Food security and indigenous knowledge…reviving African-centred agro-dietary systems

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TODAY, many people in Africa, Zimbabwe included, struggle with poverty, food insecurity and a scourge of diet-deficiency related illnesses.   

Yet indigenous African people, as with peoples the world over, existed for millennia on healthy diets of locally gathered or produced foods which closely linked local communities with their diverse cultures and environments.  

Sadly, many indigenous people have lost their ability to address nutrition and environmental problems solely through their indigenous knowledge systems as Western ideas and infrastructure, imposed through a hotch-potch of colonial and post-colonial development projects, have altered their environment. 

As a result, indigenous societies began to suffer from dietary illnesses (due to changes to their food system). 

These socio-cultural and socio-biological disconnections occurred when economic and resource development began to alter their environment, but rather before this, when their culture was disrupted during the earliest stages of Euro-Western contact and colonisation.   

Traditional food systems helped to create a wealth of unique cultural knowledge, identities and institutions among and between individual indigenous Zimbabwean communities and ethnic groups.  

As a result, traditional foods and food systems were closely linked with indigenous knowledge and often extend to belief systems, spirituality and, without a doubt, to entire world-views.  

The degree of nature and culture that define a food system of an indigenous culture contribute to the whole health picture of the individual and the community — not only physical health but also the emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of health, healing and protection from disease.  

The decline of traditional food systems has, in fact, paralleled a steep rise in illnesses such as hypertension (BP), diabetes and, currently, obesity within African communities, many of which had little or no incidence of these illnesses until recently.  

Zimbabwe, today, is recorded as having one of the highest rates of diet-related illness and mortalities in advanced world economies.  

These figures reflect the many challenges to the cultural identity, spiritual life, environmental quality and stability of local economies and political institutions which, in part, support healthy diets in indigenous communities. 

Our traditional indigenous agrarian systems and the management of agricultural processes, resources and food systems have, for many centuries, proved full-proof and resilient.

The current rediscovery and recreation of sustainable, indigenous food systems through the promotion of traditional foods is increasingly seen as a way to solve some of these pressing problems at both the community and individual level.  

Collectively, these efforts should build Zimbabwe as a food sovereign nation.    

Relocation, assimilation, loss of land and the introduction of commodity foods are all examples of events that can lead to cultural change and changes to the food system; which essentially led to the loss of food sovereignty – agro-scientific  knowledge that was practiced during  the Munhumutapa’s  dynastic reign. 

Ultimately, what was lost was the ability for communities to control decisions regarding food; from its production and processing to its distribution and consumption, to the role of food in culture and cosmology. 

Our indigenous post-colonial ministries of Agriculture and ministries of Health in Zimbabwe are similarly disconnected and not co-ordinated to maintain national health, indigenous culture and agro-cultures as a single entity.

In the whole of Southern Africa, post-colonial governments are found wanting in this regard, particularly in the promotion of creating a sustainable food system and environment targeted to both the well-being, commercial gain and health needs of the people. 

Needless to say, colonial Western agro-systems developed in Southern Africa were designed purely for the gains of the colonial masters. 

Today, however, in order to rebuild a healthy local food system, related traditions and knowledge cannot be relied upon if they are not currently practiced within the community, and the loss of this knowledge and skill base can result in the need for what some scholars have called the ‘process of rediscovery’.  

As a result, food sovereignty and food system development may go hand-in-hand with the revival of related traditions and customs as they are viewed as resources for creating a sustainable ethnic community.  

Much of the knowledge will come from practices maintained by particular community members over time and supported by a specific indigenous scientific knowledge and world-views.

Recent research has contributed to a small but growing number of studies on indigenous knowledge in agricultural development by documenting and analysing the function and qualities of indigenous knowledge.   

While indigenous knowledge in development has been embraced internationally, few studies have examined how indigenous knowledge has played, or can play, a role in the resurgence of food systems.  

Research on the application of indigenous knowledge and traditional ecological and agro-scientific knowledge demonstrates that using the knowledge and institutions already present in a community can create lasting changes in an area by encouraging participation while, at the same time, honouring culture and place.  

It is important, through Government programmes focusing on traditional foods and organic growing practices, farmers, agronomists, veterinary workers’, home-gardeners and community members who are active in local food system initiatives, to better understand food system revival and knowledge at the community level, to gain further insight into the knowledge, practices, benefits and qualities of traditional growing practices and traditional and local foods.  

Increasingly, indigenous knowledge is seen as a resource for development and has been adopted, in part, by even the largest development-oriented non-governmental organisations such as the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).  

 Indigenous knowledge is most useful when viewed as a starting point for development in which indigenous knowledge is the foundation for decision making and participation at local-level.  

This participatory approach to development has emerged and gained popularity, resulting in a large and growing body of indigenous knowledge; with the majority focusing on development and, more specifically, on production agriculture, farming systems as well as agro-forestry development.     

Others have also found indigenous knowledge to be beneficial in development initiatives because it not only serves the interests of local populations, “… but also renders world view social institutions land and resource management systems local knowledge of land, animal projects more efficient and efficacious by increasing local participation.”   

Today there are claims that academia, most non-government organisations  and other sectors have embraced indigenous knowledge as a result of political and economic pressure to redress some of the ill effects of previous development strategies.

Colonisation, globalisation and dominant development approaches have taken a particularly hard toll on indigenous communities throughout the globe and the world in general has began to take notice. As a result, the United Nations, after 10 years of drafting and editing, produced a formal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2006 (UN General Assembly Resolution 61/295 2007).  

The declaration explicitly grants indigenous peoples control over developments affecting their lands, territories and resources in order to develop in accordance to their own aspirations and needs while strengthening local institutions, cultures and traditions. 

Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. He is a writer, lecturer anda specialist Post-Colonial Scholar, Zimbabwean Socio-Economic analyst and researcher. E-mail: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com

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