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As part of our effort to bring you longer articles about the art and practice of applied ethnobotany,we have expanded the Viewpoints section to double pages.As in previous issues,we reprint excerpts from books and journals that you may want to add to your bookshelf. GJM

Telling our own stories

The women jumped up and down in excitement - the Minister for Water Development is on the radio announcing that water will soon come to their community. The Minister is responding to their group’s appeal which was broadcast on the radio a few weeks earlier. In another community hundreds of miles away, a family is laughing so hard that tears run down their cheeks. They are listening to the local comedian mimicking in wonderful detail the mannerisms of several local people. One of the children stands up and starts to do a drunken song perfectly in time with the voice on the radio. They are all familiar with the singing that often echoes across the ridge late at night. In yet another community even further away, a heated discussion is underway on the cause for recent tensions in an urban slum. But instead of fighting, the situation is being narrated by the local theater group in the form of drama and song. The group’s performance, open to everyone in the neighborhood, provides a forum for the people to analyze and seek solutions to their differences

.Many such events are happening in one form or other across Africa. But there is also a new vision growing out of these experiences. In the future, the women listening to the responses of various leaders to their concerns will not depend on a producer from the national broadcasting station to record their discussions and interview the people concerned for responses. They will produce the material themselves and they will walk into offices of ‘important’ people to get direct responses to their concerns. The village comedian will not just entertain as a hobby – the local radio station will allocate him a weekly program and will be earning enough money through local sponsorship and advertising to pay him for it. And the drama group will become famous throughout the world as their thought-provoking and relevant, yet entertaining, message is relayed on television screens everywhere ... These are a few of the many experiences and visions of community media ...

The community media sector embraces not only community radio, but a diversity of other communication channels including locally produced newsletters, audio and video productions, multimedia resource and documentation centers, drama, music and other cultural activities.

Although these ‘alternative media’ are well developed in some parts of the world such as Europe, North America and Latin America, the same is not true in Africa. While there is a short history of community-based radio stations that broadcast messages on development issues and other local agenda in South Africa and parts of West Africa, these are far from widespread. In most parts of Africa, innovative and high quality media programs with a focus on popular participation have mainly been developed as awareness packages in areas that are considered life threatening - AIDS education, family planning and conflict resolution. Such programs are relatively well funded and tend to originate from outside the community.

But on the whole, the community media movement is a growing sector that is set to take Africa by storm. It is fueled by the realization, by an increasing number of groups, that they must acquire the communication skills to enable them not only to access the kind of information that is useful to them, but also to make decisions on and produce the kind of messages about their lives that they want to send out to the outside world.

In West Africa, most countries have a long experience in rural broadcasting - a decentralized system started by governments to promote rural development. In recent years however, some of the rural radio stations as well as new commercial stations have shifted towards more independent broadcasting. There is now a large variety of independent stations – ranging from private to community radio stations. The emergence of independent broadcasting is linked to peopleís desire to participate in a public debate on public affairs. Although public rural broadcasting has been useful in disseminating social information, it has not allowed its audiences to communicate their own social development and political-economic agendas. Community-based broadcasting has the potential to promote African cultures and to set the national agenda for people’s participation in public debate ...

Community media [is] an antidote to the growth of the dominant monoculture represented by a few dominant media agencies – a movement that is often described by the cliché, the ‘global village’. The danger posed by this global trend is enormous. It results in important information – on politics, on economics, on social amelioration strategies – not being available to African people. Also it tends to perpetuate western perceptions of the political, economic and social affairs of Africa by its heavy reliance on western news agencies ... As a result it is steadily eroding local cultures and diversity of expression. Only the voices of the powerful are propagated in the global village. Community media is seen as an opportunity to create an alternative power base that would promote local culture and provide a forum for self-expression and people’s participation in public debate and decision-making processes.

Mwangi, W. 1996. Telling our own stories – Singing our own songs: Community Media in Eastern and Southern Africa. FTP Newsletter 30:23-25. This story is based on an article published in EcoNews Africa 5:1, 12 January 1996 and the report Community Media Workshop for Eastern and Southern Africa which documents the workshop proceedings and also provides a list of participants and their contact addresses. For more information about these publications, contact: Wangu Mwangi, Editor/ Media Liaison, EcoNews Africa, P.O. Box 76406, Nairobi, Kenya; Tel. +254.2.605127, Fax +254.2.604682, e-mail mwambui@mukla.gn.apc.org

The Forest, Trees and People Newsletter is a quarterly publication distributed to field projects, institutions, organizations and individuals that focus on community forestry activities. It forms part of the FTPP’s networking activities which are jointly run by the International Rural Development Centre (IRDC), Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden; the Community Forestry Unit, FAO, Italy; and regional program facilitators in Asia, Africa, Latin and North America. Contact: Editor, FTP Newsletter, IRDC, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Box 7005, 75007 Uppsala, Sweden; Fax +46.18.671209, e-mail bitte.linder@lbutv.slu.se Internet http://treesandpeople.lbutv.slu.se


Integrating Indigenous Knowledge and Education: Perspectives from Nigeria

The earliest Nigerian educational system was introduced by the colonialists. The initial concern was for the maintenance of law and order. Therefore, the system rested in the three Rs – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. The system was essentially meant to produce interpreters, teachers, pastors, clerks, administrators and policemen. However, incremental improvements were made in the school curriculum by providing opportunities for technical and scientific education.

One major weakness of the colonial educational system in Nigeria is that it failed to appreciate the fact that there was an indigenous foundation upon which the Western type could have been built. Unfortunately, the post-colonial attitude was not much different. Although education coverage became much wider after independence, aspects of indigenous wisdom were absent ...

The need to integrate indigenous knowledge into the Nigerian educational system is based on the philosophy of moving from known to unknown. People learn better and faster from what they already know. This is important so that the next step will not be a mis-step.

Furthermore, schools exist as agencies for the transfer of the culture of the society from one generation to the next. On the basis of this, a good deal of what is to be taught in schools should be decided by reference to the culture of the society.

Therefore, the objective is to achieve a more comprehensive educational system that recognizes the contributions of Nigerian communities to the generation of valuable indigenous knowledge in all spheres of human endeavours including history, linguistics, economic science, human organisations, physical environment, human settlement, health and ... religion.

...[A] framework for integrating IKs into the existing national educational system has been proposed, with the following salient features:

  1. Capacity Building: Strengthening the capabilities of teachers and instructors at the various tiers of the educational system in recognising, recording and documentation of indigenous knowledge systems. Establishment of indigenous knowledge study groups at club, association, village, schools, colleges, state, institutional, regional and national level is suggested
  2. Documentation: The skill of recording indigenous knowledge systems and their documentation should be widely taught to provide sufficient database for planning, teaching, research and extension purposes. Use of unstructured interactions, cognitive method analysis to identify cause-effect relationships, matrix ranking, innovator workshops, local taxonomies, and so on should be vigorously pursued. Establishment of indigenous knowledge study centres in institutional libraries and production of indigenous knowledge bibliographies will enhance the appreciation by a large audience.

Indigenous health knowledge is popularly acclaimed in most traditional societies in its application to solving health and health-related problems. In most developing countries, local knowledge is used in ascertaining diseases and curing them through experience orally transmitted from generation to generation ... Because the medical knowledge does not constitute a domain of study in schools, it is therefore restricted to individuals, clans or families ...

A majority of the practitioners do not have formal education and are therefore not knowledgeable in modern languages except the local languages in which the health technology is preserved. In spite of their lack of Western education, they have the necessary local knowledge and experience that make them professionals in the art of healing. By this observation, one should not overlook the importance of formal [teaching of] indigenous health systems within the schools and colleges ... [in part] to determine the level of professionalism of its operators and pave the way for standardization of the medicine. It is through the process of teaching and learning of the discipline that the medical information can be written and codified thus paving the way for a traditional-medical breakthrough which for decades has not been possible ...

It should be noted that man’s immediate environment provides the necessary knowledge and experience for his growth and development. It is therefore easier for him to start learning by using the indigenous knowledge and experience with which he is familiar. This learning situation is not relevant where the curriculum is imposed on the learners without involving the people for which it is intended at the planning stage. Some curricula emphasize European values while alienating the child from his cultural background ... The reason may be due to the fact that where some aspects of learning are seen as a threat to the curriculum planners or policy decision-makers, or where there are no people to teach them, they are often ignored. It should be noted that if indigenous health knowledge is integrated into the education curriculum, there are abundant human resources to impart such knowledge using the local languages of its operators at both primary and secondary school levels.

The introduction of such knowledge should not be seen as a threat to modern health practices but as a means of evolving a sustainable medical technology. Since a curriculum is not meant to be static but subject to revision from time to time, the introduction of indigenous health systems will be a welcome development in the health sector of the nation.

Amusan, A.A. 1996. A framework for integrating indigenous knowledge systems into existing curricula for schools, colleges, universities and extension training institutes in Nigeria. Pages 162-168 in D.M. Warren, L. Egunjobi and B. Wahaab, editors, Indigenous Knowledge in Education. Ibadan, Ageless Friendship Press.

Egunjobi, L. and S.A. Osunwole. 1996. Integration of indigenous health systems into the education curriculum. Pages 55-62 in D.M. Warren, L. Egunjobi and B. Wahaab, editors, Indigenous Knowledge in Education. Ibadan, Ageless Friendship Press.

Indigenous Knowledge in Education contains the proceedings of a regional workshop on integration of indigenous knowledge into Nigerian education curricula, held at the University of Ibadan in December 1995. It includes perspectives on incorporating agricultural, medical and other types of traditional knowledge in formal education programs at various academic levels. Contact: D. Michael Warren, CIKARD, 318 Curtis Hall, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa 50011, USA;
Tel. +1.515.2940938, Fax +1.515.2946058, e-mail


The Extinction of Experience

In an effort to gauge the degree to which today’s younger generation has lost direct experience with the natural world, we surveyed activity and attitudes of O’odham, Yaqui, Anglo, and Hispanic children. To what extent does a loss of direct nature experience correlate with reduced affinity for nature? In short, is the extinction of experience eroding biophilia just as relentlessly as is the extinction of species?


Earth Maker took from his breast the soil and began to flatten it like a tortilla in the palm of his hand. From it the first green thing grew: the creosote bush. He gathered the gumlike lac from the scale insect on its branches and, pounding out shapes while singing, he formed the mountains. Drawing (by Paul Mirocha) and caption from Nabhan, G.P. 1990. Gathering the Desert. Tucson, The University of Arizona Press.

We interviewed fifty-two children living within a 25-mile radius of two national parks: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, on the U.S./Mexico border south of Ajo, Arizona, and Saguaro National Monument, just west of Tucson. While the survey was neither large nor from a randomized sampling, respondents did represent a cross-section of urban and rural desert communities. If anything, the survey was biased toward children who live in small communities with considerable exposure to wildlands and farmlands ... We conducted the interviews face-to-face, reading the questions to the children either in Spanish or English depending on their dominant language. None of the indigenous children spoke O’odham or Yaqui as their primary language, but most did hear these languages spoken at home by relatives.

While most of the children claimed to have had some direct interaction with wildlife either through hunting, plant gathering, or playful capture of small animals, the vast majority appear to be gaining most of their experience with other creatures vicariously. Some 35 percent of the O’odham, 60 percent of the Yaqui, 61 percent of the Anglo, and 77 percent of the Hispanic children responded that they had seen more wild animals on television or in the movies than in the wild. No doubt these figures would be even higher among a completely urbanized group with even less access to wild or open space.Even in our sample, a clear majority of the children in each population group had never in their lives spent more than half an hour alone in a wild place (58 percent of O’odham, 100 percent of Yaqui, 53 percent of Anglos, 61 percent of Hispanics). These trends suggest that the personal, uninhabited, and spontaneous interaction with nature which solitude allows is seldom taking place today. A large portion of these same children, moreover, said they had never collected natural treasures, such as feathers, bones, insects, or rocks, from their desert surroundings (35 percent of O’odham, 60 percent of Yaqui, 46 percent of Anglos, 44 percent of Hispanics).

Now that the global electronic media dominate their knowledge of nature, these children are losing the kind of local awareness that television documentaries cannot supply. Basic facts that anyone living in the Sonoran Desert a century ago would know without even thinking are now known only by a limited segment of the population. When asked which plant smells the strongest when it rains, 23 percent of O’odham, 40 percent of Yaqui, 38 percent of Anglo, and 44 percent of Hispanic children responded that it was the prickly pear cactus or that they did not know, instead of correctly choosing the fragrant creosote bush. Similarly 23, 20, 15, and 16 percent, respectively, did not know that desert birds sing more in the early morning than around noon. Further, 17 percent of the O’odham, 20 percent of the Yaqui, 0 percent of the Anglo, and a startling 55 percent of the Hispanic children did not know it is possible to eat the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. Ironically, this fruit has been a major food source in the U.S./Mexico borderlands for more than 8000 years, continues to be sold fresh in markets, and even provides flavor to a popular variety of popsicle in markets near where many of these children live.

Nabhan, G.P. and S. St. Antoine. 1993. The loss of floral and faunal story: the extinction of experience. Pages 229-250 in S.R. Kellert and E.O. Wilson, editors, The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington, DC, Island Press. A compilation of papers that explore the popular scientific concept that people have an innate or acquired love for living things that leads to conservation action and policy.


The Functions of Writing

... [T]here are two main functions of writing. One is the storage function, that permits communication over time and space, and provides man with a marking, mnemonic and recording device. Clearly this function could also be carried out by other means of storage such as the tape-recording of messages. However, the use of aural reproduction would not permit the second function of writing, which shifts language from the aural to the visual domain, and makes possible a different kind of inspection, the re-ordering and refining not only of sentences, but of individual words ...

I do not wish to imply that these processes cannot take place in oral discourse. For example, we may suddenly stop the flow of speech and repeat something we have just said: ‘Thistle’, commenting, ‘that’s a curious word.’ So too one may correct a part of speech or rephrase a sentence even after it has been composed or spoken in order to avoid splitting an infinitive or ending with a preposition. But the very statement of these possibilities makes it obvious how writing can facilitate the process of reorganization, as well as affecting more permanently the sphere of verbal communication. For there are two oral situations: that which prevails in the absence of writing and that which prevails in its presence. These two situations are certainly different, for writing is not simply added to speech as another dimension: it alters the nature of verbal communication. In an extreme case, the written language may exist in the absence of the spoken, preserving it over time when it would otherwise have died as an instrument of current communication as with learned Latin, ‘a language spoken by millions but only those who could write it’. Or in classical Chinese, which ... was far removed from the speech of ordinary men. Indeed it may never have been a ‘natural language’ at all.

The potential effects of writing can be assessed from an ethnographic analysis of contemporary writing or from a historical study of earlier written materials. It is the second of these approaches I want to undertake here because the problem emerges with particular clarity from the very earliest texts produced by man, on the cuneiform tablets of the Fertile Crescent ...

Particularly in the early phases of written cultures in the first fifteen hundred years of man’s documented history, such materials are often presented in a form which is very different from that of ordinary speech, indeed of almost any speech. And the most characteristic form is something that rarely occurs in oral discourse at all (though it sometimes appears in ritual), namely, the list ...

My concern here is to show that these written forms were not simply by-products of the interaction between writing and say, the economy, filling some hitherto hidden ‘need’, but also in the ‘modes of thought’ that accompanied them, at least if we interpret ‘modes of thought’ in terms of formal, cognitive and linguistic operations which this new technology of the intellect opened up.

A characteristic of the presentation of information in the form of lists is that it must be processed in a different way not only from normal speech but from other ways of writing, ways that we may consider at once more typical and closer to speech. I do not wish to assert that lists cannot be presented in linear form; that would clearly be untrue. Nor do I wish to assert that listing does not occur in oral cultures (by which I mean deliberately to exclude the very important category of lists that are purposely placed in memory store from written originals and then recited); a certain amount of nominal listing does occur, especially in some ritual situations, as with names in a genealogy, words for food crops and animals, but it occurs less frequently and more flexibly than is often thought ...

The list relies on discontinuity rather than continuity; it depends on physical placement, on location; it can be read in different directions, both sideways and downward, up and down, as well as left and right; it has a clear-cut beginning and a precise end, that is, a boundary, an edge, like a piece of cloth. Most importantly it encourages the ordering of the items, by number, by initial sound, by category, etc. And the existence of boundaries, external and internal, brings greater visibility to categories, at the same time as making them more abstract ...

Lexical lists are initially less common than administrative ones, though even as early as 3000 [B.C.] we find some word lists intended for study and practice. By 2500 [B.C.], in ancient Shuruppak, a considerable number of ‘text-books’ are found. When these lists contain items that are grouped together under different classes, they constitute specialized ‘text-books’, or rather ‘text-lists’, and represented the first steps in the direction of an Encyclopedia as well as of the kind of systematic inquiry into the natural world that has become institutionalized in schools and universities. The emphasis here is not on the process of inquiry, but on the degree of systematization, of normalization. From Tell Harmal, outside Baghdad, we have ... a ‘botany-zoology textbook’, dating from the early part of the second millennium. It is inscribed with hundreds of names of trees, reeds, wooden objects, and birds. The names of the birds, more than one hundred of them, are listed in the last three columns from the right and end with the class sign musher, bird. In other words, in the written as distinct from the spoken language, a determinative is added placing the items in a specific lexical category.

Goody, J. 1977. The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. Drawing upon theoretical arguments, empirical evidence from West African fieldwork and source material on the ancient societies of the Near East, anthropologist Jack Goody examines the way people think and communicate in diverse cultures with literate and oral traditions.

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