“Climate Change Mitigation/Adaptation: Mzuzu has knowledge and uses it!”
by Andy Kusi-Appiah
Having completed a 3-month sojourn in Mzuzu (Malawi), I can confirm that sub-Saharan Africa is not only rich in natural resources, but also knowledge, and wisdom abounds on that continent. I was struck by the high level of awareness and knowledge about the environment in Mzuzu. The local people (Indigenous) in Mzuzu showed a certain level of knowledge of the environment that was passed on from millennia of living and surviving on the land. The International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) gloomy report of 2018 was an opportunity to take action on cross cutting issues in society such as flooding, droughts, and resource access challenges. However, we cannot have a one-size-fits-all strategy for dealing with climate change because place matter and knowledge cannot be seen to be the preserve of only a certain place on earth (read: Europe), rather we must try to wrap our minds around the fact that local knowledge everywhere is as good as gold, and it is the only knowledge that can solve local challenges.
My trip to Mzuzu galvanized my conviction that any strategy for mitigation and adaptation must be place-based and must rely heavily on local knowledge. Take the informal management of vegetable gardens in Mzilawaingwe (a neigbourhood in Mzuzu) as a typical example of how well attuned local people are about managing water in their environment for commercial/domestic cultivation of vegetables. By the very nature of the ways in which local people live, they are able to understand the social, economic and political dynamics in relation to the environment which gives them sustenance. In the remainder of this write up, I offer my personal experience of climate change adaptation in practice.
Climate change mitigation & local knowledge: a match made in heaven?
I love that game invented by the Chinese during the Han Dynasty in the 3rd-2nd century B.C (Riordan, 1999; Benn, 2002; Osamu Ike, 2014) called Cuju (literally, kick ball, which is now known as Association football). I grew up playing a Ghanaian version of that game. We called it ‘gutter-to-gutter’ (i.e., the fine art of ‘forcing the ‘other’ to play “nonsense’’. In this game, there is no forceful shooting of the ball whatsoever. Rather, it is all about skillfully steering the ball into a makeshift goal post. The best players of the game are not the bullying type, they are the tactful, innovative, quick, fit and knowledgeable of the local environment that is ‘gutter-to-gutter’. It is therefore not surprising that the people in the place now called Ghana are good at defending (including midfield play) but find it difficult to score goals. Growing up I admired a player called Kuuku Dadzie who was a fixture on Ghana’s national football team for years. Dadzie hardly engaged in physical tussles, he was all about interrogating his local environment (i.e., the field of play) and using his local knowledge of said environment to inform his decision making.
Knowing/knowledge is the justified belief that something is real, and local knowledge refers to facts and information acquired by a person/persons relevant to a specific place, and often based on people’s everyday experiences (Polanyi, 1966). It may be tacitly held with the holder sometimes not able to explicitly articulate it. Some forms of local knowledge are expressed in stories, folklore, rituals, songs etc. (Acharya and Anshu, 2008; Kala, 2004, 2012).
In colonial/neocolonial circles, local knowledge is often referred to as ‘informal’ knowledge, a kind of knowledge too difficult to specify and translate into formal western technical language (Brodt, 1999). But viewing local knowledge from the lens of western ethnocentrism and practices is a terrible mistake since western knowledge itself is as subjective as they come (Said, 1978; Latour, 1988). Essentially, anybody born, bred & ‘socialized’ (read, educated) in any place/institution can acquire the norms and all other capabilities of that delimited space (EB Tylor, 1871) and expected to ‘perform’ their duties based on those rules.
Local people have used their local knowledge to help them navigate their environments for years, but that knowledge is hardly acknowledged, even though without it there can be no progress on climate change mitigation in any specific locale (Ostrom, 1990). Using and caring for a common resource (e.g. a river) is also about paying greater attention to ‘informal’ local knowledge and how people adopt the knowledge at their disposal to manage and safeguard the continued availability of that common resource (Ostrom, 1990). Ahenakaw (2013) has shown that Indigenous people worldwide expert knowledge about their environments, which is based on the knowledge of the natural world around them.
Local knowledge about the environment, like taboos proverbs and cosmological knowledge systems provide a wealth of conservation ethos for biodiversity preservation (Adom, 2018). This is true of local traditional knowledge which refers to a “particular form of place-based knowledge about the diversity of interactions among say plants and species, landforms, watercourses, and other qualities of the biophysical environment in a given place” (Pena, 2005). Mzuzu is awash with a wealth of traditional/local ecological knowledge intended to better manage their environment (Posey, 2008).
‘Governing the commons’: local people & informal action:
During my short sojourn in Malawi, I visited 22 small/informal vegetable gardens (40 by 70 metres in size on average). Mwayi’s garden is on the premises of a government-run maize selling facility in Mzilawaingwe, which is also close to river Lunyangwa. The river has been the source for domestic activities for millennia. Until recently, the area was the playground for leopards (Mzilawaingwe means the path of leopards) that used the river as their water source. During my stay in Mzuzu, it rained only twice, with an estimated yield of 2mm of precipitation. Obviously this is not enough to sustain any garden, but all the gardens I visited appeared to be well watered. Mwayi told me that he watered his garden twice daily using the river Lunyangwa. Upon further investigation, I found that all 22 gardens depended on the same stream. An interesting dynamic in examining the informal sector is that most of the operations are predicated on informal networks and knowledge. These networks serve as a lens for understanding urban resource governance of all common resources, including water, relative to the social organization of water supply and the ways in which local people use local knowledge to manage common resources. According to Mwayi, it is the duty/responsibility of each and every inhabitant of Mzilawaingwe to see to it that no one dumps any rubbish into the river.
The above rendition clearly shows that local people have intimate knowledge about their environment. They are clearly not oblivious to what has been happening to the river that caters to their needs. It is clear that their knowledge is what is needed to deal with the commercialization that has been introduced into their communities and rendered their existence currently unsustainable.
About the writerAndy Kusi-Appiah is an adjunct professor at Carleton University. His interests are in the impact of social and environmental changes on the health and well-being of vulnerable groups (e.g., 2nd generation Canadians of African descent).