How are we Preserving our Indigenous Knowledge Systems?

I have distinct memories of my grandmother boiling a mixture of herbs to cure either a stomach-ache or a cold, or even ease pain on a wound. As a child, going through intensive education that was mostly centred around demonising indigenous knowledge systems, my first reaction was scepticism that often popped up as “is that safe to eat/drink?”. As an adult now, I have had to contend with the fact that I have a lot of unlearning to do with how I approach cultural practices passed down to me my grandmother and my parents after her. There is a lot of value around us, that often passes us, or we discard and brand as useless, while spending a lot of money on slightly more processed things that offer the same value which is often, in truth, inferior to the indigenous sources. 

This past Friday, 28th May, in our #TONConversations series, which is a series on Instagram featuring a variety of conversations, I had an eye-opening conversation with Brian Njagi, who has been educating himself on different plants that have different medicinal and health values, but also grow in the wild, using google lens to help identify each plant. 

The first thing that struck me as I listened to him talk about tasting random plants he encountered was, how are you not scared of that and how did you know it would be safe to consume. I did not need to voice this because it was almost like he could hear me; his next sentence was a response to my unspoken thoughts. He tried to explain something I think you can only feel and follow intuitively, but my takeaway from that was that we must cultivate a bit more faith in the ability of nature to take care of us.

It was a profound conversation with may learning points for me, but my most profound ones were how passionately he spoke about the interconnectedness of our attitude towards indigenous plants as a reflection of our attitude towards the environment and our lives in general. Trusting more in the herbs and plants that fed our foremothers means consuming less pesticides for example because plants indigenous to these areas will need less support to grow. This triggered a memory of my mum’s farm in Ukambani (Eastern Kenya) and how “nthooko” also known to others as “kunde” grow all over the place unprovoked as soon as there is a little rain. Sukuma wiki on the other hand, needs song and dance and libation, under the very same set of circumstances.  Please do yourself a favor and catch this conversation below:

To be curious about our culture, about the way life was before westernisation and western influence, in this case in food, herbs and medicine, is to come back to ourselves. To learn how to honour the parts of us that we have been told to be embarrassed about or that were not good enough. 

This conversation challenged me to pay more attention, to get more curious, and more so, it got me thinking about what more we can do to ensure that this information and knowledge is passed down to my nieces, and the generations that follow. I want to meet other people engaged in various activities to protect culture in any aspects all over the continent. I think beginning to talk and digitally document our culture and our stories is a step in the right direction in ensuring we preserve our culture. This also ensures that the right information makes it way to the world, so as to counter any false or harmful narratives that may exist presently.  If you would like to share your work on this with Talents of Nairobi, please email us on talentsofnairobi@gmail.com with a short summary of what you are currently doing, and we will get in touch.

Till next time, stay curious and stay teachable. 

Plant FunFact from Brian/Teachable moment:

The Platostoma is a type of mint found in many areas of tropical Africa. Now, if you like mint, this is the mintiest of them all. It’s really good in making juices, salads and out-mints all the other mints in minty things. Back in the day, our foremothers and forefathers would use Platostoma to attract a new swarm of bees to a hive. I still use them for that purpose today. If bees endorse Platostoma, maybe it’s time you give it a try

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