Learning indigenous knowledge systems

Learning indigenous knowledge systems
Jennifer Hays, University of Tromsø


The South African Department of Science and Technology policy on indigenous knowledge systems (IKS), introduced in 2004 is a major step forward in the recognition of the legitimacy of systems of knowledge other than “western” or “scientific” knowledge, and reflects a growing shift in consciousness among academics, policy-makers and practitioners in a number fields as to the value and the legitimacy of IKS. 

The way that this shift is interpreted and applied, however, is still in the process of being worked out. IKS are (practically by definition) mutable, integrated, and informally transmitted, and thus difficult to formalize and fit into the hierarchical and highly compartmentalized systems of modern governments and other organizations. Training and Qualifications Authorities across southern Africa are working to recognize informal skills in a way that will bestow upon them the recognition and legitimacy that formal qualifications do. There are two general aspects to this: how can IKS be integrated into existing formal structures, and how can we recognize informal ones as legitimate.  

There are many arenas in which these questions are pertinent; in this paper I focus on the particular challenges faced in integrating IKS into the education system. Again there are some basic sets of problems to be solved: How can IKS be integrated into the formal curriculum? How can the someone who has gained extensive knowledge and skills but has no formal education be recognized? In order to fully integrate IKS into any education system, it is critical to involve the elders who are the bearers of the knowledge. Exactly how to integrate experiential, orally-transmitted knowledge, however, does not have a simple answer.  

Furthermore, when discussing the concept of 'indigenous' in southern Africa, we must also keep in mind that there are layers of indigeneity. The DST policy states that IKS in South Africa have been 'marginalized, suppressed, and subjected to ridicule;' this is true as well for its neighbors to the North, Botswana and Namibia. While the IKS of most Africans have been seriously marginalized, it is the 'most indigenous' group, the San (also called Bushmen or Basarwa) who occupy the furthest fringe. This paper will discuss the relationship between indigenous knowledge and education, looking primarily at the San of Botswana and Namibia. The arguments and conclusions in this paper are based upon intensive field work in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy of Namibia, as well as comparative visits elsewhere; involvement in development projects and other education and language efforts, and a review of the literature on indigenous knowledge, indigenous education, ethnographic accounts of the San.  

Following a brief description of the San, this paper will discuss the nature of indigenous knowledge systems; how they contrast with formal education, and address the question of why they are worthwhile to maintain. The second half of the paper then briefly describes some ongoing educational projects (existing and proposed) in Botswana and Namibia, and the relevance of this discussion to those efforts. 

The San 

The San, also known as Bushmen or Basarwa (in Botswana) are former hunter-gatherers living today in Botswana and Namibia, and to a lesser extent in South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Residing primarily in small, scattered settlements in remote areas, or as farm workers, the San participate only marginally in national politics and the cash economy. While other groups in South Africa have also experienced dispossession and violence, and are today economically, politically, and socially marginalized, the San are everywhere at the very bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy. In many places San students are doubly marginalized. If African IKS are marginalized within the global context—and they are—the indigenous knowledge of hunters and gatherers are marginalized within the national contexts of both Botswana and Namibia.  

Many San see the formal education system as their only hope for accessing greater economic opportunity and gaining control over their lives. In practice, the experience of San children in government schools across southern Africa has largely been characterized by very high drop-out rates. There are many interrelated reasons why this is so, and an important one has to do with the enormous disjuncture between their own, indigenous knowledge systems, transmission strategies, and supporting social ethos (on the one hand) and the knowledge, transmission strategies, and social values associated with the formal education system. This will be discussed in greater detail below; the following section will first outline some important characteristics of indigenous knowledge. 

What are “indigenous knowledge systems”?  

Indigenous knowledge is a complete knowledge system with its own concepts of epistemology, philosophy and scientific and logical validity…(which) can only be learned and understood by means of pedagogy traditionally employed by these people themselves. [Battiste and Henderson-Youngblood 2000: 41]

“The underlying fact is that IK has always been and continues to be the primary factor in the survival and welfare of the majority of South Africans.” (DST 2004:5)

There is no universally accepted term for the category of knowledge referred in this paper. It is variably referred to as traditional knowledge, local knowledge, indigenous knowledge, traditional environmental knowledge (TEK), or, as in the South African report, Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS). Each has a somewhat different emphasis, but the essence of the category is knowledge that is specific to a particular place and a particular group of people. Often the focus is on environmental knowledge. For the purposes of this discussion, I will use the term indigenous knowledge systems, or IKS, as used in the DST policy.  
The category of “local / traditional / indigenous knowledge” is frequently mis-represented. Often understandings of the category they are built upon a conception of homogeneous communities, and can be misunderstood to connote a “rigid systematized version of knowledge, abstracted from individual agents” rather than a knowledge that is historically determined and flexible (Green 2000:73). In fact, fluidity, diversity, and adaptability are among the defining characteristics of indigenous knowledge systems. 
James Scott (1998) argues that the discourse of “high modernism” has been so successfully structured “that all other kinds of knowledge are regarded as backward, static traditions, as old wives’ tales and superstitions” (1998:331). As Scott and many others have convincingly argued, however, far from being “backwards” or “static,” the practical knowledge of someone who has made his or her living—has survived—through a lifetime of “exceptionally close and astute observation” of his environment is often superior to anything that can be discovered easily through “scientific” methods.  
Wilmer (1993) proposes that indigenous peoples’ knowledge of the natural world can be understood as an “‘inner technology’ of heightened consciousness”; a specific awareness of the intricate ecosystem they depend upon for survival. This type of knowledge, he argues, can not be acquired in a laboratory setting in a few decades, it “can only be acquired over time if it is the sort of knowledge considered valuable” (1993:208). Mundy and Compton (1995) distinguish between knowledge and information. They describe knowledge as a process of individual cognition, which “cannot be communicated but is created in the minds of individuals as a result of each person’s perceptions of the environment or through communication with others” (1995:112). Information, on the other hand, is what is communicated, it is what knowledge is encoded into and decoded from in order to be transmitted among humans. They describe “indigenous communication” as the locally developed and controlled communication systems that use low levels of technology and generally lack bureaucratic organization through which information is shared (1995:114).  

Deborah McGregor (2004) in her discussion of Traditional Environmental Knowledge (TEK) makes an important distinction between “Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal” concepts of what this kind of knowledge actually “is”:

Aboriginal views of TEK are ‘verb-based’–that is, action-oriented. TEK is not limited, in the Aboriginal view, to a ‘body of knowledge’. It is expressed as a ‘way of life’; it is conceived as being something that you do. Non-Aboriginal views of TEK are ‘noun-’ or ‘product-based’. That is, they tend to focus on physical characteristics. TEK is viewed as a thing rather than something that you do. [McGregor 2004:78] 

This is a critical distinction, and will have important implications for educational efforts focusing on indigenous populations. McGregor proposes the following description of TEK, based on Martha Johnson (1992): 

a body of knowledge built up by a group of people through generations of living in close contact with nature. It includes a system of classification, a set of empirical observations about the local environment, and a system of self-management that governs resource use...With its roots firmly in the past, traditional environmental knowledge is both cumulative and dynamic, building upon the experience of earlier generations and adapting to the new technological and socioeconomic changes of the present. [McGregor 2004:77] 

The understanding of traditional environmental knowledge as “cumulative and dynamic” is key, for it both encompasses the intense and long-term relationship that people have had with their environment and allows that knowledge to become “updated” in a rapidly changing world as new information is acquired.  

Indigenous knowledge systems of the San
The indigenous knowledge systems possessed by the San vary according by language group, geographical location, and local availability of resources, but all are based upon a recent hunting and gathering lifestyle and ethos. Although living solely from hunting and gathering is no longer a real option for the vast majority of San communities, many do still gain a substantial portion of their subsistence through these methods. The complexity of the skills required for tracking and hunting is described by Blurton Jones and Konnor (1976), who compare the intellectual processes required to that associated with modern science. They report that the !Kung demonstrated an “advanced ability to observe and assemble facts about behavior and to discriminate facts from hearsay and interpretation” and that in these areas their ability surpassed not only “lay observers” but “many professionals in western society”; the (1976:344). 

Draper (1976) points out that although the hunting and gathering lifestyle is technologically simple, this simplicity can be deceptive, for the subsistence activities themselves are quite complex. In hunting and gathering societies, the process of food gathering requires detailed and integrated knowledge about a large variety of plant and animal species and sophisticated problem-solving skills; furthermore the activity itself is very dangerous. There is thus little work that children can do on their own until they are fully competent adults; until that time they accompany the adults, watching and learning, according to their own desire to do so, and with increasing frequency as they mature.  

Indigenous knowledge and education

Unfortunately there is a gap in the literature between discussions of indigenous knowledge systems, and education. The authors noted above, for example, do not discuss the impact of formal schooling on such knowledge; likewise, in the international discourse of education, indigenous forms of knowledge production and transmission have not received enough serious consideration. This is an important gap, for the transfer of children to formal school settings is one of the primary ways in which such knowledge is undermined. Simultaneously, the incongruence between different knowledge systems and their transmission is one of the biggest barriers to indigenous students' success in mainstream education systems (Hays 2007).

A literature review of research on child-rearing approaches, learning and teaching styles, and the traditional knowledge of the Ju|'hoansi and other San groups reveal a number of consistent themes including: a general discouragement of competitive and aggressive behavior; a tolerant child-rearing style that respects individual mood, will, and personality; an absence of physical punishment; an informal socialization process in which children and adults interact freely; and observational and participatory (as opposed to instructional) learning styles. (Draper 1976; Konner 1976; Blurton Jones and Konner 1976; Marshall 1976; Tanaka 1980; Guenther 1976; 1999; Le Roux 1999, 2002, Hays 2007). The lack of competition that characterizes adult social relationships also characterizes children's play which is, in general, cooperative in nature; likewise the lack of hierarchical social structures is also reflected in an approach to children that places very little emphasis on obedience. In small village settings, Ju|'hoansi children observe their parents at close range and imitate them from a young age, but they do not begin participating in adult work until they are adolescents. 

Blurton Jones and Konnor's (1976) observations of the transmission of knowledge relevant to hunting also support the findings of both Marshall and Draper; they note that there seems to be “relatively little transmission of information from one man to another, even from old to young” (1976:344; emphasis added). These authors state that much of the knowledge is gained “informally” and is suggest that such knowledge thus “assimilated more easily and rapidly than knowledge gained under pressure or direct instruction” (1976:345).  

As children get older, they choose when and how they wish to participate in the subsistence activities of the group. In this self-motivated fashion, with virtually no direct pressure from their parents or other adults, by the time they are in their early teens both boys and girls are competent to find and recognize plant foods, and by young adulthood they are, as Marshall described them, “fully competent botanists” and gatherers of edible and useful plants (1976:96).  

All of these characteristics differ sharply from what Ju|'hoansi students are expected to adapt to in the formal education system. The formal education system has devastating effects on the transmission of indigenous knowledge systems, for two primary reasons. First, formal education often requires separation of children from the environment in which they learn the knowledge systems of their community. Secondly, even for those whose schools are in their communities (as some are), the emphasis on the skills associated with formal education is so strong that all other forms of knowledge are implicitly devalued. A fundamental problem with formal education systems is that they tend to emphasize what indigenous students cannot do or do not know, rather than what they can do or do know. This undermines both the learning process of the students, and the transmission of indigenous knowledge.  

Why maintain indigenous knowledge? .

One argument in favor of incorporating indigenous knowledge into education systems is pedagogical; people “learn better” if information is presented to them in a language and context that they can relate to. This approach is gaining increasing recognition in mainstream educational movements, along with increasing recognition of the value of mother tongue education. The ultimate goal, however, is almost always transition to the dominant language and culture, through success in mainstream educational institutions. Relating education to the home language and culture is seen as more of a stepping stone than an end in and of itself. For many indigenous peoples, however, these forms of knowledge are valuable, in and of themselves, and efforts to incorporate them into education efforts are an important element of maintenance strategies.  

Another perspective recognizes the sophistication of indigenous knowledge and argues that such knowledge is in fact extremely valuable to humanity in general, for a number of reasons.  

The depth of indigenous knowledge rooted in the long inhabitation of a particular place offers lessons that can benefit everyone, from educator to scientist, as we search for a more satisfying and sustainable way to live on this planet. [Barnhart and Kawagley 2005:9]

New directions in science are revealing that many indigenous cultures and philosophies are based on deep understandings about the interconnectedness of life that modern science is only now beginning to grasp. Marginal environments, like the Arctic and the Kalahari, and in fact many places where indigenous peoples live today, are among the first to really show the effects of climate change. The keen observational skills and deep awareness of the environment can provide an insight and an angle on problems that modern science cannot possibly achieve. 

Ultimately, however, the maintenance of indigenous knowledge will rest primarily in its usefulness and relevance to the lives of the indigenous peoples who “own” it. Since (as I have argued above), such knowledge cannot be abstracted from either the context in which it is communicated, or the social group communicating it, simply extracting pieces will not maintain the understanding in which it is embedded. Most indigenous peoples today—especially those in developing countries—are still eking out an existence on the margins of survival. Regardless of the value of their knowledge to the rest of humanity, it will only survive if the bearers of the knowledge themselves see it as contributing towards their survival (not based on abstract concepts or romanticization).  

The extent to which traditional environmental knowledge is still valuable to indigenous peoples' physical survival varies greatly depending on their circumstances. For many indigenous peoples today, especially those living in marginal environments remote from urban centers—like many San, especially in Botswana and Namibia—this knowledge is still very much alive and crucial to their survival. For people in such circumstances, to undermine these skills through their non-recognition—as happens in large part through formal education—is to deprive the people themselves of a crucial resource. 

Also importantly, many San report that they like and want to practice these skills. While parents do want their children to learn how to read and write and to speak English, they also want them to learn how to track and hunt animals and to be able to gather plant foods, and to make crafts. People depend upon all of these things for survival.  

Discussion: relevance to current projects 

Given all of this, the increasing recognition of the validity of diverse forms of knowledge is welcome, and incorporating indigenous knowledge into education efforts is crucial for many reasons. It is critical to the success of the students, for community integrity, and for the maintenance of indigenous knowledge systems. However, translating it into official practice presents numerous challenges. This section will briefly describe current efforts in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa to incorporate indigenous knowledge into the education system.  

The Village Schools Project, Namibia

The Village Schools Project, or (VSP) was designed in the early 1990s to combat the high drop-out rate, and low success rate, of Ju/'hoansi students in the (now) Nyae Nyae Conservancy of Namibia. The VSP design exemplified “best practice;” developed in close consultation with the community, the project incorporated the traditional knowledge transmission strategies of the Ju|’hoansi, and was initiated in an enthusiastic and supportive environment. Credit was given to early teachers-in-training for their traditional knowledge and skills, allowing them to participate in the government teacher-training programs without having attained the standard prerequisite educational qualifications. Thus at the early phases of the project, the indigenous knowledge systems of the Ju/'hoansi were acknowledged and respected. No formal qualifications were given for this, and there were no explicit standards set.  

Although the focus was on providing schooling closer to home and incorporating the home language, knowledge and skills of the communities, the goal of preparing children to be successful in the government schools was central to the project. 10 years into the project, the continuing lack of Ju/'hoansi students in local government schools was leading to the conclusion that the project was “failing.” Complaints about lack of professionalism among the teachers, along with a reduction in donor funding and a full transfer of the project to the Ministry of Education, led to stricter enforcement of the formal teacher-training requirements, which, as noted earlier (and described in detail in Hays 2007) are in a variety of ways incompatible with indigenous knowledge systems and their transmission. As of 2006, there were no specific plans to incorporate indigenous knowledge systems into the teacher-training program. 

Thus for the VSP, the intent to recognize indigenous knowledge systems—on their own terms—was present initially, but without either the long-term funding to support a “private” school, or a clear recognition by the government (through the Ministry of Education) of indigenous knowledge systems, this approach could not be maintained.  


I have argued that formal education and indigenous knowledge systems are fundamentally incompatible in some ways; a more obvious place to integrate indigenous knowledge systems is into informal or vocational training programs. Government bodies responsible for non-formal education and vocational training in Botswana have begun taking steps in this direction. The Botswana Training Authority (BOTA) has developed standards by which traditional skills in a variety of areas are formally recognized—even if they may not have been attained by formal training. Thus far, these standards have been developed primarily in areas related to Crafts and Tourism; not education. The Department of Non-Formal Education (DNFE) also drafted some progressive programs for working with rural populations that build upon local culture and langauges; implementation of these are hampered by the lack of a government policy on using languages in education other than Setswana or English. Both of these institutions (BOTA and DNFE) are in theory open to the incorporation of non-dominant cultures and languages into their curriculum. However, “indigenous knowledge systems” is not a key phrase in their discourses.  

Botswana is in many ways fertile ground for the development of a progressive, community-based education project in which indigenous knowledge systems are recognized and employed while access to “mainstream” skills is simultaneously provided. Collaborative efforts in this direction over the past few years have faced many obstacles, in terms of both funding and political support, but they are ongoing. The success of these, and any such efforts will depend upon the extent to which the community—and its elders—are involved in the process of defining and implementing the project. How exactly this can be done is not yet clear.  

South Africa

South Africa's IKS policy is far more progressive and comprehensive than approaches in either Botswana or Namibia, and hopefully will provide an example for its neighboring countries and set the stage for a more productive approach to knowledge and learning.. However, there are still some gaps—especially in terms of practical implementation. The policy discusses the need to integrate IKS into the education system, but does not propose how this can be done—although the policy does discuss the transformation of a “content-driven” syllabus to a “problem-solving” one as creating impetus for the recognition of indigenous knowledge systems (DST 2004:17).  

A persistent problem with—and potential pitfall for—education projects seeking to incorporate “indigenous knowledge” into the curriculum is that they tend to focus on the information itself, rather than the forms of knowledge transmission. However, according to the understandings presented above, the information that forms the basis of indigenous knowledge systems cannot be divided into discrete units and taught for segmented time periods; rather it must be communicated over sustained periods of close contact with the environment and with the community made up of the bearers of this knowledge. Alternative approaches that mimic instructional styles of Western education thus do little to maintain such knowledge systems and have limited success in facilitating transitions to the mainstream schools. Such approaches are generally shortsighted and ultimately unsuccessful. It is thus a deep restructuring of our conception of “knowledge” and how it is communicated that is needed in order for us to recognize the legitimacy of indigenous knowledge systems.

It is clear that a new approach is needed—but what is it? Can IKS be formalized to fit into the hierarchical and compartmentalized systems of modern governments and other organizations? How can traditional skills and knowledge be incorporated into formal and non-formal education systems? How can the bearers of IKS—usually community elders who have extensive experience, knowledge and skill but who rarely have formal qualifications—be recognized as qualified teachers? Do their transmission strategies match what is expected by outsiders? And does this matter—do they need to be formally recognized by outsiders in order for them to perceive their own knowledge as legitimate? 


These questions require further discussion and debate, and southern African attempts to address the issues described in this paper will benefit from an understanding of what has worked—and what hasn't—elsewhere. Thus part of this conclusion is a call for further discussion, and potentially collaboration, in the area of incorporating indigenous knowledge into education approaches.  

I have argued here that there is a fundamental incompatibility between indigenous knowledge systems, and the ways that modern education systems (both formal and non-formal) evaluate and measure “knowledge” and its transmission. This is true—but it does not mean that formal recognition of IKS should not take place at all. There is a place for formal qualifications, and bearers of indigenous knowledge systems should have the opportunity for their skills to be recognized. Formal qualifications will be required in some areas—for example, for indigenous elders or youth who wish to become qualified as teachers in the formal education system—and if these qualifications recognize the knowledge that potential teachers bring with them, this is a positive development. 

At the same time, it must be recognized that San communities and individuals do not, in fact, require the validation of outsiders in order for them to perceive their own knowledge as legitimate. For many, their knowledge is important on its own terms—as a means of survival, identity, or community cohesion. The decisions of indigenous peoples to remain outside the formal systems—of education, economy, and others—is as valid as efforts to incorporate them.  

References cited
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