Exploring and promoting the value of indigenous knowledge in early childhood development in Africa.

Author:Schafer, Jessica

Abstract: There is currently a renaissance of interest in indigenous knowledges, after a long period of neglect and disdain by Western scientific and academic establishments. However, educational institutions have not made some of the more fundamental changes required to successfully integrate indigenous knowledges. Interventions and programs in ECD similarly tend to be based on an accepted body of knowledge built on Western experience and practice. The ECDVU takes a very different approach to capacity building. Its curriculum is built around the idea of co-construction of knowledge, requiring the participation of all in the creation and dissemination of content. The initial results of this process of generating curriculum within concrete cultural contexts are encouraging. The participants in the ECDVU program recognize the value of indigenous knowledges and are actively pursuing the documentation and incorporation of these knowledges into their research and program activities in the field of ECD. This article presents arguments in favour of incorporating indigenous knowledge into the ECD field and highlights the work of a number of ECDVU participants contributing to this area.

The Paradigm Shift

After decades of development research and practice in the Majority World (1) based primarily on the Western scientific canon, a paradigm shift has begun that looks towards 'indigenous knowledge' to supplement, integrate with and, at times, even supplant the previous approach. In practice, the collection and documentation of local practices and knowledges by 'outsiders' has taken place for as long as people have been travelling the globe and recording their observations. However, despite being built upon a long history of the exchange of local knowledges, by the middle of the 20th century the Western scientific paradigm had developed an approach that was relatively insular, universalizing, and exclusionary. Although there continued to be an interest in local practices and cultures, primarily in the field of anthropology, both scientific and policy-oriented research in development appeared to lose respect for indigenous knowledge and advocate the wholesale adoption of Western scientific models as the best solution to development problems.

By the mid-1980s, the socioeconomic situation of Africa had not responded to the modernist development approach in the ways envisioned by the proponents of modernization theory (Leys, 1996). In academic and policy circles, there arose several divergent new approaches to 'solving the African crisis.' At the two extreme poles were neo-liberal economics and post-structuralist analysis. Despite great differences between the paradigms, the majority of scholarship on Africa shared a renewed interest in participatory development and the incorporation of indigenous knowledge into development practice.

The most commonly cited definition of 'indigenous knowledge' is that of Louise Grenier (1998): "the unique, traditional, local knowledge existing within and developed around the specific conditions of women and men indigenous to a particular geographic area." Arguments in favour of recognizing the importance of indigenous knowledge range from those based on philosophical principles to those derived from more utilitarian, pragmatic rationales.

On the side of principles, there is recognition of the intrinsic value of cultural diversity and tolerance--or celebration--of different worldviews and philosophical systems. Some see indigenous knowledges as providing an alternative to the capitalist, individualist moral system of the North/West that has been blamed for damaging the planet and compromising the survival and quality of life of future generations (Obomsawin, 1993). Pragmatic reasons for valuing indigenous knowledge are many. Indigenous knowledge is perceived as having developed over time as a dynamic response to the challenges of survival and development in a specific context. It is place-based knowledge, which fits with current paradigms of ecosystem research that link elements of a system within micro-units in space and time (Lewontin, 1991). Indigenous knowledge is integrated within culturally mediated worldviews and tends to be holistic in nature (NUFFIC/UNESCO, 1999). The holism of indigenous knowledge is in contrast with the Cartesian mechanistic rationalist philosophy that dominated Western science for centuries (Okolie, 2003). Cartesian thought has been challenged by more recent scientific theories, such as relativity and quantum theory (Morgan, 2003, p. 39), and ecosystem or ecological theories advocate a more holistic approach that is coherent with many indigenous philosophies.

Scientists, development practitioners, conservationists, political advocates, and profit-seekers have different motivations for pursuing indigenous knowledge, although they may often overlap in their methods. Within the development paradigm, which is of primary interest for the present discussion, incorporation of indigenous knowledge is seen as a more effective way of attaining development goals given past failures of technical and technological fixes rooted in Western society. Evans and Myers (1994) argue that knowledge of child-rearing practices and beliefs in the field of early childhood care and development (ECCD) is important to:

* understand, support, and improve the child-rearing process

* respond to diversity

* respect cultural values

* provide continuity during times of rapid change. (pp. 2-3)

Hyde and Kabiru (2003) and Pence and McCallum (1994) argue that interventions are more successful when built on local knowledge. Many development agencies are now articulating the importance of understanding local knowledge and practices and, consequently, of designing culturally appropriate interventions. In the field of ECCD, we can cite amongst others UNICEF's recent Knowledge, Attitude and Practices (KAP) studies (see http://www.unicef.org/) and the Bernard van Leer Foundation's 'Growing Up in Indigenous Societies' initiative (see http://www.bernardvanleer.org/). The World Bank's Indigenous Knowledge Program includes components touching on ECD (e.g., looking at indigenous knowledge to reduce maternal mortality; see http://www.worldbank.org/afr/IK/), as does the UNESCO/MOST and NUFFIC collaboration. There is also recognition within the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) of the importance of the child's right to cultural identity.

The Gap Between Knowledge and Practice

The movement to collect, document, and analyze indigenous knowledge began in the fields of agriculture and natural resources (see, inter alia, Agrawal, 1995; Chambers, 1983; de Boef, Amanor, Wellard, & Bebbington, 1993; Librando, 1994; Scoones & Thompson, 1994). Botanical and medicinal knowledges remain the dominant fields of investigation on indigenous knowledge world-wide, (2) but the approach has been gradually spreading to include other fields, amongst which is community development, linked with infant, child, and youth development.

Despite the existence of a great wealth of knowledge on local cultural practices in the fields of child rearing, education, and socialization, this knowledge is not yet being sufficiently or systematically integrated into the programming of development interventions in the field (Evans & Myers, 1994). A lack of progress in this respect is also evident in the case of agricultural and ethno-botanical indigenous knowledges (Mathias, 1995).

A variety of reasons exist for the failure globally to translate a respect for indigenous knowledge into practical applications within the development realm. In Africa, we can suggest a number of possible explanations, amongst which are the "narrowly didactic" education system inherited from colonial regimes (Lelliott, Pendlebury, & Enslin, 2000, p. 50) and the consequent Westernization of the approach of African decision makers and policy implementers (Okolie, 2003, p. 240); social changes resulting in the loss of, or irreversible transformations in, indigenous knowledge (Hollos, 2002; Hyde & Kabiru, 2003); the pressures of globalization in the realms of culture and technology; the lack of contemporary research on indigenous knowledge; conceptual frameworks that remain Western in their foundation and hence are not able to adequately incorporate indigenous knowledges and 'ways of knowing' (Morgan, 2003; Okolie, 2003); and poor training for ECCD teachers and practitioners (Hyde & Kabiru, 2003, p. 18). Both Okolie and Morgan, an African and an Australian indigenous scholar respectively, level criticisms directly at the primary institutions involved in the 'knowledge industry'--universities and research centers--for their failure to recognize multiple ways of knowing and the consequent tendency for indigenous knowledge to remain unincorporated in current curriculum and theories.

This paper argues that the case for integrating indigenous knowledge in higher education is not hopeless, notwithstanding previous performance. The authors propose the generative curriculum model (Ball & Pence, 1999, 2001) as an effective means of integrating indigenous knowledge, without requiring the Westernization of this knowledge or the privileging of one paradigm over another. This article presents the case of the ECDVU as an example of an effective way of transforming tertiary educational approaches to accommodate and advance the integration of indigenous knowledge within appropriate epistemologies as well as apply this knowledge in the promotion of development. The following sections illustrate this approach and document its outcomes to date.

Promotion of the Use of Indigenous Knowledge in Early Childhood Development Within the ECDVU Program

The ECDVU program places indigenous knowledge, local culture, and contextual learning at the heart of its curriculum. Both the generative approach to learning and the content of the ECDVU curriculum promote respect for indigenous...

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