Dr Munyaradzi Mawere explains Knowledge

In Modernity/Tradition by Odogwu Ibezimako

I think of knowledge and belief sometimes in biological terms. We have the body, which is made up of a complex system of coordinating networks that keep us alive. If this system is threatened by say a virus, our system kicks in to destroy that virus. If it is successful, the body develops resistance towards this virus, and whenever the body is exposed to this virus, it is better prepared to reject it. 

I think of belief in the same vein. Belief doesn’t just tell us what to believe, it tells us how to believe. They create a set of rules, and systems that make sense to the believer and dictate how we should engage with alien ideas. Any information that does not fit into that frame activates a defense mechanism and creates immunity against these foreign ideas. 

How do we prepare ourselves to consider ideas that are foreign ? I speak to Dr Mawere about this. He is in Zimbabwe, and I am in Canada. We connect via email.  

Dr Mawere is a Professor and Research Chair in the Simon Muzenda School of Arts, Culture and Heritage Studies at Great Zimbabwe University. 

He holds a PhD in Social Anthropology; a Master’s Degree in Social Anthropology; a second Master’s Degree in Philosophy; a third Master’s Degree in Development Studies; BA (Hons) Degree in Philosophy; Certificate in Tertiary and Higher Learning. 

He is an author of more than 80 books and over 250 academic publications straddling the following areas: poverty and development studies, African philosophy, cultural philosophy, democracy, politics of food production, humanitarianism and civil society organisations, urban anthropology, existential anthropology, environmental anthropology, society and politics, religion, decoloniality and African studies.

Dr Mawere’s work was critical in my discovery and exploration of African Ideginous Knowledge Systems.  

How does one begin to consider alien ideas, or ideas systems when their body has been taught to view these ideas as a threat or incompatible with their worldview?   

Indeed, beliefs are critical in shaping our worldviews, how we perceive the world around us metaphysically and epistemologically, and even how we think. However, if not careful we run the risk of falling into what Chimamanda Adiche calls “the danger of a single story”, that is, the danger to believe that one’s knowledge is the only correct one. For this reason, there is need to embrace conviviality and realise our incompleteness as well as imperfection. Yet, while in the name of conviviality – living well with others, both insiders and outsiders/foreigners – we should consider foreign ideas, one should never be gullible to swallow in every idea that is foreign. Neither should such ideas be dismissed with a hand wave. Instead, when confronted with foreign ideas one should subject the ideas to thorough scrutiny before embracing or rejecting them totally or even before modifying the ideas to suit one’s context. All this should be done with the aid of one’s belief system guided with critical reasoning.    

Both in my village and in the modern city of Lagos, I would hear “Don’t pick that up from the floor, you may turn into a yam ! Or prayers before meals helped to protect us from charms.” Without passing judgment on any of these forms of belief, how do we understand the interaction between the fear of one’s indigenous belief systems and foreign belief systems that act as coping  measure against fear and helplessness. 

This question begs the question of legitimacy of African indigenous ideas, which though not alien are unfortunately but wrongly perceived by some as illegitimate, unscientific, archaic, illogical and backward. The illegitimacy and even fear of one’s indigenous belief system emanate from Africa’s colonial experience. Colonialism, together with its foreign belief systems, taught Africans to view themselves and their ideas and belief systems as inferior to European ones, which in any case were foreign. Africans, thus, were taught that their belief systems or knowledge rather was archaic, unscientific, illogical, superstitious and backward, and therefore illegitimate and helpless.  Yet, frankly speaking, those African belief systems had successfully served generations and generations, and were in fact helpful in keeping Africans at peace with each other and the environment around them. Africans, for example, had their own belief systems that protected them from charms. They had their own taboos – dos and don’ts – which helped to protect their people and environment. 

What is knowledge, is there a distinct way African peoples have  obtained knowledge ?  Was this system universal across the African continent ? 

What constitute knowledge is still not universally agreed upon. However, epistemologically speaking, knowledge is what we believe to be justifiably true. In other words, knowledge is a true justified belief. 

Yes, Africans had and indeed continue to have their own distinct ways through which they obtain their knowledge. While Europeans seem to depend largely on reason and what [European] science, Africans likewise believe in the same. However, besides these, they also depend on other ways of knowing such as dreams, revelations (as in the case of traditional and faith healers/prophets) and intuition. 

Though might vary from region to region, in terms of practice and dependency, these systems or ways of knowing were universal across African cultures. No African culture which, for example, did not value dreams and revelations. Traditional healers even today remain a prominent feature and a critical form of knowing in Africa.

What is the reasons for understanding African philosophy, why is this important? 

There are many reasons why it is important to understand African philosophy. African philosophy, for example, is critical for anyone who identify herself/himself as an African. As the adage goes that a tree without roots can easily be swept away by wind, an African who is not familiar with his/her own [African] philosophy can never fully understand herself/himself, including her own people. Such an African can never be able to reclaim their own cultural identity and self-identity as well as defend her own integrity, history, dignity and knowledge. 

Besides, understanding African philosophy helps Africans to appreciate their own culture, knowledge systems, history and being in the world. There is no way Africans can appreciate their own culture and philosophy (way of life) if they do not know their [African] culture.

More so, African philosophy corrects misrepresentations proffered and perpetuated by some Euro-centric scholars such as Georg Hegel, Immanuel Kant, David Hume and Levy Bruhl, among others, who wrote negatively about Africa and the African people.  

Last but not least, African philosophy helps cultivating a culture of sharing, peace and moral probity through its emphasis on the virtues of Ubuntu and MA’AT philosophy.

One of the distinct components of  the Igbo worldview, and I know this is present as well for many of the peoples in Zimbabwe is ancestral communication and the thin veil between the material and the nonmaterial (the super natural). What is the best frame of reference to understanding this worldview. Help us understand how this would even be possible. 

Thank you! Yes, the Igbo worldview you have made reference to is also a common feature in Zimbabwe. Many Zimbabweans, whether Christians or not, believe that the living can still communicate with the departed (those relatives who will have died and are now residing in the world beyond/ancestral world) (ancestral communication). In the realm of epistemology, this way of knowing falls under what I have described as revelations or dreams as the communications with the dead/the departed is believed to take place through visions or through dreams during sleep.

Thank you for your time Dr Mawere. You have published so much, but where do you recommend folks to understand your ideas? 

Thank you dearly as well for affording me the opportunity to share my ideas with you. Yes, I have a number of my books which I can recommend to help readers understand my ideas. 

These are: 

1). Culture, Indigenous Knowledge and Development in Africa: Reviving Interconnections for Sustainable Development (2014), Langaa RPCIG Publishers: Cameroon.

 2). Theorising Development in Africa: Towards Building an African Framework of Development (2017), Langaa Publishers: Bamenda.

 3). Heritage Practices for Sustainability: Ethnographic Insights from the BaTonga Community Museum in Zimbabwe (2016), Langaa Publishers: Bamenda.

 4). Humans, other beings and the environment: Harurwa (edible stinkbugs) and environmental conservation in south-eastern Zimbabwe (2015), Cambridge Scholars Press: Cambridge. 

5). The Struggle of African Indigenous Knowledge Systems In An Age of Globalisation – A Case for Children’s Traditional Games in South-eastern Zimbabwe (2012) Langaa RPCIG Publishers: Cameroon; 

6). African Belief and Knowledge Systems: A Critical Perspective (2011), Langaa RPCIG Publishers: Cameroon