The fall and rise of agricultural indigenous knowledge in Zimbabwe (Or a word to latter-day Alvords).

Taruvinga Magwiroto

When I hear development experts extol the virtues of “small grains”, and engage in campaigns for their adoption, I am a bit saddened. It reminds me of my late dear grandmother VaChisaku, and how she knew all about rapoko (rukweza), and how rapoko porridge stays firm in your stomach like a rock. She knew all about finger millet (mhunga) and sorghum (mapfunde) and how to brew maheu beverage and the strong manginde brew from them. She knew all about “muboora” with peanut butter and all the amazing things we are rediscovering now as “indigenous knowledge”. It was part of a common stock of knowledge passed down from generation to generation. A part of life.

I took a course in “comparative adult education” in my undergrad degree which has influenced me immensely. I chose to do a longitudinal study of the agricultural extension system in Zimbabwe, looking at how extension philosophy has changed over time.

One of the key papers that informed my study was Kramer (1997) The early years: extension services in peasant agriculture in colonial Zimbabwe: 1925-1929. The key to the excellence of that article was in contextualising the history of extension services as part of a wider history of expropriation, exploitation and subjugation.

My present concern is not in the actual history, but more in the aftermath of that history. Kramer (1997) notes that in pre-colonial times, the indigenous people of Zimbabwe had suitable ways of cultivating the light tropical soils using hoes that would minimise erosion. Further, they employed mixed cropping that maximized space, reduced weeds and erosion, and ensured dietary variety.

Then along came the Land Apportionment Act of 1930, the formation of Tribal Trust Lands (Maruzevha) and permanent settlements of a previously nomadic people. That obviously called for new skills of tilling, surviving and managing life on limited pieces of land. This was also about the same time that the ox-drawn plough was introduced, and the land degradation that ensued was alarming. The government of the day had to do something.

Enter Emery Alvord, American missionary and extensionist extraordinaire. Armed with the “Gospel of the Plough”, Alvord’s philosophy was firmly steeped in science, with its exclusionary contempt for anything “unscientific” (read “native”). That of course “discounted” large swathes of “native” practices, crops and methods honed and accummulated over centuries of surviving the Tropics.

In general terms, indigenous knowledge systems (epistemologies) are local, specific and highly adapted for a particular environment. The problem with scientific philosophy is what could be termed a doctrine of exclusion: invalidating everything else that is deemed unscientific.

In the context of sustainability, that “doctrine of exclusion” is proving to be very costly. Knowledge accumulated by trial and error over centuries is invalidated or discounted. Re-inventing the wheel, scientific-style, may be fun, but it is costly in terms of time and risk of losing alternative forms and sources of knowledges.

In one of my previous jobs, I have assisted scores of people getting their PhDs working on ethno-medicine projects. And I always asked them: what is it really that you are adding to the stock of knowledge that is unknown? A lot of them answered in the manner of: “validation”. I have always found that answer to be faintly… patronising. If it worked for indigenous people, surely it works?

And that is why I always see the need to point out to latter-day Alvords that extension does not have to always “teach” farmers scientific practices. Sometimes it is just a matter of comparing practices: exotic v indigenous. Which is better? Which is more adapted? You can’t “teach” people what they have been doing for years. But you can expand their perspectives, expand their choices, their horizons and their evaluative capacities. It has been proven that indigenous knowledge, in the context of local natural resource management, can be a powerful tool. But it must also be accepted that every form of knowledge is only partial, never complete. So development practice, including agricultural extension, should really be about comparative education.

So when I hear the development community enthusiastically extol the virtues of “small grains”, and campaign for their adoption, I smile sadly. We seem to be coming full circle to the realisation that when it comes to development, never discount the local and “common”. It could be all that is required.

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