Traditional Knowledge and Africa's History of Innovation

How did people learn life-saving skills in communities that did not have formal schools?

Like many indigenous societies worldwide, African societies have a strong tradition of storytelling, for passing on knowledge and information from one generation to the next. Today, it is supplemented with modern formal education. Societies throughout sub-Saharan Africa have preserved knowledge about the past through verbal, visual, and written art forms, giving Africa has the world's oldest record of human technological achievement. What history books and modern narratives have labeled primitive African activity, I call innovation of the time. Let me share some stories of knowledge in sub-Saharan Africa, and how it has influenced the world we live in.

Vivian Kobusingye Birchall,
 demonstrating how to use a grinding stone
in Acton, MA, 2017
I have childhood memories of watching family members in southwestern Uganda using grinding stones (“orubengo”) to grind millet and sorghum into flour for home consumption. The oldest stone tools in the world have been found in eastern Africa, and evidence of tool production from available materials has been found across sub-Saharan Africa. Some of these stone tools have existed for centuries, and many tribes in sub-Saharan Africa have continued to use them, even after interaction with Europeans. Mechanized grain mills, turned by hand, mule, wind or water, function on the same principles.
Vivian, demonstrating how to use a grinding stone,
at Lesedi, in South Africa, 2008

Another childhood memory is of my mother applying traditional knowledge to cure different ailments, in the absence of modern medicine, or when modern medicine did not work. This happens in many African communities.  It is common to see multi-pupose plants grown in the yard and around African homes. For thousands of years, Africans have had a wide knowledge of medicinal plants that they still use, especially in areas that do not have access to modern health facilities.

"Omujaaja" Plant
Photo: Prossy Namirembe Byarugaba
(Copyright: Africa2U) 
For example, at her  house, my mother, Prossy, planted aloe vera, banana trees, and African basil (“omujaaja”). This native plant is used as a tea spice, but also has medicinal uses, to treat flatulence (“okutumbira mu lubuto”), constipation (“obuteyabya”) and toothaches. Our ancestors learned these things not in school, but through their own investigation, and knowledge passed down orally from their elders. Today, pharmaceutical researchers around the world have confirmed that extracts from this plant have a range of potential uses against pain, bacteria, parasites and diabetes.

Even various traumatic wounds could be treated. Traditional physicians would squeeze plant juices with antiseptic properties into the open wound, then use a red-hot metal tip to cauterize bleeding points and burn away damaged tissue. They would then stitch the wound closed with a tough thorn or awl and fibrous sutures. Finally, a fiber mat would be wrapped tightly around the wound to apply pressure and stop bleeding. These capabilities were not merely applied to injuries!

Robert W. Felkin (1853-1926), an expert and advisor to the Lancet on tropical disease, first traveled to Africa in 1878 with missionaries as a medical student. At the time, Europe and the rest of the world thought of the caesarian section as a last resort, to save the baby of a mother whose own life could not be saved. But in the Banyoro kingdom of western Uganda, he witnessed a caesarian as a routine procedure performed by a skilled, experienced practitioner and assistants, with both mother and baby surviving.

Banana wine served as an anaesthetic and antiseptic, the incision was sparingly cauterized and fastened closed with sharp spikes, and the mother’s abdomen was wrapped tightly. Within six days, the fasteners were removed, and when Felkin left after monitoring the mother for eleven days, both she and her baby were doing well. Felkin’s description and sketches of the procedure were published in the Edinburgh Medical Journal in 1884, the same year he gave an address, Notes on Labour in Central Africa, to the Edinburgh Obstetrical Society.

Banyoro knife used for caesarian section in 1879. Presented by Dr. R.W. Felkin to Sir Henry Wellcome, now in the Wellcome Collection, London. (Copyright: The Wellcome Trust.)

Of course, there have been many surgical advances in the last 150 years, but one does not usually hear that Europeans learned how to perform successful caesarian sections by watching Africans. Nor do we hear of ancient Egyptian medical records describing material from the papyrus plant being used to make tampons, or of many African tribes practicing inoculation against smallpox long before Edward Jenner’s vaccine, or of Masai surgeons drilling into the chest to partially collapse a lung as treatment for pleurisy or pneumonitis. But we must acknowledge the skills of pre-colonial Africans. They were experts, and innovators, in their time.

But knowledge and learning in Africa is not limited to food production and medicine.  During the golden age of the Mali Empire between 1300 and 1600, the city of Timbuktu, located at the border of the Sahara and the Sahel, was a center of trade and education. Scholars at its university had access to all the mathematical learning of the Islamic world at the time, including algebra, geometry and trigonometry.

Looking even further back, some of the oldest mathematical tools in the world, dating to the paleolithic era, have been found at the Uganda-Congo border and in Swaziland.  The Ishango and Lebombo bones are lengths of bone with series of notches carved on them.  Several theories of their purpose have been put forth, ranging from prime numbers or multiplication devices to tracking the phases of the moon.

Ishango Bone
(Afro Legends)

Another possibility is that the markings on the bone were used to track a woman’s menstrual cycle. Many African tribes associate menstruation with the moon; the Banyakitara, my father’s kin, call it “Okuza omukwezi,” literally translated “Going into the moon.” Of course, this could also imply that the bones were the first astronomical records – or that the first mathematicans and astronomers were women. That is a conversation for another time.

We may not know what they were tracking, but one thing is for certain – whatever it was, they invented a mathematical tool to track it, and that influenced how African people and communities tracked things.  As you can see, there is much to learn about past and present African ways of life. Some traditions have given way to modern ways of doing things, but others are deeply rooted in our way of life and are still applicable today.

Vivian Kobusingye Birchall

Traditional Knowledge and Africa's History of Innovation

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