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
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)
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Further information on Aang Serian can be obtained from the website, http://www.aangserian.org.uk,
or via email@example.com.
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.