The majority of rural African parents are convinced that their children can learn more useful things from their local community than from formal schools. Besides the tendency to look down upon local knowledge, the modern African formal education system still has to become “domesticated” enough to recognize and reward abundant community knowledge.
Given that the Western education system has been in Africa for more than a century, by now we should be having a solid and rich hybrid between formal Western knowledge systems and local contextual knowledge systems. Yet African students conducting research on the continent continue to regard African communities as “informants” instead of respected knowledge sources similar to those encountered in universities or other institutions of learning. Undocumented knowledge is still designated as “anecdotes” although it is often more practical and realistic than many arguments and prescriptions in academic papers.
It is as if you don’t know anything until you put your knowledge on paper.
This continuous privileging of documented over experiential knowledge is problematic for a continent renowned for oral knowledge exchange. If a modern Western educated food scientist goes into a rural community to investigate local food systems and the community shows the creative ways in which they prepare different beverages from diverse local fruits in a sustainable manner, who should be rewarded – the food scientist or the local people who taught him/her this important practice?
At the moment, the food scientist would earn a degree for largely describing what has been learnt from engaging communities. There is no recognition for those actually producing the beverages with tested local knowledge, often refined over decades or even centuries.
Towards refined community concepts and practices
The above scenario is an example of how the Western-driven formal education system in Africa continues to undermine local knowledge – to its own peril. Many African communities have honed critical skills ranging from crop and livestock production to all forms of value addition such as processing skins into hides and preparing all sorts of products from these. Yet such knowledge does not seem to have a space in the modern globalised world. It is very frequently overshadowed by imported ideas of what should be done, how and for whom.
African scholars and policy makers have been exposed to different types of knowledge and ways of learning. They should come up with creative ways of assessing and valuing local knowledge in ways that preserve its distinctiveness while contributing to global knowledge systems.
To the extent that community knowledge systems can constitute a big portion of science – even though communities do not call their knowledge “science” – African scholars can use such knowledge as raw material, and through systematic social interaction combine such contextual knowledge with what is coming from outside. Very little of this is done at present.
This process should see the experiences of farmers, traders, artisans and other local knowledge sources being studied, analysed, synthesised and refined into formal qualifications, including academic degrees. If spending four to seven years in a university guarantees someone a law or medical degree, what is the value of someone’s whole life’s work? In the African rural community context, peer reviewed knowledge does not have to be published. Evidence of widespread adoption of a local innovation over many years is regarded as “peer reviewed” enough – even more credible than published documents read by a few peers, often selected from a circle of colleagues and friends.
Local African communities are aware that knowledge generation begins with the selection of ideas from their everyday experiences. That is how they have bred crops and livestock for generations through a slow, continuous transformational process. You do not just wake up as a blacksmith or an expert brewer of local beverages. It is a skill honed over many years of trial and error with guidance from elders who have acquired this knowledge from their elders. Such processes ensure the “rigour” that most academic researchers are concerned about – to the extent that they often consider as “not rigorous enough” those knowledge systems that they have not witnessed themselves.
For how long are we going to continue to rely on Western theories and notions of knowledge?
Africans who have acquired knowledge from the West, East and elsewhere should be using those experiences to imagine relevant theories for African development. They can invent methodologies that allow observations of farmers and artisans to construct integrated knowledge.
Just as learning in formal education systems happen through gradual refinement and restructuring of small components through arranging learning into first year, second year, third year and so on, community knowledge can be structured and refined in the same way – but in a more distributed and coordinated mechanism that take into account different contexts. We cannot have the same curricula for people with different local experiences. Each knowledge pathway should take into account the hard-earned experiences of particular communities, the same way people living in desert-like situations have different knowledge from those eking out a living in high rainfall areas.
When will we recognize the importance of doing this for the sake of Africa’s development within a knowledge-based world?
Divide between real and scholarly selves
In a recent article, Alex De Waal wonders why too much of what the world knows about Africa is still coming from outside the continent. While Alex laments the situation at a much higher level, the problem is more glaring at primary and secondary school levels where what pupils and students learn in school is very different from what they experience at home.
Besides the fact the most of the subjects in formal schools are taught in foreign languages (English, French, Portuguese and recently also Mandarin), versions of local languages such as Shona, Sotho and Nyanja taught in schools are different from what is spoken in homes. As if that is not enough, 80% of formal education is never used in real life. For instance, subjects like Geography and Environmental Science that are taught in formal school are never put into practice at community level. While formal schools divide learning into different subjects, real life experiences are not divided into Mathematics, Geography, History, English, Religious Studies, Science, Commerce, and so on. It is left to the student after leaving school to combine these subjects in ways that are meaningful for him/her.
For a continent looking for immediate solutions, there have to be solid mechanisms for translating what is learnt in formal schools into practical community knowledge.
Where does evaluation come into this?
While development organisations have been in Africa for generations, evaluation of their work has focused mainly on accountability to funders, rather than on the systematic integration of lessons into local knowledge pathways. These organisations and their evaluators appear to be more interested in “results” and “impact” than
in reflecting for adaptive learning. Since they come from the West, or have been educated in or influenced by the West, most of these development organisations and evaluators have also brought with them Western notions of assessing the value of knowledge and development practices.
African practitioners and scholars, as well as evaluators and evaluation practitioners have to challenge dominant Western frameworks and theories of evaluation and knowledge. Local communities cannot embark on such an enormous undertaking because they have not been exposed to other forms of knowledge and worldviews. Part of restructuring African knowledge systems should include revisiting formal reward systems which privilege publications over practical wisdom.
So much needs to be done to move millions out of poverty. If knowledge is power, that power has to be expressed by scholars, policy makers and the evaluation community.