FINDING PURPOSE AND FULFILLMENT IN 2020

To be or not to be an academic? 

Ziglar said ‘Making a big life change is pretty scary. But, know what’s even scarier? Regret’. I had chased goals my whole life. A perfectionist. I was the youngest of everything – deployed diplomat, project manage a multi-million US$ initiative on behalf of the South African government abroad, a participant in a USA – South Africa exchange programme for earmarked future leaders and government senior manager at the time.

unnamed (1)Being an over-achiever became who I was. Being a workaholic was simply part of my personality. The fact that I survived an attack in my workplace and an attempted coup in the Democratic Republic of Congo – with a failed rocket in our complex pool (thank goodness for outdated Russian military rejects sold equally to African governments and rebels), reinforced this idea that I was a brave, young, warrior. A political activist since fourteen, I thought I knew who I was, what I wanted and exactly how to get there. 

 

Fast forward to 2017. Our eldest daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADD. She needed therapy and hands-on support to ensure that she didn’t think of herself as a failure, but as a shining star whose mind worked differently. It was our job to understand her, instead of her attempting to conform to us. I can’t explain the shock and guilt I felt. I should have known, but of course, I didn’t since I was working 14 to 18 hour days, travelling extensively whilst nannies and my mother did parental duties. I had failed our child and being me, failure was not an option. I quit my job immediately with my colleagues thinking I had a mental breakdown (later I would come to see it as a mental watershed moment). I home-schooled and supported all three girls in their individual needs and interests; even had a fourth child. By the end of 2018, the kids were ready to return/start school and our family was in a good place. Failure averted.

I always planned to enter academia. My husband suggested I do my Masters in Security Studies in 2019 to take time to re-evaluate and still be a hands-on mom. He forgot who I was. I had to be the top student in the Masters in Security Studies and when I was done in March with my mini-dissertation proposal, I couldn’t refuse the DST-NRF bursary to work on a full-time dissertation to be followed by a PhD in food safety governance as part of a broader Centre of Excellence in Food Security project. I thought it would be a breeze. It isn’t. Nothing prepared me for the intense work, emotional highs and lows and even challenges with my supervisors.

IMG_9762Being in my late thirties, I’m surrounded by youth who have achieved far more in academia, and elder academics who don’t appreciate my work experience as their rigid outlook does not fit with my views to transform academia by breaking down toxic patriarchal cultures, stop being a journal producing machine, aligning research outputs to what is relevant and required by society and avoid academic language as an exclusionary barrier. I advocate instead to co-produce knowledge with government and civil society that is understandable and practically geared, without removing rigorous evidence-based research – https://www.up.ac.za/alumni/news/post_2745225-meet-our-new-vice-chancellor-and-principal.

Over the last two years I learned that instead of seeing my choices as a failure, I could use them as learning opportunities. My move to the Centre of Excellence could either be my best or worst decision over the coming year, but it did remind me of what my passions were – Africa, immigration, security and decolonization. I realized that it’s okay to change course as only you impose your limits. I might not currently be writing on a topic of my choice but it pushes me to my limits and reignited my passion for writing, reading diversely, sharing knowledge, continuous learning and listening to different perspectives to best iteratively engage.

unnamedIt’s not easy to start from scratch, but I’m going to be scared enough to not want to regret that I didn’t try. My plans are to complete my dissertation by July and immediately continue with my PhD. I hope to research, to write and importantly to learn more from others, perhaps even lecture the next generation of political scientists if given the opportunity. I learned the hard way that my family is my first passion and priority. I might no longer need to over-achieve, the balance might be more important now, but doing my best within the circumstances remains. As Gandalf said ‘We cannot choose what time is given to us, all we can decide is what to do with it’. And I’ve made my decision, for 2020 at least. 

The Magic of Museums

 

Museums are some of my favourite spaces, I find myself drawn to them, wherever I go, whether I am on holiday or on a trip for work, I always end up wondering into one. A year ago, the world watched in horror as the Museu Nacional, the largest and oldest museum in Brazil, went down in a blaze, fire consuming the building and the 20 million or so artefacts it housed. The museum was 200 years old and this tragedy prompted discussions in museum circles regarding issues such as repatriation and digitisation of collections. The loss was immense, and the global outcry highlighted just how important museums are, they serve as spaces for research as well as for learning, bringing communities together and curating heritage. To me, museums transport me back in time and renew my child-like wonder at the world around us, they make me proud to be South African, they restore a sense of appreciation in our natural world, in our history and in the possibilities of our future.

In September this year, I worked closely with fellow postgraduate students at the School of Anatomical Sciences at WITS on a temporary exhibit that celebrated our school’s centenary. The exhibit was hosted at Maropeng and I can tell you, it is no small feat organising one so kudos to museum staff members and curators who undertake this important job! Our exhibit ran for two weeks but took months to plan, we asked a lot of our postgrad students who had tutoring commitments, deadlines and research projects to work on, but they gave their time, energy and ideas to make it a success. At the end of the exhibit I thought that they would be put off public engagement and organizing temporary displays and exhibits for the rest of their lives but to my surprise, it ignited a fire in all of us. We were interacting daily with scholars, families, children of all ages and they were curious and showed a real interest in anatomical sciences. The exhibit was hands-on, we had microscopes, archaeological excavations, facial identification activities, there were activities on embryonic development and extracting information from skeletons that can be used to identify people and all of these activities were met with a level of excitement I can recall having as a child! In truth, I don’t think I have ever lost that excitement.

Museums are not just important because of what is housed within their walls, they are important because of how they make us feel. There have been studies and many articles on the positive effects of museum visits on our mental health. Some studies report that museums help reduce anxiety and stress and feelings of loneliness, simply put, museums make us happy. They also allow family bonding, I witnessed this first hand as I saw proud parents encourage their children’s enthusiasm, standing outside in the hot sun so that their children could have an opportunity to excavate a skeleton from a sand pit, waiting patiently while they placed bones in the correct positions and celebrating with them when they completed the task. I met a family who had come to our exhibit and whilst their daughters excavated, I spoke to the parents, both of whom are engineers by training. The father explained to me that the youngest daughter has been fascinated with archaeology and palaeontology for a few years (she was probably 9 years old when we met), so they’ve taken her to see the home of dinosaurs in Clarens and on this holiday they brought her to the Cradle of Humankind. Her dad asked me about career options, what she would need to study at school and how she can enter the field. I was blown away that they expressed such support for her interests so early in her life, it’s parents like hers that give me hope for more women to join my field! As we’ve discussed many times here at SAYAS, strong support systems are crucial.

As I mentioned earlier, I LOVE museums and have been fortunate enough to visit museums in Africa, North America and Europe. My favourite museum has to be the National Museums of Kenya where I attended a conference in 2016, it is massive and constantly buzzing with life. There are many schools and hundreds of students who pass through the gates every day, I think that made it even more amazing, the atmosphere was filled with excitement constantly.

lisbon museums

In 2017, I ventured to the USA to attend the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) meeting which took place in New Orleans (a complete dream come true) and true to my love for museums, I boarded a boat called the Creole Queen and went on a one-woman trip to a former plantation which now serves as a museum, this was an incredible experience although very solemn and humbling.

 

ripleysWhen I left for Los Angeles to work with my supervisor who is based there, I visited the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, I may be giving away my age here but I loved that show growing up! In 2018, I attended the European Society for the study of Human Evolution (ESHE) meeting with a group of researchers from South Africa. We spent a few days in the city of Lisbon where we visited many museums but my favourite was the Lisboa Story Centre, I enjoyed the simplicity of the exhibits and how modern the set up was, definitely something to do if ever you find yourself in the city!

International museums are a fun time but learning about your own country is equally entertaining and important. I have been able to see many of the natural history museums here because of my field of study, my personal favourites are: Iziko Museums (because you can literally walk under the skeleton of a whale), Ditsong Museums (because it is home to one of my favourite fossils Mrs Ples and one of my favourite curators Dr. Mirriam Tawane) as well as the Origins Centre (it is down the road from my house and they host many fun activity days as well as the most interesting public talks). There are many, many other museums throughout the country, a list can be found here and you can see what local museums appeal to you. Remember, museums need foot traffic in order to keep their doors open so your visit helps ensure that it stays open and inspires the next generation of researchers, teachers, historians and explorers.