African Knowledge Systems and Access to Modernity


In its simplest expression, having knowledge about something can be seen as having a certain familiarity with that something. And having modern knowledge is a prerequisite to access modernity, which is founded on scientific and technical (including business) knowledge.  This is the kind of knowledge that is needed for traniting toward some kind of modernity on the African continent.


Indeed, modernity can only be achieved by not only acquiring and applying new knowledge and technologies or new inventions but also by fully incorporating, contextualizing, integrating and institutionalizing the ‘invention of invention’ methodology, i.e. the knowledge creation and evolution methodology, into the heart of the regulatory mechanics of African societies, economies and cultures. This would guarantee that techno-scientific knowledge is ‘doomed’ to progress, that it cannot be stopped; and that it can propel Africa into a distinctive modernity. A knowledge system and its major subsystems is illustrated below.

Knowledge is the product of bio-anthropo-socio-cultural interactions. It co-produces perceived and conceived reality. It wrestles with doubt, disorder, uncertainty, hazard, irregularity, noise, error, redundancy, illusion, possession, self-justification and self-deception. It is a phantom-concept, an enigma-concept and a pilot-concept. True knowledge is unprovable within the linguistic or logic system in which it is produced (Larski and Godel theorems).


Absolute true knowledge would require infinite information and infinite energy. It is a fundamental concept but it is more Shakespearian than Newtonian. Knowledge, for example, can be viewed as an economic, social, cultural, biological, political, philosophical and historical concept. It can be seen as a light, a tool, an asset, a product, a factor of production, a currency, a competitive advantage, a value, a system (international and local), a wellspring, a servant or a master. It can be seen as a mediator, a translator, an organizer, a constructor of reality. It can be seen as capacities, power and an enlarger of the domain of human destinies.


Knowledge has the potential of realizing the full plasticity of human societies and a range of possible futures. However, because of its often fragmented, fractured, dismembered, parcelized, atomized, localized, specialized, mutilated, dispersed, monopolized, value-free (scientific) and de-contextualized character, it can be untapped, unused, misused, misapplied, misinterpreted or misappropriated. Modern knowledge can be an equalizer of cultures  and a homogenizing force in history. It can be a springboard to development and it can also be destructive of cultural diversities and the environment. It is somewhat autonomous, selective, emerging, blind, fluid, transitory and evolutionary. It is also relative, subjective, possessive and authoritative. It is at the heart of multiple emancipation, liberation, progression, maturation and development processes, which are often involuntary or unplanned (the Internet and modernity were not designed as projects, but are the result of zillions of ultra-complex knowledge interactions).


The assessment of the state of knowledge in the African region necessitates a good understanding of the nature, foundations, structures and characteristics of African Knowledge Societies (AKSs) - as defined here, a concept not limited to advanced societies and that goes beyond the prolongation of the information or the digital society. This is necessary for designing new policy initiatives, formulating relevant policy issues and directions, upgrading anachronistic knowledge bases and accelerating the transition from largely pre-modern, knowledge-deficient (in commercial terms only), unsustainable AKSs to fast progressing or modernizing ones.


In Africa, there are many indigenous writing systems but a large proportion of knowledge is not written, documented, formalized, standardized or certified – let alone patented or protected. Instead, it is expressed and communicated through other means.


In fact, African knowledge used to be and still is (although to a lesser extent) profoundly dependent on traditional signs, symbols, myths and magic due to high levels of illiteracy. These permeate beliefs, arts, rock paintings, clothes, songs, ceremonial objects, decorative drawings, tattoos, rites, masks, figures, architectures, legends, fables, metaphors and proverbs (Dzobo, 2004). This knowledge is extraordinarily rich but not very effective for modern development which requires more precise, definite, utilitarian, tradable and codified ‘hard’ scientific and technical knowledge (Arrow, 1971). Also, it is not very effective to produce watches and radios – the most coveted technologies by the poor in African Knowledge Societies (AKSs), let alone mobile phones, TVs and cars.


The relative lack of written indigenous knowledge has been the major handicap to sustainable development in Africa. As AKSs function in hundreds of different languages, appropriate linguistic policies are also needed for sharing and benefiting from knowledge advances, especially in an era where Webpages are often in English which may eventually lead to a loss of cultural diversity and a loss for humanity (and perhaps a gain in mass communication and modernization -Westernization).


All knowledge is ecological (comprising socio-environmental components) and the growth of knowledge throughout history has given rise to a super eco-organ: the brain. It is also mythological: mythologies provide the substance, the glue, the meaning, the purpose and the organization of reality and society.


Enabling mythological knowledge environments (the mytho-environment), on the one hand, and efficient technical and technological knowledge environments (the techno-environment), on the other hand is the dual-engine that propels development and uncovers modernity.


At the core level, development in Africa requires effective mytho-techno-scientific knowledge for sound environmental management, poverty reduction, food security and improved prospects for the young generation. This calls for the building of enabling knowledge environments for the acceleration of economic growth, the rehabilitation of the resource base and the realization of an African Green Revolution (AGR). These are the critical mainstays of sustainable livelihoods, incorporating vital elements of the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI) and key MDGs targets which include a workable vision, albeit mutilated, of sustainable development in the African context.


At a higher working level or at a supra-level value-laden mythological knowledge can either facilitate or hinder development in many ways. It can also give rise to a meta-paradigm of ‘sustainabilism’, incorporating vital knowledge with a new world knowledge order. This meta-paradigm could emerge in interaction with and in complementarily and conjunction / opposition with other powerful paradigms that influence development. These include hygienism (HIV), regionalism (integration), hedonism, messianism, christianism, islamism, animism, mysticism, shamanism, charlatanism, fundamentalism, modernism, environmentalism, naturalism, democracism, tribalism, ethnocism, socialism, capitalism, liberalism, scientism, technologism (bio, ICTs), pacifism, consumerism (eco-consumption, GMOs), universalism (UN), feminism, humanism (genocide), nationalism, patriotism, independentism (movements within many African countries) and globalism.


Globalism, for instance, could be pursed within the framework of a more equal, just, fraternal, cohesive, eco- responsible and sustainable mythological world society, with world identity, world citizenship and knowledge rights (a distant reality). Such a society would require a re-conceptualization of knowledge for development, including its concentration (centric, un-centric, poly-centric), its hierarchization (hierarchic, un-hierarchic, poly-hierarchic), its distribution (competence, poly-competence, specialization) and its globalization (migration, transmigration).


There is a need to evolve a meta-paradigm of sustainabilism and modernity, coherent with a mythological sustainable modern world society, and to investigate how various types and structures of knowledge can better contribute to its realization. This calls for a reproblematization of sustainable development and modernity on a global scale and for a re-evaluation and re-identification of development and modernization issues.