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African science speaks many languages

A wealth of traditional agricultural knowledge exists across Africa (© FAO/Desmond Kwande)
A wealth of traditional agricultural knowledge exists across Africa
© FAO/Desmond Kwande

There has never been a more important time for scientific literacy and for a general scientific culture in Africa, says Charles Dhewa, director of the Harare-based Knowledge Transfer Africa Trust (KTA), which seeks to empower African farmers and experts through the tools of translation. Sustainable development requires a strong culture of science, but if such a culture is confined to specialists it can only contribute to disparities in the dynamic environments of the global knowledge economy. Development is increasing the number of concepts citizens need to understand to make informed decisions about everything from personal health to national policies on the exploitation of natural resources.

Furthermore, the flow of knowledge is not a one way street in Africa. A wealth of traditional agricultural knowledge exists across the continent, including such important fields as adaptation to unstable climate. Most of this knowledge, built on experience and practice, is communicated orally and exists within a specific framework of culture and language.

Empowering through language

Developing countries like Zimbabwe need both the informative achievements of contemporary science and the strengths of indigenous knowledge systems, and both need to be African, believe Dhewa and his colleague Dr. Emmanuel Chabata of the University of Zimbabwe's African Languages Research Institute (ALRI). "African science should be a product of its history and of the heterogeneity of Africa," they say. "The diversity of Africa makes it a suitable laboratory for science, [but] there is a glaring lack of indigenous African theories and conceptual models... Despite centuries of scientific undertakings on the continent, there is still no vernacular word for 'science'."

The Shangaan people share knowledge through dancing and singing (© Charles Dhewa)
The Shangaan people share knowledge through dancing and singing
© Charles Dhewa

KTA believes in the power of translation. At its most literal, this involves activities such as the compilation of scientific dictionaries in different languages, and this is one important task KTA and ALRI have undertaken. In Zimbabwe they have worked with universities and NGOs to empower crop and animal scientists, extensionists, and health workers with greater translation skills. Their work has led to the production of several science dictionaries, and a glossary of medical terms in Shona and Ndebele, which allows doctors trained in English to practise in the languages of their patients.

Literal translation is, however, just one step for the organisation. Languages encode meaning and ideas very differently, and translating the concepts behind the words across cultures and distant language families can be a much larger issue. In any attempts to translate for development, KTA has found a need to involve specialist communicators: 'integrators' who can combine indigenous and scientific knowledge in ways that make sense, 'filterers' who clarify ideas for a wide audience, and 'synthesisers' who effectively summarise key issues. KTA has found much promise in the current generation of African students, confident with information technologies, and is engaging them to help open the door between indigenous knowledge and global knowledge pools.

Translation society

The Trust has recently been experimenting with participatory translation approaches, establishing Community Knowledge Centres for communal farmers in Zimbabwe. These Centres have links to more traditional scientific institutions, yet allow farmers to approach science as knowledge in action. The Centres offer a physical space to collect artefacts and farming technologies, recognising the importance of material culture in indigenous knowledge, as well as a venue for performance. More importantly, they are venues to share both knowledge and personal experimentation in local languages. "This facilitates knowledge acquisition and encourages debate through a dynamic questioning process," say Dhewa and Dr. Chabata.

Community Knowledge Centres are venues to share both knowledge and personal experimentation in local languages (© Charles Dhewa)
Community Knowledge Centres are venues to share both knowledge and personal experimentation in local languages
© Charles Dhewa

In the Gokwe North district of Zimbabwe KTA is working with the Korekore, Tonga and Karanga people, who speak languages of the Bantu family, common in sub-Saharan Africa. The Gokwe North Farmers Association, along with organising material inputs for its members, has become involved in ongoing translation of knowledge. "Sharing knowledge in their languages has empowered farmers to collect and share information toward transforming their Association into a viable Community Knowledge Centre," say Dhewa and Dr. Chabata. "The languages have distinct ways of sharing indigenous knowledge around agriculture, health and climate change." As with many Bantu people, this extends beyond simple conversation to oral narrative performance.

The most important lesson Dhewa and Dr. Chabata have learned is that the direction of the flow of ideas, whether from scientists working in English to Shona-speaking farmers or vice versa, is less important than the exchange itself, which can enrich both. Their goal is not to bring different forms of knowledge into a single language of science; their goal is simply translation itself. "Translation does not spell the end of diversity, since it does not mean sameness but merely equivalence," the language experts believe. "Translation is pre-eminently the means of mediation between cultural diversity and the universality of knowledge. It follows that knowledge societies will have to be translation societies."

Written by: T. Paul Cox

Date published: January 2011

 

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