Last year I wrote an opinion piece on the importance of indigenous knowledge, especially in healing practices. It detailed the origins of modern vaccines as an old, culturally appropriated African practice that was instrumental in fighting smallpox in 1700s Europe. That article is perhaps even more significant this year, because many Africans are afraid of the Covid-19 vaccine. The hesitancy comes from a distrust of Western medicine.
African knowledge systems have come a long way from being overlooked as valuable sciences or being misrepresented by Western scholars, who for a long time saw themselves as the only suitable custodians of our experiences, ideals, history, culture, and knowledge. Today, although a lot more needs to be done, we are seeing a rise in African intellectuals, practices, and solutions. In the academy, we see this in the calls for decolonised education, which has emphasised the importance of Southern African scholarly contributions locally and internationally.
In our day-to-day lives, we also see this shift towards reclaiming African solutions to deal with modern-day challenges. Practices such as visiting traditional healers and the general practising of African traditional religion were seen as taboo. Many were forced to acknowledge their ancestors or perform sacrifices in private.
But today, many are openly practising their cultural rituals when they want to give thanks for good fortune, when they are struggling to find employment, and for both physical and emotional healing that individuals or the collective needs. Although not scientifically verified, the African herb called umhlonyane — Artemisia afra —helped many during the Covid-19 pandemic, especially during the major waves that overwhelmed and threatened to cripple our healthcare system.
Many have turned to this herb as a solution to help them fight Covid-19. Umhlonyane is commonly used by sangomas for a variety of reasons including to boost the immune system in patients with respiratory illnesses. This kind of revitalisation and mainstreaming of indigenous knowledge systems and epistemological pedagogies can undo challenges such as vaccine hesitancy and general distrust of biomedicine, while elevating African knowledge.
Despite these and many other positive strides that place African knowledge at the forefront, something is still missing, because we are still far from where we need to be as a continent. There are many things we can draw from to make sense of why the progress is slow. We could draw from the usual arguments around the missing, undervalued African Renaissance. We could also argue that while African ideals are gaining prominence, they are often only invoked as an ‘alternative’ or afterthought.
Arguably, even with umhlonyane, it was only from desperation that people turned to it. All of these are valid, but I also what to argue that we are limited by a kind of epistemological slavery, where we use conflicting Western systems of knowledge production in producing African knowledge. We rely on Western methodologies for knowledge production, Western schooling systems for how we engage with and use the knowledge, and even Western systems for how we store and preserve the knowledge.
The April Cape Town fire, which has spread to the University of Cape Town and destroyed the African Studies library, is one illustration of the danger of trapping African knowledge in Western epistemological systems. Much of what was lost in the fire is work that will most likely be lost forever; it is possible that no other records of it exist elsewhere. The issue is that in Africa, knowledge is communally produced, shared, and owned. Western systems encourage the containment and individual ownership of knowledge. Traditionally, African knowledge is often shared in the sense that the process of producing and sharing this knowledge is done as a collective and is built into the day-to-day practices rather than being crafted as a separate experience in the way that mainstream Western education and research is done.
There is an important method of passing down useful skills that you still find in African households even today. As kids, we often hated it, because it took us away from our games, watching TV, or general leisure time. As Zulus, we refer to it as ukuthunywa/thuma — the English translation of “running errands” does not adequately represent what it means, but it will do. I want to argue that this practice has traditionally been an important epistemological tool for producing and sharing knowledge.
As a child growing up in a family of farmers, for example, you are taught how to be a farmer through these “errands”. You might start off with small requests, such as having to watch while the grown-ups or older children perform certain tasks. As time goes on, you are expected to take on more and more responsibilities in the family trade or even in helping neighbours and others.
Even when it came to storing and preserving knowledge, it was done in such a way that it was still easily accessible. It would be stored as rock art, songs and performances, everyday crafts, and practices. And contrary to Western beliefs that Africans never wrote or documented, for cultures such as the Egyptians and Ashanti, knowledge was even stored as written inscriptions.
When we move away from ukuthunywa towards the more Western mainstream, some challenges arise. Students are almost exclusively taught in theoretical ways, separate from their everyday experiences, which makes it difficult to understand and value the knowledge and its place in society.
Knowledge goes from being communally owned to being owned by an individual researcher or institution, which limits who has access to the information, who has the right to use it, and even limitations on how it can be used. At times, even the communities from which the knowledge originally came, are limited by copyright laws.
I want to argue that if we had created African knowledge using African practices or possible methodologies such as ukuthnywa, the loss of the UCT African Studies section wouldn’t have felt so bad, because the knowledge would be actively existing in society and the ability to recreate and redocument it would feel within reach.
The freeing of our indigenous knowledge systems requires that we shift from looking outwards for solutions. For example, instead of looking towards dangerous fossil fuel and expensive Western renewable energy solutions to address our ongoing energy crisis, why not look inward and invest in our own indigenous methods of creating cheaper, sustainable biogas using animal and food waste.
Imagine if we did it in ways that empower black rural women who are the custodians of this knowledge, so that while dealing with the energy issues, we simultaneously address poverty and environmental degradation. What would it look like if we continued to nurture and encourage this and similar practices? Could other important scientific innovations emerge from it? Could it grow to the level of informing global discourse? Could we finally be uhuru?