Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Problem with Indigenous Knowledge

What is Indigenous Knowledge?
Some Definitions: (Who, what, where, when, how, why?)
· Knowledge that is derived from oral traditions (Waiko, 1997).
· Indigenous Knowledge is imbedded in culture and unique to a given location or society. The separation of Indigenous Knowledge from its human agents and from the situation in which it occurs can quickly deprive it of its meaning and intrinsic value. The aim should be to link global and local knowledge, not to turn local knowledge into global knowledge (Teasdale & Rhea, 2000).
· Focussed on knowledge systems that are based in local traditions and cultures (Teasdale & Rhea, 2000).
· Flow of information coming out of developing countries about the role that IK is playing in agriculture, human and animal health care, the use and management of natural resources, rural development, education, and poverty alleviation (Teasdale & Rhea, 2000).
· It does not reduce the universe to progressively smaller conceptual bits and pieces. It tends to view human thought, feelings, and communication as inextricably intertwined with events and processes in the universe rather than as apart from them. (Suzuki, 1993).
· Indigenous cultures are generally held to be non-industrial cultures with ancient roots in their land, though some have been migratory and others forcibly displaced. They range from very simple material lifestyles to extensive historical urban/rural systems such as Inka and Aztec (Sahtouris, 1995).
· The Antithesis of Indigenous Knowledge: “‘Development' thus insists that the (industrial) human state of being is an evolutionary achievement over, above, and beyond other states of being, and that the purpose and destiny of Earth and its non-human occupants is to be remade in the human image” (Livingstone, 1994) -- John A. Livingston, Rogue Primate: An exploration of human domestication, 1994.

Some of the effects of Globalization on Indigenous Knowledge.

· There is an urgency to rediscover local knowledge and wisdom as universities and their communities respond to globalization.

· Research to uncover the obstacles preventing indigenous populations from taking part in formal, secondary and higher education in the region have led to new insights for the development of new curricula and teaching methods. Thailand, Vietnam, India and Indonesia are all coming up with innovative new curricula and new approaches to the transfer of knowledge.

· Need to link modern science to the broader heritage of humankind. In other words, local knowledge adds value to global knowledge when the two are linked.

· The international attention being given to IK has been evident at conferences, particularly the ‘Global Knowledge for Development’ and UNESCO conferences. During these conferences it became clear that multiple wisdoms have to be preserved, and not just one wisdom.

Source: (Teasedale & Rhea, 2000).

Bones of Contention (Who, what, where, when, how, why?)

· The apparent tension between traditions and modern education: how it is possible to adapt to change without turning one's back on the cultural diversity; how can cultural competence be acquired to complement new skills and how can scientific progress be assimilated? (Waiko, 1997).

· Since 1990 Papua New Guinea has been on the threshold between traditional and modem ways of life. When we examine closely individual members of the land groups or clans throughout the country, they have been obliged, by custom, to retain their identity with the village groups, and at the same time, the same individuals have become citizens of the modern state (Waiko, 1997).

· As such, the African scholars' insights and arguments cited should be studied by African and non-African social scientists. Social scientists should support and join non-social scientist African scholars in pursuit of the broader psychological and cultural patterns and processes in Africa. They should conduct investigations to see if assertions such as those I cite are supported by the historical and ethnographic record, and conduct new research on the continent to test such claims and develop new areas of inquiry (Lassiter, 2000).

· Kwaku Osei-Hwedie states the following: “Human service practitioners are yet to find practice paradigms consistent with the African context. Sociocultural, economic, political and environmental conditions, among others are supposed to be building blocks of practice. However, models that are based on these conditions have not materialized. Human service practitioners and client systems, therefore, need to explore together issues of appropriate, indigenized, human service practice models. This is a complex undertaking, and must include issues and processes related to both theory and practice within specific sociocultural and economic contexts” (Normann, Snyman, Cohen, 1996).
Example: In Grahams Town, a school was inflicted by a severe case of ‘mass hysteria’ as would be diagnosed by using the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Illness). The problem, after much intervention by psychologists, was unresolved. In the end the problem was ‘relieved’ by a number of exorcisms done by priests. In other schools with the same manifestation, the problem was ‘relieved’ by local indigenous traditional healers who believed that some of the students had been cursed by a witch-doctor (Carlisle, 1999).

Implications (Inclusion, exclusion, categorization)

What are some of the implications of globalization on indigenous knowledge?

Is being ‘African’ the same as being black? - YES!

Horse in a cow pen
If you put a horse in a cow pen, does that make the horse a cow? – Jaimaican rhetorical question in reply to an argument with a ‘white settler’.

“What is the difference between whites and jacarandas? I am referring to Max du Preez' column discussing who is African and who is not (The Star Opinion and Analysis, February3.)Us whites will always be aliens, foreign invaders, we will never be Africans. Our local birth may give us the political justification and rights, but never the ethnic basis - even if we live in Soweto, marry a black woman, have or adopt black children, eat mieliepap and work as maid or street sweeper, and generally behave like "them".It is the same with jacarandas and other foreign plant or animal invaders: they often also are here in their 6th or 7th generations. That also will never qualify them as "indigenous"!” (Köppers, 2005).

Is being ‘indigenous’ in South Africa the same as being ‘black.’? - YES! But………..
My Tarzan hypothesis:

Tarzan was born in Britain, his parents died while he was an infant and he was reared from then to adulthood by Silverback Gorillas in the African Jungle.
What is Tarzan? Is he a Gorilla or is he a human being? Physically speaking, Tarzan looks like a human being, but culturally/psychologically and behaviourally he is like a Gorrilla. Tarzan physically does not fit into Gorrilladom but in every other way he does. However, physically speaking Tarzan fits into Humanity but in every other way he does not.
Thus if we look at Tarzan holistically (mental and physical), we may perhaps conclude that Tarzan lies on a continuum between being human and being Gorilla.
The problem is one of definition. For the purposes of the rest of this presentation, I will define everything in terms of the definition of the cultural, psychological and behavioural, NOT the physical.

I would like to extend my argument further. In South Africa we have a small but nevertheless ‘extremist’ group of white local people living in the forests around Knysna. These white locals, made up of Dutch, German, French, British and probably every other conceiveable white European ancestry, have to the best of their abilities rejected the Westernized way of living. They live in makeshift shelters, cook over fires, reject modern technology, sometimes braid their hair like many Africans do and live off the land, only coming into town occassionally to buy basic comodities and food. What do they do for money? They make various articles by hand and sell them on the streets in Knysna. Their social culture is almost totally communalistic. They are a peaceful people but do not necessarily abide by the law as they create their own laws which to them are less oppressive. Most of them would very definitely subscribe to David Suzuki’s (1993) following definition:, “The Native Mind is imbued with a deep sense of reverence for nature. It does not operate from an impulse to exercise human dominion over it. Native wisdom tends to assign human beings enormous responsibility for sustaining harmonious relations within the whole natural world rather than granting them unbridled license to follow personal or economic whim. It regards the human obligation to maintain the balance and health of the natural world as a solemn spiritual duty that an individual must perform daily–not simply as admirable, abstract ethical imperatives that can be ignored as one chooses.”
As you may have noticed, these ‘white ex-Europeans of long, long ago’ virtually seem to fall squarely into the category of ‘indigenous’ as defined earlier.

In today's world, there are very few even relatively intact indigenous cultures. Yet we do have indigenous people to whom traditional knowledge and ways have been passed on and who live by this knowledge. This knowledge represents a relationship with the rest of our living planet that has been essentially rejected by industrial culture, yet is very relevant to our healthy future (Sahtouris, 1995).

What is your point you may be asking? My point is, that there seems to be no clearcut boundary between being culturaly, psychologically and behaviourally ‘indigenous’ and being culturaly, psychologically and behaviourally ‘Westernized’. It seems that throughout the world many people are beginning to fall somewhere onto a continuum between ‘westernized’ and ‘indigenous’ in terms of their philosophies, ideologies and practical approaches to life.
In South Africa it seems that to a large extent it is the African populations that are becoming aculturated or at minimum influenced by westernization. Many black people have adopted western society wholeheartedly, whereas some choose to exploit only those aspects of western life that they wish to, while maintaining as traditional and ‘indigenous’ a life as possible.
However, very little attention is being paid to the small and seemingly growing minority of whites in South Africa and throughout the rest of the planet, that are adopting ‘indigenous ways’ of life into their everyday living and even to some extent rejecting westernised life altogether in favour of an ‘indigenous’ life as in the example of Knysna.

If the boundary between ‘indigenous’ and ‘western’ is so blurred, and we are seemingly forced to either contribute to or use western OR indigenous knowledge, then how do we explain everybody inbetween. Can they contribute to the generation of indigenous knowledge even though they are white, or black and born and bred in Britain? Are they forced to be western even if they reject it. Should we develop a third category? Will an extra category solve the problem that the previous categories could not?

Some Ideas from Some Relevant Thinkers:

· Lassiter (2000) says: “Most importantly I praise the scholars for identifying and seriously exploring broad psychological and cultural patterns and processes they believe exist in Africa, without resorting to the stereotyping and useless modernity quantifiers of the past.”

· Wilson (2001) states the following: “Critical theorists would say that maybe there is only one reality, but it is fluid and dependent on sex, culture, and social class. Critical theorists recognize that if reality is fluid, then we can change it. One major difference between the dominant paradigms and an Indigenous paradigm is that the dominant paradigms build on the fundamental belief that knowledge is an individual entity: the researcher is an individual in search of knowledge, knowledge is something that is gained, and therefore knowledge may be owned by an individual. An Indigenous paradigm comes from the fundamental belief that knowledge is relational. Knowledge is shared with all of creation. It is not just interpersonal relationships, not just with the research subjects I may be working with, but it is a relationship with all of creation. It is with the cosmos, it is with the animals, with the plants, with the earth that we share this knowledge. It goes beyond the idea of individual knowledge to the concept of relational knowledge.”

· We now need to move beyond an "Indigenous perspective in research" to "researching from an Indigenous paradigm" (Wilson, 2001).

There is no categorical quantifier involved, it includes anyone who is willing to look through the eyes of a person who is different. Different in my definition is not just being Black instead of white or ‘traditional’ instead of ‘westernized’. It is simply BEING that makes DIFFERENT, different.

“Can indigenous knowledge only be used and created by ‘indigenous peoples’?”


Carlisle, A. (1999) Stress may have caused ‘mass hysteria’ at school. Daily Dispatch. , 13 April, 2005.

Normann, H., Snayman, I. & Cohen, M. (Eds) (1996). Indigenous Knowledge and its Uses. Pretoria: HSRC Publishers.

Köppers, W. (2005). Being African means black, full stop. 23 March, 2005.

Lassiter, J. E. (2000). African Culture and Personality: A Reply to D. A. Masolo. African Studies Quarterly: The Online Journal of African Studies, 3(3). 23 March, 2005.

Sahtouris, E. (1995). The Indigenous Way. Earthdance: Living Systems in Evolution., 27 March, 2005.

Suzuki, D. (1993). Wisdom of the Elders. Noetic Sciences Review, 10-13., 27 March, 2005.

Teasdale, R. & Rhea, M. (2000). Local Knowledge and Wisdom in Higher Education. UK, USA: Pergamon.

Waiko, J. The Value of Traditional Knowledge in the 21st Century.
(from 1997 Wagani Seminar), 23 March, 2005.

Wilson, S. (2001). What is indigenous research methodology?
Canadian Journal of Native Education, 25(2), 175-181.