Can we use African indigenous knowledge to tackle Covid-19?

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Heritage Month is the time where we celebrate all the ‘fluffy’, less threatening to whiteness parts of African culture, braai, and sample weird and wonderful traditional food we’ve never tried before. For one day, we go to work in beautiful colourful traditional attires, put on a cultural dance and singing performances, and share it on social media. We will have dialogues on ubuntu and how we should use it to ‘turn the other cheek’ and ignore structural oppression in an attempt to save the failed rainbow nation. What will be missing, and what is always missing, is a serious discourse on how side-lined indigenous knowledge can and should be used to address poverty, developmental and ecological challenges, our struggling health-care system, and many other modern and historical challenges that South Africa is faced with.

Decolonising knowledge systems

#FeesMustFall protests in 2015 and 2016 briefly brought the issue of decolonising knowledge systems and, well … everything to the fore. But since the end of the FMF protests, these discussions have been confined to the university space and are not being heard in other important spaces such as workplaces, churches, healthcare structures, schools, etc. Even within universities, students have the sense that their decolonial agenda has been hijacked and turned into a PR activity that pushes reform and minimal systematic change instead of revolution and a total dismantling. And so, indigenous knowledge ends up being manipulated and moulded to fit the Western context rather than being the foundation of the curriculum.

The Covid-19 global pandemic has forced us into a precarious space, where we have to rethink almost everything about life, our work environment, how we use technology, how we socialise and interact with each other, how we run schools, how we show caring, and so much more. We have an opportunity here to rethink how we can use this disruption and those that will come in future to advance our cultural and traditional medical practices. So much of Western/modern medicine is already based on the cultural appropriation of African knowledge systems, which we as Africans at times look down upon. The appropriation of African ideas is a manipulation that involves stealing African ideas, presenting them as Western, while convincing Africans that the same practices are inferior. One example of this is the story of Onesimus, the African slave who cured smallpox.

Onesimus’ role in curing smallpox

Onesimus lived during the smallpox pandemic of the early 1700s, which claimed 30% of the lives of those infected. Onesimus was sold to Cotton Mather, a New England minister and author. During the pandemic, Onesimus advised Mather that smallpox was preventable. Onesimus shared the details of a common surgical procedure, which helped to prevent smallpox and many other contagious illnesses in Africa. The procedure involved making an incision on a patient’s arm and exposing them to a small amount of the disease to allow the body to build immunity to the disease in a controlled environment while still under the care of the healthcare provider. In the case of smallpox, it was a small amount of pus from an infected person that was rubbed on the incision of the patient being immunised. Mather then ran human trials on slaves and found this vaccine to be successful. The slaves who formed part of his trials were less likely to contract smallpox, and those who did were more likely to recover.

Just like most important black contributions in history, Onesimus’ role was written from the history books, and the credit was given to Mather. Eventually, scientists researched and explored this method, and their discoveries led to modern-day vaccination medicine and technology that saves millions of lives every year. This and other violent historical erasures has contributed to the systemic racist ways in which we undermine African indigenous knowledge and always opt for Western solutions to health challenges, even in instances where the African solution might be cheaper, more accessible, and more effective.

Traditional healers possess a wealth of knowledge

Fast forward more than 300 years to 2020, the Covid-19 outbreak and global lockdown. Countries such as China, Russia, the UK, and many others involved in trying to develop a vaccine for the Coronavirus are still exploring similar methodologies to what Onesimus shared with Mather to fight the spread of smallpox. Locally, traditional healers are frustrated because they are being left out of interventions to tackle the spread of the Coronavirus. In an interview with Sunday Independent, traditional healer Zama Ndebele expressed his disappointment over the government’s lack of engagement with traditional healers. Ndebele added that their collaboration in creating a cure or vaccine would be useful and that they possess a wealth of knowledge about different herbs and their uses. Traditional healers are still interested in collaboration despite running the risk of experiencing erasure and exclusion from historical and scientific records, in a similar way to how Onesimus’s contribution was undermined.

Often when the discussion around mainstreaming African knowledge systems comes up, some worry that the quality of knowledge will be weakened. But French philosopher Michael Foucault, whose contributions have been instrumental in the feminist and revolutionary discourse, reminds us that knowledge is about power. Foucault says even scientific knowledge is socially constructed. Those who dominate use their power to present their cultural ideas as the only objective scientific truth.

Prioritise and value own knowledge systems

One positive reflection we should gain from the current global pandemic is that we should prioritise and value our own knowledge systems. We need to do better in investing in our cultural identity and indigenous knowledge. We need to ensure that it can be used as more than just gimmicks to attract Western tourists who expect us to ‘perform Africanness’ for their entertainment. African knowledge systems should be built into the way knowledge is produced, the way we run our healthcare systems, how we build new technologies. We can learn a lot from Asian countries such as South Korea who have done this successfully in many social structures, but more noticeably, in their healthcare systems that surpass even some of the best Western healthcare systems. Doing this can also potentially restore black identity and create a sense of pride as we start to see our practices represented in the mainstream and being labelled as important scientific contributions instead of an alternative. This reclaiming can drive us to juxtapose our knowledge systems with other cultures in ways that uplift and advance humanity. With ecological degradation looming and unknown public health crises lurking in our future, African knowledge systems that often encourage sustainability to have the potential to save our lives in various ways.

Opinion article by Nombulelo Shange, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of the Free State.