Sadly, it’s not yet uhuru for empowering African knowledge


Sadly, it’s not yet uhuru for empowering African knowledge

Something is still missing in how we use and understand indigenous knowledge systems

Nombulelo Shange

Last year I wrote an opinion piece on the importance of indigenous knowledge, especially in healing practices. It detailed the origins of modern vaccines as an old, culturally appropriated African practice that was instrumental in fighting smallpox in 1700s Europe. That piece is perhaps even more significant this year, as many Africans are afraid of the Covid-19 vaccine. The hesitancy comes from a distrust of Western medicine, which has been responsible for many atrocities all over the world, as well as the SA biological warfare created by the apartheid government and led by Wouter Basson, who was dubbed “Dr Death”. 

African knowledge systems have come a long way — from being overlooked as valuable sciences or misrepresented by Western scholars, who for a long time saw themselves as the only suitable custodians of our experiences, ideals, history, culture and knowledge. Today, though a lot more needs to be done, we are seeing a rise in African intellectuals, practices and solutions. In the academy, we see this in the calls for decolonised education, which has emphasised the importance of Southern African scholarly contributions locally and internationally.

In our day-to-day lives, we also see this shift towards reclaiming African solutions to deal with modern-day challenges. Practices such as visiting sangomas/traditional healers and the general practising of African traditional religion were seen as taboo or often labelled as hedonism. Many were forced to acknowledge their ancestors or perform sacrifices in private. But today, many are openly practising their cultural rituals when they want to give thanks for good fortune, when they are struggling to find employment and for physical and emotional healing that individuals or the collective needs. Though not “scientifically verified”, many believe the African herb umhlonyane helped during the Covid-19 pandemic, especially during the major waves that overwhelmed and threatened to cripple our healthcare system. Many turned to this herb in the belief that it was a solution to help them fight Covid-19. Umhlonyane is commonly used by sangomas for a variety of reasons - to boost the immune system, for patients with illnesses that attack the respiratory system and many other things. This type of revitalisation and mainstreaming of indigenous knowledge systems and epistemological pedagogies can undo challenges such as vaccine hesitancy and general distrust of biomedicine, while promoting African knowledge...

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