By: Charles Dhewa
Some intellectuals have been suggesting that knowledge is the same everywhere, so it is wrong to speak in terms of indigenous knowledge as if it is distinct from all other knowledge.
Such views are far from the reality on the ground.
There is definitely a difference between knowledge found in academic circles and ordinary people’s knowledge used by communities to innovate and cope with daily challenges.
Although overlaps are common, it is very possible to separate indigenous knowledge from all other knowledge.
Pros and cons of imported knowledge
There is no doubt that imported knowledge has made some positive differences in many developing countries, especially in the areas of automotive engineering, aviation and medicine.
But there have also been notable failures. For instance, imported knowledge in the form of information and communication technologies (ICTs) is on the verge of redundancy because it is failing to contextualise African content.
It is a remarkable myth that the entire African memory can be digitised. In spite of the hype surrounding mobile money, African countries have largely failed to marry brick and mortar financial systems with mobile money.
Consequently, mobile money now causes massive unemployment to professionals that have absorbed imported knowledge while creating transitory employment for mobile money agents.
In any case, business models anchored on exploiting poor masses are not sustainable.
Why should low-income communities in countries like Zimbabwe incur the highest mobile money costs and a whole finance minister defines that as progress?
We do not have economic models that fully embed the African ecosystem.
The main dilemma in all African countries is that policymakers have reached a point where they think money is the most important commodity that should substitute all levels of thinking.
It is as if there is no business when there is no money irrespective of the abundance of resources like good soils, climate and water. It is all about the search for foreign currency.
Indigenous knowledge is more of a contextual characterisation
eMKambo is not suggesting that developing countries have a monopoly on what is considered indigenous.
In every country, whatever has thrived over years and has built pathways of binding and sharing knowledge has become indigenous.
An outsider will need years to understand that knowledge. Africans who go to live in the United Kingdom find indigenous knowledge systems in that country.
Where you encounter indigenous knowledge systems, you cannot avoid learning in order to be a useful participant in existing knowledge systems.
Africans are struggling to learn imported science because it is not indigenous to us while people who grew up with science easily understand it.
On the other hand, when a European visit an African village like Gokwe and sees people cooking sadza, s/he has to learn how those people prepare their food.
The notion of literacy came through the Western world, while much of our African practices and knowledge systems remain undocumented.
That is why most African communities continue to thrive on raw knowledge.
From indigenous knowledge to patents
Western knowledge might be indigenous in countries of its origin, but it has unfortunately been entirely moved from being indigenous to privatised patented knowledge.
For instance, people who write books end up with exclusive copyrights to the book. Those who invent machines also privatise their knowledge for profit.
Fortunately, in much of Africa, knowledge is still public information/knowledge.
For example, African traditional courts do not use previous cases to make judgments the way judiciary systems imported from the West depend on legal documents and use precedents after reading cases of previous judgments.
In Africa, traditional leaders use wisdom acquired over years, not by one person, but by the whole traditional judiciary system (Dare).
They understand values, norms, extenuating circumstances, among many other aspects surrounding court cases. That is why they sometimes relate some cases to ngozi or the avenging spirit.
The entire traditional leadership system has acquired collective intuitions of what informs people’s different behaviours, including inclinations towards different kinds of crimes.
Some crimes can be traced beyond an individual to the entire clan that has to appease past wrongs for the benefit of the future.
On the other hand, imported judiciary systems reduce complicated social issues to an individual who should go to jail for crimes that may be beyond him/her.
Yet on the positive side, a skilled person may be understood to have acquired his/her skills from his/her grandfathers who may have been craftsmen or hunters.
If they carefully borrowed from African traditional systems, conventional anti-corruption commissions in Africa would reach more meaningful conclusions that build cohesive societies.
Indigenous knowledge as intangible heritage
Most of what has been explained above comprise soft elements and behaviours that become a collection of facts and knowledge. For example, as the rainy season approaches, some African communities are able to predict the season using their own local signals.
They do not use using modern gadgets like those used by the meteorological services departments, but they arrive at correct conclusions using their own interpretations independent of science.
While formal learning is about absorptive capacity, indigenous knowledge systems are part and parcel of experiential learning embedded in practical wisdom.
Indigenous knowledge systems are also part of ecosystems and pathways of how people live, relate, interact, what to do and what to avoid, and not just about how they communicate.
Also critical is how relationships are built and strengthened as well as how communities find solutions to emerging problems before looking outside. Not every solution can come through external investors. What about local investors?
Concentration at source
More importantly, indigenous knowledge systems tend to be concentrated more at the source and get weaker as you move away from the origin or source.
For example, Binga District in Zimbabwe has a lot of knowledge on Tonga culture and language, but such knowledge weakens as you move away from the district because it gets diluted with imported knowledge.
At national level, indigenous knowledge systems are weaker in cities, but stronger in rural areas that remain strongholds of African culture.
That is why building home-grown African economies should start with identifying where indigenous knowledge systems are coming from and track them all the way to the source.
For instance, tracking banana production knowledge to Honde Valley enables tapping into opportunities for using local knowledge.
Rather than continue with imported notions of development, African countries should embrace a home-grown economic development agenda, starting from where knowledge is strongest unlike trying to extract agrarian solutions from cities that have been diluted by imported knowledge.
Just as technology providers want you to come to the source at some point, for instance when a combine harvester breaks down, the strengths of indigenous knowledge systems is at the source.
While Western knowledge patents are at individual level, indigenous knowledge systems are patented at community level.
Community members know what to give out and what not to give. Even at household level, some knowledge remains classified. Indigenous knowledge systems become more classified at the source.
The role of African embassies in promoting indigenous knowledge and food systems
Currently, African embassies in Western countries seem to focus more on politics and foreign policies, but are silent on promoting African identity embedded in food systems and indigenous knowledge systems.
Ideally, exports should be in the form of our own indigenous commodities.
We may think we are getting valuable foreign currency from exporting peas, but this may be happening at the expense of other more lucrative commodities.
Africans should not continue using their resources to produce products that satisfy foreign food systems and tastes.
Yet if foreign consumers acquire tastes for African products, African countries will become less vulnerable to international prices. When there is a glut, Africans will just lower production.
But where African countries produce food for foreign consumers, there is no control over prices because foreigners can just decide to get the same commodities from different African countries with the same climate. This is how African countries are made to compete against each other for external tastes.