by Heidi Simper
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”
During the rainy season in the bush of the Great African Rift Valley in Eastern Tanzania, amid Maasai culture, acacia trees, and cries of hyenas in the night, I was conducting my master’s research on Indigenous knowledge transmission at Noonkodin, a secondary school within a small rural village. At last the rain had let up and the morning of orpul was finally here. When I asked the village Elder Kutukai where orpul would be held, he reminded me, “Orpul is not a location; it is a place of mind.” Orpul is a Maasai healing ceremony, known to last for days. Traditionally it is used when someone is ill, for overall wellbeing, and for young warriors preparing for circumcision. During the course of this ceremony, medicinal plants are collected and prepared for consumption as a soup and paired with a large amount of meat. All the while, there is singing and storytelling. Orpul is therefore a significant means by which Indigenous knowledge is transferred between generations, particularly knowledge about medicinal plants. It was this function that was the focus of my research.
Knowledge is the basis of life, and Indigenous Knowledge (IK) is a wealth of information held by local people about the surrounding environment. This specialized knowledge is passed down from generation to generation through pathways such as song, ritual, and everyday interactions with the environment. There is an increasing loss of IK worldwide, which has a negative impact on the world’s diversity: biological, cultural, and linguistic. Each form of diversity influences the other, and together they create biocultural diversity, which is vital, allowing for adaptation to a changing environment. The passing on of knowledge is critical for maintaining a culture’s IK, thus also maintaining cultural diversity. Without the continued transmission of knowledge to the next generation, specialized information dies with the Elders.
Orpul is not a location; it is a place of mind.
One of the many causes of IK loss is the influence of modern schools that introduce students to non-Indigenous worldviews, such as the notion that to be educated in Western ideas is progress and that “traditional” is something to overcome. At Noonkodin, many of the students travel far from home, coming to Eluwai from neighboring rural villages, and stay at the school over the duration of their term. During this time, they are not directly exposed to their culture’s defining customs, language, and day-to-day activities. If IK is not being transferred at home because of schooling, then IK transmission needs to happen at school. Around the world, this is not generally the case, and unfortunately, Western knowledge is replacing traditional knowledge, while they should rather exist side by side. In this regard, Noonkodin is unique, in that IK is included in the curriculum.
The term Maasai refers to speakers of the Eastern Sudanic language known as Maa, who currently inhabit the southern part of Kenya and the northern districts of Tanzania. The world recognizes the Maasai for their lifestyle centered around cattle, cultural tenacity, and customary way of dress. They are traditionally nomadic pastoralists, always on the move herding their livestock to greener pastures. Due to modern pressures and land ownership disputes, a large number of Maasai now lead a sedentary lifestyle.
Many people in my study area live a considerable distance from the nearest government health facility, making access to modern medicine difficult and costly. There is also the common local belief that natural medicine is better than modern medicine. In addition, traditional medicine tends to be attractive as it is cheaper than Western medicine. Therefore, Maasai rely heavily on medicinal plants for health care purposes. Traditional medicinal plants used by the Maasai, including those used at orpul, have been demonstrated to be pharmacologically efficacious. However, knowledge of these plants’ medicinal aspects is vanishing due to the loss of Maasai culture and IK.
Medicinal plant knowledge transmission among the Maasai is not well understood. My research aimed to gain a better understanding of Noonkodin students’ experience with the orpul healing ceremony, while determining the best way students acquire medicinal plant knowledge. Having students participate in cultural ceremonies is not part of the Tanzanian curriculum. Fortunately, because Noonkodin includes IK as a part of its intercultural curriculum, we were able to hold orpul as part of the students’ course. Village Elder, Kutukai was the first teacher of the Indigenous Knowledge class, which was first held under the shade of an acacia tree. The students in my study are predominantly Maasai, and because classes are divided by academic performance and not age, they range in age from 12 to 24.
While in Tanzania I learned the phrase, “Tanzania time,” which refers to the way Tanzanians regard, or better yet disregard, time. On the day of orpul, Musa—an Elder and my research assistant—and I went to meet the students in their classroom. It was apparent that they were running on “Tanzania time,” as they were slow to arrive. The students were informed about orpul days before, yet no one seemed especially excited or even particularly wanting to be there. I felt a little discouraged, fearing that the students were not going to enjoy orpul. Musa and Kutukai, however, were hopeful and reassuring, so we focused on the day ahead.
When everyone was present, Musa began assigning chores to everyone, such as fetching water, collecting wood, herding the goats, and gathering the medicinal plants for the soup. I joined the students assigned to gather medicinal plants. Our leader on this plant hunt was a tall Maasai Warrior. He led us to the plants and we gathered them. A couple of the students were very knowledgeable, teaching and showing the rest of us the names and uses of the plants. I even tasted one of the plants said to be good for the throat and coughing. I chewed on the spongy stem, which tasted very strong and bitter, leaving a burning sensation in my mouth.
When we returned from the plant collecting, we met everyone at the huts behind the school that we designated for orpul. Two of the male students choked the goats, and preparation of the meat began. We all watched as a Maasai warrior butchered one of the goats and an experienced student butchered the other. There were various raw parts of the meat that were passed around to eat, such as liver, kidney, and blood. Not everyone partook, but everyone was having a good time watching their classmates’ reactions as they sampled the different meat parts. Everyone helped in the meat preparation. Those who had experience showed the others what to do.
During the course of orpul, I could feel a sense of enjoyment coming from the students. Their earlier passiveness had completely given way to smiles, laughs, and jokes. As the meat was cooking and it became time to make the medicinal soup, Musa gathered the students to teach them about the medicinal plants. He spoke to them in Swahili to make sure the students understood, as English is the third language for most of them. Musa passed around the plants for the students to touch and study while he taught the plant names, their uses, parts used, and their preparation. I observed the students during this time, and they were all taking notes and intensely listening to Musa. This was the quietest I had seen them, paying close attention and even asking questions. Shortly after, the meat was ready and consumed by everyone. Once we finished eating, the soup was ready and was passed around. Everyone drank the soup with different reactions. Some really liked the taste, which was very bitter and oily. Others didn’t like it but still drank it for the medicinal effects. As the sun started to set, the students expressed their sadness that orpul was over for the day. As we left, the students were singing and dancing.
An aim of my project was to find out whether there was a difference in medicinal plant knowledge acquisition between learning in the classroom versus learning at orpul. Therefore, half of the students did not participate in orpul and learned about the same plants from the same Elder, but in their usual classroom setting. There is not much to say about this classroom environment other than it was that of the average Western learning experience. Musa was at the head of a rectangular-shaped classroom, standing in front of a chalkboard, students sitting at their desks, some taking notes, and fairly quiet with occasional whispers. Musa taught of the plants the same as he did at orpul, minus having the actual plants to show.
Participating in orpul, and particularly in the plant collecting, significantly improved the students’ plant knowledge acquisition.
Before I began my research, I proposed that the students who went to orpul would gain a better knowledge of medicinal plants compared to students who learned purely in a classroom setting. The students were tested before and after the learning experiences. The results show that participating in orpul, and particularly in the plant collecting, significantly improved their plant knowledge acquisition. The orpul students, and those who had attended orpul before, did significantly better than those who had not when asked to identify native medicinal plants, as well as in knowing their proper uses and preparation.
Students enjoyed themselves at orpul while learning about medicinal plants, participating in the traditional slaughtering of a goat, and eating meat and medicinal soup. As one of the orpul students stated, “I was so happy and enjoying myself because it was a place where there was eating meat, making some story, and I was with friends so I was feeling very good.” The fact that the orpul students seemed to enjoy themselves more than those in the classroom may have contributed to how well they did when they were tested on their medicinal plant knowledge. As many people experience, when an activity is enjoyable it is often more memorable. In addition, a few of the students claimed that orpul had cured a health problem of theirs, one of them stating: “I had fever, flu, and stomach problem, but after I had the meat and soup, I was very fine.”
As for the students’ preference, half of the students preferred to learn in orpul, while the other half said they want both orpul and the classroom in order to gain both practical and theoretical experience. As one of the Noonkodin students wisely said, “Both are good, we can learn medicinal plants by names written in a book or somewhere in the class but is also good to learn in orpul because you can see them and practice.”
My findings show that students exposed to orpul have a more extensive knowledge of medicinal plants, supporting the need to keep the tradition of orpul alive. A solution to the loss of IK is incorporating existing cultural knowledge into each school’s curriculum. With medicinal plants being a keystone in Maasai culture, the effective transmission of medicinal plant knowledge is an important aspect for the maintenance of their cultural identity and vitality.
Sadly, the frequency of orpul is in decline. By including it and similar local rituals into the school system, we will help to preserve what is so important to a culture’s identity, which in turn will help conserve biocultural diversity. Including orpul in the school curriculum can not only provide a practical way for medicinal plant knowledge and culture to be transmitted but also encourage people to connect with nature, which can lead to living sustainably within it.
It is important for students to realize that their culture is something to be cherished. Western ideas and technology can help improve quality of life, but they cannot replace the traditional medicines that come from nature. Many cultures around the world rely on plants for their wellbeing, and even the Western world has begun to see the value of medicinal plants and/or natural products. If biocultural diversity can be preserved by including Indigenous rituals into school curricula, the same educational system that has contributed to the loss of biocultural diversity will aid in sustaining it.
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Heidi Simper holds a master’s degree in Ethnobotany from the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK, and a bachelor’s degree in Botany with a GIS minor from Weber State University, Ogden, Utah, USA. She works as the botanist and assistant plant curator for Red Butte Garden and Arboretum in conjunction with University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA.
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