Africa’s choice: digitise traditional knowledge or lose culture and development

In this excerpt from The eLearning Africa 2012 Report, Gaston Donnat Bappa argues that African traditions and cultures, the foundations of the Continent’s development, have been spoiled by five centuries of slavery and colonisation, so that their survival today is threatened by ‘modern’, drifting lifestyles. This leader of a rural community says the ancient, ancestral knowledge of Africa is still alive and the use of ICT is essential to protect and pass on identity related knowledge for current and future generations.

External interference has alienated Africa over its long history

Immense disruption has been caused to the lives and development of African people by the slave trade between the 16th and 18th centuries, the resulting colonisation in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the neo-colonisation currently taking place. Today these things are more deep-rooted in Africans’ lives than their own traditions and the structure of their ancestral societies. Yet these Africans are full of all the knowledge accumulated since man first appeared on planet earth in Africa several thousand years ago.

The alienation of African people is reinforced daily by an invasion of news and information from other cultures, particularly those of ‘the West’, which reach the population through the global media.This alienation is further exacerbated by an almost total lack of strategic national identity education programmes, which should be rooted in the culture and traditional, ancient knowledge of the people. Without such an identity, nations and their citizens are unable to distinguish what they should take from the other cultures’ knowledge they receive.


Africa’s culture and ancient, traditional knowledge are still alive

Africa today, more than ever before, is known for its traditions, which have stood the test of time. It is enriched by its ancestral customs and a unique myriad of languages, each of which contains specific ancient knowledge, which constitute a source of precious wealth for humanity. It is enriched by its indigenous peoples, its oral culture perpetuated by the ‘griots’ (storytellers), its proverbs, myths and legends, its totems, sorcerers and patriarchs, and by its connections with the dead through funerary ceremonies and funerals. It is enriched by its animism at the source of its specific spirituality, its pharmacopoeia, whose proven effectiveness has been preserved by healers; by its unalterable, inexhaustible arts and crafts, its folklore, songs, dances, its communitarianism, and by the communicative ‘joie de vivre’ which characterises its people. Africa has so many assets and treasures for mankind, which still needs them today. It is imperative to protect them. African traditions are packed with provisions and laws for all stages of life: birth, adolescence, adulthood, old age, death and beyond, not to mention laws for women, men, marriage, work and many more. Since ancient times, these have helped all members of a community to live out their time in an acceptable manner and to preserve the species.


Advice on developing Africa through culture, tradition, ICT, science and technology

Africa must urgently seek ways to break into our globalising world as part of society and the information economy. Africa has the means necessary to steer its own development. In order to do this, traditional, cultural and historical knowledge must be given top priority in the education system, so that its citizens have the identity they need to organise and establish their lives in this 21st century. At the same time, intellectual development in all fields, particularly science and technology, must be pursued and strengthened. The true history of Africa, which has been distorted by those who have exploited it, must be restored.

The case of Africa’s women illustrates this perfectly. Many people think African cultures are bad for women. This is wrong. African tradition is enriched by what women represent in communal life. Black African tradition is embodied in a woman, the Egyptian goddess Maat, who personifies order, truth, justice, equality, balance and righteousness. Women also play a key role as guardians of African culture and heritage. In African families, it is the woman who acts as the preserver of wealth, in addition to the fact that, in most traditional African civilisations, family relationships are matriarchal.

However, Africa’s historic circumstances have put women in an extreme position. Slavery and colonisation meant that many males were either deported or killed as a result of forced labour. Women were thus in high demand for human procreation to give birth to more males. They were also sought after for many other tasks, such as agriculture, as men were no longer around to do it.

We must realise and understand all this today, in order gradually to reinstate African women in the central position they once held in community life and to give them back their independence. Africa’s renaissance, which involves restoring this historic awareness, is an essential task, as argued so convincingly by Cheik Anta Diop, the legendary Senegalese anthropologist. To do this, Africa needs education on a vast scale, covering all levels. Only ICT can enable this to happen, so that Africans can find their way, no matter where in the world they live.

Traditional forms of communication, primarily oral transmission, tom-toms, human messengers or smoke signals, are disappearing. These methods of acquiring, passing on and preserving knowledge have enabled our culture and tradition to be carried down over millions of years. They are very closely related to the ‘new’ ICT in terms of the waves they use. It is imperative to protect them, and to use, on a large scale, modern media such as writing, radio, telephone, television, computers and, ultimately, the Internet.

To ensure technology is used effectively to promote and protect culture and traditions, and to give them a long-term future, creating local, digital content on a large scale is vital. It will be accessed by Africans themselves, as they are the main interested parties, and by the rest of the world. Without this local content, ICT tools will be nothing more than resonance chambers for foreign cultures seeking to perpetuate the alienation of African youth by gradually distancing them from their identity and creativity.


Implications of 21st-century technological progress for the perpetuation of traditional African cultures

Centres of education, development and expression of traditions and culture must be created in places where these traditions and culture exist, and enhanced with the appropriate ICT tools. In light of this, I close with two recommendations.

First, creation and development of radio-broadcasting and television receiving centres in rural communities is vital. A blend of mobile technology can enable a new era of rural community engagement in a variety of formats. Villages are the main places where ancestral knowledge is still alive. Rural populations can provide content themselves and transmit it in local languages. This can create great interest within communities, simply because the voice of one of their own can be heard on the radio, prompting discussions about important issues raised by a broadcast. Content can also be saved and reprocessed digitally, so that it can be retransmitted on the Internet for nationals living far away and for the rest of the world.

Second, production costs are falling, so that the creation, distribution and saving of local multimedia content is much easier. As writer Amadou Hampate Bâ so aptly put it, ‘In Africa, when an old person dies, it is a library that burns down’. To ensure the living libraries that are the old patriarchs do not burn, the African states should encourage the establishment of real rural libraries in places where traditions are preserved, such as chieftainships, meeting places, patriarchates, cultural centres and museums. Computers will play a vital role in collecting and saving local content. In turn, wireless connections will enable rural libraries to be linked to regional and national centres, opened to anyone with Internet access, formulating and preserving a variety of content and facilitating education, research and innovation.

By firmly reconnecting with its traditions and culture through ICT, and by understanding science and technology, Africa will begin to emerge into the modern world more effectively.


Gaston Donnat Bappa is a traditional chief in Cameroon and an expert on rural communities. He is a senior software engineer and a consultant on ICT in education, as well as a bank executive.

This opinion piece forms part of The eLearning Africa 2012 Report. To download a free copy of the Report, please click here.



  1. Temtim Assefa

    Dear sir

    I am doing my PhD on knowledge sharing and I learn that it is the traditional Knowledge that can help Africa to grow and develop. However, we africans do not appreciate our traditional knowledge, properly manage it to solve our problems. Although we try to introduce modern knowledge, it is the traditional knowledge is frequently used in practice. The modern knowledge is usually documented on the paper as policy and procedures. we need to do research on traditional knowledge how capture and store those knowledge and use in our schools, educational systems. I would be very happy to join those groups who want to work on this area.

    • Temtim,

      I was wondering if in your research you have done work on storing of sacred knowledge? WIthin the Indigenous peoples of Canada, this is a bit of a dicey topic as the question comes up of whether it is within protocol to record spiritual teachings that are sacred.

      • Dear Temtim,

        As far as we know, public and academic libraries have played some role in digitzing indigenous knowledge as part of a strategy to promote local content, local knowledge production and the development of indigenous knowledge systems, e.g. in Botswana they have done quite a bit of work in this area.
        Hopefully we can present you and our other readers with a full article on this!
        Best wishes

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