Nahanotsebo – African Theory of Knowledge – Part I

By Zulumathabo Zulu © 2015

Nahanotsebo – African Theory of Knowledge – Part II

I have always wondered about the value of knowledge. What makes you value knowledge? How far will you go to acquire knowledge? Are there certain kinds of personal reasons that would prevent you from acquiring knowledge? Do you only acquire knowledge from someone or some place you are well disposed towards or is your knowledge acquisition also extended to those you are not well disposed towards? What are your prerequisites for acquiring knowledge? What will it take to acquire knowledge?

The Sesotho word Nahanotsebo as defined in the Sesotho Dictionary of Mathematics refers to theoretical knowledge or the theory of knowledge. It is a powerful concept because it gives us a new paradigm in terms of thinking and reflecting about knowledge. Basotho philosophical constructs about knowledge also give us a new platform upon which to philosophize about knowledge.

Nahanotsebo is further defined in the Sesotho Dictionary of Mathematics as follows:

“Nahanotsebo ke tshimo e hlabosang ya fuputso e sebetsanang le tsebo hoya ka boleng kapa sakana le midiso ya teng le hore ntho efetoha jwang tsebo le mokgwa wa qapollo ya nahanosene ya tsebo le mefuta ya tsebo.”

Translated into the English language, this says “Nahanotsebo is an epistemic system that is concerned with knowledge according to its value, subset, type or production and how something becomes knowledge and the methods of analysis of the philosophy of knowledge”. The Sesotho word Nahanosene refers to philosophical thinking.

From the Sesotho worldview of knowledge, we observe interesting concepts like Midiso (production), Boleng (value), Sakana (subset), Mofuta (type), and Nahanosene (philosophy) with respect to knowledge. Another implicit concept here is Phahamasaka (superset) which refers to a higher level of knowledge. Armed with these African constructs of knowledge we are in a better position to understand the African origin of knowledge and contribute new ideas to the scientific body of knowledge.

We utilize these African constructs to analyze the value of knowledge as the sons and daughters of the African soil in terms of how this can enhance our survival experience in these trying times. It is a sacred honour to be able to tap into the ancient wisdom and the intellectual achievements of those African ancestors who have gone before us. Moreover, we walk on the knowledge bridges built by them.

According to Nahanotsebo, we have to think of knowledge differently from the way we are used to. We have to think about knowledge at a higher level using the philosophy of the triangle as defined in the book The Sacred Knowledge of the Desert: African Philosophical Transcendence. This means we have to be able to know about knowing which invokes meta-analysis of African ways of knowing. In this article we analytically consider knowledge using the three principles of acquiring, preserving and reviewing of knowledge.


Acquiring Knowledge

The ancient African societies have regarded knowledge as the building blocks of a human character. The Sesotho axiom “Haele siyo mading, haeyo” meaning if knowledge is not part of the chromosomes, it is none-existent. The function of knowledge was to connect the individual to the society and make the person a productive member of that society.

Knowledge was supposed to be acquired early in the development of the human being. In fact it was believed that knowledge began when the child was still in the stomach of the mother. Expressions like “Hautlwa medumo o ya kunyakunya” meaning the embryonic child gets animated when he or she hears the sounds from the external environment of the mother. In this way, the child is already acquiring knowledge from the environment while embedded in the amniotic fluid.

The environment is an extremely important segway because the environment refers to the land. You need land in order to practice and preserve your cultural knowledge. If you take away the land, you are also taking away the means of the knowledge and the language to persist. The dispossession of the African natives by the British colonial empire dealt a tragic blow to the indigenous knowledge systems of the African natives. The Africans practiced metallurgy whereby they mined ore, transformed ore into metal and produced steel that was sold to the European courts long before the advent of Euro-Christian colonization in Africa. The Africans practiced agro-processing and built enterprises that thrived long before colonization.

A case in point is a technological artifact known as Lekuka. Lekuka was used by the Basotho of South Africa (before the advent of Euro-Christian colonization) to manufacture and produce yoghurt, buttermilk and butter. This was a simple yet sophisticated piece of traditional technology. By violently driving the African natives from their ancestral lands meant that the African natives were also driven away from their traditional knowledge.

Today, if you ask a Mosotho child about Lekuka, they don’t know what you are talking about. Even some grey haired Mosotho may not know what is Lekuka. If you tell them that their ancestors used to produce their own butter with this device, it’s like you are telling them a fictitious story because the only place where they get butter is the store. This is the power of land dispossession. This is the power of colonial conquest which has stripped the African of self-confidence in the efficacy of African enterprising. Along with the destruction of self-confidence, there is a concomitant erosion of self-knowledge which is critical in becoming a master of one’s destiny.

What exactly is knowledge? How do the African natives define knowledge? The Sesotho infinitive Hotseba (to know) comes from the root Tseba which essentially means to know by listening. An axiomatic expression like “Rekadima ditsebe tsa lona” means “We borrow your ears”. After delivering a speech they will then say “Releboha ka ditsebe tsa lona” meaning “We thank you for your ears”. In this case, the passage or acquisition of knowledge is associated with listening. Thus the infinitive Hotseba means “to know by listening” or “to know by sensing”. In this way, the Basotho regard listening as the mechanism of knowledge acquisition.

This epistemic concept is historically different from the English concept of knowledge. In fact the word know or knowledge in old English meant having sex with someone. This is also where the idea of familiarity breeds contempt comes from because once you have sex with someone they no longer take you seriously. You have just lost your cloaking device. This means that sex was the source of knowledge for the English. That’s why expressions like “intimate knowledge” have sexual connotations.

Anatomically, genitalia was the primal tool of knowledge acquisition for the English as opposed to the African natives where a sensory organ became a primordial source of knowledge. From a brain architecture perspective, sex is linked to the reptilian brain (low level brain) whereas sensory organs are linked to the cortical brain (high level brain) via the thalamus. The prerequisite for intellectual development is to be linked to the high level brain and not the reptilian brain. The reason for this is that the reptilian brain turns off the strategic thinking of the frontal lobes as confirmed in the case of a very brilliant President Bill Clinton who experienced the short-circuiting power of the reptilian brain when he put everything on the line for the sake of his affair with Monica Lewinsky something that he shall forever regret.

Acquiring knowledge by listening is more productive. Knowledge by listening means you are acquiring and building a relevant knowledge system. This is in contrast to modern schools where some of the compulsory courses you take you will never use in real life because it is not the relevance that drives the knowledge but rather the profit.

If you take the time to listen to another point of view, you become a better communicator. This also enhances your peacemaking skills because you speak from a position of another person’s point of view. You are in the shoes of another guy. If you are in a state of listening you are in a better position to acquire knowledge.

This concept agrees with the theory of Basotho pedagogy whereby a person who is receiving an education is referred to as “Oya ruteha” meaning he or she is becoming teachable. When the person has become learned they then say “Orutehile” meaning the person has become teachable. In a Western society you become learned when you graduate from a knowledge discipline and are now referred to as learned on account of having finished your program of studies. In the Basotho pedagogical system, the highest form of academic achievement is when you are more teachable. The more teachable you are, the greater education you have acquired. So we can say that in the Basotho knowledge system, you never cease to be a student. You are a lifelong student. The Sesotho axiom “Ya kgaotsang hoba morutehi, o kgaotsa hobamosuwe” meaning the one who ceases to be a student, ceases to be a teacher.

It is evident from this African philosophy of knowledge that humility is part of knowing. In the ancient institution of Lekgotla, as documented in the book The Sacred Knowledge of the Desert, the participants were not allowed to all speak at the same time because this would violate the concept of knowledge by listening. An artifact known as Lechoba was used to sequence the proceedings. In order to speak at Lekgotla, you needed to have a Lechoba in your hand and while you held this artifact in your hand, no one could interrupt you. Your moment of speaking was a sacred moment. If another person needed to respond to your speech, they awaited their turn of Lechoba. This tradition of Lechoba is still being practiced today by the traditional healers. A medicine woman does not speak unless she has Lechoba in her hand because it is the Lechoba that gives her the authority and power to speak.

Preserving Knowledge

Once knowledge has been acquired, it must be preserved. If knowledge is not preserved it gets lost. How does one go about preserving knowledge? Two things about knowledge must be preserved namely (1) the source of knowledge and (2) the rehearsal of knowledge.

The Source

The source is where knowledge is coming from or is accessible from. It is this access that needs to be preserved. The mechanisms of knowledge preservation can be realized through writing, oral tradition, storytelling or artifacts.

Writing Tradition

When the English colonizers landed in South Africa, they say that the Africans did not know how to read and write. They taught the Africans to read and write. What they were referring to here was the alphabet a, b, c …z. The interesting fact is that the Africans in South Africa had their own writing system known as Ditema which is comprised of visual glyphs as shown here.


The Africans used images as forms of recording their thoughts, stories, laws, traditions and other events of importance. The incredible fact is that unlike the Africans who had their own writing systems, the English did not and still do not have their own writing system. The English do not have their own writing system because they never invented one. The alphabetic writing system that they were referring to is the Latin alphabet which was brought to the English by the Romans during an imperial invasion of England. Thus, the colonizing English bragged about something that did not belong to them. In fact, the Roman Emperor who invaded England was Emperor Septimius Severus an African born in Africa. Thus the English came under an African Roman rule.

The African natives boast more than 20 writing systems, by far the largest inventory of writing scripts in any continent. The African continent also boasts the oldest writing systems. That means the writing tradition in Africa predates any writing tradition on the planet. It is also noteworthy that African writing systems are works of art in their own right.

It is noteworthy that writing was a sacred profession. This means that the scribes were sacred people in a priestly profession. In a case of Basotho, the scribes were women who were considered to more sacred and closer to the gods. The Basotho women were the masters of the Ditema writing system. Unfortunately, that Ditema writing tradition has been lost and today most of Ditema works are now regarded as works of mural art. What remains today about Ditema is that it is associated with sacred texts in the churches. You will hear a priest says “Kajeno rebala ditema tse pedi” meaning today we are reading two written texts.

The writing tradition was used as a form of knowledge preservation. The Egyptians used a logophabetic system of writing which consisted of two systems namely (1) a logographic system and (2) an alphabetic system. This writing tradition allowed them to preserve their knowledge.

In a country like Liberia they use the Vai writing system which is a syllabric writing system. In Cameroon they use the Bamoun writing system which is a logosyllabric system. The interesting fact about Cameroon is that when the German colonizers and missionaries landed there, they were shocked to find a printing press, books and a writing system. The Germans were traumatized by this fact because they are credited with inventing a printing press. Now here they found that they were not the only ones who had invented a printing press. The Africans of Cameroon had also invented a printing press of their own without any help from them.

The Germans then attacked and destroyed this printing press. They also burnt the books from this printing press. Fortunately for us, not all the books were destroyed. It’s estimated that more than 7,000 book manuscripts survived and are currently being digitized. These manuscripts are written using a native African script.

A written text is not merely a static text. For the Africans, it is a dynamic text. Writing is a sacred profession of the gods. The Africans regard written knowledge is a way of immortalizing their spirit. They consult the sacred text in order to keep their knowledge alive. They write on tapestry, rock, papyrus, slate, metal, bone, or some other artifact to preserve knowledge for the next generation. The written text provides access to the original source of knowledge and in this way the knowledge is preserved and kept very much alive.

To be continued …

8 thoughts on “Nahanotsebo – African Theory of Knowledge – Part I

  1. Before I comment on this very interesting article on ATK can you please explain what entails the rehearsal of knowledge. You referred to the Rehearsal Knowledge on knowledge preservation section.


    1. Hi Dolly your comments are appreciated on this platform. Here are my thoughts on the rehearsal of knowledge.

      The mind is an amazing system. It behaves pretty much the same as a cell system; it requires rehearsal to function properly. Rehearsal means that the brain preserves rehearsed knowledge better than unrehearsed knowledge.

      This is because rehearsal is a signaling mechanism to the brain that a particular information or knowledge is extremely important. In other words, when a certain piece of knowledge is rehearsed, that gets flagged as associated with the survival requirements of the organism.

      In our discussion about knowledge, rehearsal also serves the function of preserving the knowledge. A rehearsed knowledge is more likely to be remembered than an unrehearsed knowledge.

      I hope this answers your question.


  2. Congratulations Zulumathabo.
    This is an eye opener for me. Amazing! It recalls to mind Ugandan Prof John Mbiti’s African Religions and Philosophy. Read it as a student. I’m wondering whether your deep essay has any reference to it.
    I need to re read your presentation to digest it. But it is educating me on the minefield of authentic Africa and ancestral Africans’ contribution and “knowledge bridges they built.’
    Please keep on your intellectual walk on those bridges.


    1. My Canadian brother Zulf,

      It is heartwarming to hear from you and your accolades are greatly appreciated as they mean a lot to me. Coming from you is like a precious stone to be cherished by me.

      Actually, Mbiti is on my high list of reading. I am glad that despite located in different and distant locations and yet at some point our work finds common ground. It is a great honour for this humble work to be likened to great legends like Mbiti.

      I would encourage you to write a piece about Mbiti and we will get it published on this blog.

      Give my love to your great family over there.



      1. We really thank our ancestors to have put such an incredible field of knowledge in indigenous matters. Going through your materials, l have decided to take my time to learn to LISTEN.
        One is really gaining so much about ‘US’.
        Your work, is indeed, marvelous.


      2. Dear Tshediso,

        The pleasure and honour are mine to have produced this authentically African knowledge and the erudite ancestors using me as a humble vessel of udu to produce and disseminate under their direction these good tidings that dispense medicine to the mind and the soul. This is what I live for, to serve them to the end! There is no greater life than this. This is it. To emancipate the minds of the ancestral descendants from the shackles of those who seek to subjugate them.

        Raboka ngwana thari entsho! Sabonga mtwana wombeleko omnyama!
        Thokoza Makhosi!


  3. Thank you thank you thank you. I am a visual artist exploring text and how it permeates every aspect of human interaction. The story of my working process is long but in a nutshell I started with the roman Alphabet, then moved on to graffiti lettering and now I am exploring Zulu love letters on bead work as. I fuse these elements as commentary on our interaction with our environment. I am so happy I came across your website as it has validated my search for these writing systems. Saki Mafundikwa’s Afrikan Alphabets has been a great resource for me too, and now I discovered your work, it’s like the gods are guiding my quest. I am going to read and reread this website. I have pasted a link of one of my works before I discovered ‘Afrikan Alphabets’ in case you are curious.

    Ngibonga kakhulu


    1. Sandile sa bonga ka khulu. Thokoza Makhosi! We give thanks for finding the source of inspiration in these pages. Please share some of your work here. Thokoza Makhosi! Saki Mafundikwa has done a superb job in educating the world about African glyphs. May the great creator preserve the brother and give him the strength to continue the great work. I have the greatest respect for the man; the son of the African soil. Thokoza Makhosi!


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