African Fractals in Development

Indigenous Science for Education and Development: A Boot-strapping Approach

Dr. Ron Eglash, RPI
Dr. Egondu Onyejekwe, Ohio State University
Dr. Christian Sina Diatta, University of Dakar
Nfally Badiane, ENDA Senegal

 1) Project History

 This project began with the visual observation that aerial photos of traditional African settlements tend to have a fractal structure (scaling in street branching, recursive rectangular enclosures, circles of circular dwellings, etc.). This was quantitatively confirmed in Eglash and Broadwell (1989), where we applied a 2 dimensional fourier transform to digitized photo images to estimate the fractal dimension from the slope of the spectral density function. Subsequent study (including a year of field work under the Fulbright program in west and central Africa) showed that these architectural fractals result from intentional designs, not simply unconscious social dynamics, and that recursive scaling structures can be found in other areas of African material culture (art, religion, indigenous engineering, games). In the design rationales and cultural semantics of many of these geometric figures, as well as in indigenous quantitative systems (additive progressions, doubling sequences, binary recursion) and symbolic systems (iconic symbols for feedback loops, equiangular spirals, infinity), there are abstract ideas and formal structures that closely parallel some of the fundamental aspects of fractal geometry (c.f. Eglash 1995a,b).

 These results agree with recent developments in complex systems theory, which suggest that pre- modern, non-state societies were neither utterly anarchic, nor frozen in static order, but rather utilized an adaptive flexibility that took advantage of the nonlinear aspects of ecological dynamics. How might this potent formulation of indigenous knowledge be applied to problems in education and development? One method is to encourage its dissemination in development agencies. But decades of research have shown that a top-down approach to development, even that making use of indigenous knowledge, is often less effective than a bottom-up, "grass roots" approach. This project will create a framework in which to test the possibility that indigenous knowledge can be used in a boot-strapping approach to development. The term boot-strapping is typically applied to computer systems ("boot up the disk"), where a small program is able to self-install a larger system (from the phrase "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps"). Similarly , we view a boot-strapping approach to development as one which begins with indigenous knowledge under local control, and self-installs modern technological abilities.

2) Project Goals

 The project will focus on the creation of an indigenous science center in the city of Ziguinchor, in the lower Casamance region of Senegal. The site was chosen partly because the investigators found excellent examples of fractal ethnomathematics in this area (Eglash, Diatta and Badiane 1996), and partly for its problematic location in the history of development (as explained below). The goals for this center will be as follows: (1) To utilize indigenous knowledge for the benefit of the people and natural environment of the region. (2) To create such benefits by combining indigenous knowledge with modern scientific frameworks and technological capabilities. (3) To minimize the need for external support, and maximize the potential for self-expansion. (4) To create a model for other indigenous science centers in other regions, with the hope that a network of these institutions could promote inter-ethnic cooperation and political stability.

3) Methodology

 While the indigenous science center will itself be used to locate and define local problems, we begin with some obvious challenges. First, increasing salinization of the area has resulted in decreasing quality of life. Second, external economic pressures (e.g. the move to cash-cropping and tourism) and migration to cities have disrupted many of the beneficial attributes of traditional life in the area (e.g.gender equality), increased disease (e.g. AIDS), and damaged the environment. Policy recommendations are particularly ineffective in the area because of the highly decentralized social structure of the animist Jola, and the long historical conflicts with the north. By encouraging the development of indigenous knowledge in modern technological frameworks, the Jola will be able to conduct their own empirical studies, educational projects and technological production to meet these challenges.

 a) Architecture for an indigenous science center

 The physical location of the center will embody the philosophy of the project, drawing on local materials and labor, and utilizing indigenous design practices. For example, the French NGO ENDA has devised a modern water collecting system based on the traditional Jola impluvia. At the same time, it will also make use of recycled materials, and solar electricity and heating. These factors will ensure that the center will not collapse from lack of utilities once the initial funding period is completed, while creating the infrastructure for its research facilities, school room, visitors center and educational office.

 b) An indigenous knowledge database

 One difficulty with indigenous knowledge research has been the separation between projects and institutions. For example, traditional agricultural practices have been studied in the Casamance region by projects under Senegalese, U.S., French, Italian, and Arabic governments, in addition to those of NGO institutions. Ethnobotany, ethnomedicince, and ethnomathematics of the local culture is not under researched, but rather so widely diffused that this information is not readily available. With the advent of computer technology, this problem can be solved. By linking a multimedia database at the science center in Ziguinchor with a similar facility at the University of Dakar, we can synthesize past research together with contemporary studies, access university resources, and allow internet communication with the global research community.

 c) Agro-ecology

 Botanical knowledge is quite extensive in traditional Jola society, and this suggests an obvious application to recent developments in combining ecological biodiversity with agricultural practices and nutritional concerns. For example, gastropod consumption is increasingly common due to the salinity increase. It may be possible to identify which species could be best harvested , or even cultivated, and thus encourage use of indigenous species while improving local food supplies and decreasing the motivation for forest destruction. Most importantly, such innovations could be derived experimentally by the local population, which increases the chances that they will be widely disseminated and utilized. Long-term records of these experiments and their results would be maintained in the database.

 d) Technological expertise

 One of the notable characteristics of contemporary African life is the extreme degree to which recycling of artificial materials takes place. This is more true, however, of construction and craft materials than it is of electronics. By providing a small electronics shop, the science center will be able to recycle cast-off electronic items, build up a parts supply, and even produce its own instrumentation. Salinity, for example, can be monitored from widespread sites throughout the Casamance if simple instrumentation is widely available. Oscilloscopes can be created from cast-off television parts, which means that similar electronic shops could be set up elsewhere. Even computer parts are now becoming available from junk dealers.

In addition to scientific efforts, technological syncretism can be made available to the arts. Currently the growth of discos means only Euro-american audio technology and light shows, but there is no reason why traditional African artists cannot take advantage of electronic media as well, acting as a force for cultural survival in the face of a homogenizing urbanization.

 e) Science education

 Perhaps the most important function will be the utilization of traditional knowledge in math, science, and engineering education. For example, the Jola are excellent musicians, and have developed a "whistle language" as well as a drum communication system that allows them to communicate over long distances. Because of this, their vocabulary includes analogs for western concepts of oscillation, frequency, phase, and other elements of signal processing: an excellent basis for physics education. We plan to develop an introduction to basic physics using amplified sound from the Ekonting visually displayed on an oscilloscope; showing how the modern physics concepts are translated by the Jola indigenous knowledge system. We have asked the Tektronix Foundation to donate an oscilloscope for this purpose, and Portland's Black Educational Center has expressed an interest in participating in an exchange program to further develop this physics lab for encouraging in math and science interest among African American students. Since it is widely acknowledged that some version of the Ekonting is the forerunner of the American banjo, the connection to American heritage, both Black and white, is quite profound.

Again, an important aspect of developing such a synthesis is in terms of local empowerment. Students will be able to use indigenous knowledge to learn ecology, medical sciences, and physical sciences in ways that encourage both the continuation of Jola tradition and prepare them for an increasingly technologized world.

f) Financial stability

 We have stressed the need for independence from external funding to ensure the future of the project, but self-generated income could also be possible. For example, the Casamance has a large number of annual visitors, but presently there is no effort to create what is often referred to as "green tourism," despite an intense interest in both natural and cultural facets of the area. Such efforts would easily dovetail with the educational activities of the center.

 4) Personnel

 The co-principle investigators will be Dr. Christian Sina Diatta and Dr. Egondu Onyejekwe. Dr. Diatta is director of the Institut de Technologie Nucleaire Appliquee at University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar. He is originally from the lower Casamance, and will coordinate links between the rural sites and university activities. Under his direction, Nfally Badiane, a graduate student in anthropology at the university and staff member of ENDA, will be in charge of the Ziguinchor operations. Dr. Onyejekwe, a computer scientist at Ohio State University, will manage links between Dr. Diatta's operations at the University and the support activities in the U.S. through the African Women Global Network ( see for web site).

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last update 1/5/97