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Mainstreaming Indigenous Knowledge Systems

Mainstreaming Indigenous Knowledge for a better South Africa

“All over the world, people are looking for their roots – looking for knowledge of their selfhood and their world. Who am I? Why am I here in the world?” That was the question posed by Prof Meschach Ogunniyi of the University of the Western Cape's (UWC) School of Mathematics and Science Education. Ogunniyi was speaking at a two-day workshop for academics and students on Mainstreaming Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Science & Mathematics Education.

“Whether in America or Europe or Africa or anywhere, people try to find this knowledge in their libraries, centres, museums and so on. But they don't realise that there is knowledge in the communities that hasn't been recorded formally.”

Prof Ogunniyi has long been a champion (recently honoured with the SAARMSTE Lifetime Achievement Award) of reforming school curricula to take advantage of – or at least acknowledge – indigenous knowledge systems, as discussed at last year’s 4th International Conference of the Science and Indigenous Knowledge Systems Project, hosted at UWC.

Leading the Science and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (SIKS) programme at UWC, he has focused on developing research skills that would allow students to design curricula that aren't simply transplants from foreign soil, but that are complemented by knowledge that reflects the character of South Africa. By training a cohort of teachers able to take what they learn, and incorporate their own prior knowledge and experience, the programme aims to generate curricula that can reframe the critical interests of indigenous peoples, making science relevant to students outside of the West.

“Before I went to school, I knew a lot about my environment,” said Prof Ogunniyi. “I grew up in a farming community and knew the names of hundreds of trees and plants, and what they were used for. When I went to school, I was introduced to different names, and a different system of understanding my environment. As a result I forgot what I had brought with me from home – as many indigenous people may forget that they have knowledge to contribute.”

Above all, indigenous knowledge systems should be considered, as should traditional scientific notions, in the context of the bigger picture – bigger pictures such as those provided by Agenda 2063, the 50-year African Union vision of a prosperous Africa driven by science and technology, or the 8th Pan-African Congress held earlier this year in Johannesburg, which reminded participants that they were Africans first, and members of particular countries or people groups second.

“Humanity is threatened by a number of factors, and some of them are related to the very success of science without the human element – from the Industrial Revolution until now, mankind has destroyed a vast amount of the world's natural resources,” Prof Ogunniyi explained. “So, if there is anything that brings us all together to say who we are and how we relate to society and our environment, that is something we should seriously consider.”