Professor Chika Esiobu on the Power of Indigenous Knowledge

November 16, 2022
Professor Chika Esiobu stands in front of big red letters spelling out TED as she speaks on stage during her TED Talk

Attending the same Nigerian high school where author Chimamanda Adichie studied, which shared a campus with where Chinua Achebe lectured, fueled Prof. Chika Esiobu’s desire to affect the world through her writing and positive portrayal of Africa. She continued her education at the University of Warwick in England and Howard University, where she earned a doctorate in African Development and Policy. Professor Esiobu taught at the University of Rwanda and California State University Dominguez Hills before joining SUA this academic year as a visiting professor in African Studies and Economic Development. One of the courses she’s teaching this semester focuses on her primary interest: Indigenous knowledge. She is also a fiction writer and documentarian.

How would you define Indigenous values?

I think we have to start by asking why it has to be that the term “Indigenous” is attached to values. And that’s because there has been an overshadowing of the values of some groups around the world. There has been an imbalance whereby a particular knowledge system, a particular value system, has been promoted as mainstream. The whole idea of advancing an Indigenous knowledge system is about bringing balance, where we say that everyone can coexist and that every knowledge system should be validated and should be respected for what it is.

In the United States many people think of Native Americans when we think of Indigenous knowledge, and the same is true in other countries regarding the first inhabitants of those lands. What, if anything, ties them together?

That’s a question that comes up a lot in trying to explore Indigenous knowledge. Well-meaning people start asking whose knowledge is Indigenous knowledge, and is there one strand of knowledge that runs through all these communities? The quick response is that it is not so much about the manifestations of the knowledge that we get from different communities, but the philosophy that runs through them. That is why we call it a system. If I go to the Navajos for their traditional medicine, for instance, I will be treated differently than if I go to the Kikuyu in Kenya.

However, one philosophy in both those treatments will be human connection. I will be treated because I am a human being and not because of money, and the source of the therapies will respect the earth and respect that I am human not only because of my physical body, but because I have a spirit, a soul. Those are all the philosophies that run through Indigenous knowledge across different communities.

Was there a particular experience that crystallized your interest in this?

While a doctoral student, I worked with the World Bank on projects in Rwanda and Nigeria. I had put a lot of faith and confidence in that institution, but I found there was a lot of imposition of Western knowledge and Western methods on the African continent. I had two conversations that helped change my perspective. One was with a supervisor when I brought to his attention that a project wasn’t working, and he said that he knew it wasn’t but we just had to make it work. The project was packaged in Washington, D.C., and exported to the continent, and at great cost to the country. That didn’t sit very well with me.

The second conversation was about a particular agricultural practice exported to a community in Nigeria that had failed woefully. The farmers then used an Indigenous method that they had been forced to abandon as a result of colonialism and interventions from external institutions, and it worked. That helped me realize I had to study Indigenous knowledge. (Watch professor Esiobu’s TED Talk on the project)

As this knowledge was developed largely at a time when the environment itself was different, how much will climate change impact these practices?

That is a question we are asking and that we don’t have an answer to yet. Indigenous methods existed when the climate was more stable, reliable, and predictable. They were intended to ensure balance, not to restore balance. But we do know that the earth is resilient. It is able to recreate, just as a tree that is cut can grow back. Africa is so vulnerable to the effects of climate change, much more than countries that actually generate what causes climate change. For instance, the flooding this year is phenomenal and has never happened before. So it’s not only saying that Africa should go back to implementing Indigenous knowledge. It’s the question of ‘What is the world going to do?’ The whole world is interconnected.

What has been your experience so far at SUA?

SUA is an institution that represents what I stand for at the core, which is peace, harmony, connectedness, equity, and harmony. It is really all about balance, where we all recognize that we can work together in a way that validates rather than invalidates another person who might have an opinion that seems to be radically different, or who may not look the same as we do. It is understanding this core thread of humanity that holds us all together.

I have been working on Indigenous knowledge for 15 years, and this is the first time I’ve taught a class about it. Not a lot of professors get the privilege of teaching a class in the area they are focusing on. I’m excited by the openness of SUA students to learn more. These students have to face climate change and they’re asking questions. They’re asking the generation before them, ‘How did you let this happen?’ So if they get to learn that there is an alternative to the way the generation before them treated the earth they really are happy to embrace that and learn more about traditional ecological knowledge.

Tell us about the creative projects you’re pursuing when you’re not teaching.

I also write fiction. I see it as a form of writing that a lot of people can identify with. I write historical fiction and romantic comedy. My first manuscript was shortlisted for the Penguin Prize for African Writing in 2010, and I have had a few short stories published. I’m now completing my third novel. My first documentary, on Indigenous knowledge and women’s empowerment in Rwanda, came out three years ago. I have another in post-production now that’s about traditional bone setting in Nigeria. So if members of the community see my name on a novel, they shouldn’t be confused. It is the same person.