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Opinion - The relevancy of indigenous knowledge in education

2021-05-21  Prof Makala Lilemba

Opinion - The relevancy of indigenous knowledge in education
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Burger (1993) defines indigenous knowledge as the local knowledge that is unique to a particular culture or society, also termed folk knowledge, people’s knowledge, traditional wisdom or traditional science. 

This knowledge is passed on from generation to generation, usually by word of mouth and cultural rituals, and has been the basis for agriculture, food preparation, healthcare, education, conservation, moral values and the wide range of other activities that sustain a society and its environment in many parts of the world for many centuries. 

Indigenous people have a wide knowledge of the ecosystems in which they live, and of ways of using natural resources sustainably. However, the advent of colonialism replaced the practical everyday life aspects of indigenous knowledge and ways of learning with Western notions of abstract knowledge and academic ways of learning

Many Africans, especially the young generation, now hold that indigenous knowledge is outdated and irrelevant in the current situation in terms of developmental issues affecting the world. However, African elders and indigenous knowledge practitioners view indigenous knowledge as sine qua non for imparting desirable values and attitudes, and form a strong foundation of new knowledge acquisition. 

Nyathi (2005) argues that Africans who embraced European “official knowledge” without a qualm have lost their “identity”, and are now “confused”. As a result, today there is a grave risk and danger that much indigenous knowledge is being lost and, along with it, valuable knowledge about ways of living sustainably, both ecologically and socially. 

This orientation is brought about by the physical and psychological invasion by the colonisers in many African countries.  

Rodney (1973) reiterates that during the colonial period, Africans lost the power which had enabled them to survive as physical and cultural entities as Europeans appropriated their social and educational institutions. 

As a result of this process, Africans failed to set indigenous cultural goals and standards, and consequently lost control and full command of training their young members. 

Unfortunately, even after the emancipation and independence of many African countries, the process of the annihilation of African indigenous knowledge continues, despite the fact that it represents the successful ways in which people have dealt with their environments. Indigenous knowledge, though relevant in many areas, can for now be limited to the following perspectives:


The communal relevancy

In African communities, humanism found expression in a communal context than individualism, which is prominent in Western lifestyles. 

The differences between African and Western approaches is based on the “we” (African inclusiveness) versus the “I” (Western exclusiveness) styles.  

Like everywhere among Africans, we regard the sons and daughters of aunties and uncles as brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles as fathers and mothers. 

The concept of half-brothers, half-sisters, nephews and nieces does not exist among the Africans, as everybody is part of the extended family.  


The social responsibility relevancy

Barker (1999) asserts that the old African philosophy of education emphasised social responsibility, the development of manual, artistic and intellectual skills, political awareness, and most importantly spiritual and moral values aimed at producing an individual who was honest, respectful, skilled, knowledgeable, co-operative, well-versed in the community’s customs and traditions, and who conformed willingly to the social pattern of community. 


Wise sayings and educative relevancy

Riddles, proverbs and wise sayings were instruments and schools in marriage, life in general, knowing the culture of the community, assisting in logical thinking and admonitions, counseling and warning about dangers and benefits in life. 

Ishengoma (2005) researched on the riddles collected from one of the main ethnic groups in northwestern Tanzania, the Haya people, and supports the inclusion of African oral traditions and other elements of traditional learning into the modern school curriculum.  

According to him, this will increase the relevance of education to local communities. His study challenges the views of those social and cultural anthropologists who hold that African riddles have no substantially meaningful educational value.  

It can be seen that riddles make an important contribution to children’s full participation in the social, cultural, political and economic life of the African communities, especially by fostering critical thinking and transmitting indigenous knowledge.


Traditional healing relevancy

Incantations and other rituals relevant for traditional healing in the community can be acquired and learned by using indigenous knowledge. Before the arrival of the White man, Africans had their way of healing the sick, using traditional medicine.


Hunting and decoration relevancy

They also used indigenous knowledge for hunting by chasing wild animals for food, hides and horns for clothing and decorations; for fitness and pleasure. 

Songmaking and dancing for pleasure, to appease the spirits and ancestors. Assegai throwing for accuracy and defence in times of danger and warfare.


Conservation relevancy

In sub-Saharan Africa, local people preserve some trees on farm fields because of benefits such as food, wood, fodder, medicine, climatic amelioration and boundary demarcation.  

Among the Mafwe community of the Zambezi region, the local communities always protect some trees like mumaka, mungongo, mubuyu, muzauli and many others as they are sources of food. Many other tree types have been preserved for ages because they are considered sacred or used for medicine.

Numeracy relevancy

Western numerical counting shows no relation among numbers. For example, there is no relation between 10 and 11, but in many African communities, 11 will be 10 plus one, denoting continuity among the numbers. 

A lot can be learnt from indigenous knowledge to enhance learning in the formal setup.

2021-05-21  Prof Makala Lilemba

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