Respect goes a long way: why all research fields matter

Agricultural extension is one of the oldest forms of information dissemination methods that are used in the public space. It is the application of scientific research and new knowledge of agricultural practices through farmer education. The practical application of Agricultural extension encompasses a wide range of communication and learning activities that are purposefully made suitable, acceptable and relatable for farmers particularly those in rural communities. It is these learning activities and communication methods that I am most interested in and would love to contribute to the growing knowledge of keeping them relevant to changing technology times and information requirements. Over the years I have learned the importance of the Agricultural Extension discipline. I have also come to understand the fundamental principles upon which it was founded which have cultivated a visceral sense of appreciation in me. 

However, over the years I have been ridiculed a lot in the discipline that I have chosen. I have learned that respect for various disciplines within the agricultural space as well as other academic spaces goes a long way. In fact, it does not show respect only for the field but also for the people who are in the field that I have learned. I often hear people ridicule certain study fields that they believe are inferior to theirs because they are not “Hard Sciences” which makes me wonder whether it is plain ignorance, or do they just assume that they are better or is it straight up arrogance with a huge dose of disrespect. I may never know but I do know that it is has a lasting impression on the minds of those to whom the disrespect is thrown.

Consequently, I developed an inferiority complex which stuck with me for quite a while. Initially, I thought I had the imposter syndrome but now I understand that the years of taking in the ridicule and disrespect led to the development of an inferiority complex deep within myself. When I registered for my undergraduate degree I was excited and hopeful until I started attending classes and I realized my classmates (the agricultural extension class of 2012) and I were treated differently by the “hard science” group of students. Reason being we had registered a Bachelor degree instead of a “Bachelor of Science degree”. According to them a bachelor of Agriculture was not worth their respect, the disrespect was real. 

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My classmates and I were bombarded with sinister remarks such as “the dumb peoples’ degree” or “are they even scientists really?  “If they are what on earth are they doing?” This treatment continued until our Honors year.  By the time we got to Honors level, a number of us had changed the degree for various reasons of course but sometimes I cannot help but wonder whether the disrespect was part of the major influences that convinced my classmates to change their degrees to “hard science degrees” Those of us who of course decided to stick with our choice in life continued to endure the demining remarks.

Needless to say, it is not only within the agricultural disciplines that such behaviour is prominent. More-often-than-not academics in various disciplines exhibit disrespect towards each other in one form or another. For example, differences in opinion about which field is more demanding and more important exist between natural science and social science scholars. Just like how one is considered to have worked less or is inferior if they are a “Doctor of Philosophy’ rather than being a “Medical Doctor”.

I am glad I stayed…

I have said this before that I have come to love and respect the discipline because of the rudimentary principles it was founded and still functions on.  But this liking and being certain that I want to stay in agriculture did not come without me doubting whether or not I should continue in it. It is true that “life will test your choices” and through my experiences as a Bachelor of Agriculture graduate, it has.

So for the longest time, I have questioned my belonging in the academic space. I wondered whether pursuing a career in academics was worth it because academics for me was that one space where I experienced a lot of self-doubtsjuly 1. Fast forward to now, I work on an interdisciplinary study and I strongly believe that healthy interdisciplinary study and work environments where we as individuals make the informed, civil and kind decision not to undermine, and make sinister jokes about each other professions are the kind of environments we need to grow the body of knowledge.  Truth is we need each other to co-exist.

Choosing to stay in agriculture … a changed perspective

I have always admired Oprah Winfrey for the kind of influence she has in making sure that the stories of people but mostly the American people were heard. Such that I was convinced I had no future in agriculture let alone Agricultural Extension. When I learned that she had studied communication at Tennessee State University I wished I had taken journalism then I would also work my way up the broadcasting industry. I kept having such thoughts regardless of the fact that my life was immersed in obtaining a Master’s degree in Agricultural Extension at the time, a research field I was convinced is not for me. 

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During that time whenever people asked me what I was doing, I would say in a gloomy voice “Agricultural Extension” and never bothered to even explain (to those who didn’t understand) what exactly I am specializing in.  More often, the responses I got were “ohh that is a great field to be in” I obviously shared a different opinion to theirs because I felt stuck in Agricultural extension.

But why Oprah you might wonder…

In my view, she did a great job of creating a space where people could tell their stories on camera [besides her philanthropy work]. I empathized with the people whose stories were on her show, I rejoiced with them, took time to understand their lifestyle, their food and clothing choices. I even joined some of their movements in spirit of course… yeap, I was a real troop. In hindsight, I realize that I invested myself so much in their stories because somebody [Oprah] took the time to listen to them and to tell them thus giving the world an American perspective through the lives of ordinary citizens.

Impact on me

In 2018, I watched a Tedx talk by Komla Dumor where he was talking about the importance of the African perspective when telling African stories. In his talk, he showed two different pictures of the same city Luanda the capital city of Uganda. The one picture showed people winning and dining in a lovely beach restaurant and the other picture shows people, mostly children who were queuing in a long line for water from a single tap. He then asked a question about which story should be told about this city.  At that moment I realized I was missing the point. There was a perspective, a voice whose people I was not willing to invest time listening to, sad as it is it was the African people and their perspectives particularly those in disadvantaged communities just like the children in the second picture. I thought to myself I am African and yet I want to mimic the American way of telling stories. There would be no song and dance in these stories no African essence to them but as l long as they are done the way American television does them they were fine to me … wow, I once was lost BUT now am found.

When I started my PhD the intention was to document on camera as many stories as I could that would ultimately become a documentary and in some miraculous way it will lead me to work in television that way, I would be out of this “agricultural trap” I’m in and all this made sense in my mind. Because even after watching the talk by Komla I was not 100% convinced to stay in agriculture. I started reading about the importance of documenting African agricultural knowledge held by smallholder farmers.  I realized that their wealth of knowledge is intergenerational and we continue to draw from it. However, very little of this knowledge is being documented and much of it is being lost. This to mean there is a part of the African identity, particularly where agricultural knowledge and practices are concerned that is slowly disappearing. This made me look at my discipline in a different light after years of thinking I played myself being an agricultural extensionist. For example, when I was a Masters student at the University of Fort Hare, ARDRI a research institute at the University used to host Farmer Market Day on the 1st of every month for smallholder farmers in Keiskammahoek to come and sell their produce to the public. I made it a point to attend as many of the markets as I could to interview the farmers about their farming experiences, how and why they started farming.

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I have now seen the error of my ways. The goal I am now working towards and the perspective I now have is one of creating a space where African knowledge about farming can be shared, documented and preserved. It is true that Africans have a wealth of agricultural knowledge, it is also true that not all this knowledge is always documented and when the custodians of the knowledge pass on they take their knowledge with them.

Farming is intricately woven into people’s lifestyle their religious beliefs and their cultural practices. It is more than just a food producing activity. To some Africans, it is part of the DNA of their identity. For example, there are families that would not dare rear pigs because of religious beliefs but do rear goats because they are an integral part of appeasing their ancestors during rituals. Agricultural extension has given the opportunity to converse with farmers and understand this truth.  Now, this is why I am so grateful to the agricultural extension that it did not give up on me, I can now combine what I appreciate which is agricultural extension with what I enjoy doing and that is conversing on camera.