The beauty of Diversity… perspective from an interdisciplinary study

I asked some of my friends what they love about Africa (The Motherland) because I wanted to know how my friends view their communities, what makes them fall in love with their surroundings and the people around them. Why did I do this you may ask? Well a couple of months ago I fell in love, I fell bad, I was in really deep (I still am )  with Africans, their diversity, spirit, tolerance and their shared love for cultural ( food and clothes) diversity.  I mean I have always had a deep love for my own country but I did not feel the same way about other African countries until I made friends who are from various other African countries.

Currently, I am falling in love with interdisciplinary studies. Research disciplines much like Africans have their diversity embedded in them from diverse methodologies to different ways in which they impact or influence the communities they are communicated to. Contrary to popular belief Africa is not all that poor, hungry and disease infested. To us Africans, Africa is home, it is a place where we build friendships, communities and ultimately connect with each other from one country to another. It is with pleasure that I share with you what my friends had to say about Africa, our home.

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Andrianina (Madagascar)

Andrianina is a working mother of 3 who is really passionate about child and youth development in Madagascar. She works on various programs that educate the youth about the repercussions of crime and corruption. Andrianina has a lovely sense of humour, is fond of nature and enjoys having a good meal. “Among Malagasy typical lunch, what I like the most is crushed cassava leaves mixed with a bit of fat pork Huummm so yummy it melts in your mouth” (she really did write that). I recommend this to you if you ever come to Madagascar.   I also love romazavz royal it is also among the best foods”

Kevin (Zimbabwe)

Speaking to Kevin made me realize how unique and precious the spirit of Ubuntu is. He says “I appreciate the togetherness, in the sense that it really does take a village to raise a child I know this from my cousins who are in Australia. They talk about how raising their children with just the grandparents is not the same as having the community around you guide their children when they need it” Kevin also appreciates the diversity of languages and how “somehow they are organized in a way that works for all of us”. He is also a lover of good African cuisine.

Having interacted with young people from various African countries I have learned that we as Africans appreciate different things about the Africa we love. What stood out for me in the interactions is that the diversity in our way of life is the very essence of our humanity. Much like Africans, research disciplines are different they are set on different fundamentals and principles which need to need to be respected particularly if one wishes to engage in an interdisciplinary study. Since I started working on an interdisciplinary study, combining agricultural extension with media, I have found new respect for interdisciplinary studies. I have always loved film and media (radio and print media), however, working with media on an academic space has made me appreciate the level of influence the discipline of media has over people’s lives.

Interdisciplinary studies are both intriguing and challenging Starting my PhD I knew I would enjoy integrating agricultural extension with media, what I did not anticipate was me falling in love with media and the possibilities it presents for agricultural extension that really shook me. Working on this project means more than just bringing together two disciplines, it means tapping into bigger and better levels of communicating science in our streets both locally and internationally. I cannot help but stop being ignorant an unbothered about what happens in other disciplines in terms of producing and communicating information to society. Just like how every culture is unique and important to a specific tribe and yet when brought together they make up the beautiful diversity of a country and even continent, all disciplines of research are an integral part of our communities.

working on an interdisciplinary study

Within the research space, we have to work together because at the end of the day the goal is to improve our communities be it corporate, social, business or science communities. We must be willing to step out comfort zones and into understanding the complexities of existing in an academic space.

 “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”. ~ African proverb

What is at the Centre of Excellence?

In 2004, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) with the National Research Foundation (NRF) established the first seven Centres of Excellence (CoE). These Centres, based on the successful CoE models implemented overseas, were adopted to build on existing capacity and resources but also aimed to bring researchers together to collaborate across disciplines and institutions to drive science excellence.

I joined the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI)–the host institution of the Centre of Excellence in Tree Health Biotechnology (CTHB)–in 2008 when I started my Honours degree. At the beginning on my Honours, I didn’t quite understand what the Centre of Excellence was or why it even existed. How “excellent” was this programme? Was there a need for tree health research in South Africa? I was really only concerned about doing well and learning as much as I could so that I would be a better candidate for a Master’s. But my eyes have opened up since then.

Between my classes and research project, I was encouraged to get more involved in the CoE’s activities by volunteering to be a mentor for the undergraduate mentorship programme, working in the Diagnostic Clinic (which services both the CTHB and TPCP), attending workshops run by Dr Marin Coetzee, who conducts some of his research in the CoE, and so on. The CTHB–true to the purpose of the Centres–made more room for excellence; more postgraduates could complete their studies through FABI, more essential equipment could be bought, research could include other sectors and not threaten industry-specific funding, opportunities through workshops and collaboration started to grow, leveraging funding and excellence became more important, etc. The CTHB – a virtual centre run through FABI – became a critical part of FABI and because of that, the CTHB absorbed some of its excellence, built on it and delivered its own excellence.

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The TPCP began at the University of the Free State before moving to the University of Pretoria, where it became the founding programme for FABI. The TPCP helped start a number of other research programmes that are run out of FABI.  The CTHB started at FABI in 2004 and has linked a number of institutions to FABI and the University of Pretoria. 

I experienced how research can truly grow and have international reach. As the CoE’s research net widened, we started to identify more and more problems of concern to plant health in South Africa—many of them brought on by climate change and globalization. Because of the limited capacity in the country, back in 2004 to deal with pest and diseases that were arriving from other parts of the world, the importance of national and international collaborations and knowledge exchange became a priority. These close connections–that are still being built and expanded today–have led to growth in South Africa’s capacity; not just around FABI but at all the institutions linked to the CTHB. In 14 years, the CoE has produced 786 publications, 125 students, and really changed the ways in which we understand diseases of our native plants.

As a student associated with a CoE, I have had better opportunities for funding, wonderful teaching, mentorship, collaboration, and international exposure. Like those that have come before me, I plan to contribute to the science excellence in the country and grow more excellent people. No matter what happens to these Centres in future, as funding continues to dry up, we need to remember to keep excellence at the centre of anything we do—for us, for our country and for the world.