Indigenising modern knowledge


KNOWLEDGE is neither Western nor Eastern, white or black. 

Knowledge is a noun rooted from the verb ‘know’, which means ‘to be aware of’.

Much of the modern knowledge Zimbabweans and other Africans are taught in school is deemed Western only because it is learnt in a foreign language.

Modern knowledge, in this case, means the contemporary things our ancestors were unaware of, or were lost by their descendants.

For example, our ancestors did not name all the elements, thus we are forced to learn them in the colonial language of English.

Likewise, our ancestors knew and named many things our current generation is largely ignorant of. 

For example, names and uses of herbs and stars (vhenekera-tsvimborume).

All the same, because our generation has forgotten these things, they are forced to refer to Western sources if they should so need to seek out such knowledge.

This hinders us from fully understanding or relating to universal knowns from an indigenous perspective simply because the information is being transmitted in a colonial tongue.

Bright Gwati, a friend of a friend, once gave a practical analogy which I shall now paraphrase.

Images are associated with learning for the sake of identifying meaning. 

A Grade One Zimbabwean student is shown the image of a tree. 

All his short life of six years, he has known this item as ‘muti’.  But now he is asked to name the image in English, a foreign language which he never uses at home and thus does not genuinely understand.

This not only makes the child feel ignorant, but it defeats the whole purpose of associated word and image learning. 

For, if a white child of the same age was shown the image, he would naturally call it ‘tree’ not muti.

Gwati’s conclusion was that the education system in Zimbabwe needs to teach in indigenous languages and how well one speaks English should not be a measure of intelligence. 

The first and most important function of education is to teach a child how to survive in the environment he/she is in.

The way an Inuit (Eskimo) learns how to survive in ice and the Herero in arid environments, is the same way we should learn culture and languages.

Given that much knowledge is not only indigenous to us, but all around, universal, for example knowledge of elements and cells, why then are Zimbabweans not taught these smallest particles of matter and  basic units of life in their own language.

Some will argue it is because our ancestors were ignorant of them and thus did not name them. A human learns from interacting with the environment and also from other humans. 

Without these, development and the level of civilisation ceases growth.

What we deem Western today was not known to the whites until the coming of the Moors (blacks) who were more sophisticated in terms of civilisation. 

The knowledge of irrigation, sea navigation, running water, street lights, architecture, English numerals (Arabic) and optic surgery was acquired by whites from these blacks. Thus the names of many things we deem Western are actually of Moorish origin; for example, algebra, algorithm, almanac, sugar, coffee and so on.

Before the Moors, the English acquired words from the Latin (Romans), who in turn acquired much of their knowledge from the Greeks. 

The Greeks acquired their knowledge primarily from the Egyptians, but also the Hebrews, Persians and Babylonians who were all Asiatic blacks.

So we find that many of the words we deem English are of Arabic, Latin or Greek origin. This becomes more apparent when one is exposed to scientific jargon in fields like biochemistry. 

The names of elements and organs in English seem very sophisticated because, in all truth, they are not English words.

The English name of the simplest atom, namely hydrogen is made out of two Greek words, namely hydro meaning water, and gene meaning forming.

If one understands Greek, he can quickly understand from the words ‘hydrogen’ that it is an atom with a role in the forming of water.

Words like hydration and genetics will also begin to make more sense to the learner because he or she would have knowledge of the root word’s meaning.

The English were one of the Barbarian tribes and were the last group to acquire the relayed knowledge of the old world which we wrongly deem modern. 

Upon receiving this knowledge, they ought to have done the vital work of indigenising it. 

If so, hydrogen would be called water-former. This is why science does not get easier with improvement in one’s command of English. 

For a Zimbabwean who is already learning in English, deciphering the Greek, Latin or Hebrew meaning of scientific terms such as hypophysis (lying under) and hypothalamus (under chamber) is a long shot.

Without understanding the root word, there is much limitation in understanding what the word actually means.

Yet this is what most nations have done; adopting knowledge from exogenous sources yet keeping the foreign names. 

For instance, hydrogen is called ‘hayidhirojeni’.

Indigenising knowledge entails finding the meanings of the root words in their foreign state and replacing them accordingly with those of chiShona and/or other indigenous languages. 

Complex words are often combinations of simpler root words. Our ancestors may not have been aware of matter to the elemental level, but they did have names for most organisms that made up their environment.

If we use these Shona words to seek out logical names for modern knowledge, beginning with the simplest to the most complex units of life, this will aid for full environmental comprehension and intellectual growth.

For instance, let us try to allocate Shona names for the elements hydrogen, helium, lithium, glucinum (beryllium), carbon and potassium. With the use of English, it is impossible to unravel the meanings of these words and carry out the task at hand. However, if one knows Latin and Greek, hydrogen would become chiumbamvura from the words hydro (water) and gene (forming). Likewise the word helium, derived from the Greek word helios, meaning sun, would be allocated the root word ‘zuva’. 

Lithium from lithos, meaning stone, the word ‘dombo’. 

Glucinum, meaning sweet, the word ‘tapira’. Carbon, meaning charcoal in Latin, the word ‘rasha’. Potassium, meaning pot ash in English, the word ‘dota’ and so on.

The Chinese are the best success story in terms of indigenising modern knowledge. 

Regarding elements, they did not just identify and rename all of the atoms that are contemporarily known to mankind. 

But they went a step further to indicate in each element’s written character what state the element is found.

This is because each element is found in one of four states; namely gas, liquid, stone and metal. These can be easily replaced by Shona words like ‘mweya’, ‘mvura’, ‘dombo’ and ‘simbi’ respectively. 

These words end with different or distinct word components namely ...’ya’ in ‘mweya’, …’ra’ in ‘mvura’, ..’mbo’ in ‘dombo’ and ..’mbi’ in ‘simbi’.

With this logic applied, hydrogen, being a gas, would become ‘mvura-ya’. 

Thus indicating that the element is associated with water (mvura) and is in a gaseous (mweya) state.

Using the same logic helium (helios/sun) would become ‘zuva-ya’. 

Lithium (lithos/stone) would become ‘dombo-mbi’ because it is a metal (simbi). 

Glucinum (sweet) would become ‘tapi-mbi’ because the element is associated with sweetness and is a metal. 

Carbon would become ‘rasha-mbo’ because the element is a constituent of charcoal (marasha) and is in a stone state. 

Lastly, potassium would be called ‘dota-mbi’ because it is associated with ash (dota) and is in a metal (simbi) state.

Every organism on earth is made out of elements and/or cells. Thus, the universal biosynthetic pathway that goes from atom (element) to compound (molecule), to cell, to tissue, to organ (gland) and finally to organism needs to be redefined in chiShona by using the above means.

Only then can Zimbabweans truly be deemed custodians of modern knowledge and fully exploit it to serve our means and make advancements towards achieving higher forms of civilisation.


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