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13 January 2021 Photo Supplied
Indigenous Oral traditions should be explored

Two researchers from the University of the Free State (UFS) aim with their research to examine the portrayal of environmental conservation in oral stories from indigenous South African cultures. They also hope to add the under-researched genres of oral cultures to mainstream inter-/cross-/multi-disciplinary inquiries on environmentalism, the climate crisis, conservation and indigenous knowledge systems.  

Dr Oliver Nyambi, Senior Lecturer in the Department of English, and Dr Patricks Voua Otomo, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Zoology and Entomology, interdisciplinary research project titled; Environmentalism in South African oral cultures: an indigenous knowledge system approach, started in 2017. The research is about indigenous South African oral culture as a potential knowledge system in which indigenous forms of environmental awareness is simultaneously circulated and archived.

Understanding oral folk stories

According to Dr Nyambi the research brings together the disciplines of cultural and environmental studies, inquiring into the relationship between indigenous knowledge mediated by oral culture, and environmental awareness. “Our main interest is how we can understand folk oral stories about humanity’s interactions with the environment as creating possibilities for knowing how traditional societies consciously thought about environmental conservation, preserving plant and animal species, and sustaining ecological balance,” says Dr Nyambi

The project has been on hold since 2018 as Dr Nyambi took up a two-and-a-half-year Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship in Germany. It will resume in earnest upon his return to South Africa at the end of February 2021. The duo’s first article on the “Zulu environmental imagination” has since received favorable peer reviews in the reputable journal African Studies Review published by Cambridge University Press.

The aim and impact of the research

Focusing on oral stories from the Zulu, Sotho and Tsonga traditions, the study seeks to understand what, in the stories as well as modes of their transmission, reflects certain consciousness, knowledge and histories of African indigenous environmentalism before the advent of Western forms of conservation. A key dimension to the project is the focus on how indigenous knowledge about the environment and its conservation was/is shared and consequently preserved through storytelling, explains Dr Nyambi.

“We envision our research to spotlight the potential but currently untapped utility of oral cultures in conservation. Our field work in rural KwaZulu-Natal revealed a rich tradition of environmental knowledge, environmental awareness and nature conservation which is mediated and transmitted through folk stories.

“However, traditional modes of storytelling have rapidly declined, mostly due to the pressures of modernity, the often uncritical reverent acceptance of conventional science and its knowledge systems, as well as the dwindling number of human repositories and tellers of indigenous stories. Our research will recommend a systematic approach to the preservation of these stories before they completely disappear,” says Dr Nyambi.

He continues: “Beyond the usual promotion of traditional storytelling as a mechanism of cultural preservation, we will recommend the archiving of the stories in written form, inclusion in school material as part of moral education, and modernisation for easy circulation through, for instance, animation.”

Receiving funding

The researchers successfully applied for funding which they mainly used for field work. The project involves travelling to rural communities where much of the oral stories and storytelling exist. They also use the money to purchase, where applicable, published stories for analysis.

“We wouldn't be able to do this vital study without funding so we feel that the grant is a crucial enabler of this process of seeking and indeed making knowledge of this rarely-talked-about topic with implications for how indigenous knowledge can be harnessed in ongoing attempts at arresting the climate crisis.”

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