Wednesday, 27th September 2023

Ethnographic relevance of Nigeria’s indigenous knowledge

By Nkechi Bello-Odofin
16 April 2023   |   4:20 am
The book of Genesis, popularly known as the book of creation, records that during creation, God made man in his image and likeness. Thereafter, He blessed him and charged him to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it.

The book of Genesis, popularly known as the book of creation, records that during creation, God made man in his image and likeness. Thereafter, He blessed him and charged him to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it. To this end, knowledge and understanding of nature and society have characterised the means of man’s ability to survive in his environment.

Hence, the human’s natural curiosity and ability for knowledge gave birth to science. Science later advanced to bring itself into practical application through technology.

Today, science determines the wealth, power and prestige associated to countries. This is because technology has its root embedded in cultural history, cultural values and traditions. This highly valued ancient Indigenous Knowledge (IK) has been carried to the contemporary times.

In Nigeria, the Yoruba refer to it as Imo; the Igbo people call it Amamihe and the Hausa call it Ilimi. This paper shall ex-ray the ethnographic relevance of Nigeria’s indigenous knowledge. To put the paper in proper perspective, the nature of Nigeria Indigenous Knowledge shall be brought to bear. Finally, the challenges and prospects of Nigeria’s IK shall be discussed.

Indigenous Knowledge
Indigenous Knowledge is a body of observations, oral and written knowledge, innovations, practices, and beliefs that promote sustainability and the responsible stewardship of cultural and natural resources through relationships between humans and their landscapes. It cannot be separated from the people inextricably connected to that knowledge. It applies to phenomena across biological, physical, social, cultural, and spiritual systems.

Various indigenous peoples have developed their knowledge systems over millennia, and continue to do so based on evidence acquired through direct contact with the environment, long-term experiences, extensive observations, lessons, and skills etc. 

Nature and Form of Nigeria’s Indigenous Knowledge
NIGERIANS’ beliefs, myth and practices among others are linked to their environment, culture and society based on their geographical region. As such Nigeria’s IK is expressed in taboos, myths, beliefs and practices; this guard the behaviour and everyday existence of the people.

For instance, in many Nigerian societies, the ancestral spirits are believed to be living in the forests and special trees, caves and ruined homes and water bodies; this belief is passed from one generation to another to prevent misuse or desecrate the land.

In Igbo land, people use traditional taboos (laws) and sanctions to safeguarded cultural values and to preserve “sacred groves” for the ultimate aim of better management and conservation of the natural resources. The natural environment and resources are under serious threat but the cultural taboos and sanctions have helped to check abuse of the environment among the local people. IK is also expressed in the following:

Farming System: The cropping systems used by indigenous Nigerian farmers include sequential cropping, mixed cropping, mono-cropping, intercropping and border cropping while crop rotation is the soil healthcare practice used to prevent a build-up of common pests and diseases over the years. These methods are applied in maintaining cost-effective and environment-friendly crop yields.

Weeds are left to grow alongside the crops as a way of preventing heat from excessively drying out the soil. This promotes crop growth as a positive competition between the crops and weeds exists. However, the weeds are removed when they are seen as being harmful to the growth of the crops. But they are left on the surface of the soil as protective mulch, recycled nutrients to allow nitrogen assimilation through the bacterial decomposition of the plants. This sustainably improves yields.

In Ekiti State, the IK system used in the production of vegetables abound in various stages of the cultivation. First, seeds are treated with ‘ogirisoko’ (locally made) portion to guard against soil-dwelling insects before planting; then organic manure, bush fallowing and cover cropping are practiced for soil fertility management.

Furthermore, dusting with Iroko wood ash is done to prevent leaves defoliating insects. Lastly, black local soap and ocimum portions are used for disease control and damping-off tomatoes and pepper.

Food Processing:
Nigeria’s Indigenous knowledge is also embedded in the food processing. It embodies the knowledge involved in the construction of post-harvest crops and the preservation of food especially in the absence of modern freezers and refrigerators. Indigenous Nigerians use salts and herbs combined with drying in the sun, heating and smoking for preservation.

This is important particularly for long distance journeys. Also technology of food processing is evident in brewing, distillation, and wine making. This is evident in the making of palm wine, and liquor that is obtained by distillation of fermented coconut sap.
Education: In Nigeria, indigenous education is not only concerned with the systematic socialisation of the young generation into norms, beliefs and collective opinions of the wider society but also places a very strong emphasis on learning practical skills and the acquisition of knowledge, which is useful both to the individual and society.

It emphasises social responsibility, job orientation, political participation, spiritual and moral values etc. Hence, indigenous education is holistic as all areas of life are infused into learning.

Medicine: The indigenous Nigerians believe that human being is both a somatic and spiritual entity; therefore, disease can be due to supernatural causes arising from the anger of ancestral or evil spirits, the result of witchcraft or the entry of an object into the body.

Arising from this conviction, not only the symptoms of the disease are taken into consideration but also psychological and sociological factors. Hence, the holistic nature and culture-based approach to traditional healthcare is an important aspect of indigenous medical practice, and sets it apart from conventional western approaches.

Traditional medicine practice in Nigeria includes various remedies, approaches, knowledge and beliefs that involve the use of the plant, animal and mineral products, spiritual therapies and charms to diagnose, cure or prevent sicknesses.

Among the Yoruba people of South West Nigeria for example, Agbo mixture which contains herbal leaves such as pawpaw, guava, mango, is used for the treatment of fever. In Delta state, the Isoko communities use Ologbo mixture for treatment of stomach ache; Udeibi to cure body pains; Udeibi mixed with local herbs (ebe-orise, erhenre, atanene) as therapy for measles; and Udu’bi (locally made pomade) for the treatment of cold and catarrh in infants. These IK systems have stood the test of time and are still applied in this generation.

Waste Management: In ancient times, it was a taboo to waste anything that costs money. Hence the reuse and recycling of every waste material has long been in use by the indigenous people of Nigeria where food and yard waste are recycled or reused as another food source or for animal feeds.

Peels from yam and cassava, weeds from the farm or excess fruits from the farmland are used to feed domestic animals such as goats, rams, pigs and cows. Among the Yoruba people, the peel from yam is processed into yam flour meal popularly known as Amala.

Organic waste is also used as manure where dead plants, dead animals, animal faeces, wastes from food and farmland and junk in a container are left to decompose with some water sprinkles.

In Northern parts of Nigeria, Kano precisely, animal faeces are dried and spread on the soil surface as manure for plants. Ash is another waste derived from burnt wood and coal used as fuel. In south-western Nigeria Ash is a major raw material for black soap (ose dudu) and generally used in Nigeria to wash off black smoke stains from cooking pots. Metals are also recycled to make knives, cutlasses, pieces of jewelry etc. These IK continues to thrive in Nigeria.

Ethnographic Significance Of Indigenous Knowledge
THE ethnographic significance of Nigerian IK cannot be over-emphasised. Through them the indigenous people of Nigeria have been able to survive in their environment. These are highlighted as follows:

Communication: The ethnographic relevance of Indigenous Knowledge as a means of communication is expressed in oral form, written and symbol as well as objects. They are found in different combinations and levels in the various types of indigenous library systems.

The oral form of knowledge developed from the pre-history time in fixed and non-fixed text through incantation, dirge, oral poetry, song, personal names, place name, appellation, cognomen and oral history.

Through these media, many groups have been able to preserve their knowledge and have been able to communicate the knowledge of their existence and that of their environment to younger generation. Among the Yoruba for instance, a child who is a twin is identifiable by the name Taye or Kehinde.

This shows the child is, the first or second born of the twin. Also children born after the birth a set of twins are recognized by their traditional names Idowu. In the same token a child born on Eke market day in Igbo land is identifiably by the name Okereke/Okeke.
Historical Antecedents and Phenomena: Many of the personal names and those of places in Nigeria are born out of historical antecedents.

This view is well illustrated in Yoruba adage that “Ile la wo k’a to somo l’oruko, that is, naming is carried out with due consideration for historical connection or antecedents. For example Eko in Nigeria has historical meaning. It is an Edo word for camp with historical information that Lagos which was christened Eko was in the 16th century conquered by Benin Soldiers who used it as a military camp or a recruitment and training centre.

In Africa Indigenous Knowledge systems, names, appellations and proverbs usually contain information on historical phenomena. The historical information here is usually compressed into phrases or sentences. Names are used in enshrining historical events.

In Nigeria for instance, “Oduduwa who is believed to be the progenitor of the Yoruba race is generally used to express the phenomena of state formations. Ogun, the traditional god is associated with iron technology development, Oloku a woman technocrat is associated with aesthetic consciousness; in the same way Bayajidda among the Hausa is associated with state formation and Ayelala deity among the Ilaje with institution of social justice.

In coastal Yorubaland of Nigeria, Ogun funmi nire (god of Iron has blessed me) represents migration and settlement of a group of people with knowledge of iron technology into coastal Yoruba land. Araromi (lover of water) indicates skill in swimming, fishing and canoe paddling, which are well emphasised in the praise song of the Awori.

Chants and songs are also used to transmit knowledge. They can be free text or fixed documentary. The free text can be reversed or recast while the documentaries are not changed. Documentaries are oral history sources in the traditional library systems. They can be found among the cults of traditional masquerades, shrines of gods and goddesses and traditional palaces. One form of chant is Efe or the song of Gelede Masquerades among the Awori and Egbedo Yoruba sub groups in Nigeria. Efe contains recitation of past historical phenomena relating to a family, lineage, community or an individual. It displays retentive memory in oral history. It can be used as punishment for offenders by mocking the social demeanour of an individual. Its contents could also be related to genealogy, warfare or technology as well as socio political history. However, Efe songs are mainly useful to the study of the relatively recent past in that knowledge of the song tends to deteriorate over the year as they may not be repeated over the years for accurate preservation. Descriptive Oriki or praise songs contain historical information relating to economy, political; inter group relations and communal history.

Iron Smelting and Technology:
The Nigerian IK possesses spiritual significance in the area of iron smelting and technology. It possesses ritual meaning. It is generally connected to symbolism, with particular reference to the issues of procreation. Iron is perceived as a bringer of better life for mankind and by this token sexual symbolism occupy a central position in the scheme of things. During the processing of iron, various iconic representations of women are made on the furnace, such as moulded breast, cicatrisation marks on the stomach and moulded genitalia immediately above the rake-hole of a smelting furnace. This phenomenon occupies a central position in the technological and religious behaviour of African people in general and Nigerians in particular. Today, the modern uses of iron are closer to its traditional ones, such as tool-making and construction works.

Architecture: The manner in which indigenous Nigerians build their houses reveals the ethnographic significance of IK in Nigeria. The pattern of their houses convey messages on their inner thoughts about nature and cosmos. A typical example abounds in the Tiv in Nigeria. They usually locate a hut at the centre of the compound. The hut is normally the largest in size. This is because they believe the Supreme Being lives in the centre of the universe and oversees the activities of human beings, while the compound usually built in round shape is believed to represent the universe. Also notable is the socio-cultural value attached to the settlement pattern in Nigerian societies. Kingship ties and lineage system affect the way they build their houses. Hence, often times, houses are closely built.

Textiles: Through Indigenous Knowledge, modern processes have evolved in the manufacturing of fabrics in Nigeria. These include harvesting, and collection of fibres, soaking, drying, softening, cleaning, and spinning of fibres etc. These are followed by reconstitution and elaboration through weaving, dyeing, bleaching, embroidery, appliqué, and other decorative techniques. Fibres traditionally woven include bark and bast from trees, raffia from palm tree wool from sheep, goats and camels and cotton. The technology employed in preparation of the dye and bonding is highly technical and protects fabrics from damage. Success stories of this abound in the beauty of our Nigerian celebrated Adire (an indigo resist-dyed cloths of the Yoruba) and our classy Aso-Oke (a hand woven narrow strip cloth of the Yoruba). Also worthy of mention are the Akwa Ocha of the Delta people and the Akwaete fabrics of the Rivers people. All these embody the worldview of the people.

Challenges of Indigenous Knowledge
In spite of the successes recorded by Indigenous Knowledge, various scholars have expressed different reservations with this mode of knowledge. Some argue that IK seems to be relatively less transferable than conventional science, given its holistic socio-cultural and even spiritual dimension. Others argue that IK makes it difficult to convey knowledge outside her society. Another point is that beliefs associated with technology are not freely expressed because of suspicion; or the instinct that knowledge might not be easily understood by people who do not possess it. Also since IK is embedded in culture which varies from society to society, it is quite difficult to put such knowledge down as fixed laws.

Furthermore, some scholars opine that IK appears to be largely communitarian in terms of discovery and experimentation and the mode of transmission and sharing is often collective rather than individualistic compared to conventional science. It has also been observed that younger generations underestimate the utility of IK because of the influence of modem technology and education.

In analysing the growth and level of sustenance, it has been pointed out that the engine of growth and sustenance of IK is neither the market nor the profit motive nor is it prone to large scale mass production and economies of scale. In Indigenous Knowledge, the aim is not to produce on a large scale or for the market but basically to satisfy the societal need.

The Prospects of Nigeria’s IK
In spite of the challenges of indigenous knowledge, it has been ascertained that there is indeed a direct relationship between indigenous knowledge and development. Development relates to how people use their creativity and resourcefulness to respond to major economic and ecological stressors. Therefore it is more likely to be sustainable if driven by indigenous knowledge, growing as it were from local specificities. This seems to suggest that to ignore rural peoples’ knowledge is to ensure failure in development. However, in the aspect of climate change management, it is being suggested that indigenous knowledge should complement rather than compete with global knowledge systems such that integrating indigenous knowledge into climate change conditions should not be done at the expense of modern/western scientific knowledge. It is also being opined that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) should be used to support and encourage cultural diversity and to preserve and promote indigenous languages, distinct identities and IK of Nigerian people in a manner which they determine best advances these goals. One can conclude here that technology can be used to solve the challenges of indigenous knowledge associated with no documentation.

Knowledge and understanding of nature and society have characterized the means of man’s ability to survive in his environment. The skills and capacities developed by man led to various innovations which resulted in the harnessing of indigenous knowledge. Unfortunately, Indigenous knowledge, which has generally been passed from generation to generation is in danger of being lost unless it is formally documented and preserved. It must be noted that development projects cannot offer sustainable solutions to local problems without integrating local knowledge. IK is the key to local-level development and ignoring people’s knowledge is likely to ensure failure. In spite of its short comings, Nigeria’s Indigenous Knowledge remains the foundation on which the scientific and technological successes of Nigeria are built.