To the extent combinations of food systems, arts, culture and sports can be a full expression of national identity, the African Union should ensure every African country has a government department responsible for indigenous food systems, medicines, arts, sports and informal science. At practical African grassroots level, all these aspects are part of an integrated package not split into individual departments such that there is sometimes a thin line between food, medicine, art, culture and informal science.
A home for indigenous food systems and traditional medicine
More importantly, indigenous food systems do not have a home in the conventional African ministry of Agriculture and natural resources which tries to cater for everything including imported breeds, fertilizer, chemicals, equipment, seeds and food, among others. Likewise, although there have been efforts to make traditional African medicine an extension of modern imported medical practice, such grafting has not given African traditional medicine enough room and inspiration to express its breath and depth. A major weakness in the modern medical field is that it privileges someone who studies imported subjects like mathematics, biology and physics or chemistry to become medical doctors ahead of an African herbalist who acquires superior knowledge through traditional pathways and practical wisdom.
Turning to sports, art and culture
The way these fundamental conveyors of knowledge are currently understood and harnessed does not take into account African content. For instance, the conventional African ministry of sports, culture and arts is yet to create pathways for authentic African arts, sports, culture and rich forms of recreation like traditional dancing, tsoro, hunting, beating drums and many others. While there is nothing wrong in importing sports, African countries should by now have domesticated the notion of Olympic Games to suit African purposes and contexts where various social games are conduits of knowledge preservation and sharing.
The same way the creation of Olympic Games was inspired by the Ancient Greek Games held in Olympia, Greece from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD is the same way Ancient Africa can inspire the evolving content of Olympic Games. Currently, none of the sport competitions under Olympic Games originate from Africa. It is as if African countries do not have games worth to be internationalized yet the opposite is true. African Games were connected with knowledge around nature.
Where the Western world takes wine tasting as an art or sport, it would certainly be reduced to an amateur sport if the African version of the same sport would be brought forth and legitimized in the modern world. There is so much that Africa can contribute to world knowledge through food systems, medicine, arts, culture and sport if there was political will to modernize African knowledge systems in various spheres of life. Hunting and fishing are now considered elite sports worth thousands of dollars but none of those modern Western hunters and fishers can beat Africans who grew up doing those things.
Streamlining African identity and culture
The proposed ministry responsible for indigenous foods, traditional medicine, arts, culture and sports should streamline several important African identity aspects in ways that preserve local knowledge, food and nutrition security as well as health systems, building on existing natural plants/trees/animals that are part of the local context. For many African communities, traditional games were not just for entertainment but pathways through which knowledge was shared, acquired, adapted and improved. Young people who grew up near big rivers are good at swimming and fishing while those who co-existed with wild animals in the neighboring forests have acquired skills in hunting as a livelihood and source of knowledge.
When each African country sets up a ministry responsible for indigenous foods, medicines, arts, culture and sport, it would look at ways of domesticating Olympic Games and give them an indigenous face from a content perspective. Why not have Olympic winners for different forms of traditional dance? If there was going to be an Olympic competition for brewing traditional beer in the midlands province of Zimbabwe, three grandmothers would dominate the competition hands down. vaMachuna would certainly lift the Gold medal, followed by vaHuna taking silver and vaMushabani bronze.
Africa is rich with similar champions in different livelihood pursuits including domesticating livestock, leather tanning, weaving baskets, iron smelting, breeding indigenous seeds, pottery, fashioning tools from wood carving, thatching and generating diverse recipes from mixing a wide range of nutritious foods. Some of these in-born skills could be weaved into novel forms of Olympic Games through which gifted people can test each other’s knowledge as opposed to limiting every learning to classrooms.
The proposed ministry will ensure African Games find their way into educational curricula. By abandoning their traditional Games and sports, most African countries are throwing away critical knowledge that can assist in building resilient communities from a food, nutrition and well-being perspective. It is through Games and different kinds of sports that African communities acquired expertise to deal with pandemics like droughts and diseases equivalent to COVID-19. When each country has such a ministry, it will lay pathways for creating continental-wide knowledge-based Olympic Games. Ultimately, we would see, for instance, Ashanti grandmothers competing with Chewa or Tutsi grandmothers in passing on knowledge on brewing traditional beer or preserving indigenous food that can last for decades.
Strategic grain reserves have their own limits
African policy makers may think their countries will be sufficiently food secure by depending on strategic grain reserves. But what if climate-changed induced pandemics like COVID-19 or drought persist for more than four years, making it impossible to produce enough grain for households and surplus for storing in the national food reserves? The importance of alternatives like natural foods and fruits, most of which do not need any fertilizer of sophisticated preservation methods, cannot be over-emphasized.
An appropriate ministry responsible for alternative foods, medicine and related aspects in each African country would advocate for setting up plantations of indigenous fruits, vegetables as well as big farms reserved for indigenous livestock. Currently, horticulture and livestock departments in ministries of agriculture in the majority of African countries do not sufficiently embrace indigenous fruits and vegetables with much attention going to imported horticulture. Robust supply chains for indigenous commodities and knowledge from production to consumption or utilization can only be driven by a fully- fledged ministry unlike leaving such important resources to predatory NGOs and private players.
While African countries have traditionally thought they cannot do without the North, COVID-19 has shown the potential for Africa to stand on its own feet. The same way African countries have imported knowledge including text books from the North should see African countries developing and packaging their knowledge for exporting to the North. The pandemic has shown that Western knowledge has reached a ceiling as shown by how world-class health facilities and knowledges have failed to stem pandemic.
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