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Indigenous African knowledge has much to offer science — but only if science can be translated into local languages, says Charles Dhewa.

Africans have a rich cultural heritage and a wealth of traditional knowledge on topics ranging from agricultureand forestry to medicines and medical practices — all of which could make valuable contributions to modern science.

For example, traditional knowledge of drought-resistant crop varieties could prove crucial in helping small farmers across the continent adapt to climate change.

Much of this type of knowledge is embedded in the diverse local languages and cultures found in Africa.

Yet despite centuries of scientific undertakings on the continent, there is still no vernacular word for 'science'. In Southern Africa, science remains a minority, English-language based, pursuit that reinforces the domination of English at the expense of local languages such as Ndebele, Swahili and many others.

This marginalisation of African languages and practices means much local knowledge is lost. Many innovations by farmers and rural communities are excluded from modern science and technology (S&T) because there are no local terms or expressions to capture them.

It is vital for ordinary people to be able to participate in science innovation. Moving the large body of indigenous knowledge into mainstream S&T systems will help address pressing development issues on the continent.

Engaging ordinary people with S&T could also help prevent unfair exploitation of natural resources and make citizens more aware of laws protecting these resources at national and regional levels.

Domesticating science

African policymakers must make an effort to 'domesticate' science by usingvernacular languages to talk about it. This means investing in translation activities.

Literal translation is, of course, an important aspect. Initiatives to compile science dictionaries are a welcome step forward. Zimbabwean scientist Christopher Chetsanga is, for example, compiling a dictionary in the Shona language — spoken by nine million people in Zimbabwe — that should do much to improve local understanding of scientific terms and issues.

Certainly, big institutions such as the UN Economic Commission for Africa and huge initiatives such as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development should use translation to add value to the mountains of documents they publish in English. 

But it's not just individual words that need translating, it's also the expression of ideas and meanings, formed in one context and received and interpreted in very different ones.

Integrating ideas

To achieve this we must strengthen the role of intermediaries with specialist communication skills — people who can translate and summarise complex S&T ideas in local languages and explain both the concepts and implications with simplicity. Such people are sometimes called 'integrators', 'filters' and 'synthesisers'.

Integrators combine separate ideas into one body of knowledge. An integrator can adequately combine indigenous and scientific knowledge on climate change in ways that are meaningful to ordinary people. Filtering includes editing and clarifying ideas so that people can understand the benefits of, for example, biotechnology, without bias or misunderstanding. Synthesisers effectively summarise key issues. 

Translating the issues around topics such as climate change and biotechnology, where debate is often highly polarised, requires all three skills. 

Intermediaries can sometimes do more than simply explain the science. They might, for example, be able to draw attention to opportunities around intellectual property.

And intermediaries can draw marginal communities into modern scientific discourses, enhancing collaboration with researchers and formal S&T organisations. 

Translation activities should also promote cross-disciplinary sharing and collaboration. Many S&T disciplines still operate as self-contained silos. In Africa, for example, civil engineers rarely communicate with agricultural researchers, with potentially serious consequences for rural farmers.

Boosting farmers' yields through agricultural research is of little value if the transport infrastructure, including roads and bridges, cannot get their crop to market.

Paying for progress

Of course, domesticating S&T through translation can only succeed with sufficient investment to support it.

In theory, money for translation activities should come out of national S&T budgets. But these remain very small in Africa.

Despite African Union members promising, in 2007, to spend one per cent of their GDP (gross domestic product) on research and development, only two countries are doing so — Rwanda and Tunisia (see Africa Analysis: Progress on science spending). The average spend across the continent is just 0.4 per cent — translation funds are unlikely to be found here.

An alternative source of funding, recently championed by my scientific colleagues in Zimbabwe, could be national S&T taxes, modelled on Zimbabwe's three per cent HIV/AIDS Levy, introduced in 1999. The levy has been remarkably successful in ensuring funds for HIV/AIDS activities, including access to lifesaving antiretrovirals, despite the country's economic turmoil.

A S&T Levy could be used to finance all aspects of research and development, including translation activities. It could also help promote industrialisation and help local producers and manufacturers add value to their products.

Whatever the route to accessing money, the fact remains that science translation activities in Africa are urgently needed if we are to tap into the energy, entrepreneurship, creativity and intelligence of our people.

Charles Dhewa is the managing consultant for communications and knowledge management consultancy Knowledge Transfer Africa in Harare, Zimbabwe.