Africa: COVID-19 and Agricology - Echoes of Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Africa

10 June 2020
analysis

On the haze of an early April morning in Kitengela on the outskirt of Kenya's capital Nairobi, my son and I stood at our garden staring at our kale plants. It was a therapeutic experience, more so given the partial lockdown regime triggered by the latest global pandemic that has suffocated social life throughout the world. While in my garden, I took time and considered the renowned British organic chemist Sir Robert Robinson whose work on plant dyestuffs and alkaloids earned him the Nobel in 1947. Robinson simply observed that 'plants are not animals'. A proclamation that may appear obvious at inception, but very often the techniques used to protect plants from extinction, which may be useful for humanity at this moment, are based on methods developed for animals.

In my view, it is the rich classes in our so called 'modern societies' including here in Africa, whose universal thirst for private profit has led them to neglect and exploit the ecosystem to the extent of breaking the unity and interdependence of an otherwise coherent natural system that has led to the current deadly outbreak of a virus the world is still struggling to find a remedy for. It is important to realise that the ecosystem is built on geological formations and the living forms that inhabit it are a single community of interconnected beings. As argued in agricology, each mode of existence has its unique rights and functions within the totality and each is able to contribute to the existence of the other in a mutual supporting manner that benefits our planet. Simply put, agricology concerns itself primarily with reinstituting the natural rationale of resilient practices that have been passed on from ancient times in current agricultural production in order to improve our ecological system.

Phenotypic plasticity

At the garden, I remember asking my young son what a plant was, to which he replied that it was 'a green, rooted to the spot, veggie that comes from a seed'. In agricology, we learn that if plants were not able to take the energy from the sun and use it to mix together air, water and soil, we simply would not be here. In other words, humanity cannot survive without nature nor can nature exist without humanity. There is as such a co-relationship which needs to be restored through a circular global agricological system. Moreover, the fact that plants are rooted to the spot is of profound importance to the plants themselves. The analogy here is that if you are unable to run away from danger then you have to develop strategies that enable you to tolerate whatever life and nature throw at you. According to Professor Robinson this is known as phenotypic plasticity which is more developed in plants than in animals. The rational unity of plant and animal through a rigorous conception situated in agricology deserves a wide appeal, more so in this age of Corona.

Additionally, as Africans, we must adopt the suggestion made by Dani Nabudere, the godfather of Afrikology - and expand our appreciation of indigenous knowledge systems, as well as sharpen our understandings of the notion and practice of justice within the context, diversity and differences of our cultures.

Resetting humanity

The fact that we are living in extraordinary times is now not debatable. In this so-called Corona-era, the age of heavy guns and hardware is slowly coming to an end, and is being replaced by bio, cyber, and mind wars. The concept of imminent risk and menacing danger is being reframed around non-intuitive, non-visible, and non-obvious threats. On the other hand, the impact of the global pandemic has also managed to create time for us to pause, reflect, and hopefully embrace the values of what our indigenous knowledge systems embedded in our traditional cultural practices may offer as possible remedy to the deadly Covid-19 malady.

While, psychologists, historians, sociologists and even voodoo practitioners continue to provide us with fascinating examples of social processes interacting with perception and recall, it is difficult to disagree with Thomas Frey, the American futurist thinker when he observes that 'We've just hit a giant reset button on all of humanity', that is at present being driven by our current state of fear and panic. I for one consider the ongoing plague as a transition to a more inclusive society in the newly found spirit of collective action and shared responsibility.

Today, out there in the margins, all societies whether in Europe, America or here in Africa as we know it are currently undergoing an unprecedented change, ranging from local to global, personal to political, individual to infrastructural. Communities have begun pondering over their fundamental ways of being. To ensure that the anticipated social changes are for the better, it is imperative for us as Africans to explore and engage with conversations that we think are crucial to our collective selves. Imagining the current pandemic as a gateway to a new world, we need to make attempts to know and pledge to change our ways of thinking, acting, and behaving in this transitional period to ensure that the 'edited world' that awaits us on the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic is more inclusive, understanding, and compassionate.

Understanding, adjusting and coping

I focus here on the sequential processes of 'understanding, adjusting and coping' with the ongoing pandemic from an agricological perspective. I examine the everyday social management of a pandemic and show how these public health emergencies that tend to surface are accommodated, and after some time eventually get resolved having left a strain of social, political and economic stress on communities across Africa that have historically been disadvantaged within the global power structures.

Within Africa itself, there is general agreement among political scholars that the postcolonial state, which refers to the corpus of governmental structures in the post-independence period, is still weak, flawed and ineffective. Indeed, whereas the main function of the colonial state was to maintain law and order that facilitated Europeans' exploitation of Africa's resources, the current state in Africa is still sustaining a deeply violent and authoritarian political culture. In spite of the so called 'second liberation' in the 1990s, for most part, the state in Africa remains a colonial construct, incapable of expressing the common good and serving the interests of citizens. The recent beatings and killings of citizens by security agencies under the auspices of administering 'social- distancing' serve as a tidy example of the brutal nature of the postcolonial state.[i]

Given such a violent historical background, scholars including Mark Derry, the American cultural critic, have asked: how can a community, whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, imagine possible futures? Better yet, in our present context, how, one may add, as Africans, are we to understand and respond to the latest rapidly evolving epidemiological emergency? To their credit, most African governments have imposed some degree of restrictions to protect the populations from the spread of the virus. This is clearly an important protective step, but we also need to consider the very real danger that the Covid-19 pandemic will leave in its wake a food security crisis that could affect the political, social and economic health of African countries.

According to several latest reports, over 250 million people in Africa are already living without food. These reports conclude that these vulnerable populations will suffer more from both the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Africa's GDP growth is expected to drop from 3.2% to 1.8% which is also likely to increase the number of people without food in Africa. In another report the World Bank points out that agricultural production in Africa is likely to contract between 2.6% in an optimistic scenario and up to 7% if there are trade blockages. Food imports would decline substantially (as much as 25% or as little as 13%) due to a combination of higher transaction costs and reduced domestic demand. Overall, the World Bank report further predicted that Africa is likely to lose between $37 billion and $79 billion in output losses within 2020 alone.

African Indigenous Knowledge Systems

As Africans, in order for us to circumvent the on-going global health crisis, we must begin to transform our understanding and appreciation of the role and value that our indigenous knowledge systems have played in the past and can still play in this process.

Coping with Ebola

As a way of example, during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2013-15, it was a compass of epidemiological knowledge drawn from indigenous knowledge among ordinary people that played an important part in containing the epidemic in 2015. In his book anthropologist Paul Richards describes in detail how the use of indigenous knowledge among ordinary people helped to eliminate risks of contagion that led to a rapid drop in mid-2015 in the number of cases of infection. More importantly, Richards notes that the in areas like rural Liberia where communities that had experienced earlier viral hemorrhagic outbreaks similar to Ebola, for example, Lassa fever, most Africans survived because of the indigenous knowledge they had used during past epidemics.

Swedish scholar, Mats Utas, who has studied how communities in the three countries most affected by Ebola, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone - all of whom had among the weakest health systems in the world - has also concluded that these communities overcame the epidemic through the use of indigenous knowledge. Professor Utas has recently opined that those communities are more likely to fare better than others as the coronavirus pandemic spreads across Africa.[ii] Utas argues this is because those communities understand how to use traditional knowledge systems of palliative care, rehydration therapy, and other essential and functioning traditional nursing models that are helpful in limiting the spread of the virus.

Traditional knowledge systems of indigenous and local communities have been of immense value over millennia. They have filled the breadbasket that has fed the world, provided medicines that have healed the world, and provided for the sustainable management of resources, including biodiversity. They may yet hold the key to dealing with the risks posed by pandemics such as the current Covid-19 that is inducing indiscriminate fear in communities across the world. Today indigenous knowledge systems are in danger of being marginalized, given the failure of the modern economy to sustain all life forms.[iii] My attempt to re-assert the values of indigenous knowledge systems and agricology is therefore an attempt to overcome the failures of modernity and global capitalism.

Agriculture

One fundamental way to rethink the current global economic system is by focusing on agriculture. This is because agriculture has always been a fundamental economy on which humanity has survived throughout the centuries. However, the modern system of industrial economic management under capitalism has undermined the vitality of the soils on which agricultural production and human, plant and animal have depended.

Historically, a number of researchers have pointed out that it took only twenty years (from 1980 to 2000) for humanity to move from a land-based organic ever-renewing economy to an extractive industrial non-renewable economy - the so called 'industrial complex' of petroleum, steel, lumbering, pharmaceutical corporations and public utilities that have all been responsible for this transformation. As Nabudere puts it, the industrial establishment assumed the mandate to take over the resources of the entire globe to exploit for private profit without the consent of all humanity. Today, industrial exploitations continue to cause immense global devastation, creating extensive toxicity as well as leaving vast amounts of non-disposable waste materials for poorer populations in Africa to deal with.

Agricology

It is against this background that principles of agricology emerge. These principles are concerned with the search to reinstate a more ecological and natural rationale into agricultural production on the basis of the resilient practices that have been passed on from ancient times. This is because for a long time, agriculturalists and developers have disregarded a deeper understanding of the nature of agro-ecosystems and the principles by which they function. Given this limitation, agro-ecology has emerged as the discipline that provides the basic ecological principles for how to study, design and manage agro-ecosystems that are both productive and natural resource conserving, and that are also culturally sensitive, socially just and economically viable.

According to Professor Nabudere, agricology goes beyond the one-dimensional view of agro-ecosystems by taking into account genetics, agronomy, edaphology (the influence of soils on living things), and so on, in order to embrace an understanding of ecological and social levels of co-evolution. More importantly, agricology emphasizes the interrelatedness of all agro-ecosystems and the complex dynamics of ecological processes that are particularly useful at this moment in time for us to create a new global ethical system.

Conclusively, I am inclined to agree with the imminent Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop, who was convinced that the best way to save the Western man from his pessimism and individualistic solitude (currently universalized as 'social distancing') rests in Africa's social fabric.

[i]Further reference can also be made to Adejoke Adeboyejo's article (2020) that specifically looks at the impact of the Covid-19 lockdowns on the healthcare of non-Covid cases, https://africanarguments.org/2020/04/14/how-covid-19-lockdowns-affect-healthcare-of-non-covid-cases/

[ii]Mats Utas (2020), 'Building trust is crucial for disease control', https://nai.uu.se/news-and-events/news/2020-04-03-building-trust-is-crucial-for-disease-control.html

[iii]See Isak Niehaus's article (2020), 'From Aids to Covid-19 in South Africa', https://africanarguments.org/2020/04/27/from-aids-to-covid-19-in-south-africa-thoughts-from-an-uxbridge-apartment/

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