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Celebrating Traditional Knowledge - My Grandmother's Legacy

Volume 1 Number 16 - July 1998

Tokoloho Masilo





The first few weeks of my employment as Education Officer at the Free State NBG were filled with happiness, awe, determination and despair! It soon become apparent to me that despite my background in teaching and my botany qualification, I had retained only about five percent of what I used to know when I sat my final taxonomy exam.

It is comforting to realise that although I do not always know the scientific names of most of the plants and birds, I still know their Sotho names. The botanical garden grows many of the same plants that my grandmother used to pick on the rocky hills in the village. We would help her scatter them on the empty sisal grain bags that she used as mats. These would be placed on the roof tops to dry, and were later ground into tobacco to sell!

Plants like Mohaladitoe (Zantedeschia albomaculata), Mabelebele (Rhus dentata), Lekhala (Aloe spp.) and Mohlomo (Hyparrhenia hirta), Lengana (Artemisia afra) and Sehloko (Euphorbia clavaroides) are well known by many older people, and have become characteristic of Basotho life and culture.

I discovered that most of my knowledge and love of plants comes not from Taxonomy 101, but from the endless wanderings with my mother through the back of our yard. She showed me which plants are nutritious, which are poisonous, which plants are used for what.  I learned that Montsokwane, which we sang about in children's rhymes, is actually the plant (probably Asclepias eminens) which sustained the Basotho people during the great famine. I learned that Tsikitlane, the string which children wear on their waists to ward off evil spirits, is made from the fibre of Gazania serrulata, which is also called Tsikitlane or Shweshwe in South Sotho.

With time, pupils from rural schools (who make up the majority of my visitors) have added almost two-fold to the knowledge which my grandmother, my mother and Taxonomy 101 left me! Nowadays a large part of planning my educational tours goes into making sure pupils realise that there is a lot they already know, and that it is valuable, especially because it is indigenous knowledge, acquired while moving through life. It is the stuff in their marrow - environmental education which sneaked in through mother's milk - whether they'll choose one day to become civil engineers or graphic artists.

I am glad that teaching in South Africa is going to take on the approach of Outcomes Based Education, the new educational system being implemented in 1998. To me it is the closest thing to "wandering through the back of the yard" with one's mother, and which will ultimately lead pupils to value their own indigenous knowledge, as I have come to value mine.


Cet article souligne les moyens de transmission de génération en génération de la connaissance traditionnelle Basotho, que l'on retrouve dans les programmes d'éducation du Jardin Botanique National de l'Etat Libre d'Afrique du Sud.

Beaucoup de plantes poussant dans le jardin sont bien connues et sont caractéristiques de la vie et de la culture Basotho. Ces programmes cherchent … aider les élèves … se rendre compte combien ils savent déj… au sujet des plantes … travers leurs traditions, et combien la connaissance indigène peut-être précieuse. Nous sommes s–r que ces programmes en définitive conduiront les élèves … valoriser leurs traditions et leur environnement.


Este artículo perfila los caminos por los que el conocimiento tradicional Basotho, transmitido a través de generaciones, es presentado en programas de educación en el Jardín Botánico Nacional de Free State (Sud Africa). Muchas de las plantas que crecen en el jardín son bien conocidas y características de la vida y cultura Basotho. Los programas de JBN de Free State ayudan a escolares a que se den cuenta de cuanto conocen ya sobre plantas a través de sus tradiciones para que lleguen a saber cuan valioso puede llegar a ser el conocimiento nativo. estos programas hacen que los escolares valoren sus tradiciones y su entorno medioambiental.


About the Author

Tokoloho Masilo is Education Officer at the Free State National Botanical Garden, P.O. Box 29036, Danhof, Bloemfontein, 9310, South Africa
Tel: +27-51-313530 / 313612
Fax: +27-51-314101