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March 2003



Education, indigenous knowledge and globalisation

Gemma Burford, Lesikar Ole Ngila and Yunus Rafiki, Aang Serian Community College, Tanzania

The interface between indigenous knowledge and globalisation: rewriting education for African realities - developing a model for the systematic integration of indigenous knowledge into formal and semi-formal education.

As members of an organisation with the primary aim of promoting and preserving the traditional knowledge and cultures of Africa, we are concerned that the colonialist or early missionary mentality is still very much alive in societies that were once colonised. There is still a widely held view that anything associated with culture and hereditary values is pagan, and thus backward, as reflected by the vast number of urban Africans who feel embarrassed to associate themselves with their own cultural background. It is time for us to recognise this deeply rooted mentality as the product of a particular time and of specific policies in human history, and to acknowledge the limitations it imposes on our development, as well as its devastating effects on the natural environment.

The majority of African youth still subscribe to the "American dream", and on a smaller scale, to the "urban dream". The growing trend towards urbanisation is encouraging thousands to abandon their indigenous knowledge, in the belief that new knowledge and new opportunities are to be found in town. Yet the realities of mass unemployment, the high costs of urban life and of further education, and the growing pandemic of AIDS testify that this is not the case. Many end up homeless, jobless and penniless, with neither the traditional skills that sustained their ancestors nor the specialised and expensive skills required for employment in a modern town. The inevitable result is poverty.

The enormity of the threat posed by the break-up of indigenous communities has not yet been fully realised by many of those now in power, although it has always been obvious to community elders. Many mistakenly believe that the reason that rural African societies have not evolved in the same way as the "civilised" west is a lack of knowledge. In truth, it has been a matter of free choice to protect the natural environment and to maintain traditional lifestyles. The culture and traditions that form an integral part of indigenous knowledge provide codes of conduct addressing all aspects of the community - economic, social, environmental and psychological. When they are in place, they keep the society in its equilibrium.

It is widely assumed that poverty is an unavoidable consequence of climate change such as drought. For centuries, however, indigenous knowledge has provided Africa's tribal peoples with practical solutions to the problems of a fluctuating climate. As an example, the Maasai pastoralists of northern Tanzania and southern Kenya traditionally know where to find water, and green shrubs that can be fed to young calves, even during long periods of drought. Likewise, in Ethiopia, often regarded as inevitably dependent on Western aid, the threat of famine can be overcome by local expertise, as Worede (in Seabrook 1993:31) explains:

"There is a wild plant that grows on the Somali border, under the driest conditions, less than 200 mm of rain a year… There are other crops, things people have known where to find in distress times. They go to the mountains and pick them and survive somehow. But if you destroy the natural environment of such plants, you lose these resources, and your monocultures won't save you."

In our opinion, the greatest threat to the economic stability of the African continent is not its changing climate. Rather, it is the gradual erosion of indigenous knowledge and the accompanying destruction of natural wealth - plants, animals, insects, soils, clean air and water - and human cultural wealth, such as songs, proverbs, folklore and social co-operation. This robs people of their ability to respond to social and environmental change, both by removing the resource base, and by attacking the foundations of human identity.

There are many fashionable phrases currently popular with international agencies - sustainable development, conflict resolution, good governance, poverty alleviation, environmental stewardship - which could all be translated as "fostering a sense of peace with ourselves and our cultural identity". It is never easy for the oppressed to become anything other than oppressors, but we believe that it can be achieved through rebuilding the sense of self-esteem and confidence that colonialism and the global market have sought to eliminate. This does not mean a return to the destructive tribalism, grounded in insecurity and fear, which has haunted so many countries in Africa. Rather, in order to live on good terms with the neighbours - local and international, human and non-human - with whom we share this planet, we must first rediscover an awareness of who we are. At the same time, we belong to a tribe, to a nation, and to the world.

The real meaning of education: 'bringing up and drawing out'

The English word 'education' is often taken to refer to the formal systems of schooling originally introduced to Africa by colonial administrators, and further developed by post-independence governments. An examination of its original meaning, however, reveals something quite different. Senge (1990) highlights the fact that education is derived from two Latin words: educare, 'to rear or foster', and educere, 'to draw out or develop'. Education thus incorporates all the processes of raising up young people to adulthood, and drawing out or developing their potential to contribute to society, that are traditionally found in rural communities. Learning to hunt wild game or herd livestock, prepare food or weave cloth, search for wild honey or distinguish medicinal plants from poisonous ones, is arguably closer to the true meaning of 'education' than learning to make and interpret marks on paper.

This should not be interpreted as meaning that literacy, numeracy and the acquisition of new languages are unnecessary. No society can exist in isolation: people have always sought ways to communicate with one another and to trade in goods and services, and this has never been more important than it is today. In an increasingly interdependent world, it is as essential for us to be fluent in the languages of international economics and politics - in order to defend our rights and demand development on our own terms - as in the languages of animal tracks, bird calls and weather patterns.

What is currently missing, in most societies, is a system of teaching and learning that can combine the two. African children are either kept in their home environments, missing out on the 'modern' aspects of education, or (increasingly) forced into full-time formal schooling, missing out on the 'traditional'. The latter often furthers the neo-colonial mentality by building aspirations of urban life and encouraging young people to believe that they have no future in rural communities.

Case study: Aang Serian Community College, Tanzania

Aang Serian, meaning 'House of Peace' in the Arusha dialect of Maasai language, is an independent, non-profit cultural association founded by young Tanzanians and a recent Oxford graduate in 1999. The organisation, registered with the Tanzanian National Arts Council, aims to empower young people by helping them to explore their identity at the tribal, national and global levels (c.f. Rafiki, Knight & Power 2002). We do this mainly through our Community College, housed in a small rented office in Arusha town, which provides low cost post-primary education to some 40 young adults between the ages of 16 and 35. What makes the College unique is its search for an appropriate balance between `indigenous' and `Western' knowledge, skills and teaching methods. Conventional classes such as English, Kiswahili, computer studies and basic literacy are combined with an innovative seminar course on Indigenous Knowledge (IK) and Globalisation.

Aang Serian leaders developed the concept of the IK and Globalisation course after a meeting at the United Nations headquarters in New York in August 2001, to commemorate the International Day for the World's Indigenous Peoples. During this meeting, indigenous leaders from around the world emphasised integrated education as an effective way of slowing the destruction of indigenous knowledge. Our course, still very much a 'work in progress', is based on the following principles:

1. Active Participation

During seminars, students share their personal experiences and views relating to the themes of the course - History, Culture, Environment and Health. A trained local facilitator encourages every student to make a contribution, thus helping to build self-esteem and to ensure that new information is placed in a familiar context: everyone may be an 'expert' (c.f. Sterling 2001: 38) Ideas are exchanged in an environment of open-mindedness and willingness to listen, with an emphasis on what the different ethnic, religious and national groups can learn from one another.

2. Critical Thinking

We believe that sustainability depends on challenging received ideas about the meaning of `progress', in particular the identification of 'development' with Western-style industrialisation. Thus, many of our seminar questions demand critical thinking about social change, and the evaluation of both positive and negative aspects of modernisation processes. This includes consideration of the role of international institutions such as the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation.

3. Learning from Elders

Each student is given an individual workbook of questions relating to the four themes mentioned above, and required to fill in answers by interviewing parents, grandparents or other community elders. A week of study leave after every three weeks of classroom-based work facilitates this enquiry. For those students who are unable to return to their home villages for reasons of distance or cost, we attempt to help them to identify elders of their ethnic group living in Arusha town. Wherever possible, however, the focus is on learning within the home environment. This helps to close the 'generation gaps' that so often result from formal education: rather than despising older relatives for their illiteracy, our students are expected to recognise them as holders of valuable knowledge, and to acknowledge their contributions at the back of the completed workbook.

In addition to their role in teaching, community elders are also included in the assessment process. Before students can be awarded a certificate, they must be interviewed by at least one elder of their ethnic group, who must be satisfied with their knowledge and understanding.

4. Integrating Theory and Practice

The current requirements of the course are for each student to complete at least three out of five selected practical tasks - medicinal plant identification, construction of a material object relevant to his/her ethnic group, performance of a traditional song, performance of a dance and/or drum routine, and preparation of a local dish - and to explain their cultural significance. These tasks must be carried out to the satisfaction of both an Aang Serian faculty member and a community elder. This helps to raise awareness of the importance of praxis-based learning, while conserving some of those elements of culture that cannot be readily captured in written documents.

Vision for the future

The course is in the process of accreditation by senior academics at the University of East London, UK, as a University Certificate that qualifies the holder for entry to its undergraduate course in anthropology (given an adequate standard of spoken and written English according to international examinations). It is hoped that, in time, many African universities will also accept the IK and Globalisation Certificate as an entry qualification for appropriate degree courses.

We are also in the process of developing a rural branch of the Community College in Monduli District, north-west of Arusha, Tanzania. In addition to the existing language and literacy courses, and the IK and Globalisation course, we plan to develop an integrated approach to organic agriculture, livestock management, ethnobotany and health care. Over the next four years, we also hope to include subjects such as human rights, international environmental law, comparative cultural studies and research methodology. The buildings will be constructed from natural, locally available raw materials as far as possible, and will use solar and satellite facilities for information and communication technologies.

While initial capital has been provided largely by individuals and institutions in industrialised countries, the Monduli College is expected to become self-sustaining by providing courses for international students, whose fees will help to subsidise tuition costs for the local participants. The latter are also expected to contribute according to their means: if unable to pay in cash, they may provide handicraft goods for sale in the Aang Serian fair trade shop in Arusha, or food resources such as livestock and agricultural produce that can help to sustain the college's economy.


The goal of 'sustainable development' in Africa calls for a re-acknowledgement of the power and contemporary relevance of indigenous knowledge, and its systematic integration into formal and semi-formal education. We have presented a model developed through collaboration between young and old, and between rural Africa and the industrialised world, which might serve as a catalyst for other grassroots organisations to develop educational strategies appropriate to their own circumstances.

We are particularly keen to hear from individuals and organisations already active in educational reform and curriculum development, and are launching an International Network on Sustainable Education via the Internet during 2003. The network will serve as a forum for further exchange of ideas and experience, avoiding the duplication of efforts, and helping to create new curricula and reading materials. If you would like to be added to the mailing list, please contact Matthew Kinsley, Network Co-ordinator, on

Further information on Aang Serian can be obtained from the website,, or via

More information

Rafiki, Y., Knight, C., Power, C. (2002) 'An Arusha declaration for 2002'. Anthropology Today, August 2002.

Seabrook, J. (1993) Pioneers of Change: Experiments in Creating a Humane Society. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers & London: Zed Books

Senge, P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline, New York: Doubleday Currency.

Sterling, S. (2001) Sustainable Education: Re-visioning Learning and Change. Totnes, Devon, UK: Green Books/The Schumacher Society.


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