Indigenous knowledge systems change lives

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By Eunice Masunungure

IF attention is paid to the wells of traditional wisdom, the indigenous knowledge systems in African men and women, livelihoods would improve a great deal.

A Harare man, Chiwoniso Zvakaramba, on talking about his knowledge of herbs and how they are capable of boosting immunity and help out on ailments said: “My knowledge came out of frustration. I wanted to save my father who was dying of cancer.” 

His submissions are enough to sustain the argument that there is a lot of untapped wisdom in African people.

It is only at the breaking point where people realise that the answer they need to the problem they face is right next to them.

According to Zvakaramba, his unfathomable well of wisdom was tapped upon in a crisis.

He needed alternative medicine to treat his ailing father who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only two months to live.

After using the herbs, the father lived for 15 more years, defying all the odds.

There are many people like Zvakaramba on the continent; possessing traditional understanding of herbs that can help improve and prolong lives but are sitting on that knowledge and not sharing it.

Indigenous knowledge systems, when it comes to the curing of diseases, have been frowned upon by Westerners yet in the dead of the night, they have traversed African villages for roots and tubers which they have processed and recreated in their laboratories.

According to Lander (2000) and Chavhunduka (1995), Western worldview of knowledge has, since its introduction in Africa and other non-Western societies, lacked an understanding of the holistic nature and approach of non-Western ways of knowing and knowledge systems.

This lack of understanding culminates in negative labelling like ‘witchdoctor,’ and ‘fetishes.’

Indigenous knowledge systems are treated as the rite of passage even in very simple things like food. 

For example, relish from munyemba or black-jack leaves, locally known as mutsine, are regarded as a preserve for the poor and the sick.

Although these foods would have been part of regular meals in our Zimbabwean society, they have been downplayed only to be reverted to in times of crisis!

There has been scientific dismissal of African knowledge systems simply because the capitalist world has come up with patents. 

And things not patented are regarded as non-scientific but the knowledge possessed by Africans is real.

In farming, Zimbabwe’s traditional wisdom incorporated in the Pfumvudza/lntwasa, for example, has turned around fortunes in small-scale agriculture.

The so-called food crisis in the country is fast becoming a thing of the past, especially if the programme is intensified in the up-coming cropping season. 

The wealth of knowledge that exists among the elders and other respositories of knowledge in African communities demonstrates the vibrant intellectualism to which African researchers and intellectuals should turn to. 

Our systems work and have, time-and-again, been proven to be effective.

For instance, Chad successfully raised the biggest cattle herd without medication and vaccines, a success story that has not been widely circulated. 

The country grew the biggest livestock herds per capita in Africa without Western medications, chemicals and cross breeding while preserving their indigenous herds.

The indigenous brands, whose resistance was argued to be withstanding the environmental infestations, were being kept using traditional methods.

According to US Department of Trade, Chad is a very successful African livestock producer that uses traditional means of ranching in  a semi-arid environment.

But the US is still pushing their companies to promote vaccines and medicines in Chad, to make money.

Chad has the biggest cattle, goat and sheep herd per capita in Africa (valued at over US$42 billion).

Information about Chad’s success should be trending but is not available because indigenous knowledge systems are looked down upon as they threaten the multibillion Western vaccines and pharmaceutical industries.

Clearly, the countries that rely on Western animal husbandry techniques are finding the African traditionalists’ methods superior.

Our problem has been that African capabilities are socially constructed and embedded within certain Western economic values that have no room for alternative voices.

Africa has been made to falsify her own reality and voice — it has not been given the opportunity to show her true face.

African ways of knowing, in many areas, have been pushed into the corner following the unfortunate history of slavery, colonialism and apartheid, which relegated African indigenous knowledge systems to the periphery of science.

But it’s time that Africa comes out of the cocoon and claim its space and proffer sustainable solutions to humanity. 

Ngugi wa Thiongo said, in Decolonising the Mind: “African intellectuals should help Africa close the gap created by over four hundred years of domination and marginalisation of Africa people’s knowledge systems by rejecting the utilisation of dominant Western world view of knowing and knowledge production as the only way of knowing”.

It’s Africa’s time.

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