Exploring and Promoting the Value of Indigenous Knowledge in Early Childhood Development in Africa

Article excerpt

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. …