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SA’s indigenous knowledge systems: nature is a ‘gold mine’

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Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters Members of a co-operative of freehold and subsistence farmers, harvest beans in an informal Johannesburg settlement. Agriculture is an absolute necessity; and a kind of knowledge that was important to pass down to future generations as it meant the very sustenance of life, says the writer.

By Dominic Naidoo

Modern living has greatly affected our relationship with nature. We are no longer in touch with how it works and do not appreciate the gifts it offers, and yet, nature is essential for our well-being and provides everything we need to live.

The World Economic Forum found that by 2050, 70 percent of people on the planet will be living in cities.

“The impact of urbanisation on the environment, the climate and our connection to nature are evident in rising temperatures, concrete jungles invading green spaces, and how we are not taking care of the earth,” said Tracey Teague, principal of Eduplex Pre-Primary, a school leading the way in nature-based learning in schools.

Teague believes that ecological literacy, the ability to understand the natural systems that make life on earth possible, should be a vital part of the education process. If society is able to impart this love for nature to children, we can be sure that it will have a positive impact on our world for future generations.

“In fact, nature is a gold mine for learning,” said Teague. “We believe that for children to value nature, we must teach them how and why to appreciate it, as a love for nature does not come naturally. At our school, we do it through and with our experimental gardens. All the plants, as well as the landscaping, are there for and with a purpose.”

“Before I went to school, I knew a lot about my environment,” said Prof Meshach Ogunniyi, emeritus professor of science education at the University of the Western Cape. “I grew up in a farming community and knew the names of hundreds of trees and plants, and what they were used for.

Picture: – South Africa has seen a steady increase in the participation of holders of indigenous knowledge within our educational spaces as many parents and young people alike seek alternatives to traditional modern education.

“When I went to school, I was introduced to different names and a different system of understanding my environment. As a result, I forgot what I had brought with me from home, as many indigenous people may forget that they have the knowledge to contribute,” Ogunniyi said.

“All over the world, people are looking for their roots, looking for knowledge of their selfhood and their world. Who am I? Why am I here in the world?” asked Ogunniyi who spoke at a workshop for academics and students on Mainstreaming Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Science & Mathematics Education.

“Whether in America or Europe or Africa or anywhere, people try to find this knowledge in their libraries, centres, museums and so on. But they don’t realise that there is knowledge in the communities that haven’t been recorded formally.”

Indigenous knowledge generally refers to the ancient understanding, knowledge, and traditions, passed down from generation to generation. This knowledge system was largely interrupted by the emergence of western education, which eroded indigenous teachings and replaced the traditional way of learning.

Ogunniyi has long been a champion of reforming school curricula to take advantage of, or at the very least acknowledge indigenous knowledge systems.

Leading the Science and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (SIKS) programme at UWC, he has focused on developing research skills that would allow students to design curricula that aren’t simply transplants from foreign soil, but that are complemented by the knowledge that reflects the character of South Africa.

By training a cohort of teachers able to take what they learn, and incorporate their own prior knowledge and experience, the programme aims to generate curricula that can reframe the critical interests of indigenous peoples, making science relevant to students outside of the West.

“Humanity is threatened by a number of factors, and some of them are related to the very success of science without the human element, from the Industrial Revolution until now, mankind has destroyed a vast amount of the world’s natural resources,” Ogunniyi said.

“So, if there is anything that brings us all together to say who we are and how we relate to society and our environment, that is something we should seriously consider.”

South Africa has seen a steady increase in the participation of holders of indigenous knowledge within our educational spaces as many parents and young people alike seek alternatives to traditional modern education or want their children to expand their knowledge base.

While, overall, the pace of growth for formal indigenous education still drags along, there is a need for us to realise how important having these educational channels is, especially for future generations.

Indigenous Knowledge is a hallmark of African Identity; it is only by looking at the past that we can remember who we are and that we can have a sense of pride to pass down to future generations.

This is also the connection we have to our ancestors; a way of remembering the departed ones who laid the foundation for African society as it is today. In order to get a better understanding of what society stands to gain from indigenous knowledge, it is important to break down certain aspects of this knowledge, so as to discuss their benefits.

Agriculture is an even more important activity today than it was a hundred years ago based solely on the constant need to feed a burgeoning population hungry for more food than they require. Agriculture is an absolute necessity; and a kind of knowledge that was important to pass down to future generations as it meant the very sustenance of life.

Science and research have proven time and time again the negative impacts of genetically modified crops and monoculture thus, it is important to know what types of crops to plant in particular locations, as well as the particular time of the year when it is best to plant each particular crop.

Parents passed down the knowledge about what parts of the plants to cultivate, and how to do so. Aside from planting crops for their leaves, fruits, and tubers, the people of the old days also raised livestock.

Agriculture is important as indigenous knowledge because it was successfully done in the past.

Globally, food security is a major issue facing both developed and developing nations alike.

Indigenous knowledge in the area of agriculture is necessary as it can help boost food security.

Scientists can incorporate aspects of the agricultural practices used by Africans in ancient times, so as to find ways of improving crop yield and possibly to look for traditional plant species that were grown in the past without the use of chemicals and pesticides and to develop plant varieties that are hardy, and less susceptible to damage from pests.

A nomad camp in the Moroccan desert in M’hamid El Ghizlane, southeast of Zagora. Picture: Fadel Senna/AFP

Aside from improving crop yield, indigenous knowledge is also practical in the area of animal husbandry as indigenous practices were highly effective. For example, nomadic tribes live in the vast wilderness, raising their flocks or herds without doing any damage to the forest, and to the natural environment.

The importance of indigenous knowledge systems in South Africa cannot be overstated. These practices must be learned, documented and taught as compulsory subjects in schools. Losing or not knowing one’s indigenous knowledge can be likened to losing one’s own identity, losing the inherent part of society which makes us African.

Dominic Naidoo is an environment activist and writer

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.