ArticlePDF Available


  • Independent Anthropologist

Abstract and Figures

The African indigenous knowledge system, like any academic discipline, has its own specific language and jargon as a created symbolic system, which it uses both to see and understand the reality that is the focus of its study and subsequently to document, communicate, and further increase its knowledge content. However, it is generally the case that “scientific colonialism,” as Galtung puts it (Galtung 1967), in African indigenous knowledge as a science has led to a distortion of the language and culture used to understand African knowledge generally and, by extension, a distortion of the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of thought. This article takes the view that scholars of African indigenous knowledge and science need to tackle the issue of scientific decolonization in order to generate and understand the scientific lexicon through which this knowledge system has come into existence. This article focuses on the ethnographic description and analysis of cultic institutions among the Dagara of northwest Ghana, within which knowledge paradigms and thought frames are embedded.
Content may be subject to copyright.
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
Scientific Language and Thought in an African Indigenous
Knowledge System: About Dagara Cultic Institutions and
Frames of Thought
Alexis Bekayne Tengan
Independent Scholar in Anthropology
Abstract: The African indigenous knowledge system, like any academic
discipline, has its own specific language and jargon as a created symbolic system,
which it uses both to see and understand the reality that is the focus of its study and
subsequently to document, communicate, and further increase its knowledge
content. However, it is generally the case that scientific colonialism,as Galtung
puts it (Galtung 1967), in African indigenous knowledge as a science has led to a
distortion of the language and culture used to understand African knowledge
generally and, by extension, a distortion of the theoretical and philosophical
underpinnings of thought. This article takes the view that scholars of African
indigenous knowledge and science need to tackle the issue of scientific
decolonization in order to generate and understand the scientific lexicon through
which this knowledge system has come into existence. This article focuses on the
ethnographic description and analysis of cultic institutions among the Dagara of
northwest Ghana, within which knowledge paradigms and thought frames are
Keywords: Scientific Language; Dagara People; Thought Frames; Scientific
Colonialism; Indigenous Knowledge
Scientific Language and Thought in an African Indigenous Knowledge
System: About Dagara Cultic Institutions and Frames of Thought
Introduction: The Language of Indigenous Knowledge
The correlation between the development of language and the culture of science,
both in terms of methodology and theory and cultural practice, is difficult to
understand. Is the culture of science a distinct human endeavour separate from the
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
development of language as a codification of human creativity? Is scientific culture
embedded in language and lodged in the human mind or thought faculties and
responsible for reasoned order? (Sahlins 1976). Or, on the other hand, is language
simply a structure and structuring mode via which the human mind makes things
intelligible (Lévi-Strauss 1953); or, is it just the generating capacity of the various
linguistic competences that come with human nature?
Beyond the existence of language as speech, every knowledge system has its
peculiar language and jargon created as a symbolic order, which it uses to see and
understand the reality that it chooses as a focus of understanding. Whereas
knowledge of self and environmental awareness1, mainly through perception, starts
within infancy and prior to the acquisition of language as a way of knowing,
scientific knowledge is initiated and developed as part of human language and
culturethe innate generating ability to learn to speak and create meaningful
signs, symbols, and gestures and to understand them. According to the linguists,
and as we can observe from the variety of human languages and types, the innate
quality of the generative scheme of language does not lead to or dictate a common
system of signs and symbols for all human societies and cultures. Instead, it leads
to the development of unique language systems based on the arbitrary selection of
signs and symbols and a unique but consistent construction of grammatical rules
and syntactic structures peculiar to each language. This is not withstanding the fact
that, in terms of speech, all human voices are limited to a common phonetic
alphabet, permitting us to learn languages and to code-switch in the use of these
languages. Based on this understanding, the growth of knowledge in every society
and culture begins with a certain indigenous understanding of science as peculiar
knowledge awareness. In other words, the term indigenous knowledge,as used
here, refers to that scientific knowledge proper to a unique language and culture as
it develops its own arbitrarily selected signs and symbols based on the physical and
social environment from which language has emerged and developed. Indeed, I
will define indigenous knowledge in general as knowledge that is innate to a social
group and comes with the group’s development of speech as the foundation of their
linguistic competence to symbolize and further systematize their thoughts and
ideas about themselves and their living environment into a body of knowledge.
In as much as it is important to establish the theoretical basis for my subject of
studynamely, language use in the study of African (Dagara) art, religion, and
medicine as one common discipline within an indigenous knowledge systemthis
cannot be done within the context of an article. I have therefore opted to give a
detailed presentation of the ethnographic material constituting the subject, since the
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
theoretical and philosophical reflection of this peculiar knowledge system seems to
be embedded in cultural practice. Moreover, it is also the case that scientific
colonialism,as Galtung puts it (Galtung 1967), of African indigenous knowledge
as science has led to a distortion of the language and culture used to understand
African knowledge generally and, by extension, the distortion of the theoretical
and philosophical thoughts underpinning them. The distortion is most prevalent in
the very three knowledge areas that are the focus of my current study, namely
indigenous medicine, religion, and art. Hence, it is not uncommon to read such ill-
defined terms as herbal, divinatory, and therapeutic practices as canons for the
study of indigenous medicine, or for one to encounter such negative terms as
sorcery, witchcraft, satanic, and magical in the literature on African religion and
This article takes the view that scholars of African indigenous knowledge and
science, as areas of study, have hardly begun to tackle the issue of scientific
decolonization in these fields, much less to generate and understand the scientific
lexicon through which this knowledge system has come into existence. Hence, it is
important, first, to deal properly with the events that have led to the colonial
distortions before attempting to decolonize and reroute the mode of access to
indigenous knowledge. Two forms of distortions that need to be tackled include the
old missionary practice of wanting to replace African religion with Christianity
through negative representation and the old colonial educational pedagogy of
presenting Western science as an intrinsically objective and universal knowledge
system unmediated by any cultural tradition; these issues continue to impede the
development of any African scientific language. It is my belief that a re-
examination of ethnographic material within a culture-specific paradigm would
open new perspectives to deal properly with indigenous science. Hence,
throughout the article, ethnographic data from the Dagara people of northern
Ghana will be used to draw attention to the fact that African (Dagara) religion and
art contains the basic lexicon which needs to be developed as a scientific language
for any proper study of the Dagara medical knowledge system. The ethnographic
material comes from my many years of research into Dagara religion, art,
medicine, and their culture of hoe-farming (Tengan 2000, 2006, 2012).
The supporting data is basically a cultural study of four knowledge-based
institutions in Dagara culture, often presented as cultic institutions within
anthropological literature. They consist of the cult of the ancestors (kpîîn) and the
cult of reasoned order (bagr), both commonly found in each Dagara homestead;
the cult of primitive being of past order (kͻntͻn); and the cult of the universal
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
living structure of the cosmos (tibr). The last of these, the cult of the cosmic
structure, has two other associates attached to it, namely the earth cult (téngan-tiε)
and the rain cult (-dug). The correlation of these six institutions is best visualized
as four concentric circles that map out the worldview of each individual and the
community at large. It is beyond the scope of this article to map out these
correlations and analyze in detail each institution. I shall, however, focus on the
first institution, the cult of the ancestors, as part of my ethnographic illustration.
The case of indigenous thought and knowledge has a peculiar history of its own.
As such, let me first deal with the position of indigenous knowledge within the
history of science in Africa generally before focusing my attention on the Dagara
knowledge of religion, art, and medicine.
African Indigenous Knowledge and the History of Science in Africa
There is a long history regarding the study of African indigenous knowledge
systems, even though the term might appear to be recent. This long history has
always been intimately linked to the way foreign minds have come into contact
with the African mind and system of thought. The two most significant foreign
contacts with indigenous Africa are the Arabic culture, which is linked to the
Islamic religion, and the European culture, which came along with Christianity. I
shall not dwell in detail here on the impact these contacts have had on the growth
of indigenous knowledge in Africa, but I will mention that they both had a
common perception about black Africa and its populations, which impacts
enormously the way indigenous knowledge is perceived and studied even today. In
both traditions, prior to contact with Africa, there had already developed the notion
that the canons of knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, were divinely
revealed as written text and recorded in a holy book, such as the Bible, the Torah,
and the Quran. Each known human race and population, as perceived at that time,
had its own holy book,” indicating the path to human civilization. Written
language became the mark of rational reasoning and the two, writing and
rationality, became the main distinctive features of scientific thinking and cultural
progress. It will be beside the point for me to attempt to trace here the historical
effect that the evolution of these ideas has had on the pursuit of scientific
knowledge and the impact it has had on indigenous knowledge in general. My
focused attempt to outline the frames of thought within which indigenous
knowledge has been developing in Africausing ethnographic data from the
Dagara/Lobi peoples in West Africawill better explicate these issues.
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
Anthropology, African Studies, and Indigenous Knowledge
Having said the above, it is still essential that I put the approach to scientific
knowledge in Africa in perspective. Fifty years ago, the first modern African
Studies institute was established at the University of Ghana, Accra. It is heartening
to note that the founders of this institute spelled out very achievable goals within a
focused area and discipline, namely to “study the history, culture and institutions,
languages and arts of Ghana and of Africa in new African centred ways” and to
“reassess and assert the glories and achievements of our African past and inspire
our generation, and succeeding generations, with a vision of a better future
(Nkrumah 1963). For the past fifty years, the institute, and indeed most other
similar institutes that followed, stuck to these goals and a lot has been achieved,
mainly in the fields of African historical reconstruction, cultural aesthetics, and
African contemporary socio-political institutions and practicesat least we have
gone beyond the conception that African political systems are all about kinship.
Though the method and conceptual frameworks have largely followed Western
academic norms, the studies made in these fields have shaped a new and positive
understanding of the African experiences in these domains. This, however, cannot
be said of such major areas of African indigenous knowledge as art, religion,
medicine, and the scientific language used for their study. For the rest of this
article, I first outline the impediments that have hindered progress in these
knowledge areas. Secondly, I discuss briefly the nature and character of African
knowledge frameworks and how the distinct separation between religion, art, and
medicine as unique knowledge disciplines leads to their mischaracterization and
the false understanding that they are true scientific knowledge. Lastly, as a case
study, I give an ethnographic outline of the thought frames and thinking processes
among the Dagara people in West Africa.
Negativity and Narrow Minded Views
In the first year of my anthropological studies in Leuven, a distinguished African
professor of linguistics jokingly reproached me for studying a discipline that is not
really scientific. In his words, anthropology limits its discourses, fields of research,
and study to specific substrata of human beings and their cultures. He made me
feel that by opting to become an anthropologist, I was selling out my own
continent and people. Since anthropology allows mainly Europeans to pose their
gaze at mainly Africans and their culture but will not do the same to their own
society, it is insulting to pose my own gaze at my own people as if I was not one of
them. A few months after my encounter with the African professor of linguistics, a
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
well-known European professor of anthropology jokingly remarked that
anthropology was no longer an interesting discipline because Africans have started
to specialize in it. This was after he learned that I was studying anthropology. I was
able to deal with the two remarks by reminding myself that I had chosen to study
anthropology out of my own interest and motivation, and any time one or two
persons made similar remarks I would retort with the common saying that there are
as many anthropologies as there are anthropologists.
As a discipline, anthropology, starting as ethnology, has throughout the decades
thrived by appealing to European thinking consciousness that native cultures are
exotic,” very different from their own, and, perhaps, bizarre and incompatible
with Western technological and scientific culture. Native cultures, by being exotic,
do not constitute components of the real world and have no scientific truth or
value. At the same time, via the discourse of enlightenment and modernity,
Europeans were given the impression that they have lost the memory of their
primitivetimes, and to understand their own primitive culture, which was in
existence at one time, they have to study African culture. Once this consciousness
was created, ethnology then gave itself the task of documenting exoticcultures
and analysingprimitivism,” first to satisfy European curiosity about the exotic
and second to inform them about their own past, a past which belongs equally to
the realm of unreality. The fear that primitive cultures were being destroyed, in a
similar manner as the European past, by modern civilization and the fact that, as
oral cultures, they had no writing systems to effectively record their own traditions,
made the work of ethnography most urgent (Tengan 2000).
An Anthropological Perspective on African Scientific Knowledge
For a long time and still today, many scholars of African studies, intellectuals, and
politicians, have viewed engagement in the study of anthropology as openly
agreeing with the premises upon which anthropology has thrived and as tacitly
accepting the promotion of the ideals lying behind the premises. They
unconsciously felt that anthropology, through its method of reductionism and
ethnographic analysis, was consciously and systematically demystifying the core
cultural components around which the African life-world has been built and, by the
improper use of negative language, destroying the scientific value embedded in
those components constituting the African worldview. In other words, the
anthropological analysis, by itself, threatens to destroy native cultures through the
analytical practice of gaze and disclosure, and through negative representation. As
a result, and in order to preserve themselves and their societies from extinction,
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
African intellectuals and politicians would, in theory, vehemently dismiss the
conceptual notions, mode of practice, and analytical powers associated with the
discipline of anthropology. In practice, however, because they are trapped in the
colonial educational paradigm, some would aggressively promote very few
selected ideals constitutive to the world of the foreign anthropologist as a way of
saving their own societies. Some of these ideals are not necessarily the most lucid
or the most appropriate for the reconstitution of native societies. Most African
intellectuals would, for example and in theory, try to argue that their cultures and
societies are not primitive and backward, but, in practice, they would make it
impossible for all those still hanging on to their native cultures to participate fully
in modern civilization as a process of remodelling the society.
Broadly, there are two factors that have led to this situation. First, the old
missionary practice of wanting to replace African traditional religion with
Christianity through negative advertising of African religion and culture has
presented African traditional religion as belief in spirits and the worship of
ancestors; secondly, the old educational pedagogy, still very much in use, views
Western science as intrinsically objective universal knowledge unmediated by any
mythological tradition of thought and symbolization. According to Johan Galtung,
Kwame Nkrumah, as president of Ghana, understood that Africa was not just
colonized economically, but also culturally and scientifically. Hence, describing
the struggle as depicted by a large painting, Galtung wrote:
The painting was enormous, and the main figure was Nkrumah himself,
fighting, wrestling with the last chains of colonialism. The chains are
yielding, there is thunder and lightning in the air, the earth is shaking. Out
of all this, three small figures are fleeing, white men, pallid. One of them
is the capitalist, he carries a briefcase. Another is the priest or missionary,
he carries the Bible. The third, a lesser figure, carries a book entitled
African Political System: he is the anthropologist, or social scientist in
general. (Galtung 1967, 13)
For many years the decolonization process has focused on the political and the
economic aspects and neglected the cultural and the scientific nature of
colonization. Indeed, it is now extremely difficult to appropriately learn the
language via which African indigenous religious and scientific knowledge,
especially medical scientific knowledge, was initiated and developed. This is
mainly so because, for African indigenous knowledge, art, religion, and cosmology
did not exist as unique disciplines separate from the sciences of medicine or
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
healing, but acted as the symbolic and abstract language via which one views and
understands the world of matter and living elements. The scholar of African
science no longer has the cultural paradigm of his own that is required to view and
understand the indigenous knowledge system. Indeed, for the contemporary
western educated African, the western scientific paradigm that he has acquired
through education has become, as Bourdieu (1977) will describe, his reasoning and
practical “habitus” with which he tries to understand and communicate his own
indigenous knowledge. It is clear that the western scientific paradigm has become a
big impediment. This impediment is reinforced by his false belief and notion that
“true” scientific knowledge, particularly the science of nature and our
environment, must follow the same scientific method and approach and that this
method and approach is a naturally given rational method independent from any
cultural construction. He is blinded by the centuries of western science propaganda
which teach that its scientific method and approach are naturally given rational that
are constructed from pure reason, without resorting to any religious and
cosmological abstractions and specific cultural symbolization. I was a victim of
this blindness until I started to involve myself positively with African indigenous
scientists and to learn their language of abstraction and symbolization, particularly
through the combination of religion, art, and medicine as a single discipline.
Hence the African conceptions of art, religion, and medicine, as outlined by such
scholars as Mbiti (1969), Mulago (1973), and Kagame (1969, 1976), paradoxically
reflect Christian conceptions about nature and often contrast the natural with the
supernatural. These conceptions are most clearly expressed by studies in the ill-
defined fields of African Traditional Religionand “African Cultural Studies.
Similarly, features used to outline the fields of study in both disciplines are often
ill-defined. Studies in African traditional religion sometimes report that natural
features such as hills, mountains, rivers, forests, etc. are conceived by Africans as
sacred locations because of their relationships with the supernatural. The
supernatural itself is considered to be a vast sacred realm, somewhere outside the
domain of the natural, and populated by a myriad of ghosts, spirits, deities, nature
spirits, ancestor spirits, and the like. Mythical, spiritual, and imaginary relations
are then established between living beings of this world and these other beings
through religious practice. In some cases, scholars report a proliferation of spirits
of nature in almost every location and try to find in each exceptional natural object
or location a corresponding spirit from the supernatural order.
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
By bringing up this issue, it is certainly my intention to protest against the canons
established in these fields of study. Indeed, I would like to state that, so far, the
studies made in these fields have little bearing on my ethnographic approach to the
analysis of religion, art, and medicines among the Dagara. Robin Horton (1993,
161-193) has shown how much the Christian cosmological model and Christian
faith have patterned the study of African systems of thought. According to Horton:
For much of the past fifty years, the study of the indigenous religious
heritage of Africa has been dominated by social or cultural
anthropologists of Western origin and agnostic or atheistic religious
views. In recent years, however, the dominance of this set has been
challenged by new wave of scholars, some Western and others African,
who repudiate the established approach to the field and advocate a
radically different one. Some of these scholars, such as Evans-Pritchard
and Victor Turner, have been anthropologists by formal professional
affiliation. Others, like Idowu, Mbiti, Gaba and Harold Turner, have
been affiliated to such disciplines as theology and comparative religion.
Yet others, such as Winch, have been philosophers. They are united,
however, by a methodological and theological framework which has
been strongly influenced, first and foremost by their own Christian
faith, but also by the long tradition of comparative studies of religion
carried out by Christian theologians. (Horton 1993, 161)
Horton shows how the above mentioned scholars have used Judeo-Christian
religious concepts to interpret African thought and asserts that notions such as God
(Supreme Being), spirits, souls, spirits of the wild, and so on, are meaningful only
to people who have spent years studying and practicing Judeo-Christian religions
and to people who wish to have a translated version of African thought in Western
Christianity. This, as Horton points out, is the scope of the work of John Mbiti
(1969), but also of Vincent Mulago (1973) and Alexis Kagame (1969, 1976), who
are not mentioned by Horton.
In my particular case, I have observed that the Dagara, within a short period of
time, massively converted to Christianity. However, these conversions have not led
to a complete Christianization of their cosmology. On the contrary, selected
elements of Western Christian cosmology are continually being integrated into
Dagara traditional cosmology as a way of dealing with current sociocultural
changes. Christianity and modernization have not led the society away from their
traditional methods of hoe-farming nor from their outlook on the cosmos as hoe-
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
farmers. Interviews conducted and activities observed both among Christians and
non-converts indicate the existence of a common cosmology based on the same
concepts of space and time. In other words, the cosmological order that ties in with
the concepts of space and time is common to all Dagara. They view the ordering of
the cosmos as a concrete process of ordering the environment in terms of locations,
including farms, homesteads, village stead, the bush, hills, rivers etc., and of
dealing concretely with atmospheric conditions as personified agencies. Through
the process of personification, Dagara view both the physical and metaphysical
dimensions of the environmental locations and atmospheric conditions by
considering them figures and personified beings, with whom they share a common
space. The figures and beings evoke human thought and are also seen as the
metaphoric and alphabetic themes used in the development of scientific and
cultural language. The common space in question is the constituted Dagara world,
which they always visualize as a concrete, non-transcendental world. As Kwasi
Wiredu (1996, 87) argues, ….a people can be highly metaphysical without
employing transcendental concepts in their thinking, for not all meta-physics is
transcendental metaphysics.” In other words, metaphysical concepts are usually
embedded in such institutions and practices as the personified Earth (Téng) or Rain
(Sàà)2, without necessarily conceptualizing them as transcendental, supernatural
Need of an Indigenous Language and Thought Paradigm
It would be wrong to argue that anthropology and other scientific disciplines have
not been genuinely concerned with discovering indigenous modes of thought as
demonstrated by local cultures. In spite of the blockades outlined above, certain
genuine questions have been posed over the years and certain paths have been
taken that led to certain results. For my purposes, I will focus my attention on two
writers for two different reasons. The first is Claude Lévi-Strauss, and the second
is Jack Goody. First, Lévi-Straus appeared to me to have posed precisely the
legitimate questions that are at the heart of the matter, namely, does the
primitive/savagemind exist in a uniquely different way from the scientific
mind, and what are its frames of thought? He also focused on the science of
mythology, which I also happen to encounter a lot in my ethnographic field, as the
gateway to discovering indigenous frames of thought within their own logic. In the
second instance, Jack Goody and I share a common ethnographic field, the Dagara
and their neighbors living in the border regions of three West African countries:
Ghana, Burkina Faso, and La Côte d’Ivoire. Jack Goody does not only provide a
very critical review of the works of Lévi-Strauss, but used the ethnographic data
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
from Dagara culture to do so. In addition to the critical review, he has proposed
through comparative analysis that the distinction between the primitive mind and
that of the scientific mind is very much linked to differences in the means and tools
of communication. It is the development of writing and the shift from oral culture
to literate culture which is responsible for the development of the scientific mind.
Let me briefly state my understanding of these two positions and explain how they
have helped me deal with knowledge and thinking frames within indigenous
As stated above, in anthropology, it was Lévi-Strauss (1962, 1966), to my
knowledge, who first focused our attention on “primitive” models of thinking and
developed a theoretical and a methodological paradigm to deal with human thought
prior to what many will call the development of modern scientific thought. Lévi-
Strauss began to develop his theory of structuralism in anthropology by
questioning the universal historical and evolutionary concept of culture and human
progress and stated through the analysis of kinship systems (Lévi-Strauss 1947),
contrary to the dominant discourse of his time, that there are multiplicities of
human cultures, each with its own encoded logic. This opening statement allowed
him to shift the basis of culture theory from the size of the brain to mental
operations as encoded logic (Lévi-Strauss 1947, 1958), and, finally, he developed
the theory of structuralism as an alternative to that of cultural evolutionism. In
essence, Lévi-Strauss argued that the human mind is constantly manipulating
abstractions in thought forms in order to create conditions and practices. The
abstractions finally settle in the mind as pre-figured or pre-coded mental structures.
These figurations or codes show themselves concretely in different processes, like
writing, classification, encoding, or other logical operations. The different
processes, in turn, create structures as outlines of human conditions and practices.
It is these structural outlines that appear as culture and account for cultural and
racial differences. A structural study and analysis of culture concerns these
structural outlines. Lévi-Strauss presented kinship structure as well as mythology
as the perfect examples and models through which we can observe processes of
abstractions and the creation of outlines. He also used the study of kinship and
myths to show how structures differ from culture to culture.
To explain why these differences should exist and how it has come about that some
cultures are more advanced or more scientific than others, Lévi-Strauss (1967)
introduced other key concepts, such as the bricoleur,” the savage,” the
undomesticated mind,”4 and primitive thinking.” The bricoleurhas to make do
with limited and heterogeneous materials and tools to create and do his work. It is
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
with respect to this limitation that we can talk about the relative differences
between the culturally undomesticated mindand the domesticated mind.” Using
the language of kinship and myths, Lévi-Strauss shows that the undomesticated
mindapplies a rather limited combinatory set of binary opposition, original to the
process of abstraction and thinking, in a number of related and unsophisticated
fields, like kinship, totemism, initiation, and healing, and what comes out as a
complex structure is only a manipulation of the same limited concepts and fields.
From an indirect implication, this is not the same as the domesticated mind.” The
domesticated mindis creating ever more complex new toolsto embrace larger
entities, to include a greater variety of data, and to integrate wider differences and
interrelations. This is done according to the multiple logics of oppositions,
homology, and congruence and in terms of space and time. The relationship
between the two is summarized in Lévi-Strauss' (1966, 22) distinction between
mythical and scientific thoughts. Thus, he writes that the:
….characteristic feature of mythical thought, as bricolage on the
practical plane, is that it builds up structured sets, not directly with other
structured sets but by using the remains and debris of events: in French
des debris et de morceuxor odds and ends in English, fossilized
evidence of the history of an individual or a society. The relation between
the diachronic and the synchronic is therefore in a sense reversed.
Mythical thought, that bricoleurbuilds up structures by fitting together
events, or rather the remains of events, while science in operation
simply by virtue of coming into being, creates its means and results in the
form of events, thanks to the structures which it is constantly elaborating
and which are its hypotheses and theories. (Lévi-Strauss 1966, 22)
Lévi-Strauss posited that all human pre-scientific thought in all cultures, and in the
modern sense, developed at the same speed throughout human history up to and
beyond the Neolithic Era when it stalled. Lévi-Strauss called this type of human
mental structure, or frame, La Pensée Sauvage (The Savage Mind) and described it
processing, to put it in simplistic terms, as a sort of “bricolage,” derived mainly
from mythical reproduction and the unconscious mind.
In response to Lévi-Strauss, Jack Goody (1977) first insists that one must take a
distance from the binary and ethnocentric forms of categorizations “rooted in a
we/they division” of mental frames and thought. He then asserts that there is an
evolutionary path in the development of technology necessary for the creation of
advanced cultures. The most essential technology for the creation of rational and
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
scientific thought, in his view, has been alphabetic writing as a tool of
communication. Goody’s material is heavy on global historical evidence and
comparative literary analysis, much to the expense of the field material he
collected from the Dagara people. The main issue that Goody focuses on was not
so much on the indigenous frames of thought, but the differences between the
devices of communication employed by the primitive mind and the scientific one;
he calls this the “technology of the intellect.” In this light, Goody asserts that in the
order of the evolution and development of human thought after language the next
most important advance in this field lay in the reduction of speech to graphic
forms, in the development of writing(Goody 1977, 10). Accordingly, the
development of writing does not only lead to a single significant leap but to a
series of changes that will eventually lead to social and cultural revolutions in
scientific thought, including the field of mathematics. Citing the Babylonian
mathematics as a case in point, Goody asserts that the development of mathematics
also depends on the prior development of a graphic system, though not necessarily
an alphabetic one. Goody enumerates some of his practical experiences with the
Dagara of northern Ghana to illustrate the relationship between writing and
mathematics and the role graphic systems play in thought and to support his
assertion that it is the lack of the graphic system which prevents the primitive or
oral mind from thinking scientifically and mathematically. Hence, Goody states:
In 1970 I spent a short time revisiting the LoDagaa of Northern Ghana,
whose main contact with literacy began with the opening of a primary
school in Birifu in 1949. In investigating their mathematical operations, I
found that while non-school boys were experts in counting a large number
of cowries (shell money), a task they often performed more quickly and
more accurately than I, they had little skill at multiplication. The idea of
multiplication was not entirely lacking; they did think of four piles of five
cowries as equalling twenty. But they had no ready-made table in their
minds by which they could calculate more complex sums. The reason was
simple, for the ‘table’ is essentially a written aid to ‘oral’ arithmetic. The
contrast was even more true of subtraction and division; the former can be
worked by oral means (though literates would certainly take to pencil and
paper for more complex sums), the latter is basically a literate technique.
(Goody 1977, 12)
I am not seeking in this article to demonstrate the validity of anthropological
methods and theories developed in the past. I am only seeking to understand,
through the study of the ethnographic material I have collected, the subject matter
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
that this material is addressing, namely indigenous language of thought within the
domains of religion, art, and medicine. My reference to these particular writings at
this moment is to help me develop the path leading to the discovery of how thought
frames and thinking processes developed by an indigenous society are produced
and used. In that sense, the work of Lévi-Strauss is helpful to me only as far as it
draws my attention to the possible existence of the savage/undomesticated mind
and the scientific/domesticated mind.” However, his evidence does not teach me
that the two mental frames cannot co-exist at the same time within the individual
brain and thinking faculties and within the socio-cultural level of the collective
conscious and unconscious thoughts of a society or culture. There is just no
evidence to even suggest that some individuals or societies and cultures are
entirely living on the bricolagelevel of practical thought, while some others have
acceded to a scientificlevel of creative thought. Goody’s critique and further
suggestion, including many others who have over years made significant
modifications to the ideas, makes it imperative for me to look beyond structural
anthropology in order to further develop the science of indigenous thought beyond
I take seriously the assertions made by Goody concerning this subject matter, the
most significant of which is the focus on the devices of communication within
thought, or, to use the appropriate term, “technology of the intellect,” the main one
which makes the difference being the graphic system of writing, especially
alphabetic writing. What I take from Goody’s work is that it is not just sufficient
for the individual and the society to perfect the ways they know things through the
use of language, reason, emotion, memory, etc. For this knowledge to develop to
the scientific level, there is a need to put into place a graphic system via which
thought can be captured as a body of knowledge and further documented into a
systematic order and structure. This allows the individual author to distance
himself or herself from the text, allowing the author and others to critically review
it. In other words, the differences in knowledge and thought frames can be
narrowed down to the scientific distinction between the oral cultures having no
graphic systems as aids and the literate cultures, which have the written text or
other graphic systems as scientific aids.
For the past twenty years, I have spent much time viewing the Dagara/Lobi culture
and their systems of thought, particularly relating to their hoe farming system
(Tengan 2000) and their bagr mythical narratives in the ritual context (Tengan
1999, 2006, 2012). From these studies, it is evident to me that graphic systems are
very essential and remain the most efficient aids in the creation of a body of
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
knowledge for the individual and the society, and might as well be the most
efficient technology of the intellect for rapid social and cultural transformations for
any civilization. That said, it seems I will be jumping to the conclusion that there is
an absence of any type of graphic system in Dagara society without first trying
hard to find one, and without looking at cultural systems with an open scientific
mind in order to understand the intellectual technologies that the culture has
developed as aids to general mathematical manipulations and as devices to be used
for memory documentation and recall. I find the unspoken implication that, if no
writing system that is capturing speech as language can be found in a society, that
society does not have any other graphic system as technology of the intellect that
will enable the creative mind to capture thoughts onto an external system in such a
way that one can examine those thoughts from a distance to be unjustified. For the
rest of the article, I shall use ethnographic material from Dagara religion, art, and
medicine as a common area of knowledge to illustrate how the culture constructs
and develops scientific language and thought into a body of knowledge.
Knowledge Frames, Graphic Models, and Thinking Processes:
The Case of the Dagara
The Dagara view and approach to both indigenous and scientific knowledge,
particularly knowledge of health and healing, takes a holistic perspective against
reductionism and analysis. It is based on the hypothesis that, first, the meaning and
knowledge content of any object or element is multi-generic and specifically
identifiable with the ecological and environmental context within which the object
is located for observation and, secondly, that the knower or scientist, much as he or
she might want to take a scientific distance from the object and the environment, is
intimidated by the object and the location and is then absorbed into the meaningful
context that he is trying to understand. In other words, the meaning given to the
object and the environment includes his or her own understanding of the syntactic
relationships between the object, the environment, and his own experience as a
learner or a scientist. The basic thinking or knowledge framework via which he is
aware of and is experiencing the immediate data before him is structured and
colored by a specific cultural frame that was socially developed in the distant past,
which he has inherited both consciously and unconsciously.
At this point, let me hasten to emphasize that the knowledge or thinking
framework I am referring to here cannot be perceived as a static, hardwired frame
that is successively transmitted over generations of users. Also, with regard to
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
content and data, there is no divine received text or narrative that is being kept in
memory and faithfully transmitted via trained experts through memorization and
recall. African indigenous, and by extension scientific, knowledge, as I will argue
and demonstrate, is characterized by generative and dynamic processing of data
within an ever changing environment and context. In this article, I will focus on the
notion of healing as a specimen of study within African science and contend that it
is best observed when it is linked to other notions within religion and art. Indeed,
my thesis is that, whereas African art exists as the appropriate scientific language
and jargon in the field of healing religion, including ritual, constitutes its practice
and praxes. In the rest of the article, I will discuss, through ethnographic
description, the issue of art as language of scientific healing. I will then describe
and outline how much religion becomes practice and praxes of healing and proceed
to discuss the misuse of language and its resultant effect of scientific colonization
within contemporary African society.
Dagara People and Society
The people calling themselves Dagara today and whose family settlements are
distributed in the northwest and southwest corners of northern Ghana and southern
Burkina Faso are culturally very much akin to the people often referred to in
literature as the “true Lobi” and are equally similar to the Dagaaba, with whom
they traditionally share a close linguistic similarity. Beyond my earlier
identification of these peoples in my former works, I will only stress here the
similarities in cultural practices and reproductions that exist between these people
in order to underscore why, for this study and in terms of ethnographic
understanding, I am looking at them as one common social group. Indeed, the
Dagara dialect is equally well understood by many of the “true Lobi” living in the
Gaoua region, whose dialect is much more akin to Pwa. In the course of my
research, I have used this dialect to communicate with the majority of the
population, including members of the family settlement of Bindute Da, near
As itinerant hoe-farmers, the Dagara have been migrating and creating settlements
in many parts of northern and southern Ghana, as well as in other areas in Burkina
Faso and Côte d’Ivoire, and I have made it a point to get into contact with these
people living both in the home region and in the Diaspora. My contacts with the
different groups of Dagara and Lobi hoe-farmers, both in the Diaspora and the
home regions, suggest to me that, beyond the linguistic variations, these groups,
especially with respect to their art, religion, and medicine are relating to a common
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
cosmological worldview and common forms of cultural practices. That being said,
I do recognize that the nature of social change has not been uniform throughout the
The Dagara/Lobi people living in settlements around the urban center of Wa, as a
group, have continued to resist the cultural infiltration of first Islam, and later
colonialism, Christianity, and modernity for a long time. However, from time to
time, individual families or a section of the extended family, for one reason or
another, do decide to convert to Catholicism. Since the mass conversion of the
Dagara populations living further north of Wa and stretching into southern Burkina
Faso in the early 1930s, there has been greater pressure on the Dagara/Lobi living
further south to convert as well. This pressure increased substantially in the 1970s
when many Dagara families from the Nandom area of the then Lawra district who
had already converted to Catholicism began to immigrate in large numbers into
this area and the number of Dagara local clergy increased substantially to enable
the church to send local priests with a much better understanding of Dagara
language and culture to this region, thus making evangelization more effective.
The increase in Catholic ritual activities and the rapid developmental processes
taking place as a result of the missionary activities have continued to seduce even
the Dagara Traditional Religious Leaders, some of whom have hitherto stuck to
their healing cults, to want to convert to Catholicism. For the conversion and
integration process of these leaders, the church puts on a show by conducting
special rituals dedicated to the dismantling of the cultic institution and the removal
of all the material objects associated with it.
In the past, the collected items were publicly set on fire and their burning was a
sign that they did not have any spiritual power, as their original owners claimed.
Some of the beautiful art objects were, however, sometimes retained by the
missionaries and, with the coming of the local clergy, there is an ambivalent
attitude toward setting these objects on fire. There is a greater tendency to store
them away in an abandoned location within the parish house. This was the case
with the two sets of archives that serve as the main ethnographic data of focus for
my current study. Indeed, I first came to know of their existence through Fr. Linus
Zan, who had served as the parish priest in the parish from which the artifacts had
been collected. It was actually he who conducted the public Catholic ceremony to
dismantle the cultic institution and to further conduct the rites integrating the then
new convert into Catholicism. These items, after further study and investigation,
do belong to two of the knowledge institutions alluded to above and were found in
every Dagara homestead before the arrival of the missionaries. They are
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
categorized as sacred objects (tibɛ) belonging to the ancestral and bagr cultic
institutions of fertility, life transmission and sustenance, and socio-cultural
relations. The aim of this article is not to focus on such items as part of thinking
frames and knowledge models but to deal with the general issues regarding
scientific knowledge and thinking processes.
Religion: Nature, Being, and Life
Dagara religion and philosophy take root from their mythical reflections and
historical experiences as migrating hoe-farmers. In essence, its centre of gravity is
on the thought and perception that nature is the supreme divine entity, existing
both as the concrete world of living beings and elements and as the transcendental
supernatural realm of awe, fascination, and wonder. For generations, and in terms
of religious practices, they have relied on four cultic institutions for knowledge and
cultural production. These include the ancestral cult (kpĩĩn), the kͻntͻn cult, the
tibε cult, and the bagr cult (Tengan 1999, 2000, 2006, 2012), including their
mythical narratives, orations, and sacred rituals. Each of these cults exists
separately within the family and house community and is specifically located in the
house structure. According to the Dagara myth of origin, nature itself is auto-
generic, consisting of two extending spatial domains, namely the space-above
(saa-zu) and the space-below (teng-zu). The space-above, in human language, is
figuratively and metaphorically described as an undivided, single extending entity
and perceived to be one common house space society of beings and elements. The
Rain, as a father figure, is the manifestation of the life-force embodied in the
space-above and is in constant relationship with the Moon and the Sun as
personified characters (Tengan 2000, 76-84). In contrast with the space-above, the
space-below, consisting of the earth and its atmospheric surroundings, is further
segmented into six proto-typical domains that are replicated into fragments and
located randomly to cover the whole of the earth space. These include the
arboreal/plant space, the hill space, the rock space, the atmospheric space of the
wind, the sea/water space, and the atmospheric space of fire.
This mythical structure of the cosmic realm appears as the main socio-cultural
syntax for understanding Dagara society and culture. In the first place, the society
is a house-based social structure supported by a mythical ideology of kinship
relations. As a non-centralized and non-hierarchical society, each house
community is a de facto centre of gravity for socio-cultural activities, specifically
relating to a particular institutional order. This is so because, by assigning a generic
name to each house group and community through tracing patrilineal descent lines
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
and by associating a generic institutional foundation and practice also to each of
the house communities, the system focuses on ensuring an egalitarian and
distinctly individualized co-relationship among different communities and
individuals on the basis of their common origination and specific institutional
Society and Culture: The House and House Community
The notions of the old house (yir-kura), also sometimes defined as the big house
(yir-kp), from which all individuals emigrate to constitute newer houses (yir-
paala) or smaller houses (yir-bili), will at all times remain the centre of Dagara
socio-cultural, religious, and political activities. The constitution of the old house
or big house, and, for that matter, any of the sub-category of houses, is destined to
put into place the most effective known processes that will ensure the survival,
prosperity, and good health of each individual and the house community at large.
As hoe-farmers who are in a very close relationship with nature and their
constructed cosmic realm, it is important for each one and the community as
whole, in order to stay in good health and to ensure survival and prosperity, to
know the type of socio-cultural relationships they must have with nature, including
all elements within nature and within each element, the life ingredients peculiar to
that element. As all scholars studying Dagara society and culture have confirmed,
the six most significant cultural and knowledge institutions via which the Dagara
recreate and transmit their survival memory and tool-kit for reproduction of
society, as alluded to above, remain the institutions of the ancestors (kpiĩn) and that
of bagr, which are often grouped together; the institution of nature beings (kͻntͻn);
and the institution of the cosmic beings (gmwin-tibr), including the two englobing
institutions of earth (téngan) and the rain (sàà) shrines. In very general terms, we
can distinguish between these four institutions by the way they deal with life.
Hence, the sãã-kpiin and the bagr are focusing on life transmission through
fertility and fertilization (glu), the kͻntͻn focuses on knowledge of life
sustenance, bagr focuses on knowledge of life aesthetics and public health, and
gmwin-tibr focuses on the knowledge of individual life as substantive essence at
the existential level. For all these institutions, the house building and community
located as homesteads remain the central focus for all socio-cultural and material
reproduction and practices, including the scientific reproduction of knowledge.
Hence, for each house location, the founding male and female ancestors tend to
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
compose four categories of cultic shrine institutions in different locations of the
house in order to ensure the proper understanding and management of life
transmission processes, life sustenance processes, life aesthetics, and life
substantive essence.
In the homestead, each of these shrines may be located in a separate specific
domain, except if the owner is a professional healer. Hence, the main ancestral
shrine is located in a special room known as the “ancestral room” (kpiin d),
whereas that of bagr will be located on the terrace near to the neck of the main
granary (Goody 1972; Tengan 2006). The kͻntͻ are very diverse and can be
located at several places in and outside of the homestead. The tibr shrine is the
most sacred and is located in a specially chosen room that is consecrated and
dedicated to it. All these categories of shrines and the purpose for which they have
been set up tend to make the Dagara house a cultic temple, as well as a library and
a museum for scientific research, experimentation, and learning, as well as an
existing health center to cater for the total well-being of its members and the
society at large. It is not possible in a single article to give a detailed study and
analysis of the six areas of knowledge institutions just stated. Let me focus my
attention on elaborating on the Dagara frames of thought as specific models within
indigenous knowledge.
Thinking Frames from the Bagr Myth
I shall base my elaboration on Dagara knowledge frames and thinking models on
my many years of study of Dagara cosmology, mythology, and mythical narratives
in bagr rites of initiation and their systems of thought regarding religion, art, and
medicine. I also draw inspiration from their linguistic structure, speech analysis,
and cultural practice of hoe-farming. Taking all these together and studying
carefully their approach to ways of acquiring and transmitting knowledge, I have
come to identify three knowledge frames and thinking models that together
constitute their mode and method of reasoning. I have named these as: (1) framing
the cosmos and house and thinking spatially, (2) framing gender and understanding
objectified bodies, and (3) framing life and dealing with conscious awareness. It
will not be possible for me here to give a detailed study on the theories and
practices of these knowledge frames since that is not the main objective of study at
this moment. I shall only generally table the symbolic and cultural phonemics used
to construct the knowledge frames and broadly demonstrate their use as a scientific
linguistic system.
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
Framing the Cosmos via the House and Thinking Spatially
The material used to build the house does not only have architectural properties,
but, more importantly, it has art objects designed to evoke thought and meaning.
Two of the rooms that are commonly found in any completed house are of
particular significance for this. They include the long common room (chaara5),
other smaller rooms similar to it, and the hut (kampil). The construction of the long
common room consists of first erecting rectangular mud structures, secondly,
inserting a wooden structure as a roof support, and thirdly, throwing gravelly mud
on the top of the wooden structure as a roof and to create a terrace as a living
space. The final stage is plastering all the walls and the floors, including the roof
terrace, with gravel soil prepared with cow dung, the shells of the daw-daw fruit,
and pounded stem of the okra plant. The erection of the wooden structure consists
of selecting6 a particular number of thick fork supporting beams (six to eighteen
support beams) and half the number of equal thickness as crossing beams. Medium
size crossing beams, a specific number corresponding to the number being used as
main supporting beams, are then selected according to length and used to create the
first layer of the roof and terrace. Small crossing beams are then used to cover the
small spaces created by the crisscrossing of the different beams.
The thinking frame used in the construction of the long common room follows a
vertical and horizontal scheme of reasoning. This is very much outlined in detail as
part of the ritual narration of bagr. This detailed structure cannot be fully dealt
with here, but let me point out the general process. The main part of the house is
the wooden structure, which is constructed in such a way as to create the two
cosmic realms, namely the space-above (saazu) and the space-below (tengzu), and
to ensure vertical movements and interactions between them. The mud structure
delimits the terraces and the rooms into irregular shapes and sizes and makes it
possible for one to effect horizontal movements within the two realms. In all, the
wooden and mud structures create vertical and horizontal spatial trajectories for the
circulatory movement of living beings, including humans, and for the proper
placement of handmade items and wares and the storage and preservation of
household produce and goods.
The round hut is a room that often stands alone, either on the terrace of the long
common room or near to the front yard or the backyard. Fork supporting beams
should never be used as part of its architecture. Indeed, the round wall has no
supporting wooden structure that is staked into the ground. The mud structure is
built by tracing a circle onto the ground as a foundation and laying nine to twelve
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
rimes of mud walls on top the each other in a sequence of one rim per day until the
last rim. The circular shape of the mud structure is significant in that the most
common form of boundary limitations for all socio-cultural gatherings taking place
in all open spaces has to be circular. This circular building is roofed with red
savannah grass that is woven together. In putting up the thatch room, a selected
number of wooden poles, appropriate in size and equal in thickness and in length,
are used. These are first woven together on the erected mud-structure before layers
of the woven grass thatch are put over it.
I shall further examine the thinking frames embedded in processes of building
these two rooms and the uses of the spaces they provide.
Framing Gender and Thinking through Numbers and Shapes
The use of gender as a frame of thought is common in all cultures, particularly in
African cultures. Part of the bagr narration broadly outlines the way gender is
viewed and framed. I shall start with this citation from the bagr narration. I shall
then proceed to outline the whole frame and illustrate its mode of construction as a
syntax coded with numbers and shapes.
no ir fu?”
What made you?”
“A ŋmin ir mε.”
“Reasoning made me.” He answered.7
no o ko fu?”
“What has it given you?” He asked again.
“O bε ko mε bom wε.
“It gave me nothing.
Lεrkpé ŋma
Except a blunt axe
Lεb ŋmãnlé.
And a calabash.
Fu bε nyε tam,
Here is also a bow,
Langi zan,
And the wrist guard,
Lagni pεlé,
And the basket,
Lagni laa,
And the bowl,
Lagni ŋmãn,
And the calabash,
Lagni yuor,
And the water pot,
Alε na o ko mε.”
That is all.”
The young Kͻntͻn
Lεb yél ko ya:
Then instructed him saying:
“Fu na nyε zan
“The wrist guard
Lagni tam,
And the bow,
Lagni lεr,
And the axe,
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
Lagni suo;
And the machete;
Fu woa na?
Have you heard?
Dεb bomé na.
Are masculine items.
But the pot
Lagn pεlé,
And the basket,
Lagni laa,
And the bowl,
Lagni your;
And the water jar;
Pͻɣ bomé na.”
They are feminine items.”
a aŋa
So he handed over the male items
Lεb ko dεb;
To the man;
Dé a aŋa
And then gave the female items
Mi ko p]
To the woman.
A aŋa so doo
And this is the way
A tiim mi bãng.
We learn these things.
Whereas the spatial structuring of the house and the cosmos via the house building
reflects a spatial frame of thought, the manner in which different beings and
elements place objects and use the space is calibrated via gender frames of thought
and number codes. The bagr narrative, part of which is cited above, explicitly
outlines this frame and goes ahead to explicate its meaningful usage. Gender here
is not framed as homology of oppositions and mediations but as, to put it in
metaphoric terms, the needle (masculine gender) and thread (feminine gender) that
are used to link iconic and symbolic items following cultural and linguistic rules
and norms in order to create syntax of cultural thought. The notion of gender itself
becomes clearly distinct from any of the objects, elements, or beings that are being
syntactically linked.
Hence, using the gender frame, the culture will, for example, structure the proper
use of space and locations in terms of placement of objects and living beings,
including their movements, and also will properly define ways of identifying and
describing these items in context via gender. In other words, the vertical and
horizontal wooden and mud structures of the long common room, as described
above, consist of cultural syntaxes linked together via gendering concepts. The
most commonly used of these concepts have either numeric or shape/figure
properties. Thus, according to Dagara cultural syntax, verticality, horizontality, and
the number three have masculine gender properties and condition, whereas the
round and circular shapes and the number four all have feminine gender properties
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
and conditions. It is important to stress here that items are being classified and
categorized into cultural types and domains through thought of the concrete.
Framing Nature and Insightful Thinking through Riddles, Proverbs, and
Descriptive Narratives
In the bagr narration, the notion of the unborn being (Bil) tends to play a key role
in the way life is framed and conceptualized. It is considered as the progenitor of
all life forms and linked to the word seed (bir), the element in any life form
allowing it to regenerate its own kind. The story of the unborn outlines a
graduating order of life experiences as he is conceived, born, and grows in the
home location and migrates away from the house into other locations, only to
return as a grown up man that is bitten with all kinds of ills. The frame of thought
outlined here is reflective and intuitive through focusing on both the transparent
and hidden conditions and properties of selected environmental sites. These
include the room location, the compost heap environment, the dry pond
environment, the tree environment, the river environment, and the hill
Table 1: Knowledge and Thinking Frames from Nature
Request Made
Do you have
anything, so
that when you
die, it will be
offered to
She finishes
and takes the
smoked rat,
and holds on
to it. Then, she
gives it to
He [Unborn]
eats hurriedly
Have you any
food? What
can you do?”
The lady's
[panties] He
strips them
and Gives
them to
“Is that the
only thing,
That upon
your death It
will be offered
to you?
He unearths a
tadpole, and
gives it to
Unborn; And
he eats it
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
Request Made
The Pond
You have built
a house; What
do you even
have Which
upon your
death Will be
offered to
himself And
takes the dry
toad, And
gives it to
He eats it
The Shea
Do you still
owe anything?
The pond is
junior; But has
some food.”
Here is the
shea fruit; She
plucks that;
And throws it
to Unborn.
“Is that the
only thing that
you even
have; Which,
upon your
death, it will
be offered to
The hanging
rot, she plucks
that and gives
it to Unborn.
He eats
The River
“Is that you,
river? What an
Under the
elder tree.
There is food.
Besides your
size; You are
an elder; Yet I
am seeing
The fish
without fins,
[River] takes
only that To
give to
Unborn. [Fish]
fights to be
And slips
away at once.
“Do you see?
Oh river!
Is that the only
You have on
That upon
your death
Will be
offered to
The top water
At its mystery
At the sea
mystery level,
At the rain
mystery level,
To extract
their oil
And gives it to
The Hill
Have you all
[Hill!] You are
the senior
And river is
the junior;
But it [river]
has food.
Here! The
python's horn,
He decides to
take that;
For the sake of
Reverses it
back to front,
Is this the only
That you even
He [hill] arises
And takes the
bitter scorpion
He gives it to
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
Request Made
So he
The thought frame itself consists first in framing and asking the appropriate
questions at the different sites and ensuring that both the speaker and the
interlocutor understand each other. The questions outline abstract thought frames
and structures constructed using symbolic images, with the aim of giving reasons
for human life and actions. The meaning of the term reason,as used here,
includes statements about facts, real or alleged, employed to justify or condemn
some act (social, cultural, and religious), prove or disprove, and approve or
disapprove some assertion, idea, or belief8. There are different types of questions
and responses associated with different stages of maturity and reasoning. Hence,
the first level is associated with games of riddles linked to childhood reasoning.
This type of reasoning is also associated with the personal and the collective
unconscious and entails a specific correct answer to a particular question. Thus, the
knowledge comes from the nest of the home, and the house community is
represented here via the conversation between the unborn and the room
environment (feminine gender) and the pond environment (male gender). I labeled
this earlier as the “primordial mode of thought and reasoning” (Tengan 2006, 53).
The second level of questions and responses are labelled as proverbial, which are
more elaborate, both in terms of posing and answering the questions, and require a
good deal of background cultural knowledge for the interpretation and
understanding of the thinking behind the dialogue. Hence, in the narrative, the
compost heap (male gender) situated in the front of the house, where male elders
will often assemble to exchange ideas in the form of proverbs, and the shade of the
Shea tree (female gender), where women go to gather fruits and nuts, figure as
graphic frames of proverbial thought and captured speech. The third level, which I
label as the descriptive thought frame, is associated with the river (female) and hill
(male) locations and tend to configure observed facts and experiential conditions.
The literary context comes in the form of the tale, the story and the narratives in
ritual context, including myth, recitations, prayers, etc. It is not possible within the
limits of an article to give a detailed study of these various levels of thought
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
The developmental progress of African indigenous knowledge, whatever that
might mean, has been trapped for a long time within the process of fragmentary
disciplinary methods and theories on scientific knowledge and within a Judeo-
Christian cultural frame of thought9. The historical conditions leading to the
emergence of a particular paradigm of reductionism that underpins formal
education and academic learning about African knowledge systems have further
made it impossible to understand the knowledge, content, and practices of African
sciences within their socio-cultural context. It has been the contention of this paper
that it is not possible to study such seminal knowledge areas as religion, art, and
medicine as if they were distinct and separate knowledge systems that accidentally
cross each other in the minds of specialists without first understanding the cultural
frames of thought within which they were constructed. Indeed, reading much of the
literature on these three knowledge areas since the inception of Anthropology and
African Studies as disciplines, the things they seem to have in common are the
negative and derogatory terminologies that have been applied to them; religion, art,
and medicine are considered to have no place in Judeo-Christian and Euro-
American societies and cultures and have been thrown onto the African academic
scene as a focus of study.
This paper has first tried to look beyond the negative and derogatory language used
in regards to African knowledge systems and practices, particularly with regard to
religion, art, and medicine. Secondly, it has argued that knowledge in art, religion,
and medicine have a common objective, namely to ensure the proper
understanding of the cyclical transmission and transfer of life within and across
different life-forms or species. Different life-forms manifest themselves either as
non-moving material objects/elements or moving embodied beings/elements.
Using ethnographic material from the Lobi/Dagara people of northern Ghana, the
paper demonstrates how the development of art in all its forms (material and
performance) is also the development of a peculiar scientific language that is first
used to intelligently reflect on and talk about the universe as observed and
subsequently understand the meaning of its structure and purpose. This
understanding leads to the development of thinking frames as models via which the
Dagara people continue to further develop their indigenous knowledge systems.
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
Alexis Bekayne Tengan is a Ghanaian social and cultural anthropologist residing
in Belgium. He studied religious sciences at the University of Ghana and, after
some years of teaching in that country, he undertook further studies at the Catholic
University of Louvain, Belgium, ending up with a PhD in social and cultural
anthropology. Since his doctoral studies, Alexis has continued to teach religious
sciences at different levels and to research and write in anthropology as an
independent scholar. His research interests and focus include the following:
indigenous knowledge and societies, mythology, initiation rituals, religion, and
society. He is also a collector of sacred and fetish art.
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
Bognolo, Daniela. 2007. Lobi. Milan: 5 Continents.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of A Theory of Practice. Cambridge Studies in
Social and Cultural Anthropology, 16.
Devisch, Rene. 1993. Weaving the Threads of Life: The Khita Gyn-eco-logical
Healing Cult Among the Yaka. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Fiéloux, M., J. Lombard, and J. M. Kambou-Ferrand. 1993. Images
d'Afrique et sciences sociales: les pays lobi, birifor et dagara (Burkina Faso,
Côte-d'Ivoire et Ghana. Paris: Karthala.
Fortes, M., and E. E. Evans-Pritchard. 1970. African political systems.
London: Oxford University Press.
Galtung, Johan. 1967. Scientific Colonialism.Transition 30: 10-15.
Galtung, Johan. 1968. Sociological Theory and Social Development. Kampala,
Uganda: Transition Books.
Goody, Jack, and S.W.D.K. Gandah. 2002. The Third Bagre: A Myth Revisited.
Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
Goody, J. 1977. The Domestication of the Savage Mind. New York: Cambridge
University Press.
Goody, J. 1972. The Myth of the Bagre. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Hagberg, Sten, and Alexis B. Tengan. 2000. Bonds and Boundaries in Northern
Ghana and Southern Burkina Faso.Uppsala Studies in Cultural
Anthropology, 30.
Hawkins, Sean. 2002. Writing and Colonialism in Northern Ghana: The
Encounter Between the LoDagaa and "the World on Paper.” Toronto:
University of Toronto Press.
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
Horton, Robin. 1971. African Conversion.Africa 41 (2): 85-108.
Horton, Robin. 1975. On the Rationality of African Conversion: Part I.”
Africa 45 (3): 219-235.
Horton, Robin. 1975. “On the Rationality of African Conversion: Part II.” Africa
45 (4): 373-399.
Horton, Robin. 1993. Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on
Magic, Religion, and Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kagame, A. 1969. Introduction aux grands genres lyriques de l'ancien Rwanda.
Butare, Rwanda: Éditions Universitaires du Rwanda.
Kagame, A. 1976. La Philosophie Bantu Comparée. Booklet.
Kirby, J. P. 1993. The Islamic Dialogue with African Traditional Religion:
Divination and Health Care.Social Science & Medicine, 36 (3): 237-47.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1958. Anthropologie Structurale. Paris: Plon.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1962. La pensée sauvage. Paris: Plon.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1967. (1st édition 1947). Les structures élémentaires de la
parenté. Paris: La Haye, Mouton et Maison des Sciences de l’Homme.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1953. Race and History. New York: UNESCO.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1963. Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1969. The Elementary Structure of Kinship. London: Eyre
and Spottiswoode.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1966. The Savage Mind. London: Weidenfeld &
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1967. The Scope of Anthropology. London: Jonathan
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
Mbiti, John. S. 1969. African Religions & Philosophy. London: Heinemann.
McCoy, R. F., R. Dionne, and J.C. Dewart. 1988. Great Things Happen:
A Personal Memoir. Montreal: Society of Missionaries of Africa.
Meyer, P., I. Wettstein, and B. Kauf. 1981. Kunst und Religion der Lobi.
Zürich: Museum Rietberg.
Mulago gwa Cikala, M. 1973. La religion traditionnelle des Bantu et leur vision du
monde. Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo: Presses Universitaires
du Zaire.
Nkrumah, K. 1963.The African Genius.” Lecture, Institute of African Studies,
Accura, October 20.
Okri, B. 1991. The Famished Road. London: Jonathan Cape.
Sahlins, Marshall. 1976. Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
Tengan, Alexis B. 1999. Dagara Bagr: Ritualising Myth of Social Foundation.
Africa Journal of the International Institute, 69: 595-633.
Tengan, Alexis B. 2000. Hoe-farming and Social Relations Among the Dagara of
Northwestern Ghana and Southwestern Burkina Faso. Frankfurt: Peter Lang
Tengan, Alexis B. 2000. Space, Bonds and Social Order: Dagara House-based
Social System.” Edited by S. Hagberg and A. B. Tengan. Bonds and
Boundaries in Northern Ghana and Southern Burkina Faso, 30: 87-103.
Uppsala, Sweden: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis.
Tengan, Alexis B. 2006. Mythical Narratives in Ritual: Dagara Black Bagr.
Brussels, Belgium: P.I.E.-Peter Lang.
Tengan, Alexis B. 2012. The Art of Mythical Composition and Narration:
Dagara White Bagr. Brussels, Belgium: P.I.E.-Peter Lang.
IK: Other Ways of Knowing Peer Reviewed
Tengan, Edward. 1994. The Social Structure of the Dagara: The House and the
Matriclan as Axes of Dagara Social Organization. Tamale, Ghana: St.
Victor’s Major Seminary.
Wiredu, Kwasi. 1996. Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African
Perspective. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
1 For most African societies and cultures, self and environmental awareness begins well before the birth
of the infant both in the cosmic environment as the origin and source of life and the mother’s womb
where the physical formation of the individual takes place (See such notions as the Dagara concept of the
Unborn (Bil) in Tengan 1999, 2006; Yoruba concept of Abiku (Ben Okri 1991). I shall explore this issue
further when I come to focus of religion and art.
2 Terms used as personal names for personified beings are not in italics. On the contrary, and throughout
the text, I use capitals for their first letters to mark that they are proper names.
3 My references to the works Levi-Strauss and Good are very selective and limited to my perception of
the problem. The amount of work and the depth to which these two authors have treated the topics I refer
to here are enormous and sometimes beyond my comprehension. I do not therefore claim to represent
fully their views on these issues.
4 The term 'primitive', meaning the original mode of mental operation is probably a better translation of
what Lévi-Strauss is saying. Unfortunately, the term has become obnoxious and misleading in
anthropological discourses and I should not use it. Undomesticated mind here refers to the basic and non-
reflective mode of abstraction and thinking.
5 The orthography of Dagara language, like many African languages, do not as yet have a common
convention. The term ‘kyaara’ is sometimes used by Dagara linguists for what I have rendered here as
‘chaara’. The correct phonetic pronunciation is very important to me and ‘chaara’ does not leave that in
6 The criteria for the selection of any building material include the cultural classification and
categorization of items according to gender and color codes. Hence, there are specific number of trees and
animals which as classified as black while the rest are considered white and all tools and household
objects are either masculine or feminine in gender (see Tengan 2000)
7 The suggested meaning is that human being developed the tools listed below out of his own reasoning.
Their classification, however, according to gender, is attributed to the intervention of Kͻntͻn.
8 I have dealt with this frame as it specifically relates to the Black Bagr narration (see Tengan 2006:51ff).
I will only give a brief outline of what it entails.
9 I have not included Islam in this discussion because the Dagara people have roundly rejected Islam
throughout the years and it will not be justified to draw a similar conclusion about Islam as I have made
on the impact Judeo-Christian thought frames. There is also a school of thought out there which thinks
that Islam has been cohabiting and adapting to Africa Traditional Religion in a way that Judeo-
Christianity has not (see J. Kirby 1993).
... "The scholar of African science no longer has the cultural paradigm of his own that is required to view and understand the indigenous knowledge system … The Western scientific paradigm that he has acquired through education has become … his reasoning and practical "habitus" with which he tries to understand and communicate his own indigenous knowledge" (Tengan, 2016, p8) The thoughts of Tengan (2016) relate back to the concept of ´coloniality of knowledge´ (to be explained in 2.1.1), as African scholars themselves have internalized Western worldviews and culture. ...
... Domains that for the non-indigenous might seem unrelated are within IK all interrelated and can be seen as part of the holistic outlook that indigenous people have. For example, the houses of the Dagaara people -having settlements in the North of Ghana and South of Burkina Faso -contain more than just architectural properties (Tengan, 2016). They are built to create the most effective process that will ensure the survival and good health of the community. ...
Full-text available
In many parts of the world, the concept of indigenous knowledge (IK) has gained increasing attention in the development industry, as well as in other spheres. The notion is regarded as a promising alternative promoting bottom-up and empowering development, in contrast to more mainstream development approaches. Nevertheless, development scholars are critical on the current implementation efforts of IK in development and the notion of IK continues to be surrounded by ambiguity. This research took these preliminary definitional debates into the context of Ghana, where a study was initiated involving fifteen Ghanaian scholars and development practitioners. These two groups were researched over a period of 2 months, using semi-structured interviews and participant observation. The study has two objectives. First to look into the meaning, role and relevance of IK in Ghana and second, to see how IK is currently used in development practice in Ghana. The results of this research offer new insights into the characteristics of IK in Ghana as well as examples of the precarious relation between IK and conventional science. In Ghana, IK is still relevant to many people in their daily lives and thus deserves further research and recognition. Moreover, the study takes a critical stance towards mainstream development approaches. Various examples show that IK often ends up being just an add-on, while the projects remain fundamentally defined by external actors such as NGOs and conventional science. The examples show the continuing failure of such seemingly ‘participatory’ development initiatives to include the wishes and worldview of communities in Ghana. However, the study also sheds light on alternative development initiatives that successfully place IK at the centre of their development interventions. Such efforts, based upon the endogenous development approach, deserve further academic inquiry as they seem successful in uncovering local worldviews and reviving IK while linking it to the current zeitgeist. Nonetheless, such initiatives face acute practical and institutional challenges and struggle to survive within the larger political processes of the development industry. All in all, this study has demonstrated that by centralising the notion of IK, the research was able to uncover the power dynamics underlying the relationship between the ‘mainstream’ and the ‘alternative’. In doing so, the research further revealed the continuing hegemony of Western thought and value, entrenched in many spheres of life in Ghana.
Full-text available
This essay draws attention to the limits of social belonging and the links between people living in village communities, neighbourhoods and social houses. The Dagara social system is analyzed from its order of residence, here described as a house-based social structure. Indeed, this essay suggests that it is through the homestead that we can understand the Dagara social system. The house-based system is viewed as an entity composing of large concession of houses surrounded by farmland and limited fields. A common social name, which has been acquired in mythical time but is not associated with a common ancestor, links the different homesteads to each other. This name creates a link of unity among individuals, who have an interest in living together for reproduction and social and economic production. Each individual Dagara belongs, at least mythologically, to the nine social houses. This essay concludes that each individual is born in a social network composed of members of different social houses with a common name. While male members maintain a social identity through their birth house, women acquire a second identity through marriage and through the adoption of the husband's community. In addition, the physical structure of the house reflects the domestic structure in social and political terms and describes the main institutions through which the house-based social system operates as a unified group.
Full-text available
In this volume, the author presents a version of Africa’s longest oral recitation of myth of origination, the black bagr myth found among the Dagara of Northern Ghana and Southern Burkina Faso, and discusses in detail its historical and literary significance for the society. Hence, the author first outlines the historical conditions possibly responsible for the coming into existence of both the mythical narratives and the rites of initiation that accompany the narration; and then presents the literary frame and structure in which the black bagr narrative is composed. The rest of the book is a unique bilingual (Dagara and English) presentation of the black bagr narration recorded and viewed live from within a secret rite of initiation. The narration itself, similar to all black bagr ritual narrative sessions, lasted up to three hours and was performed without interruption by one speaker. The narrative content shows to what extent the rites achieve the double purpose of teaching the initiates culture knowledge and giving them new individual identities that will equip them for different social positions in life.
Full-text available
This anthropological study of hoe-farming in West Africa outlines the cultural meanings involved in working the land and rearing/raising society. Unlike other studies which usually focus on the kin-group as the basic social unit, this piece of work considers the house society or community as the most appropriate focus by which the Dagara people themselves tend to structure their society and to work out their social relationship including cultural practices of different kinds. With many ethnographic details, the study shows how much the house figure functions as a physical and social institution in Dagara mode of thinking and also in the imagination including the intellectual sphere as an important concept. Therefore, the author sees hoe-farming and the figure of the house as linked themes which have to be jointly studied. Considered as such, the study uses them to outline Dagara mode of thinking about themselves and what they do in terms of social relations.
Full-text available
ABSTRACT Hagberg, Sten; Tengan, Alexis B. (editors) Bonds and Boundaries in Northern Ghana and Southern Burkina Faso. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Uppsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology 30. 197 pp. Uppsala 2000. ISBN 91-554-4770-8. The volume contains ten essays that are concerned with the problem of boundaries, and of the bonds that overcome them in northern Ghana and southern Burkina Faso. It explores cosmological notions of space, colonial and postcolonial representations and social practices. All the essays integrate, though in various ways, cosmological and geographical notions of space, although the topics vary from identity, religion and marriage to politics, history and farming in this frontier region. Most of the essays were initially written for an international seminar in Gaoua (Burkina Faso) in 1998, which aimed at crossing the boundaries, be they national, socio-cultural, linguistic, political or religious ones by bringing together some scholars of different cultural, postcolonial and academic environments.
Full-text available
L'image est-elle un outil de la recherche pour l'historien, l'anthropologue, l'archéologue, le géographe, l'économiste ? Depuis toujours, l'image est pour certains à la base de la méthode d'observation et d'analyse et donc d'une construction du réel; pour d'autres, elle est au mieux un élément d'illustration d'un travail achevé, quand elle n'est pas complètement superflue. Les auteurs ont voulu prendre ici le pari de lancer une interrogation sur le statut de l'image dans le travail d'un groupe de chercheurs et d'universitaires réunis par un même champ d'intérêt, la recherche dans le domaine des sciences sociales en "pays lobi" (Lobi-Birifor-Dagara) du Burkina Faso, de la Côte d'Ivoire et du Ghana. Plus de 50 chercheurs originaires d'Afrique de l'Ouest et d'un grand nombre de pays européens se sont réunis pendant une semaine dans le principal pays concerné, à Ouagadougou au Burkina Faso, pour aborder sous cet éclairage particulier des domaines très divers (histoire, religion, art, économie, développement). Cet ouvrage donne un aperçu de l'état des recherches et de la très riche documentation iconographique (photographies, films, vidéo, dessins) couvrant près d'un siècle, réunie à cette occasion et qui a servi de "matière" aux débats. (Résumé d'auteur)
List of tables and figures Preface 1. Evolution and communication 2. Intellectuals in pre-literate societies? 3. Literacy, criticism and the growth of knowledge 4. Literacy and classification: on turning the tables 5. What's in a list? 6. Following a formula 7. The recipe, the prescription and the experiment 8. The Grand Dichotomy reconsidered Notes to the text References List of abbreviations Index.
"The main thrust of this book is to deliver a major critique of materialist and rationalist explanations of social and cultural forms, but the in the process Sahlins has given us a much stronger statement of the centrality of symbols in human affairs than have many of our 'practicing' symbolic anthropologists. He demonstrates that symbols enter all phases of social life: those which we tend to regard as strictly pragmatic, or based on concerns with material need or advantage, as well as those which we tend to view as purely symbolic, such as ideology, ritual, myth, moral codes, and the like. . . ." Robert McKinley, "Reviews in Anthropology""