INDIGENOUS Knowledge Systems (IKS) refer to understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings. IKS is not in any way tied to the apron strings of the west; it developed earlier and independent of the advent of the modern scientific knowledge. Scientists originally overlooked the IKS but have now realised its value and the vital role it plays in societies. IKS encompasses language, systems of classification, resource use practices, social interactions, ritual and spirituality. These unique ways of knowing are important aspects of the world’s cultural diversity and provide a foundation for locally appropriate sustainable development. From time immemorial, IKS has been practised with phenomenal success in various areas of human endeavour. In agriculture, the good ecological practices like mixed cropping and crop rotation were practiced as a way to maximise crop production and as insurance in case of failure of one of the crops. Crop rotation ensured that the fertility of the field is replenished naturally. The Chitemene system for example that made use of the trees to enhance soil fertility was employed in the production of cash crops like finger millet in northern Zambia. Rural societies in both southern and eastern Zambia were long planting field crops under the fertility-providing Faidherbia albida (or Musangu) trees. People in Western Zambia practise Kutulisa, a farming practice that involves the deliberate shifting of cattle kraals in the crop fields to provide fertility to crops. Seed production and preservation of indigenous local varieties suitable to the local environment and resistant to pests and diseases was and is still the norm in rural societies.
In health provision, traditional birth attendants were skilled to superintend over births. Traditional healers equipped with the knowledge of herbal/spiritual medicines could heal even tricky ailments like epilepsy and madness and used various techniques such as tattoos, inhaling of steamy medicine and bone suturing. In mining, Iron and copper ores were identified and smelted by use of indigenous smelting techniques to high levels of purity comparable to modern science techniques. Metallic items and equipment were then fabricated from the resultant extracted metals. Crafts such as baskets, mats and canoes were made using IKS. So were skills of brick laying, roofing, fish knitting and manufacture of guns. IKS enabled communities to acquire and practice livelihood skills such as hunting, fishing and gathering of various food items to enable them earn a living. It also enabled the preparation of foodstuffs from the local foods. The traditional leadership had authority and power to protect the environment and so it was taboo to cut trees in designated and strategic forests and river sources. Destructive fishing and hunting methods that could destroy the environment were banned by the traditional leadership and those ailing provoked their wrath. There existed informal schools in the traditional set up through which IKS were passed on from generation to generation. Young people were mentored by elders. The zenith of the passing on of such life skills was during initiation ceremonies that prepared youths for adulthood. Youths underwent intensive tuitions of the life skills during initiation ceremonies and were expected to demonstrate them before passing out. One could not therefore be allowed to marry without demonstrating a prescribed level of competence in critical life skills. Of course IKS was god given. God created humans in his own image and so humans have a divine nature and possess immense intellect. This is why God put a human being in charge of all creation. He put man in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and care for it (Gen 2:15). The man gave names to all creatures (Gen 2: 20). The man also named his partner as Eve meaning mother of all things (Gen 3: 20). The advent of science almost decimated IKS as it was viewed as inferior and primitive to science and modern technology. However, the world has realised that science alone may not successfully respond to people’s challenges and problems. Meanwhile through IKS, people in societies become experts of their environment and manipulate it in a sustainable manner to make a livelihood. Therefore sustainable development cannot happen without contextualising in IKS. The United Nations Education and Scientific Cooperation (UNESCO) therefore promotes IKS and has included it in global climate science and policy processes. IKS has been included in science policy, biodiversity assessment, climate change and adaptation and natural disaster preparations.
IKS has also been co-opted in sustainable development and knowledge transmission. Since learning is now formal and is in schools, UNESCO is appropriately making efforts to bring IKS into the school curricula and also take learning back to respective communities. This way, pupils will first learn about the immediate familiar surrounding environment before progressing to learn about distant places. China has popularised its traditional medicine to an extent where it is internationally acclaimed and thus earns the nation valuable foreign exchange. In the same vein, IKS in Zambia such as metal extraction and fabrication, traditional medicine and crafts if promoted, have great potential to feed into the small and medium enterprises and enhance development. The author is a sustainable agriculture and rural development professional.