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Pebbles, swords and conquering giants: Indigenous knowledge and Africa’s accelerated advancement

History has proven, over and over, that nations do not advance outside of placing indigenous, homegrown and grassroots-based knowledge at the core of development strategies

The title of this article is drawn from the Biblical story of the encounter that brought the fearsome giant Goliath to the ground. Here, pebbles represent Africa’s indigenous knowledge, swords represent Western science, and giants refer to the numerous obstacles to Africa’s advancement. The key lesson to be drawn from this reflection is that as David defeated Goliath with pebbles and not with swords, so shall Africa advance at the pace it wants through the recognition of the indigenous knowledge of the various communities that make up the continent.

When he made his intentions to fight Goliath known to King Saul, David politely declined the military armour that the King had provided, as it was practically impossible to take a few comfortable steps, not to talk of venturing into the battlefield with that armour. Instead, he opted for his indigenous knowledge of fighting, the way he was taught in the grazing fields. David searched for stones or pebbles, the very same ones he used to fight off bears, lions and tigers. That was his local knowledge, his traditional knowledge, if you may. David’s wise decision paid off handsomely in that the giant Goliath was defeated.

Since the independence era in the 1960s, Africa has been trying to kill the Goliath of advancement with swords given by colonialists. Africa has been trying so hard to advance politically, economically, and technologically — in the fields of education, science, medicine etc, but the envisioned acceleration has eluded the continent. Instead of rejecting the superimposed knowledge of colonialists, we have accepted to fight the battle for Africa’s advancement with foreign, ill-fitting knowledge. We are fighting the giant of transforming Africa with the knowledge that is not ours, the knowledge we are not used to, the knowledge that neither we, our parents nor our grandparents have used in the past to achieve any form of significant success.

History has proven, over and over, that nations do not advance outside of placing indigenous, homegrown and grassroots-based knowledge at the core of development strategies. Like David, Africa must reject Saul’s armour, reject that knowledge that does not fit, knowledge that is too expensive and unmanageable. Knowledge that is produced in languages alien to Africa’s clime, tongue and consciousness, for which Africans are shamed for not speaking like natives, must be reassessed for what it is worth. The simple assertion here is that Africa’s accelerated advancement depends on the value the continent places on authentically African knowledge.

When David stood before King Saul and volunteered to take up the challenge of a one-on-one combat with the Philistine giant, the King’s response was an outright refusal of David’s request, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth,” King Saul counselled.

Like David, Africans have been told by the ruling global dynasty that we are not able to build capacity around our local knowledge. That we have to depend on other continents for the knowledge needed to advance in different areas.

David’s response to King Saul is the opposite of Africa’s response to colonially imposed inhibitions to their local knowledge system. He said to King Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock,I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”

David makes no mention of having fought any battle in the past; he had zero military experience. Yet, he did not look down on the knowledge he gained as a shepherd boy. David brought before King Saul the experiences and strategies he gained in the grazing field while tending his father’s sheep.

As David stood before King Saul, he saw God as his father, and the Israelites as the sheep of God’s pasture. He had the same heart, and the same intention to shield and to protect what belongs to his father. This is also how it is with the indigenous knowledge that our grandparents built up over years. If the motive they had for building that knowledge is for the betterment of humanity, then that knowledge is still applicable in – or can be adapted to – today’s technology-driven world.

Even though the battlefield and the grazing field seem to be completely two different worlds, David’s confidence and detailed tales of his grazing field experiences earned him the respect of the King. In the same vein, if Africa is to gain the respect of world leaders, we have to learn to respect the continent’s collective historical knowledge and experiences.

David kept a meticulous mental record of his deeds, and he was able to immediately pull it out and make reference to it. Here is a question for Africans: how much effort have we put into studying the vast knowledge, achievements, successes, strengths, weaknesses, struggles and failures of those who came before us? Countries that have developed today are countries that have invested resources in searching out the best of their indigenous knowledge. Such historical records provide the social-psychological and even moral strength for the present generation to continue from where their forbears stopped and not think that they have to build from scratch.

For Africans to thrive, we have to search out and validate our indigenous knowledge. It is what will earn us a place in the comity of nations. Indigenous knowledge is Africa’s pathway to advancement. It is our passport to dignity. Colonialism taught us to have no respect for anything African, but to respect only the knowledge of the colonialists. Like David, we must remember who we were before the colonialists invaded Africa. As evident from the excerpt above, it was that remembrance and telling of his heroic past that earned David the trust of the King who then allowed him to go and fight Goliath.

The King said to David,“Go, and the Lord be with you.”

The Bible records that King Saul “dressed David in his own tunic,” and “put a coat of armour on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them.”

Despite the King’s confidence in David’s historical antecedents, he assumed that, although David lacked battlefield experience, he would still need to clothe himself in military gear and battlefield armour in order to defeat Goliath. This situation is very much like what we have today between indigenous knowledge and Western science. Westerners who are like King Saul believe they know what is good for Africa. Countries of the West send consultants through different organizations to “develop” African countries with knowledge from America, Europe and even Asia, but that knowledge is not able to take root throughout all these years because it is not indigenous to Africa.,”

“I cannot go in these,” David said to Saul, “I am not used to them.” So David took off Saul’s military gear.

Africa will have to learn from David who did not ask for permission from King Saul before taking off the armour. Africans must say to the Western knowledge system and their promoters: “We cannot advance in these.” African countries do not need permission from former colonialists in order to take off the yoke of Western knowledge that is not working for the continent. Africans have to create their own unique courses in universities, develop new materials for building houses that are based on inexpensive locally available materials, and develop better, manageable and affordable governance and judicial systems, among others.

There are many authors who have written about how the different systems copied from the West have not been able to foster development in Africa. For instance, very expensive elections are conducted every four years because a country like the United States does the same. This is a classic case where we can look at how we can build local democratic governance systems that should take a fraction of the cost of maintaining our present governance systems.

Following his refusal of King Saul’s armor, David went back to his local knowledge. He took his staff in his hand, “chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.” Africans will have to go back to exploring local traditional knowledge across sectors in order to slay the giant of advancement.

The story of David and Goliath is a stepping board to explainingthe need for Africa’s indigenous knowledge to be mainstreamed in the continent’s advancement conversation across sectors. Empowering indigenous knowledge in governance, science, technology, education, medicine, and other sectors will cease to keep the field of development as the prerogative of the Global North, but the responsibility of every African. Africans who have never associated their indigenous knowledge with growth and advancement will be able to invest their individual capacities into advancement conversations. The expected outcome will be unprecedented innovation and creativity across Africa.


This is an adaptation of a lecture delivered by Dr. Chika Esiobu at Mountain Top University (MTU), Ogun State, Nigeria as the Keynote speaker during MTU’s Special Lecture on 30th June 2022.


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