Learning with indigenous knowledge at Schumacher College

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Stepping aside after 15 years as the founding director of the SI has become a gigantic adventure! By December, I will have spent only 3 months at my home in the Lynedoch EcoVillage in a journey that has spanned 10 countries, a 350 km pilgrimage, trying my hand as a ‘talking head’ at an international conference or two and now deeply immersed in the 4 month residential component of a brand-new experimental course at Schumacher College in the UK.

I left home as Litha, June and Brad kept the home fires burning under Jess’ leadership; Jess and Rosie set off for their teaching trip in Nepal; Luke was teaching in India; Manda taking over setting up the first Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) 0-3 infancy course in Africa; SPARK Lynedoch beginning their journey as an independent community primary school with 120 bursary children so far; the agroecology academy putting down roots and Lynedoch EcoVillage taking on talking together through the real, everyday challenges of creating different futures in a troubled country. What an amazing collective to participate in, and represent.

Schumacher College has inspired me for well over 20 years. I attended Fritjof Capra’s first Systems Theory course in 1992; became vegetarian then from the amazing local and organic cooking; brought my sons here when I facilitated Fritjof’s course in 1998; attended two Consciousness intensives in 2009/10 and taught on the Beyond Development course in 2012. The SI was our own South African homebrew, with a very specific context and very specific challenges. Along the way, a great inspiration has been the College, with its special blend of place, ecology, spirituality and intellectual rigour. Now, they hold 3 masters’ degrees in partnership with Plymouth University – Holistic Science, Economics for Transition and Ecological Design. The apprentice gardeners in a certificated programme too are part of the College fabric. Every morning, the whole learning community participates in cleaning, cooking and gardening. And the strange and beautiful ways of learning that are slow, meandering, relational and emergent. Where mystery has a quiet way of being present.

The incredible privilege of my being here has been made possible by study bursaries from the SI and Schumacher College. My course falls within Schumacher College’s Elmhirst Centre Soul, Spirit and Story programme – held in the original Elmhirst home, and their dream in the 1920’s of connecting radical education, arts and the land. “The social, ecological and economic challenges that face us are a clear demonstration that information and expertise alone will not create the shift we need towards more resilient, creative, equitable and sustainable communities. Instead we need to dig deep to the core of humanity to explore the myths and stories, beliefs and values that define our purpose and action in the world” – Rachel Fleming, programme director. In short, the question is: what does it mean to be human?

My course is called Becoming Indigenous: ways of being, knowing and doing. What does it mean to be indigenous in the 21st century in a globalised world? What does it mean, and feel, to be connected to place? It is clear that there is no return to long-lost indigenous communities – what roles might stories, rituals, ceremonies, dance, sacred place and wilderness have as we envisage worlds different to the modern, mechanised existences we tend to now call ‘life’?

Having just completed our first phase, focusing largely on Southern African traditions and convened by Colin Campbell (the main attractor in my choice of this course) and Lucy Hinton, I am overwhelmed by the complexities and intricacies that made up community life over thousands of years. Our teacher is Botswana-born, fluent in Setswana and a practitioner trained from childhood in traditional African medicine. He tells stories rooted in natural lore and law, transformation, healing, sacred sites and cultural cosmologies. Our modules have covered Coming Home to an Animate World; An indigenous worldview – Four Nations of Ancestors; A Cosmology of Connection and the Bones of Ritual. Cyclical time (not linear), seasons, phases of the moon, all life, (not only human), and the 13,8 billion year history of our universe guide daily living and practice.

When there is no separation between inner and outer – just where one places ones focus – this journey is both intensely private and hectically communal at the same time. Class is like a market-place! Re-entanglement, subversive spiritualties, figuring out non-dualism, laughter and tears where I have not seen a PowerPoint presentation in 6 weeks. The learning is thick, textured and includes an all-night fasting vigil in the forest, alone.

This week, our teachers are from Nigeria – Bayou Akomalafe and Ej Clement-Akomolafe. The course is Bringing Health back down to Earth. As disembodied heads, how do we view ‘illness’? Something to fix, so we become more efficient and functional? Disconnected from our bodies, these miracles seem to have turned into machines to be controlled, commoditised and not to be listened to.

The next 8 weeks see Becoming Indigenous exploring Native American traditions; indigenous activism from South America; story-telling through documentary-making; connecting to place here at Dartmoor and a period of time at Embercombe considering 21st-century activism.

After the 4 month residential, we develop our individual projects under the mentorship of one of the teachers; connect online with our class and then return next July to present to class colleagues and faculty on the work achieved in all individual projects.

It’s an extraordinary set of messy explorations…watch this space for bringing it home.

The Dartington Hall Estate was founded in the 1920s by two charismatic entrepreneurs