Tapping into the knowledge of indigenous communities

Tatekulu Hijapendje pondering what to answer.
“Elder IK holder in Otjinene, Namibia” by DanielGCabrero, under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Wikipedia has made tremendous progress towards its mission to provide free access to the sum of human knowledge, but indigenous knowledge is largely excluded because the majority of it is not available in writing. Starting from some theoretical considerations, I designed a workshop for the 2014 Participatory Design conference in w:Windhoek to produce and document examples of relevant oral citations. See the detailed workshop description.
In October a small group of Wikipedians traveled to the Namibian village of Otjinene to interview elders. The aim of the interview was to directly convert narratives into Wikipedia content with oral citations. We visited the homestead of Tatekulu Festus Hijapendje and his wife Memekulu Olga Muhaindjumba Hijapendje and asked them about traditions, culture and development of the local Herero community. First results are available at Wikipedia:Oral citations experiment/Articles.
Thanks to a Project and Event Grant from the WMF I could invite editors from the region to collect the narratives. Editors wishing to participate had to answer the Call for participation, adopt an article from a list of offers, and improve the article with conventional (written) references. In the village we then planned to ask questions around the ‘blind spots’ in the adopted articles, missing information that no written source could help fill. Now we can present two scenarios for a small set of Wikipedia articles: One restricted to ordinary, written sources, and one that utilizes narratives originating from indigenous knowledge. We hope to be able to dismiss the suspicion by Wikipedia’s editor community that the online encyclopedia has nothing to gain from the inclusion of indigenous knowledge.


The number of applicants was much lower than I had hoped for. From a planned group of twelve participants I could admit only four, one of which cancelled on short notice, and one editor from Ghana could not come because the Namibian authorities did not grant a visa, possibly due to the ongoing Ebola scare.
Down to a group of five, (two participants, the driver and translator, a filmmaker, and me) we traveled 250km into the w:Omaheke Region to collect knowledge from the oral repository of the w:Herero people. On arrival we found that a funeral of an important community member had all but emptied the village on this particular weekend. Only children, the elderly, and some very few inhabitants were around. On top of that, our original plan to attract interviewees by means of a free barbecue was ill-considered, few people had noticed our arrival, and the Hijapendje couple would not have been able to walk over to our accommodation.

Workshop participants in the elders’ homestead. From left: Muhaindjumba Hijapendje, Gereon Koch Kapuire, Festus Hijapendje. From right: Bobby Shabangu, Peter Gallert.
“Workshop on oral tradition being conveyed by local female and male elderly in Otjinene.” by DanielGCabrero, under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Convincing Wikipedia editors of the encyclopedic value of oral knowledge repositories has also so far been an uphill battle. This value needs to be discussed in two dimensions. First, the usefulness of narrated content for Wikipedia needs to be established, and second, ‘good’ oral citations need to be distinguished from ‘bad’ ones – as with written sources, by far not everything that could be cited, should be cited.
Gathering oral citations is a learning process, and we are just at the beginning. Because interviewers, literally, do not know what information they want, questions can never be very specific. And even if they are, the answer might not be, for example:

Q: Please tell us when this settlement was founded.
A: (after long deliberation) Many, many years ago.

The resulting narrative might take its own direction, and every once in a while needs to be steered back on course, of course without interrupting the elder. And finally, without a bit of prior insider knowledge about the indigenous community certain answers are impossible to understand, and certain subtleties cannot be captured:

Q: In a Herero family, who is making the monetary decisions?
A: (by the woman) We reach an agreement but the man has the final word.
Q: (out of a suspicion because the man did not say anything) So the woman is in charge of the household but the man is in charge of the money?
A: (by the woman) Yes.
Q: Imagine you only have 500 dollars, from which the school fee could be paid, or from which the car could be repaired. What will be the likely outcome?
A: (by the woman) The man will not know we have 500 dollars. I will have paid the school fees already.

Local community members are much less likely to misinterpret oral information than outside researchers; eventually such interviewing should be done by members of the community. But for now, it requires a great deal of Wikipedia knowledge and experience to make an oral citation stick. Experienced editors need to get the ball rolling, both by collecting oral citations and by participating in the inevitable policy debate. We now understand a bit better of how to collect oral citations, and how to select them for building an encyclopedia. WMF allowing, I will be soon in the village again to gather more.
Peter Gallert, Polytechnic of Namibia

Archive notice: This is an archived post from blog.wikimedia.org, which operated under different editorial and content guidelines than Diff.

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There is increasing recognition of the validity and general value of preserving oral transmission of cultural knowledge by Indigenous people. For example, here in Australia, climate scientists are learning from Aboriginal stories about how climate has changed on this continent over the last 20,000 years and how its first people adapted: http://www.bom.gov.au/iwk/climate_culture/
Does the Wikimedia Foundation support this sort of preservation? I am in a position to work with my local Indigenous communities to undertake some such knowledge preservation around traditional fishing practices, conservation and local first histories.

Dear Nick, the WMF has supported this event and is generally open to ideas. You can check out https://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Grants:PEG to see what sort of projects have recently been sponsored. The purpose of my experiment was to gather examples of indigenous knowledge. Few if any of the very active editors on English Wikipedia belong to indigenous communities, and for now the aim was to put a few specimens together to say: ‘See, this is what we could do if oral citations were allowed’. You are also more than welcome to drop me an email, I’m part of a group of researchers… Read more »

Thanks very much Peter, I’ll give it some serious thought.
I’ve been involved in pushing for better recognition of non-textual Indigenous knowledge in research, education and elsewhere for a while. Having also dipped my toes into a range of Wikimedia projects over the last couple of years they seem like decent marriage contenders.

This got me thinking while making our way back from Otjinene passing many remote villages along the way that there is vast knowledge that still lies untapped with the elders from all these villages. After doing our interview with Tatekulu Festus Hijapendje and his wife Memekulu Olga Muhaindjumba Hijapendje it really felt like we were just scratching through the surface. I think capturing and preserving as much information as we can from the elders while they are still around is really one huge step to the right direction. It would be regrettable to have a situation where an amicable solution/… Read more »

Videos might work very well in this line of preservation

Indeed, but videos have two decisive disadvantages: 1) The necessary apparatus scares the interviewees. Remember, we are at a place without electricity and technology (the cars in the picture are mere decoration; none of them is operational), and we want to make the elders feel relaxed to share their knowledge. In fact, when I repeat the experiment one day I intend to also leave the laptop at my accommodation. We have the interview recorded in audio, that’s easy to hide. 2) There have been concerns about uploading such videos to Commons. A lot of IK is commercially exploitable. Having a… Read more »