Resource 4: Local knowledge

Teacher resource for planning or adapting to use with pupils

At Kabwe College of Education, teacher training students discovered that George, the man who worked as the gatekeeper, was a wonderful resource about the local natural world – a true naturalist.

If George was shown a pouched squirrel, he would know that it harvested and stored seeds and grain (much like a hamster), and had a specific berom name for it that no student knew. He could tell all sorts of fascinating facts and folklore about the animal. For example, he told how seven years of drought can be predicted when the pouched squirrel is taking the trouble to chew the palm nuts so as to carry them in its cheek pouches to be stored safely.

He also knew that the antelope could see directly up through the spirals of its horns to the exact tip. You can check this if you look down from the top of a mounted set of horns. There is a direct line to the eye socket. We didn’t really believe him when he told us that trees communicated directly with the buck, sending them on by saying ‘you have taken enough here, now move on’. Years later, telling some nature conservation experts about this odd notion, they laughed, saying that it had recently been discovered that certain local trees do in fact produce bitter-tasting chemicals in response to grazing and that these are even passed on to neighbouring plants, causing the buck to move on to a different clump of plants.

Another example of local knowledge:

The story of the old woman who knew her ants

A very famous African entomologist, S H Skaife, tells an interesting story of how, during World War 2, there was a shortage of tea. People decided to try to cultivate the wild rooibos tea plant from the Western Cape Fynbos.

They offered a reward of one pound (a lot of money in those days) for every matchbox full of rooibos seeds. The seeds were very small and the local children soon gave up trying. Only an old woman was successful. Every week she brought in a matchbox full of seeds and collected her pound. She would tell no one how it was that she managed to do what no one else could.

She only divulged the secret of her success when the organisation had enough seeds and stopped paying. What was her secret? She knew that a certain type of ant harvested the seeds of that specific plant. All she had to do was to find the ants and follow their trail back to their nest and rob them of the harvest of rooibos seeds. The moral of the story – sometimes it pays to carefully observe what is going on in nature.

Resource 3: Keeping a praying mantis in the classroom