Intellectuals have failed Africa

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Since time immemorial, research has shown that Africans developed knowledge in medicine that they used in complex interventions such as neurosurgery. But with the adoption of Western education, African knowledge in medicine has taken a back seat and, in most cases, ridiculed.

African intellectuals (academics, experts and professionals) are always quick to dismiss centuries of local (traditional) knowledge as primitive. And they have never made any attempts to advance the traditional knowledge to fit into the modern society. Yet in every society in Africa, traditional knowledge is still being applied. In short, the intellects have failed the continent.

As the Covid-19 pandemic ravages every sector, African intellectuals’ disdain for their own knowledge has come into sharp focus. Experiences shared by many Covid patients from different parts of the continent, indicate that some of them have applied traditional methods used in treating diseases like influenza such as regular steaming with natural oils like eucalyptus, which seems to have had significant positive results on them.

Others pointed out that using different antiviral herbal supplements and immune boosters (registered by authorities as supplements) has helped them. These results are astounding. But despite all these positive results, intellectuals are still prescribing controversial medications such as Remdesivir as a last resort in an attempt to save the patients. Perhaps we need a better understanding of ‘knowledge’.

The Oxford Dictionary defines knowledge as “a theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. It can also be implicit (as with practical skill or expertise) or explicit (as with the theoretical understanding of a subject); formal or informal; systematic or particular.” One can say that it is the most encompassing definition of knowledge.

However, intellectuals fall into the trap of another definition that came about during the age of enlightenment. Philosophers in that age, including Plato, defined knowledge as “justified true belief.”

In essence, the concept of justified true belief, can be applied in the current state. Because it meant that in order to know that a given proposition like a local herb remedy is able to treat Covid-19, it must be true. Therefore, one must not only believe the relevant true proposition, but need to also have the justification for doing so. This could help in forming the basis of research that would lead to a justified true belief — for example clinical studies.

But this has been the subject of debate since a medicine like Remdesivir can be marketed as an outcome of rigorous research but with no justifiable outcome. This may force us then to ask; “What is knowledge?”

In Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society, he noted that “If knowledge is defined expansively, including mundane knowledge whose presence or absence is consequential and often crucial, then individuals with PhDs are as grossly ignorant of most consequential of things as other individuals are, since no one can be truly knowledgeable, at a level required for consequential decision-making for a whole society, except with a narrow band out of the vast spectrum of human concerns.”

Similarly, when Africa ignores its mundane knowledge of medicine and becomes overreliant on expert prescriptions, we have failed as a continent.

And I can share my own experience. When my daughter was young, she had a yeast infection referred to as oral thrush. Although not very serious, it is bothersome. After several trips to hospital, it was not improving. I expressed my frustration to an elderly woman neighbour. She smiled silently and walked away.

A few minutes later she came to our house with leaves of an Oxalis plant. We pounded the leaves and applied them in the baby’s mouth. Within 24 hours the baby’s mouth had completely healed. Scientists validate its authenticity in journals as Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. I can say that, there are innumerable such medicines from mundane knowledge in Africa.