Indigenous knowledge is a form of science

Accepted scientific expertise which is Western, standardised and homogenous has always been an important part of growth and development plans of countries within the world.
This leaves indigenous knowledge – the vast body of scientific expertise developed in diverse societies and cultures – discounted and ignored.
The education, lifestyle and ignorance of African leaders, even their rejection of indigenous knowledge is affecting African countries in their ability to solve problems. African countries are doing themselves a great disservice by neglecting the problem-solving and enriching potential of their own traditions of science, which are locally valid and accepted.
Permanent Secretary in the Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Science and Technology, Professor Francis Gudyanga notes: “Indigenous knowledge is a knowledge system distilled from generations of scientific work anchored in rural and tribal communities.
“It mainly involves traditional knowledge and therefore is different to the Western system of empirical, lab-based science.”
Importantly, indigenous knowledge is valid and effective. It is a form of science and it should not be ignored.
Professor Gudyanga adds: “Although indigenous knowledge is passed orally from generations to generations, it should be documented.
“Indigenous products must be subjected to credible research and people must not make false claims about their efficacy or safety, otherwise they lose their credibility.”
Accordingly, countries within and across the African continent should treat indigenous knowledge as a form of science mainly in the area of health where most countries have a lot of medicinal plants.
Sadly, despite Africa having a vast repertoire of indigenous medicine, its healthcare system is based on Western-style medicine, which is expensive and difficult to take into remote villages.
Suman Sahai, Indian scientist, founder and chair of Gene Campaign, an organisation dedicated to the conservation of genetic resources and indigenous knowledge, and to working towards ensuring food, nutrition and livelihood security for rural and tribal communities concurs.
 “Indigenous knowledge has been fine-tuned over millennia, but developing countries ignore it; it is myopic to rely on just one form of scientific expertise.”
Sahai believes the time in now to stop discounting traditional expertise and make use of this vast and valuable resource.
“It is time to recognise that there are different kinds of sciences and scientific expertise, and that all of them should be used for development and problem-solving.
“Since indigenous knowledge includes knowledge accumulated over thousands of years, it is wise to make it particularly useful for problem-solving,’ Sahai says.
Stakeholders in the science and technology field should therefore explore and exploit this whole area of traditional knowledge so that the continent benefits from its flora and fauna.
“It requires that players in the science and technology fraternity subject some of the medicinal plants to some scientific investigations to establish the active ingredients in them. Once that done, indigenous products can be patented, commercialised, produced in large quantities and they can be purified,” Professor Gudyanga notes.
African countries should commission researchers in universities and research development institutes to do further research on indigenous knowledge.
Professor Gudyanga says, “We are working with stakeholder scientists and researchers from the University of Zimbabwe, especially the Pharmaceutical department, to explore the area of medicinal products from our traditional knowledge base.”
It is a pity that this knowledge is rarely used and the African continent is suffering as a result.
“Foreigners have been coming to Africa getting our genetic materials out of the continent for commercial purposes. This should stop,” bemoans Professor Gudyanga.
Indigenous knowledge should be retained in the continent.
For this to be effective, governments and policy decision makers in the African continent should craft policies that enhance the commercialisation of traditional knowledge.
African countries should also establish and maintain repositories of indigenous scientific expertise and they should invest adequate resources in indigenous science through expanding the base of education and training in traditional knowledge systems.
This will also help to neutralise the bias against traditional knowledge and assist its inclusion in official policy.
Furthermore, African Heads of State and Government should assist traditional healers in documenting traditional herbs and also assist them in packaging these indigenous products and selling them in a modern convenient way.
Africa and her citizenry have to move away from the narrow thinking that the Western style of science is the only science there is. To effectively benefit, African governments must support the development of both Western and traditional medicine in its healthcare system through research.

August 2013
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