African Science: The Science of Africans, by Africans and for Africans

by Ezinwanne Onwuka

Any discourse on African development, whether from the economic, political, religious, scientific or philosophical perspective would always provide an exciting challenge and, in fact, an amazing curiosity.

It is a fact that Africa is underdeveloped, hence in need of development. However, underdevelopment here does not mean absence of development. This, according to Rodney, is because every people have developed in one way or the other and to a greater or lesser extent (Walter Rodney, 1972).Ui Underdevelopment is, therefore understood when we compare the levels of development between societies, countries or continents.

At this point, we may define development as the advancement or improvement over some primitive status. Considering this definition, it is a fact that Africa cannot be said to have remained in her primitive status. That is, Africa has developed to some extent; but when this is compared to the developmental strides in the Western world, especially in terms of science and technology, we certainly would agree that we have a long walk to development.

In this contemporary world, science and it’s application, technology, provide the most important index for distinguishing a developed society, country or continent from an undeveloped one. Hence, Africa has been tagged as a ‘third world’ because of her undeveloped status in the sphere of science and technology. The reason is that Africa is mainly dependent on the ‘first world’ (Western or developed world) for its scientific and technological needs.

The nature of science can be aptly described as the organized, systematic enterprise that gathers knowledge about the world and condenses the knowledge into testable laws and principles. This view sees science as the concerted human effort to have a clear understanding of the history of the natural world and how the natural world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding.

From the above definition, it is evident that the general character of science and the methodology it employs are, in specific terms, referred to as observation and experimentation. These two methodologies reflect how science differs from other systematic modes of enquiry. This description characterises, strictly, ‘Western science’ and it is contrasted with the indigenous mode of enquiry that has come under the name, ‘African science’.

In contemporary scholarship, ‘African science’ is being condemned to the level of the mystico religious or supernaturalist worldview. It is said to be purely esoteric, personal, and devoid of elements of objectivity and rigorous theorization. Hence, the critique that “there is science in Africa but there is no ‘African science.’

On the contrary, there is an African science; and its existence is what calls for the activities, the nature of understanding and explanations of the phenomena that occur in Africa. So, just as there is a ‘Western science’, there is also an ‘African science’ by which efforts are made by sages in Africa to unravel the truth hidden in nature. Accordingly, African science is the African account of nature and how it works.

Thus, Africa has an authentic scientific culture. As with their counterparts in the West, traditional African scientists are interested in the enquiry about the nature of reality. The difference however, is that Western science is restricted to a segment of reality namely, the empirical, while there is no such restriction in African science.

Given this difference, many Eurocentrists have argued that Africa can only develop if it discards certain superstitious beliefs and customs that inhibit scientific growth. Hence, the imposition of Western science on Africa as a panacea to the continent’s underdevelopment conundrum.

Unfortunately, this imposition of the West’s methodology of modern science in Africa has only succeeded in blurring or impairing the development of the indigenous outlook of Africans. Before the advent of modern science and it’s application, technology, the Africans had known how to brew beer, distil local gin, preserve corpses, weave clothes, make pots of different shapes, colours and sizes, build houses, make astronomical observations and predictions, heal diseases of different types through herbs and roots, as well so many other things.

Traditional orthopaedics as practised in some parts of Africa is a good example. In treating a fractured bone, the traditional orthopaedic surgeon would proceed by breaking the leg of a cockerel (for a male patient) or the leg of a hen (for a female patient). As he ‘sets’ or treats the leg of the cockerel or hen, and as it gets well, so would the male or female patient become healed. The significant thing here is that the orthopaedic surgeon may not even get to see or touch the legs of the human patients involved. What he does is just to treat through a medium, which the traditional African calls “forces.”

But what has happened to these indigenous sciences today? Obviously, some of them have been lost, due of the influence of the ‘superior’ Western scientific paradigm. For this reason, Africa has been derided as an underdeveloped continent because it has failed to build on those ancient civilization strides, rather it caves in to the Western influence. The implication of this is that Africa’s glorious scientific achievements of the past are no longer recognized as it’s dependence and underdeveloped status have overwhelmed such achievements.

In her quest for development, Africa has seriously been influenced by the Western paradigm of development, which hinges on a Western scientific outlook. Unfortunately, our dependency on the West for solutions to underdevelopment is worsening the situation and this creates room for the institutionalization of a system of science that does not reflect our cultural and existential circumstance.

From the foregoing, it can be inferred that African science is that which arises out of the utmost need to establish an indigenous brand of African logic, embedded within the African thought system. Such is a science that its practitioners have shown the capacity for relevance, as African traditional scientists have continued to excel in the various interdisciplinary fields of science, be it, crop and animal sciences, meterology, astronomy, and medical sciences.

The corollary of this is that the scientific paradigms of the West, in whatever shade and colour, whether congenial to the African worldview or not, have been imposed or dumped on Africans. And Africans, satisfied with their dependent status, have sat back and swallowed everything from the West without harnessing their own path to development. Based on this demeaning situation, our rate of development has often been tied to this dependent status.

Following this, there is need for us to examine our attitudes towards such scientific traditions of the past and perhaps build from that to create indigenous scientific and technological tradition; like the Chinese and Japanese have successfully done.

Undoubtedly, it is true that when measured against the logic of the modern science, such African science is seen to be fraught with some mysteries. For instance, the Western scientist may be left to wonder about the relationship between the cockerel or hen and the human patients, or how the medication on the cockerel or hen is transmitted to the human patients without any visible contact. The African concept of causality explains this ‘mystery.’

Causality is a fundamental method of traditional African science. This is the method of causality with an underlying mythico-religious dimension. For the Western scientist who accept causation in science, causality is usually limited to empirical causation, where questions such as what makes ‘A’ to cause ‘B’ or how event ‘Y’ is possible in the face of ‘X’ are asked.

Thus, the Western scientist is interested in explaining the empirical causation involved in event ‘A’ causing event ‘B’. The specialist traditional African knowledge enquirer, on the other hand, is concerned with “agentive causation.” In other words, the traditional African scientist is interested in the explanation of the cause of an event, a sickness or death. The scientist will tend to raise the questions ‘‘who caused it?’’ and ‘‘why was it caused?’’ rather than the ‘‘what and how questions’’ his West counterpart will be interested in.

So, with the establishment of causality as a pivotal method of African science, its embedded richness of metaphysics becomes essential. This is because the African society is a world where everything interpenetrates, where the physical and spiritual conflate. There exists an extraordinary harmony in African society, one of synthetic unity and compatibility among all things. Hence, the method of traditional African science has significant mystico-religious undertone because traditional African culture is greatly rich in the idea of causality, which is generally understood in terms of spirits and mystical powers.

In all of these, the point being made is that the notions of metaphysics, mysticism and superstitious which underlie the method of African science point to the fact that those notions are significantly compatible with the culture and history of the people.
If what the Western scientist does is to understand the cosmos through observable evidences in order to proffer appropriate technical and rational solution to it, then this is an approach that can be significantly found in every rational and intellectually open society, Africa inclusive.

Consequently, it is erroneous to condemn traditional African science as purely superstitious, esoteric and mystical, chiefly because it lies outside the purview of Western scientific analysis and explanation. The major concern should be whether it can solve human problems without causing any nuisance. If it does, then it should be encouraged.

Furthermore, knowledge (science) is a local commodity designed to satisfy local needs and solve local problems. This means that Africans can build their own mode of scientific development instead of over-dependence on the paradigm of the West.

Africa’s over-dependence on the Western paradigm has to some extent impaired the Africans from developing their own indigenous mode. This is not to say that modern science, as projected by the West, does not contribute to Africa’s development. It certainly does, but then it has its shortcomings when we place it side by side with our view of the world. Hence, there is a need for Africa to use its resources (based on its worldview) to build her own scientific and technological empire instead of over-dependence on the West.

The Igbo adage “Nku di n’mba na-eghelu ha ite”, meaning, “The firewood found in any nation is what cooks for the natives,” buttresses the point just made. What this suggests is that scientific solutions to immediate existential problems require people to look inward for solutions; as problems and solutions are, sometimes, contextualised to one’s social environment.

That is to say, since the environment to a large extent determines the structure of science, African environment like its Western counterpart technically, will engender a different science from the point of their ontological and fundamental differences. The indication here is that each one of them would develop technical solutions to the challenges of their peculiar environments.

The point being stressed is that a blend of modern science, and a modified and systematic African method will enhance and accelerate Africa’s development, in a dimension not wholly Western but which uniquely meets the needs and aspirations of Africans.

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