by Jennie Harvey
Traditional knowledge (TK) is the knowledge accumulated by local and Indigenous Peoples over hundreds of years through the experience of living in a particular place. It includes knowledge about plants, animals, natural phenomena such as the weather, technologies for hunting, fishing, farming, forestry, and other activities, and constitutes a worldview comparable to ecology.
TK is embedded both in physical localities and in cultures and is encoded in the world’s diverse languages. Thus its continuation depends on the persistence of cultural, linguistic, and biological diversity. But TK has long been marginalized and subordinated to “Western scientific knowledge” in school curricula, medicine, agricultural extension programs, and policy. As traditional livelihoods are disrupted and as elder generations pass away without handing down their oral traditions, TK and the languages that encode it are being lost. Although formal education is widely cited as a cause of knowledge erosion, here I present an example of how, through intercultural curricula, it can be and is being used as a tool for revitalization of TK and culture.
Though formal education has been used to suppress Indigenous cultures, languages, and knowledge, it can also be a means to their revitalization.
TK is usually tacit, learned informally through experiences in the home and community such as helping out with household chores; running errands like gathering medicinal plants; participating in ceremonies and festivities; and exploring and playing in the local environment. It is gained and engrained through day-to-day activities and relationships to both the natural world and informal teachers such as family members, peers, and community Elders. Childhood is an apprenticeship. Most scholars agree that by the age of twelve, children in subsistence communities know as much about their local environment as their parents, although they may not be as skilled at putting that knowledge into practice yet.
It is easy to see how formal schooling disrupts the learning of TK. It takes children away from home and family for long periods of time (especially rural students who have to board); the language of instruction is usually the national language rather than Indigenous languages; and the curriculum teaches the “scientific” knowledge and worldview, often actively illegitimizing TK. The first president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, said, “At present, our students learn to despise even their own parents because they are old-fashioned and ignorant; there is nothing in our existing educational system which suggests to the pupil that he can learn important things about farming from his Elders!”
But though formal education has been used to suppress Indigenous cultures, languages, and knowledge, it can also be a means to their revitalization. Intercultural education respects students’ right to a culturally appropriate education in their native language, and the right of their community to participate in the education system. It is not about learning of or from Indigenous cultures; rather, it promotes diversity, democracy, and respect for cultural systems of knowledge and knowledge transmission, giving TK equal status to Western Scientific Knowledge and generating a dialogue between the two. It is one tool in the fight to maintain cultural identity, values, knowledge, and practices.
The Maasai are traditionally a nomadic tribe, moving around the arid and semi-arid land of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, exploiting the seasonal pastures with their cattle and goats. In Maasai society, males pass through three distinct stages: boyhood, warriorhood, and elderhood, each marked by rituals and ceremonies. Young boys, called laiyons, are given chores such as herding near the homestead. Around the age of fifteen, they are circumcised, marking their passage to warriorhood. Elder males are responsible for training morans (warriors) in how to be tough, how to handle and treat animals, how to prepare herbal concoctions for stimulating libido, and traditional ethics. Junior warriors are often sent away on ronjo, moving with the family’s cattle to find fresh pastures during the dry season. On ronjo, morans must rely on their knowledge of wild plant resources for food and for medicine to treat themselves and their animals.
Girls must also learn how to use local resources, but their apprenticeship is in the home where they learn from their mothers the female chores such as milking, fetching water, building houses, cooking, sewing, and taking care of children. Since the colonial era, the Maasai have lost much of their ancestral land in Tanzania. Traditional pastoralism has been driven to the drier plains, and many Maasai have diversified into agriculture, living in permanent villages where they tend crops of maize and beans in shambas (family farms).
In 1999, a diverse group of young people based in the city of Arusha, northern Tanzania, founded a non-profit organization called Aang Serian (meaning “House of Peace” in the Maasai language, Maa), and began to work with schools, colleges, and community groups. Their aim was to use the TK and skills of their people to build their local economy, self-esteem, cultural identity, and a peaceful society.
In 2005, concerned at the high level of rural-to-urban migration due to a lack of opportunities for rural poor, they established Noonkodin Secondary School in a Maasai village called Eluwai, fifty kilometers from Arusha. Eluwai is the Maasai name for the gall acacia (Acacia drepanolobium), a tree that can grow tall, dotting the plain, or form a shrubby ground cover. The goal of Noonkodin was to offer youths an intercultural education that respects alternative knowledge systems as well as the national curriculum. The school began under the shade of a desert date tree (Balanites aegyptiaca), named orng’oswa in the Maasai language, and now has over 200 students.
To get to Eluwai you must take a bus from Arusha to Monduli Mjini, then take another one to Emairete. Here the road ends, and you have to either walk for almost an hour or take a motorcycle taxi along dirt tracks where the only other traffic is cattle, goats, or donkeys. It is a stunning location, but as few as six percent of school-age children in the district live within thirty minutes of a secondary school, and many young people migrate to urban centers, fueled by dispossession and dreams of education, work, and financial prosperity. Most hold poorly paid wage labor jobs and live in poverty. Noonkodin was established in Eluwai so that students don’t need to move to urban areas to get a good education.
I went to Noonkodin as a master’s student to investigate the knowledge and use of traditional veterinary medicines in Eluwai. Veterinary medicine is incredibly important to the Maasai, for whom livestock not only provide food and skins, but also act as a social currency: wealth is stored in cattle, and brides are secured with a payment of cows, often cementing micro-political contracts. I was particularly interested in how the students’ knowledge of animal care compared to that of their unschooled peers and Elders, and what their attitudes toward TK were.
Veterinary medicine is incredibly important to the Maasai, for whom livestock not only provide food and skins but also act as a social currency.
I was unsurprised to find that on average students knew less about traditional veterinary medicines than their unschooled peers and Elders. The intercultural curriculum does not aim to “teach” Maasai TK in a classroom. Rather, it encourages students to respect diversity, be proud of their heritage, and talk to their Elders about their own cultural traditions. With this in mind, it introduces students to cultures from around the world, challenges them to think about traditional ethics and worldviews, and equips them with ethnobotanical research methods to investigate for themselves. The module culminates in a research project where students document knowledge such as herbalism by interviewing people in their home community. Those students who were more knowledgeable all had some experience taking care of livestock outside of term time; several of the males had even been on ronjo. This is promising because it suggests that students can learn a great deal during time spent at home, such as holidays, if they are encouraged to do so. Hopefully my research inspired some of them to investigate veterinary medicines!
At Noonkodin I discovered an overwhelmingly positive attitude towards traditional veterinary medicine. Almost everyone I spoke to, in the school and in the village, said that traditional medicines were very important for maintaining the health of their herds and for their livelihoods. They told me that “artificial” (commercial) medicines were effective but too expensive and that they had side effects ranging from mild to deadly. Traditional medicines were considered safe, affordable, and effective (a fact confirmed by a number of “scientific” studies of Maasai medicines).
Over ninety percent of the students I interviewed said that they wanted to learn about traditional veterinary medicines, and thought that this knowledge would be useful to them in the future. Apart from safety and efficacy, students cited culture and tradition as reasons that they thought this knowledge was important. One student summed this up nicely: “I need to learn this, because animals are our tradition.” Another said: “I want to be a vet for our animals, for the whole community” — a promising statement not only of her respect for the knowledge of her tribe, but of her intention to stay in the village and use her education to help her community. A student from a nearby village told me of his plans to establish a cultural tourism center to bring income to his community, and several of Noonkodin’s recent alumni have returned there to teach. This could be attributed to the culturally sensitive education they receive, which engenders pride in one’s heritage.
At Noonkodin students receive the benefit of a formal education and all the opportunities that open to them, but they are also encouraged to remember their roots and respect their rich heritage and the knowledge and skills of their people. Noonkodin aims to maintain a strong connection between home and school, and parents have the opportunity to sit on the school’s board and have a say in the curriculum. In this rural location where the majority of students and staff are Maasai, Maa is commonly spoken outside the classroom (although it is a government requirement that English be used inside the classroom). In the mornings during my stay at Noonkodin, I would often be woken by the students running or dancing in the quad, singing ethnic songs of the Maasai and of Tanzania. They are becoming active, educated citizens of the nation-state without being assimilated into dominant culture at the expense of their own heritage.
Conservationists, non-governmental organizations, resource managers, and governments are beginning to realize that TK is not at odds with Western scientific knowledge. Equipped with both, Indigenous youths can be empowered to tackle the challenges facing their communities and develop sustainable and appropriate solutions. Schools, parents, and communities need to work together to teach their children the value of their heritage so that it is not lost. In a “modernizing” world, intercultural education is an important tool for biocultural diversity conservation. It helps young people to maintain strong links to family, culture, natural resources, and the local environment, and empowers them to be active in shaping their own futures, equitably and sustainably.
Jennie Harvey holds an MSc in Ethnobotany and is working toward her PhD. Her current research investigates the social-ecological history of forest gardens on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. She is also working with the Vancouver-based Forager Foundation to create an educational garden at Noonkodin Secondary School, Tanzania, in collaboration with Aang Serian, a Tanzanian organization now registered as a British Charity under the name Serian UK.
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