At confab, scholars peg glorious future for Africa on reinventing the past

Associate Professor of English, University of Carleton, Ottawa, Canada, Dr. Nduka Otiono; Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson Chair of Music and HOD, Department of Music, University of Port Harcourt, Prof. Onyee Nwankpa and Director/CEO, The Nigerian French Language Village, Badagry, Lagos, Prof. Raufu Adebisi, papers presenters at Delta State University, Abraka’s Faculty of Arts’ Fifth International Conference on the theme, ‘The Humanities and Reconstruction of Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Africa’

Associate Professor of English, University of Carleton, Ottawa, Canada, Dr. Nduka Otiono; Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson Chair of Music and HOD, Department of Music, University of Port Harcourt, Prof. Onyee Nwankpa and Director/CEO, The Nigerian French Language Village, Badagry, Lagos, Prof. Raufu Adebisi, papers presenters at Delta State University, Abraka’s Faculty of Arts’ Fifth International Conference on the theme, ‘The Humanities and Reconstruction of Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Africa’

It should be clear to all by now that efforts at achieving development in Africa based on western models have failed the continent, leaving in its wake millions of impoverished peoples. Be they economic, philosophical, political and scientific and technological models, Africa’s continuing umbilical link with the west has become a huge burden.

Now, some of the continent’s scholars, who have wholeheartedly aped European systems and helped to undermine and disdain indigenous African ways of ways of life, are doing a remarkable turnaround. They have begun to insist that solutions to Africa’s problems lie within, arguing that unless there is a conscious, painstaking study, analysis and utilization of Africa’s knowledge systems, development will continue to elude the continent.

These were the submissions of humanity scholars at the fifth International Conference of the Faculty of Arts, Delta State University (DELSU), Abraka. It had as theme ‘The Humanities and Reconstruction of Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Africa’.

Although African scholars are also responsible for the abandonment of indigenous systems and models for European ones, they are now at the vanguard of reinventing the wheel. There is, therefore, a frantic search among African scholars for indigenous solutions to Africa’s problems through rethinking their earlier Eurocentric views for African ones. Similar conferences to the one in Abraka were recently held, to lend credence to seriousness African scholars now attach to looking inwards to solve the continent’s problems in the face of failures of European solutions.

The theme ‘The Humanities and the Knowledge Systems in Africa and African Diasporas’ was organised by the Faculty of Arts, Lagos State University, Ojo, Lagos, in July 2015 while another one titled, ‘Africanity’ was held at Redeemer’s University, Ede, Osun State, last month, July, 2016.

To underscore the new turnaround and situate the problem, an abstract from the host university’s HOD, Department of English and Literary Studies, Dr. Sunny Awhefeada, summed the thrust of the conference and its possible result outcomes. This is gleaned from his paper titled ‘Rupturing Indigenous Lore and Social Disintegration in Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Healers’: “That colonialism was a disruptive phenomenon for Africa is not in doubt. Many literary scholars, historians, sociologists agree that colonialism arrested Africa’s development. With the advent of colonialism, Africa’s culture and lore were not only subverted, but a new way of life, which was occidental was foisted on the continent. The emergence of colonialism, be it Indirect Rule or Assimilation, sounded the death knell of so many things that once defined Africa’s ways of life. The effect of this was the disintegration of the continent, the disillusionment of her people and the rupture, which came with the advent of modernity.”

With The Healers, which focuses on the great Ashanti Empire, Awhefeada affirmed that Armah “nostalgically evokes a powerful African setting with an entrenched indigenous knowledge system before internal schemes rendered it vulnerable to the invading colonialists. Armah’s intent in this novel is to locate the solution to Africa’s problems in Africa itself. This is very instructive because for too long, the continent has looked up to the west, the very source of her problems, for solutions… There is a compelling need to reinvent the wholesome markers of that past in order for the continent to make the much needed progress.”

And to deliver the keynote address was the Director/CEO, The Nigerian French Language Village, Badagry, Lagos, Prof. Raufu Adebisi. Other lead paper presenters were Prof. Onyee Nwankpa, who is Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson Chair of Music and HOD, Department of Music, University of Port Harcourt and Dr. Nduka Otiono of Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, who was an alumni fellow of Carnegie Diaspora Scholar at Delta State University, Abraka.

Adebisi stated that indigenous knowledge systems as a body of knowledge of the indigenous people of particular geographical areas that have survived on for a very long time “belongs to a local community and has been passed from generation to generation. It also implies that it has survived in spite of the vicissitudes of time. This definition suggests indigenous knowledge systems can neither be international nor national, as they are peculiar only to a particular local community”.

He further argued that indigenous knowledge systems intensify postcolonial theory as they are “not only questions the concept of the white man’s superiority, but also seeks the straightening of the historical distortions done to Africans by whites, by having recourse to the traditional know-how, which had sustained their communities in the past. For this, the theory of indigenous knowledge systems in Africa takes cognizance of the tortuous path that has led the modern man, in particular the African, to his present painful station – the eras of slavery, colonialism and post-independence…

“If the African has toiled so much but harvests only this paltry in return, why should he continue to be in the bandwagon and not meditate over an alternative way of finding stability, progress and some peace for himself and his society? This is the origin of the call for the re-assertion of African Indigenous Knowledge Systems”.

For Adebisi, indigenous African knowledge systems in the areas of agriculture, medicine, science and technology, administration and theatre practice served old Africans very well and survived many years of assault from colonialism and modern African scholars, who looked down on them. He noted that Europe’s models only served to disrupt and displace Africa’s indigenous ones and halt the progress that was made.

One sure way of reinventing and popularising indigenous knowledge systems, according to Adebisi, is to teach them in schools. To achieve this, Adebisi argued that there is a need to overhaul the educational institutions in Africa to accommodate local knowledge systems that should be taught to the African child. He stated that Eurocentric theories and models distance and alienate the African child from his local environment such that he is at a loss what his place in the world really is.

According to him, “Today, the African, trained in the western tradition and dazzled by the allurements of western civilization, grows up to despise his African background in both his public and private life. African experts believe that there is need for a review of the western-oriented school curriculum which, having failed to give the African child the education he deserves, has been subjected to constant changes in African countries”.

For Adebisi, the humanities, not the sciences, are at the heart of this great rethinking model and should play a central role in reconstructing indigenous knowledge systems. As he put it, “The desire to infuse more of indigenous knowledge into the curriculum places the humanities at the heart of academic undertaking in the area… because of (their) knowledge of oral tradition – traditional songs, stories, proverbs and riddles handed down from generation to generation.

“While the humanities expert is the central figure in the collection of the indigenous knowledge, the review of the curriculum itself has to be made through collaborative efforts between the humanities scholar and experts in the individual fields of specialization. Implicitly, the technologist, the doctor, the veterinary doctor, the engineer and the architect will all contribute the knowledge of their specific fields for blending with the indigenous technical ways gathered by the historian, archeologist or singer of songs for inclusion in the new curriculum”.

On other hand, Nwankpa argued, in his paper titled ‘Humanity and Humanities: Reconstructing Nigeria’s Indigenous Knowledge Systems,’ that the concept of indigenous African knowledge systems embraces both the humanities and sciences as it has its “roots in peculiarities of culture, belief system, tangible and intangible materials, environment, and all other existing lifestyles within a particular society… The challenges Africa may be facing can be solved by Africans looking inwards into solutions that are rooted in the African identity”.

Nwankpa further argued that African academics, who have been at the centre of denigration of African knowledge systems “need to do a lot of interrogation in terms of discourse on the indigenous knowledge system that will ultimately lead to revival of cultural norms, and ethos that are capable of repositioning the continent to a comfortable place in the global socio-economic landscape”.

In making a case for reconstructing Nigeria’s indigenous knowledge systems, Nwankpa noted the need intellectual and cultural intersections between the humanities and sciences “in a carefully crafted collaborative modalities to create not only unique structures and products, but also ensure continuous harvesting from reservoir of indigenous knowledge systems”.

He enumerated such strategies for reconstruction through standardization, adaptation and adoption as indigenous musical instruments/equipments, sound notation system, teaching of folklore and folksongs, mythologies and legends, recreation/reenactment of festivals, written tradition and literature, age-grade system, essemble formation, performance styles and practices.

Nwankpa concluded by noting the nexus between the physical and spiritual aspects of knowledge in Africa as having implication for humanity. According to him, “Indigenous knowledge system that is not humane in nature is exotic to Africa. In the health sector of African traditional society, healing is not carried out only on the physical level; it is believed that it must equally be tackled at the spiritual level. For Africans believe that manifestations of what happens in the spiritual realm are the things exhibited in the physical.

“The indigenous knowledge system in Africa is holistic in many spheres of life. For instance, an average African traditional musician is not just a musician; he is a composer, historian, dancer, technologist, poet, and therefore, he is ‘jack of all trade and master of all’”.

Nwankpa, therefore, concluded on a note of admonition, “Understanding guarantees revelation and direction; understanding enhances economic prosperity; understanding engenders deeper social and spiritual integration. Africa’s challenges can be solved by Africans looking inwards into solutions that are rooted in the African identity”.

However, professor of oral literature and folklore, Gordini G. Darah, dispensed with the formalities of academia and said it was time Africa’s academia got off its high horse and embrace, rehabilitate and adopt indigenous knowledge systems into its fold to serve African societies better. Darah holds the strong belief that there is science in Africa’s folk narratives that need further exploration and interrogation, as they contain the seeds of Africa’s unexplored scientific theories capable of being converted to physical phenomena for use. So that while Eurocentric knowledge systems create a sharp dichotomy between the humanities and science, Darah sees a complementarity and synergy that can be harnessed through integrated investigation for the good of mankind.

He described the conference and all such conferences as “inauguration of the era of alternative thinking. Why not call the man who can stop rain as rain engineer and not rainmaker” so the science of stopping rain can be scientifically investigated and understood?

Darah noted that his institution, DELSU, was undertaking “curriculum review and departments have been challenged to remove anti-African courses”. And he wondered why “a veteran of oral art like Rex Jim Lawson’s conga drummer (currently an instructor at Music Department at UNIPORT) shouldn’t be a professor but a mere instructor. This is the way the two systems can interact to produce a healthy knowledge system, a meeting of integrated knowledge systems.

“The rainmaker should be a rain engineer and be made a lecturer in the Faculty of Science!”

The Vice Chancellor of DELSU, Prof. Victor Peretemode commended the choice of theme for the conference and said it would serve as cornerstone for Nigeria and the continent’s a renewed vision for “Artistic, socio-economic and technological development and not the present development based on sheepishly copying western models that are extraneous to our milieu and culture. I’m convinced it is the juxtaposition of indigenous knowledge system of human endeavour that will catapult Nigeria as well as the Africa continent from a developing country to a developed one”.

On her part, Dean of Arts, Prof. Grace Ogwu, tasked African scholars to come up with ideas that would make the continent “to work inward, like China and the Asian tigers, in order to achieve genuine and rapid socio-economic and technological development”.

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