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- AFRICAN TRADITIONAL PLANT KNOWLEDGE TODAY: An ethnobotanical study of the Digo at the Kenya Coast (2005)
- The Digo are farmers and fishermen living in the coastal belt stretching from Mombasa in Kenya to Tanga in Tanzania. They settled there in the 16th Century or earlier, and their original settlements were forest villages, kaya. During the kaya life, wild plants were important to them for most basic needs, hence they accumulated a traditional plant knowledge. In the 19th Century they moved out of the kaya, but the forests were protected as sacred sites, and this preserved the traditional plant knowledge. On the other hand, modern scientific botany was introduced to the Digo through teaching in schools and as modern agriculture to farmers, creating two types of plant knowledge with little overlap. Although Digo history indicates intimacy with their plant world, in this technologically advanced era traditional knowledge systems are threatened of being lost. It was on this premise that the study was established, aimed at ‘documenting the traditional Digo plant knowledge, and examining the global influence on it’. Information was collected with formal and informal interviews with both the traditional Digo plant users (herbalists, farmers, and carpenters), and ‘modernists’ (pupils, students, and teachers). In summary, Digo plant knowledge has a considerable verbal component, minimal description and no conception of internal plant processes. The knowledge is voluntarily incomplete, with a conscious ignorance of some areas of plant life. Also the knowledge is mainly value oriented, and confined to the known, with the objective of addressing realities of social life. Globalisation will affect the plant lexicon and description, but less so the application of traditional materials. The subject areas of the thesis: Digo plant lexicon and description Digo plant knowledge has a considerable verbal component, with limited description and no conception of internal plant processes. And there are non-verbalised areas and under-labelled elements of plants and plant life. Clearly there is intentional selectivity of what to label and describe, meaning the Digo are not striving for completeness of plant knowledge. The incentive for labelling and description is predominantly value oriented, as commonly used plants and plant parts are labelled in detail. Some Digo plant names have a prefix borrowed from ‘female’ human names, meaning the species are perceived as ‘female’. ‘Unmarked’ Digo plant names refer to them in ‘female’ status, as in reference to ‘male’ plants the name is always marked with the term mlume [male]. Semantic analysis of the interpretable plant names indicates that Digo plant naming is guided by several unwritten principles. Digo plant identification methods Digo plant identification is characterised by familiarity and little verbal descriptions. Experienced plant collectors identify plants using ‘fixed images’ in their memory, without rigorous procedures. ‘Procedural’ identifications are used by less experienced collectors, for doubted identifications or in new environments. In procedural identification different plant user groups focus on the part ‘useful’ to them, creating a variety of approaches in identification of the same species. Digo folk taxonomy Digo folk taxonomy is shallow. It does not correspond to comprehensive folk taxonomies reported by most other ethnographers. In Digo there is no term for ‘unique beginner’, thus ‘plant kingdom’ is not a recognised rank. Recognised ranks are life-forms and folk species, with occasional presence of folk generics and folk varietals. Plant life-forms are recognised on the basis of discontinuity of kinds, which is consistent with rationalism theory, but lower taxonomic ranks are constructed on basis of utility value, which agrees with utilitarian view. The Digo folk taxonomy, therefore, is an intermediate kind of knowledge. Digo perception of internal plant processes The perception of plants as being ‘female’ is twined with an understanding that male plants are irrelevant in plant reproduction and propagation, hence associated processes (pollination and fertilization) are not perceived; neither are other scientific concepts e.g. photosynthesis and transpiration. At a community level, it is not obligatory for the Digo to understand details in plant processes, which contrasts labelling and descriptions of plants. Digo farming practices Digo farmers have a knowledge built by experience, hence a stabilized understanding of correlations between different components such as demand of crop plants, performance of soils, diseases and pest menace. A Digo farmer recognizes and classifies soils in relation to crop production. Although some old farming practices have been dropped due to various socio-political changes, the Digo farmers maintain to a considerable degree traditional practices, magico-religious practices and preference of local crop varieties. The future of Digo plant knowledge The Digo plant knowledge reacts to global influence in a multitude of ways, depending on the risk of material loss. In plant lexicon and description, where there is no risk of material loss, change is acceptable. Thus school-mediated plant knowledge complements Digo lexicon and description, sometimes only temporarily. On the other hand, in plant description the role of primary Digo colour terms is fading off. National and global support has changed the Digo healing only in the tools i.e., in hygiene, processing and dosage of medicinal plants, but not in content, as traditional cures are still the main phytotherapical substances. Digo farmers however, resist modern agriculture, partly due to the economic implications. The continued lack of material support to the farmers strengthens the future of traditional farming practices.