What You Know vs What Your Ancestors Know

So Cheta Nwanze has finally got me to come on medium. Here’s what I’m musing on. It’s an update to something I wrote a while back based on a recent experience

I attended two trainings recently, one by a Nigerian firm and the other by a European one. While the Nigerian trainer was clearly knowledgeable, she spoke mainly from her personal knowledge. The European was much younger and less experienced. But he spoke from institutional knowledge of the firm and outclassed the Nigerian. It got me thinking.

From the 700s when the Abassids ruled the Islamic empire, all through the reign of the Fatimids from the year 909, up until the 13th Century, the Islamic world was the most advanced part of the world. Learning flourished and everyone and anyone could explore new scientific knowledge within the empire. Whilst the Europeans went through the dark ages clanging their broadswords against their shields in the same period, the Muslims were inventing algebra, advancing medicine, refining architecture and moving the world forward. While knowledge was openly acquired and shared by almost anyone within the Islamic world, Europeans locked up what was remaining of their knowledge in monasteries, restricted to monks and religious men and shrouded in superstition.

Around the 15th century, the Renaissance began in Europe and the knowledge burst forth from the monasteries onto the streets and became more accessible to everyone. Around the same time, in the Islamic world, a calcification occurred and they began to shroud their knowledge in mystery and wrap it in superstition. Within two centuries, backward Europe had overtaken the Muslim world in all aspects and today, Europe and their offshoot in America constitute the places where learning is most demystified and the most progress has been made.

Against this backdrop, we can then view the African historic way of handling knowledge discovered. Our history shows that we adopt a protectionist approach to knowledge and many of the advancements made in one area of Africa did not get disseminated to any other area. Rather than record knowledge, we mystified it, used its secrecy to terrorize one another and much of the knowledge remained stagnant over generations. Much of the knowledge we created in the course of our history died with its creators or their families. Take for example the case of smallpox in western Nigeria. A powerful cult had developed around the disease dedicated to Sopona. Cases and disputes were taken before Sopona and the people were made to swear. Some time later, one of the parties that swore suddenly developed smallpox and this was seen as the wrath of Sopona upon the person and hence a proof of guilt. The Sopona adherents continually propagated this for centuries.

In 1896, Tola Sapara started his medical practice and became concerned about Tuberculosis and Smallpox. In the course of the work, he exposed how Sopona adherents preserved the scabs of dead skin from smallpox victims and then used this to infect those who did not pay them and therefore whom they would frame as guilty. They knew the scabs caused the disease and not any god called Sopona. But rather than record this and put it in the public for others to build on the knowledge, they mystified it, created a cult around it and used the knowledge to gain power over the public.

This is the fundamental difference between societies that progress and those that remain in the doldrums and end up oppressed and exploited by those that make progress. It is the problem of Africa from time immemorial and remains so. Those that progress record knowledge they have gained, make the pursuit and building upon knowledge open to anyone and demystify knowledge. By doing this, they create cumulative knowledge and make this easily available to the youngest at an early age and the lowliest at their farthest reaches so that people can start early and add to this knowledge from anywhere. They make the knowledge that took their forerunners lifetimes to learn accessible and easy to learn by their children so that they don’t spend their whole lives learning these things. Rather, they push the frontiers and advance this knowledge or find ways to utilize this knowledge to create better societies. The greatest inventions that changed our lives and benefits us the most are usually not a result of one explosive discovery, but of the coming together of different aspects of this cumulative knowledge. Without this, society doesn’t stand a serious chance to grow. It was the absence of this that ensured that try as they did, the Benin metal worker guild were never able to manufacture proper guns in spite of having the ones they procured from the Europeans for centuries. No cumulative knowledge to draw from.

Those that do not make progress mystify knowledge. They make it their life goals to show those coming after them just how difficult it is to obtain knowledge. They create unnecessary rituals around the acquisition of knowledge and their societal knowledge never becomes cumulative but resides in silos. They have a few stars who attain godlike status, but not much advancement happens in the general society. It is a paradigm of mystification of knowledge like this that gives rises to institutions procuring computer systems but locking them away from the students fostering a sense of mystery about computers in the children. These children grow up in a world where they are meant to compete with Zuckerberg whilst handicapped by these experiences and lateness to start. Hence, most of the generation that did Computer Science at the same time that Bill Gates was learning to create Windows are working as programmers tweaking codes written by Indians for the banks that employed them. They were not allowed to touch the sacred computers their schools owned.

We need to demystify knowledge. Labs need to be opened and students allowed to explore more. We need to develop, and quickly too, cumulative knowledge that will directly give rise to problem solving and further development of knowledge relevant to our society. We need to alter our education system that emphasizes the difficulty of obtaining knowledge already obtained centuries ago and begin to emphasize on discovering new knowledge based on existing knowledge. We need to ensure that our children do not spend their early years learning irrelevant things like using a four figure table when others are already using apps to teach their children these things in a relatively minuscule fraction of time. We need to make knowledge accessible to all, and from an early age. We need to encourage our children to ask questions and create their own knowledge rather than condition them to mantra and regurgitation of what we impose on them. We urgently need to demystify knowledge.

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