. Given the importance of Oral Tradition, both in research methodology, and in information gathering, the audio tape probably remains the most important resource of all. It is cheaper and less intimidating than the camcorder and some other newer technologies, and the concept of depositing finished tapes in the library media center is not difficult to implement and sustain. The onus of any African Indigenous Knowledge Center is to extensively document, before it is too late, a variety of accumulated experiences from African regions near and far, obscure or obvious. Colonial espionage provided a series of anthropologically based intelligence reports. The newly independent states of Africa must now engage in this exercise for the right reasons, and collaborate with their predecessors, in the construction of databases of all types. This must be done in the context of knowledge accumulation and consolidation, problem solving and community enrichment.

The role of the library media center in curriculum planning is related not only to instructional material, but also to teaching and learning strategies such as discussions, debates, symposia, interviews and tutorials. The participatory atmosphere generated by such activities is quite compatible with the spirit and content of IK. A fundamental assumption ,here ,is that the classroom teacher at various levels must collaborate with the Library Media Center in identifying needs, devising instructional content, and by providing learning experiences. In fact Urbank sees the teamwork between the two professionals in terms of three possibilities, namely,’ the teacher planned approach’, ‘the librarian planned approach’ and ‘ the unified team approach’. In the ideal situation the library consultant is aware of the teaching goals, content to be taught, and teaching and learning strategies to be implemented. It is obvious that the librarian must therefore be generously rewarded and given appropriate financial and other incentives.

In the current era of IMF / World Bank structural adjustment impositions and debt repayment, there are serious financial constraints. We are aware also of the impact of these programs on the funding of educational institutions and library systems, and therefore the search for excellence is also a search for affordable resources, whether at the level of instruction or resource management. Because AIK research is largely community based, a major investment in the enterprise is the well being, health and survival of the most valuable resource of all, people. This is all the more why the current AIDS pandemic is tragic. On a positive note, though, observe that indigenous systems of knowledge production facilitated the discovery of the healing properties of the African willow (South Africa) and the hoodia plant (Namibia) and iboga (Gabon and Cameroon), botanicals which are about to revolutionize the Western medical establishment in terms of cancer treatment, dietary care and anti-addictive therapy, respectively. In the case of the potential cancer cure, the principle at stake is the interruption of the flow of blood to the cancers in patients, and not to the healthy tissue. The traditional doctors who brought this herbal, ‘combrettum caffrum’ to the attention of Dr. Bob Pettit of Arizona State University did not use the herbal for cancer treatment, but they were certainly aware of its scientific significance in health care. It is not inconceivable that a benign cure for AIDS could emerge from the resource base of AIK. If AIDS does not exist there must be something killing the people in such large numbers and that entity, whatever its name, must be destroyed. If AIDS is the product of biological warfare and genetic engineering and deliberately infected monkeys in the wild, the challenge is all the more greater for us as researchers, educators, scientists and healers. Burying one’s head in the sand to ward off disaster is not a credible strategy for coping with tragedy.

Curriculum planning must always take into consideration existing power relations and the multiple centers of power involved in the process of decision-making and implementation. Political support has to be obtained for the adoption and implementation of the curriculum, in terms of local students, faculty, library personnel, deans and unit heads no less than the wider agencies associated with the government such as regional administrators and equally important the mass media. Vested interest groups, which abhor the democratization of knowledge, and hope to maintain their positions of dominance, would have to be confronted, persuaded or outwitted if the plans were to be implemented.