Institutionalise indigenous knowledge


On this page journalist-cum-academic Mzati Nkolokosa recently announced with an air of glee the ‘good news’ of the establishment of the bachelor of arts in indigenous knowledge systems and practice course at the Malawi University of Science and Technology (Must).

I cannot agree more with Nkolokosa. This article unpacks why the course is important.

Traditional or indigenous knowledge has to go hand in glove with modern technology. Our friends in China, India, Taiwan and Japan have astronomically advanced technologically and economically, but they still value their indigenous knowledge. The Chinese are using and exporting their herbal medicinal knowledge while we are busy looking down on our traditional medicine as zachikuda and backward.

Some Malawians even questioned the relevance of the new programme at Must alleging that it will entrench witchcraft and magic in its curriculum. We need to decolonise out minds.


Must’s establishment reflects its founder, former president Bingu wa Mutharika’s grand cultural project in which he projected a special school of African culture and heritage.

The country has a lot of untapped indigenous knowledge that need researching and documenting. There is so much intangible cultural heritage that the world can learn from us.

To demonstrate the importance of the new programme, Wipo and Unesco jointly released a report in 2010 which shows that 80 percent of the world’s population depends on traditional plant medicine exclusively.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that the global market for traditional therapies is in excess of $70 billion a year.

The Government of India estimates that worldwide, 2000+ patents are issued yearly based on traditional Indian medicines.

Cultural industries account for up to seven percent of the world’s GD. International trade in cultural goods reached $60 billion in 2002. About 90 per cent of traditional medicine in Africa is plant-based.

WHO defines traditional medicine as “the total combination of knowledge and practices, whether explicable or not, used in diagnosing, preventing or eliminating physical, mental or social diseases and which may rely exclusively on past experiences and observation handed down from generation to generation, verbally or in writing.”

The sad part about Africa is weak institutions to protect and value its indigenous knowledge systems and practices, including its bio-diversity. This results into bio-piracy, the theft of environmental products.

The case in point is the hoodia plant among the Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert.  A tourist visiting the area discovered the nutritional wonders of the plant as an appetite suppressant and an energy sustainer, hence ideal for weight loss.

The hoodia has been known and used by indigenous peoples for centuries. The tourist took the plant to the laboratory in the US and had it tested. Having taken the hoodia plant in bulk, he made an anti-obesity drug.

One lawyer from among the Bushmen of the Kalahari noted the bio-theft and successfully filed a case against the manufacturing company.

While the company was making a killing out of the plant, the owners of the plant were still wallowing in poverty.

The end of the story is that a benefit-sharing arrangement between the indigenous community and the manufacturers was agreed upon. The company has since built schools, hospitals and other facilities to uplift the original owners of this indigenous knowledge, the Bushmen.

Robert Chanunkha, the executive dean of the new course, should be given all the necessary support since the country needs both the institutional and human structures to cherish and protect its vast indigenous intellectual wealth.

May the visionary Bingu’s soul truly rest in peace. n

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  • Ngombwax

    Indigenous knowledge? Dream on!