Indigenous knowledge systems can benefit everyone


Sipho Seepe

Had it not been for adverts in the media, the recent International Conference on Indigenous Know-ledge Systems: African Perspectives hosted by the University of Venda would have gone unnoticed.

Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) refer to intricate knowledge systems acquired over generations by communities as they interact with the environment. It encompasses technology, social, economic, philosophical, learning and governance systems.
Dr Catherine Odora-Hoppers, one of the country’s foremost advocates of IKS, describes it as “not just about woven baskets and handicraft for tourists per se. It is about excavating the technologies such as looms, textiles, jewellery and brass-work manufacture. [It is about] exploring indigenous technological knowledge in agriculture, fishing, forest resource exploitation, atmospheric management techniques, knowledge transmission systems, architecture, medicine and pharmacology, and recasting the potentialities they represent in a context of democratic participation for community, national and global development in real time.”

Such perspectives should not be lost to the canvas of human experience by the dominance of Western thinking, nor should monochrome Western thinking exclude so many Africans from participation. IKS is thus both a national heritage and a national resource that should be protected and developed so that it can be put at the service of present and future generations.

The Venda conference sought to explore how this wealth of information could respond to current economic, social, environmental and cultural challenges. This would require the development and incorporation of IKS into the research and curriculum agenda of universities. Because of the potential impact of IKS on development, it is actively championed by both the ministry and the parliamentary portfolio committee for arts, culture, science and technology and it is a critical research area supported by the South African National Research Foundation.

IKS is about re-opening crucial files that were closed in the chaos and violence of colonialism in which the cultural, scientific and economic life of the colonised was subjugated and crushed. It proposes to redress this by retrieving rich human perspectives developed over generations. It is thus linked to Afrocentricity a process of placing the African world-view at the centre of analysis.

It is a perspective that allows Africans to be subjects of historical experiences rather than objects on the fringes of Europe. Without diminishing the significance of Western knowledge and approach, this perspective argues that there are other ways of experiencing phenomena. Molefi Asante, a leading Afrocentric scholar, puts it thus: “The intention is not to question Eurocentrism’s validity within its context, but to indicate that such a view must not seek an ungrounded aggrandisement by claiming a universal hegemony.” IKS enables us to re-establish knowledge formation as the story of all animals, and not just of the lion. Seen from this perspective, IKS has the potential of not only transforming knowledge-generating institutions but also democratising knowledge formation processes.

For sociologist Herbert Vilakazi the validation of IKS is crucial for the economic and cultural empowerment of the majority. Economic challenges cannot be confined to modernisation, and industrialisation of Africa, nor only to the elimination of mass poverty, and poverty-related diseases in Africa, but should also address itself to issues such as African culture.

Failure to appreciate the role of culture has led, for instance, to poor performance in education in many African countries. To teach science within the narrow definition that excludes the learner’s context is to ignore what catalyses learning. Starting with indigenous knowledge systems would encourage learners to draw on their cultural practices and daily experiences as they negotiate new situations and unfamiliar terrain.

This would facilitate a dialogical encounter between IKS and Western scientific and technological frameworks. At the same time, it would encourage the custodians of IKS to conduct their own empirical studies, educational projects and technological productions to meet new challenges. The integration of knowledge systems promotes the exploration of the interface between ways of knowing, diversity and democracy.

If IKS make these bold promises, why has the Venda conference failed to generate media interest? In a sense, this reflects the marginal status of IKS within the higher education discourse.

It also reflects unresolved anxiety about Afrocentricity within the aca-demy, derived from the images that Africanisation evokes: in politics it is military coups, unstable governments; in economics, poverty and famines; in development terms it is lack of education, poor scholarship; and in health it is images of mutilated bodies and disease. Cynics may ask: what is there in Africa that is worthy of rebirth? Yet IKS has as much potential to engage modern challenges as other knowledge systems.

At another level, IKS evokes a measure of intellectual discomfort in those trained in the Western paradigm. It provides them with no grounds for authority unless they become students of Africans. For some, the idea that they may have to learn something from Africans is difficult to reconcile with their “know all” superiority. The second fear is of the disturbing implications of seeing the dominant view, assumed to be universal, as simply one ethnocentric perspective. If its advocates fail to respond to these concerns, IKS will remain on the margins of the research and education agendas.

For IKS to achieve the momentum required for sustainability it must be underpinned by rigorous intellectual engagement and intellectual humility to acknowledge that there might be other ways of seeing.

The advocates of IKS should resist the temptation of seeing resistance as racially motivated. Without indicating how IKS enriches or complements Western knowledge, they cannot expect people to abandon an orientation that has stood the test of time for some starry-eyed promises.

Both the Western system and our indigenous knowledge systems represent national resources. Indigenous knowledge frames can complement some of the mechanical and technical precision capabilities of the Western knowledge systems and generate forms of creativity that will benefit and empower everyone.

For more information see African Voices in Education (Juta Publishers) 2000

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