As part of searching for Malawi’s lost pre-colonial heritage, the Malawi University of Science and Technology (Must) is rolling out a bachelors degree in indigenous knowledge systems and practice. EPHRAIM NYONDO engaged Dr Robert Chanunkha, executive dean of the Bingu School of Culture and Heritage at Must to find out more about the programme.
Bachelor of arts in indigenous knowledge systems and practice? Sounds strange. Could you unpack it please?
Indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) refer to unique, sophisticated knowledge, experiences, explanations and information which human cultures have generated and continue to generate in relation to the environment they live in. Other scholars will call IKS as local knowledge or traditional knowledge to distinguish it from “Western knowledge systems”. Since IKS hinge on sustainability, Must has come up with a multidisciplinary degree programme that taps IKS content so that students know, understand, appreciate and put to effective use the values entrenched in IKS. The end product is to realise students who can practically make use of IKS for innovation and entrepreneurship endeavour as ways of contributing to the development and improvement of human life and economy for the country.
What knowledge gap does this programme want to address and why does Malawi needs such knowledge?
We might be inclined to think of modern knowledge as being able to provide the best answers to the important issues of life. This assumption becomes questionable when one starts to take a more culturally comparative approach to knowledge. If we pick certain aspects [knowledge and skills] of human cultures we will be able to see values of viewing issues from different point of view. Different ways of viewing the world and how knowledge is gained is the gap which the IKS programme aims to address. There is knowledge and skill, in health for example, that human cultures possess and may be relevant to modern society in solving some of its challenges.
Malawi needs to uncover the socio-political, religious, economic and environmental implications of IKS in the activities of human cultures, be it farming or health. This would broaden our knowledge and practice base since IKS are other ways of understanding and viewing the world in which we live.
One key challenge is the documentation of indigenous knowledge in Malawi. We are mostly talking about delving into Malawi’s pre-colonial history which, I know, there hasn’t been much research and documentation on. Where will you find the information to teach on?
Despite that there is little documentation of IKS, IKS holders and practitioners still exist in human cultures. During needs assessments, our team found out that there is adequate content, in terms of knowledge and skills; rich, relevant, and responsive to the needs of the country. It is interesting that human cultures are still holding to such valuable IKS that they use to survive. The programme has research component which would enhance the documentation of the existing IKS.
There is always this fear—especially when dealing with pre-colonial African history—of romanticising Africa’s precolonial traditional systems as always perfect. How will this course balance or filter what is relevant to our modern ways and not?
The ideology on which the IKS programme is rooted is Afrocentric. Its focus is not African history, a programme that is forthcoming. At the hub of the IKS programme is exploring ways of involving IKS in innovation and entrepreneurship. The question is can IKS contribute to industry related products as well as creative economy? This is why the orientation of the IKS programme does not hinge on a purely liberal arts but on an occupational or professional skill.
Do we have people who are specialised in indigenous systems to teach this programme in Malawi?
Yes, we do have the human capital. Personally, I have been in touch with some qualified Malawians. Others are within the country while others are outside doing postgraduate studies.
What will research priority areas for the programme be?
Knowledge with which human cultures use to survive under harsh climatic and physical conditions of the environment; knowledge and skills in ceramics, sculpture, drawing and painting, weaving, and leather; dietary systems; cultural architecture; cultural medicine; cultural leadership and gender, intangible and intangible cultural heritage.
What will a graduate of this programme do with it either on a job market or self-enterprise?
As indicated earlier, the IKS programme engages students from a multi-disciplinary perspective and enhances research. Therefore there are employment chances in both the public and private cultural industry. Besides, students would be capable of creating self-employment due to innovation and entrepreneurship skills they would have acquired.
Roughly would you just share what are key thematic areas that will be taught in this programme?
Knowledge, skills, and strategies human cultures use to survive as they interact with the natural world they live in; be it in farming, environment, justice system, gender, family systems, dietary system, belief systems, health system, ethics and morality, fine arts, lifestyles and heritage.
Any other remarks?
Well, IKS programme offers alternative world views and approaches to the natural world as another way of developing and improving human life and economy. n