Science - October 6, 2005

Chemical inputs and rituals combine well

Knowledge as a package that the expert hands over to the blissfully ignorant farmer: this is the essence of the modernisation theory upon which agricultural extension is still based in Zimbabwe.

The reality is very different, according to knowledge sociologist Netsayi Mudege, who defended her PhD thesis in Wageningen on Wednesday 5 October. She did an ethnographic study of farmers in resettlement areas in Zimbabwe. The farmers came from all over Zimbabwe to settle on the land that used to belong to the white farmers. As they came from different places the new settlers had different forms of knowledge and customs when it came to farming.
However, they had no problems integrating the different forms of knowledge into a coherent whole, Mudege concludes in her study. When it came to growing maize for example, extension workers gave them scientific advice that consisted of buying modern seed and applying artificial fertilizers, and that’s what the farmers do. But they also perform rituals intended to ensure the fertility of the seed, according to the local religious customs. For the farmers, neither practice is more or less important, says Mudege. The different forms of knowledge are not incompatible either; rather they are complementary.
Mudege has had enough of traditional knowledge being contrasted with scientific knowledge. She prefers to use the term local knowledge, which she regards as a mix of different kinds of knowledge. Local knowledge is the result of negotiations between the farmers themselves – one believes more in religious rituals, the other swears by fertilizer – and those between the farmers and external parties such as extension workers and seed companies.
Mudege’s recommendation is that those seeking to develop new technology, such as seed, should first take into account what farmers want and how their agricultural knowledge is built up. ‘Now they sit in their laboratories and make seed, but are then indignant when farmers don’t use it. Instead they should first ask the farmers what their problems are.’ / JT

Netsayi Mudege received her PhD on 5 October. She was supervised by Professor Norman Long, emeritus chair of Development Sociology at Wageningen University.

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