Tuesday 8 August 2017

 Response to the SOTL in the South Conference:  Why Indigenous Knowledge (IK) Systems should find a place in the academy (posting by Beatrice Akala)

Keynote speaker N'Dri Assie-Lumumba
Many are of the view that although indigenous knowledge has been with us for as long as humanity has been in existence, it has struggled to find recognition in the academy.  Besides, indigenous knowledge is synonymous with non-western communities. Its custodians are found within indigenous communities of Africa; Southern, Eastern, Pacific, Indian, Middle Eastern and Latin American communities. In as much as these communities are spread across the globe, the knowledge they poses does not occupy a significant place in academia as compared to western knowledge. It is often classified as “other” and less authentic. 
Western knowledge on the other hand has produced dominant theories and concepts that have been in the public domain for centuries. It has been seen as the norm and a scale upon which other knowledge systems are gauged. This is contrary to the view that the most sophisticated knowledge systems exited on the African continent and pre-date major world civilizations. In justifying this fact, the keynote speech by Prof. N’dri Therese Assi-Lumumba at the SOTL in the South Conference, 25 – 27 July 2017, UJ, showed that Africa houses the oldest medieval institutions of higher learning. They include, Al-Azhar, founded in 970 A.D or 972 A.D and the University of Karueein, founded in 859 AD in Fez, Morocco. The University of Bologna in Italy was founded in 1088 and is the oldest one in Europe. Furthermore, the manuscripts at Timbuktu provide us with a useful lens to study the kinds of knowledge that the indigenous people of Mali held. 

Due to acts of misrepresentation of indigenous knowledge, an artificial gap has been created. The gap can be attributed to a deliberate move to delegitimize it. Those who have side-lined it argue that it lacks adequate conceptualization, it is not scientific enough, it has no theoretical backing and it is based on beliefs that cannot be proven. To the contrary, the proponents of indigenous knowledge argue that misrecognizing it is an injustice and an imposition that was brought about by colonialism and religion. Indigenous people would not have survived for centuries if they had not harnessed and used this knowledge system in healing, agriculture, religion, judicial systems and conflict resolution.  Dr. Boitumelo Diale, a conference delegate, pointed out in her presentation that those who argue that indigenous knowledge is not readily available for use should look in the right places.  Dr. Boitumelo Diale viewed such a position as unfortunate and argued that it should not be used to dismiss indigenous knowledge. If people search in the wrong places they will not get the right answers. 
Dr. Dominic Griffith’s presentation at the conference, on language and poetry, showed the problematic nature of portraying other cultures or languages as being deficient just because one does not understand them or share a similar interpretation. Instead, we ought to look at languages as different houses where man dwells.  Since different language groups dwell in different houses none can claim to be better than the other.  Therefore, this is a call for to overcome our own biases against new ideas that do not conform to our belief systems, cultures or languages. By transcending these fears we will be open to learning. It is clear that there are several interpretations to a phenomenon. In encountering content that is new in art, design or poetry we should not be quick to dismiss it because our interpretation does not align with that of the author or the artist. Rather, we should be open-minded and listen to other views, carefully evaluating where they come from and what they represent. Ways of knowing are broad, multi-faceted and cannot be limited to a single interpretation or a particular civilization. 

The most important question of the discussion in the thematic area at the conference - Indigenous knowledge research was; does indigenous knowledge exist and does it have a place in higher education? By the end of the conference, it was clear that indigenous knowledge exists and it has a place in higher education today despite the distorted views that surround it. There are opportunities in all learning areas to embrace indigenous knowledge.  African poetry, languages and literature could be boosted by including indigenous content. Opportunities exist in mentorship programmes, using context and environmental examples in our classrooms to expound on scientific concepts and using the Ubuntu philosophy to encourage fairness in our practices. Dr. Boitumelo stressed the fact that we will not be able to achieve excellence if we use western examples that are irrelevant and foreign to the learners’ daily experiences. 

Whereas the indigenous movement has taken off, there is a need to have a forward looking model that will be all encompassing and inclusive. For instance, questions regarding the definitions of who is indigenous, what counts as indigenous and indigenous knowledge, whose lens should be used to arrive at conclusions, require proper grounding and understanding.  In the absence of clarity on some of these issues, the voices of those that are perceived as alien will be subverted, misrecognized and marginalized. Finally, no body of knowledge is an island and can exist in isolation. Therefore, while thinking about how to harness and include indigenous knowledge in our curricula, we ought to think about aligning ourselves with other bodies of knowledge so as to form   collaborations that will bolster a peaceful and productive co-existence.  Importantly, keynote speaker Prof. Catherine Manathunga’s advice against using approaches that are linear, universalized and idolized in research should be taken seriously.  Integrated but differentiated approaches to research processes and methodologies are likely to be more inclusive and agreeable in the academy.   

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