UL revitalises indigenous knowledge to preserve heritage

Limpopo is well known for its opulent indigenous culture and is one of the country’s most biodiverse areas with revered traditional foods, wide-ranging traditional medicine, and varied languages. At the confluence of the indigenous plants and primaeval forests, magnificent mountains, fresh waters of the valleys and bushveld is a university that aspires to find solutions to African challenges by revitalising indigenous knowledge systems (IKS); that is, the University of Limpopo (UL).

Due to modernisation, industrialisation and population growth, most of the IKS are being lost and the millennia have begun detaching from heritage. The university, having acknowledged that it is as rich as the wealth of indigenous knowledge and wisdom that lives in the communities that surround it, has empowered its competent researchers. These researchers span different study fields such as health and natural sciences, management and law, and the humanities to conduct outstanding multidisciplinary research that is firmly grounded in IKS.

Shaping the future from a heritage: confronting hostile developmental trends

According to Associate Professor in Microbiology - Prof Kgabo Moganedi, who is Coordinator of IKS activities at the university, IKS at UL forms the backbone of the university’s five research niche areas (RNAs). “It is one and the only overarching research field. All the other four fields have elements of IKS, namely medicinal plant research, mental health, women health, and climate change.” 

These niche areas work around enhancing economic and food security using traditional biotechnology and valorisation of African medicine, (ii) adaptation and mitigation measures for adaptation to the changing climate, and (iii) the interface between society, language, meaning and culture within the context of indigenous languages with the underlying focus on the role of indigenous languages in articulating African science, culture and technology, and the embodiment of life lessons in the construction of characters used in folktales.

“Researchers in the Faculty of Humanities have, for a long time, been involved in IKS-based and related research studies. These were mainly folklore studies and were shared on platforms such as the annual Spring Lectures hosted by the university, which in the design are local meetings where research staff and students share their research findings,” Prof Moganedi informs.

She highlights that in the past decade, IKS research at UL has expanded to the science fields. “Medicinal plants and phytochemical studies were the main focus for researchers in the natural sciences (microbiology, biochemistry, chemistry and botany), health sciences (pharmacy) and agricultural sciences. This was on the backdrop of highlighting traditional healing practices and the use of African indigenous plants by the South African government which prompted attempts in advancing the African traditional medicine as an alternative and complement to western medicine.”

She says that these scientific research studies entailed valorisation of the traditional use of specific plants as a medicine against medical conditions such as cancer, diabetes and ailments induced by microbial infections such as tuberculosis (TB) and HIV.

These efforts connect researchers at the university to the beautiful nature of our land, of which most of its indigenous plants and fresh waters are being lost and heavily polluted due to modernisation, industrialisation and population growth. Also, the risk of depleting the plant resources has enlarged due to the increased harvesting of plants and plant materials for research and traditional use. 

The loss of this cultural heritage has spurred teams of researchers spanning various disciplines to work around revitalising the environment. “There is a concerted effort amongst researchers to identify the active agents and healing properties of the medicinal plants, and these will subsequently lead to drug developments.

Current research in agriculture looks at the preservation of natural plants by establishing medicinal plants orchards and, thus, ensuring sustainable harvest and utilisation of these resources,” Prof Moganedi states.

She further says that in the recent years, research on traditional foods has being established with a special focus on advancing traditional biotechnological processes in the development of modern food products. “The intent is on addressing food security and ensuring sustainable livelihoods from using natural resources that are indigenous to South Africa and Africa broadly.”

Partnering with communities (indigenous knowledge holders) to enlarge the IKS body of knowledge 

While the university is on the trajectory of providing in-depth knowledge and the deciphering of complex processes in advancing IKS into mainstream technology and the global economy, the researchers work side-by-side with community members – as participants and investigators in the studies who are indeed the holders of indigenous knowledge. Scientific investigations are conducted to identify key elements in natural processes and unravel the complexities of the biochemical processes. Hence, community members help researchers to make sure that the design of such scientific studies is guided by the traditional use of the natural resources and the inherent practices that have been refined and adopted by communities over many generations. 

“Numerous papers on IKS-based and related research studies from across the different faculties of the university have been published in accredited journals. These are in the fields of indigenous languages, education, anthropology, social sciences, nutrition, life sciences, and agriculture. Most of the research is on-going, and some of the research activities have attracted attention and funding for the university. Such include the marula wine project led by Prof Kgabo Moganedi (which has been adopted by the IKS research directorate of the Department of Science and Innovation (the DSI) for development and commercialisation,” says Prof Moganedi.

She adds that a project on medicinal plants and lifestyle diseases, led by Prof Vusi Mbazima, has attracted multimillion-rand funding from the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) while Prof Salome Mahlo has established a database on medicinal plants and associated diseases from ethnobotanical studies, and this research has won her a place as a finalist in the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) awards.

The future of IKS at UL

The university is in the process of developing an IKS-based qualification – a Bachelor’s degree in IKS (B-IKS). Prof Moganedi says that this will be a multi-disciplinary study field with specific focus areas in arts, management and law, nutrition, and science. “It will be designed with the participation of organic intellectuals from communities who will offer the students practical experience on IKS matters,” she explains, adding that the degree will highlight the wealth of information and knowledge that reside within African communities and will allow the exploration and advancement of such knowledge for the improvement of the livelihood of the African people.

Also, the university is establishing a research journal that will publish IKS research and related works from across different fields of study. Prof Moganedi explains this move as a much-needed platform to share and distribute works in African IKS and that “they will invite and receive contributions from all over the world on African IKS.” The first issue is planned for release in the first quarter of 2021, and the university has appointed Prof Tholene Sodi as the journal’s Editor-In-Chief.

Date created:2020-09-23 13:01:25