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Modern science cannot meet the demands of the developing world without harnessing indigenous knowledge, arguesCharles Dhewa.

It is difficult to exaggerate the achievements of modern science and technology — but to tackle persisting poverty, disease and ecological imbalance in developing countries we also need to explore other routes of enquiry, and indigenous knowledge in particular. 

Indigenous knowledge is not receiving the attention it deserves, while modern science has limitations and assumptions that prevent it from providing sustainable solutions to development challenges.

The process of modern scientific enquiry is not as rational as many assume. When experiments are conducted, people — including scientists and policymakers — still choose what to believe.

For example, a tendency to entertain provisional hypotheses as true can lead scientists to false conclusions. And when searching for information, researchers can favour data consistent with their desired conclusions — which may then be misleading.

Writing in The New Yorker magazine, Jonah Lehrer says: "We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that's often not the case." [1]

Meshing experiments with experience

The world can benefit from the strengths of both conventional science and indigenous knowledge systems.

Knowledge acquired through conventional science, which is usually closed and formal, can be scaled up through indigenous knowledge systems, which are open and informal.

Conventional science formulates principles and theories that describe nature, whereas indigenous knowledge systems evolve values, beliefs, customs and ceremonies based on an understanding of nature and the universe.

While conventional science relies on conceptualisation, empirical experimentation and interpretation to generate and share knowledge, indigenous knowledge puts more emphasis on experience and practice.

Unlike indigenous knowledge, conventional science works best when dealing with what is observable and measurable. But accepting the role of indigenous knowledge is essential so that we do not mislead ourselves into believing that only what is measurable is real, and only what is controllable is valuable.

"Just because an idea is true does not mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved does not mean it is true" — as The New Yorker article notes.

But for indigenous knowledge to co-exist meaningfully with conventional science, it has to be empowered through various means, such as translation.

Empowering indigenous knowledge

In the developing world, traditional and indigenous knowledge has, for years, been relegated behind forms of knowledge from the developed world, including modern science. 

Many people in Africa believe that if knowledge has not been written in a modern science book, or if it is not taught in a formal school, college or university, it does not count as knowledge at all.

To promote indigenous knowledge, scientific centres of excellence in Africa should become seedbeds for collaborative research where indigenous knowledge experts and modern scientists research and innovate together.  

There are signs that much can be achieved through such collaborative activities. For instance, chemists at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, have engaged herbalist healers to learn more about how Clerodendrum myricoides, a species of flowering plant native to Africa, can be used safely and effectively.

The chemists have found that traditional healers use an elixir prepared from this plant to treat sexually transmitted diseases, especially gonorrhoea. Although effective, this preparation can also have toxic effects, which are recognised by herbalists. To complement their knowledge, the chemists conducted studies to verify the plant's bioactivity, identify its active ingredients, and determine a safe dosage. 

While chemists tend to focus on generating knowledge, healers seek to heal people and communities. This intervention has harmonised the modern standards of chemistry with the healing standards of the herbalists, leading to mutual respect and encouraging the social acceptability of indigenous knowledge.

Strong role for ICT

The new age of creativity and innovation driven by information and communication technology (ICT) offers developing countries an even bigger opportunity to revitalise indigenous knowledge systems. 

With ICT, there are abundant opportunities to digitally represent and disseminate knowledge through various forms of expression — from music to photographs, voice and video — that enable indigenous narratives to spread throughout the world. Young Africans confident with ICT can bring indigenous knowledge to a wider, global community. 

Many communities and organisations are using ICT to capture and preserve indigenous knowledge in Africa, Latin America and Asia. [2]

In East Africa, Uganda's Rwenzori Information Centres Network is enhancing community development through sourcing, repackaging and documenting indigenous knowledge. The network aims to help integrate this knowledge into local education systems so people can make informed decisions.

In Zimbabwe, the Knowledge Transfer Africa Trust initiative is working to empower some indigenous languages to become a foundation for blending indigenous knowledge with modern science.

A notable success is India's Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL). This has become a unique resource that captures the country's traditional medical wisdom. It has also been used to prevent biopiracy — access to the 30 million page database helps officials to correctly examine patent applications relating to traditional knowledge.

Harnessing indigenous knowledge with modern science will allow fundamental insights and real innovation to emerge from groups such as smallholder farmers, fishing communities, traditional medical practitioners and rural artisans — leading to collective responsibility and ownership of scientific achievements.

Charles Dhewa is director of Knowledge Transfer Africa, based in Harare, Zimbabwe. He can be contacted at: [email protected] or [email protected].

References

[1] Lehrer J. The truth wears off: Is there something wrong with the scientific method? The New Yorker (2010)
[2] Hunter J. The role of information technologies in indigenous knowledge management Chapter 9, Australian Indigenous Knowledge and Libraries (2006)

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