Current discourses around transformation and decolonisation have led to the realisation of the importance of indigenous knowledge systems, from folk music to the decolonisation of school curricula. In this exclusive opinion piece, Qinisani Qwabe, a soybean farmer and agricultural researcher, brings a different perspective on indigenous knowledge, agriculture and rural farming.
Although indigenous knowledge may be gaining popularity in the current epoch, it still remains synonymous with rustic livelihoods. This is a misconception that many have made a reality. And while this may be true in many social aspects, it is also true in the context of agronomy. Indigenous agriculture is generally perceived as a method of farming for the poor and those of low socio-economic strata. It is important, however, to note that such claims are misleading and untrue.
For centuries, indigenous agriculture has been an essential part of people’s livelihoods and their development, not only within the limits of Africa, but the world at large. However, African farming systems have always been anchored on indigenous agriculture and traditional methods of production, hence the synonymity. It can be argued that a plot twist in the production systems resulted through the global increase in the use of modern technologies. Compounding the stigma on indigenous knowledge are Eurocentric teachings which do not favour non-western civilisations.
Unfortunately, having been brought up and shaped in a society that understands the value of indigenous knowledge, I’m in favour of it and the agricultural practices thereof – most of which are practiced by rural farmers.
Indigenous knowledge is a natural resource
In my everyday interactions with rural smallholders, it occurs to me that indigenous knowledge is what still sustains most households. Not because of its association with the poor, but because it is one of the most valuable natural resources that is held by rural farmers. This form of knowledge is intergenerational and is usually passed down from one generation to the other. Its significance is that it is rooted in culture and people’s identity.
The role of indigenous knowledge in agriculture has been proven numerous times by scholars to be in association with environmental well-being, nature conservation, biodiversity, and healthy lifestyles. The rationale behind this correlation is that indigenous agriculture in its very nature creates living environments that are harmonious, sustainable and productive. This is commonly known today as a forward-thinking design under the banner of “permaculture”. It is for such reasons that the role of indigenous knowledge in farming systems should not be overlooked, but rather be embraced and integrated with modern technologies for efficiency.
One of the concerns that have been frequently raised by elders is the growing disinterest of the youth in indigenous knowledge, which denotes a loss of identity. This could be attributed to the western influence through media, formal and non-formal teachings, which promote western practices and indirectly suppresses indigenous ways of doing things.
‘This is one of the opportunities that young people across all disciplines should consider placing focus on.’
During a conversation with an elderly woman in KwaZulu-Natal, she mentions how indigenous plants have sustained her over the years – both as food, medicine and a source of income. Of the greatest concerns that she mentions is the sudden over-reliance of black Africans on western foods and medicine, which she believes reduces their quality of life.
Although modern agriculture plays a significant role on the attainment of food security, it is also important that we seek ways of integrating new practices with indigenous knowledge as a means of achieving sustainability and to effectively respond to the ever-changing circumstances. This is one of the opportunities that young people across all disciplines should consider placing focus on.
It is also important that such knowledge be infused in the school curriculum so as to inculcate the idea of appreciating indigenous knowledge at a tender age. Such an undertaking would help in the preservation of local knowledge, and also strike a balance with what has been lost as a result of cultural misappropriation.