Does the Future of Africa Rely on its Past?
The academic system as we know it in Africa has not significantly contributed to Africa’s development. This is because it has not been ‘contextualized’ so as to actually take into account the realities faced by African societies on a daily basis. African realities refer here to ‘culture’ and ‘traditions’, but not only. Since the academic system does not take into account the peculiarities of these realities, it fails to solve problems faced by African societies as the structure of the academic system is, itself, a problem.
In precolonial Africa, ‘initiation’ was one of the most efficient ways for transferring knowledge and know-how. Know-how means that the apprentice went through a practical learning system of things through which he acquired knowledge (both practical and theoretical). The ‘master’ or the ‘professor’ was able to evaluate the ‘apprentice’ or the ‘student’ on his capacity to remember things theoretically, as well as on his capacity to translate the theoretical knowledge into practical and pragmatic actions. At the end of the day, the ‘initiation’ consisted of making sure that, generation after generation, the ‘ancestral’ knowledge would not go extinct.
The Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association (Zinatha), for instance, launched a traditional medicine school which is registered under the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education. This recognition of traditional healing systems by Zimbabwe is an indication that Africa’s ancestral knowledge ‘must’ no longer be marginalized, and provides a means to the government to control what is taught in this school, and how it is taught. The apprentices learn, both in the classroom and in the bush or the forest, the African names of plants, the conditions under which they grow or must grow and how to profile major herbs. They are also given a description and diagnostic features of the leaves, fruits and flowers, as well as the amount and number of times a medicine should be taken. Apprentices receive a degree which is, therefore, recognized by local authorities. As a result, Zinatha manufactures and bottles medicines derived from plants, among others.
If you google “Brain Surgery Africa“, you’ll most likely see a video in which a patient is undergoing skull trepanation with ‘traditional’ techniques. [Highly sensitive people should abstain from watching this video]. Yet, we can see that the traditional technique works and the patient is alive at the end of the surgical operation. There are African neuroscientists who could, for instance, try to understand why the operation was successful using leaves and traditional instruments because there is definitely a scientific explanation as to why the operation was successful.
Unfortunately, the ‘modern’ African has been formatted to ‘believe’ that Africa’s past and heritage is … valueless. And this is one of the main causes of Africa’s backwardness. It is believed, for instance, that research and development occurs only in developed nations, not in Africa. If this is true, how come, in precolonial Africa, herbalists discovered remedies that did and still cure specific illnesses or aches? Now, why do some ‘Western Scientists’ come to Africa to learn from ‘African Herbalists’ the curative properties (principles) of African plants that they manage to synthesize in order to manufacture medicines worth billions of dollars that Africans finally end up importing? Something, for sure, is wrong with this attitude that must be corrected.
Niger is an arid country where a traditional or ancestral irrigation system called Tassa is more efficient than solutions proposed by ‘international experts’. Despite the existence of this traditional and efficient system, Niger, at some point in time, contracted a loan for a large-scale irrigation project with an international institution. Although millions of dollars were spent, the project was a failure because the ‘modern’ technique did not work. The same international institution conducted an experiment on two (2) similar plots of land, but using different techniques where millet was planted. One plot used the Tassa technique, whereas the other one did not. During harvest time, the plot where Tassa was used yielded 553 kg of millet per hectare, against only 11 kg/hectare on the plot that did not use Tassa . In other words, Tassa was 50.3 times more efficient than the non-Tassa technique.
This technique was not developed in Western or Asian universities. It was developed by Africans who, for so many years, observed their environment and, through trials and errors, came up with an efficient technique which is suited for irrigating arid regions. And this technique is not peculiar to Niger as it is called Zaï in Burkina Faso and Towalen in Mali. This means that the technique has been passed down from generation to generation through an educational system that has been referred to as ‘primitive’. But if a primitive technique is yielding results that are 50 times better than a modern technique suggested by international experts, then the question is to know which of the two systems is actually more primitive than the other?
It should be the role of African scientists to study the techniques of the past and see how they can be modernized (if need be) and taught within African schools or universities. There is no need for Africans to reinvent the wheel; it already exists and it spins. And this wheel is their cultural and traditional heritage. However, the wheel can be continually improved and give birth to modernity. In a nutshell, Africa should not turn its back on the past, as the past may be one of the keys to a brighter future.
 Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu – How Africa can use its traditional knowledge to make progress – TEDGlobal 2017
By Lenda Rudy Massamba