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No witchcraft for sale at Must

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The long-awaited degree study programme of Bachelor of Arts in Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practice at Malawi University of Science and Technology (Must) is finally to be rolled out. But some find this programme strange and question its relevance and applicability. Others go beyond to suppose that students of this programme will learn how to become professional witches and magicians. YOKONIYA CHILANGA engages ROBERT CHANUNKHA, who is Executive Dean of Bingu School of African Culture and Heritage at the institution, and other African scholars on the subject in order to understand the new programme.

The National Council for Higher Education is presently advertising and calling for applications into the new programme of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) and Practice at Must commencing in 2017.

Former president, the late Bingu wa Mutharika proposed this programme at the university’s unveiling in 2011. The establishment of Must reflected Mutharika’s grand cultural project in which he projected a special school of African culture and heritage.

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The philosophy behind Bingu’s proposal of this programme was that the acquisition and application of science and technology is most relevant and meaningful when it involves people’s traditional cultural wisdom, knowledge and skills and evolves with their culture to adapt to their development challenges. This is where Must stands unique among numerous African universities that have a similar IKS programme.

Must is also unique in that it was founded on the image and science-technological aspirations of Malawians. In his public speeches, Mutharika always underscored the importance of recognising and appreciating one’s cultural heritage. Mutharika used to compare how rich countries such as China, Japan and Taiwan forged their path to development after they appreciated their cultural heritage and found the common work ethos which put them on the road to prosperity.

IKS in Bingu School of African Culture and Heritage at Must is a unique, grand cultural and intellectual renaissance project because it will act as the meeting point between African traditional cultural knowledge and western science in order to bring forth productive technological innovations that benefit the people. In short, it is where the blacks meet the whites.

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Indigenous knowledge is generally understood as the model, method of acquiring and applying knowledge and the content and products of the acquired and applied knowledge, which authentically belong to a people, for examplr, a race or tribe or linguistic cultural group. The African indigenous knowledge system (AIKS) is, thus, the African version of IKS.

Prosper Laleye, a scholar in IKS, describes African indigenous knowledge as “the traditional knowledge derived from the experience of the Africans as it relates to their cultural dictates and peculiar human conditions”.

Laleye argues that African indigenous knowledge, like any other IKS, is targeted at the immediate community from which it emanates and in which it is most relevant and appreciated.

In order to avoid ambiguities, scholars, promoters and activists of AIKS try to demarcate between African indigenous knowledge and other bodies of knowledge, for example, “Western science-knowledge” or “Asian Mystical Knowledge”.

Fritz Wallner, also a scholar in IKS, distinguishes science and AIKS on that Western science is formalised and systematised with specific epistemological foundations while IKS is not.

Chanunkha says other scholars define IKS as unique, sophisticated knowledge, experiences, explanations and information which human cultures have generated and continue to generate in relation to the environment they live in.

Chanunkha argues that it is in fact IKS that sustains human cultures, guides them on ways of efficient uses of plants, animals and spiritual relationships with nature, adding that IKS helps human cultures preserve the diversity and foster positive attitudes towards human rights and resource biodiversity.

He says since the benefits of IKS lie in their sustainable and efficient use and application, the new multidisciplinary degree programme at Must taps into IKS content so that students know, understand, appreciate and put to effective use the values entrenched therein.

Chanunkha states that the main study goals of the programme will not be merely knowledge accumulation and appreciation of Malawi’s rich cultural worldviews but it is to realise students who will practically make use of IKS for innovation and entrepreneurship endeavours as ways of contributing to the development and improvement of human life and economy for the country.

In most cases, African indigenous knowledge as a concept is portrayed as an African rival or even an alternative to science. However, this view is changing, and the programme at Must will bridge this gap in order to view both western science and IKS as mutually beneficial.

For example, in studying the effectiveness of cultural medicine in curing various diseases, Must’s aim is not to discard the use and efficiency of western medicine but rather to appreciate and see how the traditional cultural healing methods maybe improved scientifically and marketed and patented to be accepted by the other worldviews.

However, there is a bunch of African scholars who debate on the efficient use of AIKS as opposed to western knowledge. Among them, others argue that Africans should be excluded from the possibility of creating knowledge scientifically. In this regard, this group of African scholars appear to have endorsed some sorts of obsoletism and redundancy of IKS. In view of this opposition, Must is embarking on a grand project to prove that IKS is not used redundantly or only in desperate absence of western methods of human survival.

It is important to note that the study of IKSs should not be viewed as the promotion of primitivism as Mary Cyril Olatunji, another scholar on IKS, says “is primitivism indigenous to Africa?”

‘Primitivism’ signifies a theoretical position that whatever is old or ancient is more authentic and necessarily better. It is a belief that superiority necessarily comes with age. In practical terms, it manifests itself in having a preference for whatever is ancient, simple, savage, rudimentary or unsophisticated.

It must be noted, however, that before the emergence of indigenous knowledge as a concept and the African indigenous knowledge as an even more recent concept, philosophers of science had attempted to demarcate between science and non-science. They tried to demarcate the goals, methods, tools and contents of science from those of other fields like metaphysics, ethics and the arts.

Given this demarcation between science and every other human engagement, African indigenous knowledge would either be classified as an art or pseudo-science. In addition to demarcating between science and non-science, the exclusionist epistemology which forms the basis for the demarcation criteria also excludes African indigenous knowledge from the scheme of rational, systematic and scientific discourse. This sort of classification of AIKS as merely arts would imply that it is very difficult for Africans to take a leap from the practising of mere arts to technological innovations.

Godwin Sogolo challenges this demarcation criterion in that it is done in a way that seems to portray that the two are irreconcilable and that the validity of one implies the invalidity of the other as a science. At Must, however, the approach to IKSs will be different in that the programme is not merely an art, liberal arts or a social and cultural anthropology.

The focus at Must will be on how IKS would contribute to industry-related products as well as creative economy. In other words, IKS will be reconciled to Western science methods without tending to show the superiority of the later. Thus, the programme does not hinge on purely liberal arts but on cultivation of practical occupational and professional skills.

Olatunji also challenges the demarcation criterion in supporting IKS and argues that the demarcation often made between science and arts may not really be as obvious as scholars tend to portray. She argues that science in a loose sense is meant to include engineering and technology for instance. There would probably not be an invention of a car or mobile communication system gadgets without the art of design and shapes. Technology, therefore, could be no more than modern art.

Olatunji observes that this artistic aspect of modern science is often forgotten when making a boundary between art and science and consequently between Western and the African.

Chanunkha outlines that the IKS programme at Must is necessary for Malawi’s development challenges because it will help to uncover the socio-political, religious, economic and environmental implications of IKS in the activities of human cultures, be it farming or health. He says, for example, IKS students will be required to identify and analyse the methods of natural resource management and to assess the value and limitations of IKS in the activities of human cultures as they interact with their natural world.

He says Malawi has vast IKS holders and practitioners that can be reached on and interviewed for first-hand knowledge. This is to say that the programme will be a very interactive course between the students and the present IKSs holders and practitioners.

The programme is neither archaic nor primitive but is designed to respond to challenges facing the 21st century world such as climate change, HIV and Aids, food insecurity and natural disasters among others.

Thus, the research and study components of the programme will include, for example, African epistemological systems, knowledge on how human cultures survive under harsh climatic and physical conditions of the environment; knowledge and skills in ceramics, sculpture, drawing and painting, weaving and leather; dietary systems; cultural architecture; cultural medicine; cultural leadership and gender, and tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

Thus, the student will in the later stages of the programme specialise in various fields to become professionals and experts in their preferred area of study.

Chanunkha, however, states that the hub of the objectives of the study of IKS programme is exploring ways of involving IKS in innovation and entrepreneurship.

And you wonder where the job market for these sort of professionals is.

IKS programme will engage students from a multidisciplinary perspective and enhances research. This means, for example, while Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources trains students in various components of agriculture, Must will train students in agriculture from the aspect of the local agricultural knowledge and husbandry and its application to modern world; and while Mzuzu University trains environmental conservationists, Must will train environment conservationists and managers from the aspect of the local methods in conserving the environment; while College of Medicine trains medical doctors, Must will provide the alternative of doctors that will apply both the knowledge in western medical knowledge and African knowledge to cure challenging diseases and disorders.

The graduates of this programme will also become experts in knowledge, skills and strategies human cultures use to survive as they interact with the natural world they live in; be it in farming, environment, justice system, gender, family systems, dietary system, belief systems, health system, ethics and morality, fine arts, lifestyles and heritage. This is only to say that the expertise services of the graduates of the programme will be greatly required in both the public and private cultural industry. Besides, students would be capable of creating self-employment due to innovation and entrepreneurship skills acquired.

Chanunkha says the output of the research from this programme, in form of articles, books, presentations and exhibitions would expose to the policy makers the thinking, mentality and activities of human cultures. In that way, the output becomes tools for advocacy aimed at influencing policy formulation for the country’s development.

The research would also study the negative impacts and limitations of some IKSs suggestively; the cultural worldviews of the Sena people in the Shire Valley and their vulnerability to floods and effects of climate change; maternal health and the cultural use-consumption of anthill earth by pregnant women; climate change and house grass-thatching systems adaptability; agricultural food local preserving systems and food security; soil salinity and traditional cultural fears over application of industrial fertilisers.

Malawians should take note that, the Bingu School of African culture and Heritage is a very ambitious project that would not only benefit Malawi’s technological innovations aspirations but Africa as a whole. The school has pioneered two programmes which are the IKS and Sports Science. But that is not the end for more programmes on the African economy, history, agriculture and et cetera will be rolled out in due course.

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