Conserving ancestral knowledge: Traditional knowledge transfer in Central Africa
Renowned African intellectual Amadou Hampâté Bâ once said, “When an old man dies in Africa, a library burns.” This statement remains true today, despite the rise of schools and universities. Africa’s literacy rate is low, and written traditional knowledge, often in foreign languages, is inaccessible. However, a recent workshop by NGO Maison de l’Enfant et de la Femme Pygmées (MEFP) in the Central African Republic (CAR) aimed to bridge this gap. MEFP Coordinator, Sitamon Mandet Ndjapoud, shares how the organization is conserving ancestral knowledge in CAR, transferring intergenerational wisdom among students from different communities.
Africa is a continent abundant in cultural heritage and traditional knowledge handed down through generations. However, the low literacy rate in the Central African Republic (CAR), restricts access to written traditional knowledge, resulting in the loss of ancestral culture and disconnection among younger generations. Recognizing this issue, MEFP, organized a workshop to transfer traditional knowledge among students from different ethnic groups in CAR as part of its Biocultural Conservation project. Held in December 2022 at the Ibata village, the workshop facilitated collaboration among Elders from indigenous Bayaka (Pygmy) and Bantu communities, fostering mutual respect and cooperation, which was a rare occurrence.
Promoting social cohesion and multiculturalism through intercultural exchange
Teachers from the schools involved in the workshop recognize the importance of integrating traditional knowledge into modern teachings. They emphasized the urgency of introducing students to traditional knowledge, as many students do not complete formal education and may need local skills for employment opportunities. Jérôme SITAMON stated, “The impact of cultural globalization on Central African culture, and specifically on the culture of indigenous AKA/BaaKA/Bayaka (Pygmies), is evident and harmful.” The teachers realized that without transferring traditional knowledge, younger generations may lose their ancestral heritage, which would be a significant loss for their communities and culture. The workshop also fostered social cohesion among students from different ethnic groups. Bayaka and Bantu children, who had faced discrimination and marginalization, participated in workshops designated for each other’s culture, such as weaving purse nets for hunting and making carrying baskets. This intercultural exchange created a festive atmosphere, promoting multiculturalism and a desire to learn from each other, transcending ethnic boundaries.
Another significant outcome was the manifestation of gender inclusion. Traditionally, the expertise of making boards to dry cassava was held by women. However, during the workshop, some male participants also took part, challenging gender norms and promoting gender equality in traditional knowledge transfer. The workshop also focused on practical and relevant themes that addressed the immediate needs of the participants. Topics were chosen in a participatory manner, ensuring that the traditional knowledge shared could be directly applied in practice, for monetization or personal use.
The workshop gave value and recognition to Bantu and Bayaka Elders who have long been neglected by younger generations attending schools. The opportunity to share their true and deeply believed traditional knowledge was seen as a privilege. Other Elders also joined to support their colleagues in passing on traditional knowledge to younger generations. The workshop highlighted the importance of transferring traditional knowledge to safeguard ancestral heritage. Collaboration among Elders, integration of traditional knowledge into modern teachings, promotion of intercultural exchange, and emphasis on practical applications were significant outcomes. It fostered social cohesion, gender inclusion, and mutual respect among students from different ethnic groups, creating a positive environment for knowledge transfer.
Ngouma Clément, the President of the Ibata Village Customary Court, stated, “Through these workshops, we have come to understand the importance of passing on our knowledge to our children. Many young people from the Bantu and Aka communities lack the skills to make traditional tools that are necessary for life. I am pleased to have participated in the transfer of some of this valuable know-how. We strongly support this initiative to prevent our ancestral knowledge from being forgotten.”
The workshop also served as a reminder of the urgency to document and preserve traditional knowledge before it is lost forever. With increasing influence of modernization and globalization, traditional knowledge faces the risk of being marginalized and forgotten. Therefore, efforts to transfer traditional knowledge and promote its integration into contemporary contexts are crucial in safeguarding ancestral heritage and preserving the rich cultural diversity of Africa. Workshops like this include providing resources, recognition, and respect to traditional knowledge holders, promoting intergenerational exchange, integrating traditional knowledge into formal education systems, and raising awareness about the value of traditional knowledge in contemporary society.
By doing so, we can ensure that the wisdom, skills, and practices of our ancestors are preserved and passed on to future generations, contributing to the cultural resilience and sustainable development of African communities. Let us work together to protect and cherish these invaluable libraries of traditional knowledge for the benefit of current and future generations.
The NGO Maison de l’Enfant et de la Femme Pygmées (MEFP) is one of the 21 partners of the African Biodiversity Network (ABN) implementing a project to conserve biocultural diversity. This project is being financially supported by SIDA.