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.

The hand that rocked The Cradle of Humankind

I remember as a child I was obsessed with documentaries on Ancient Egypt, I would stare at the TV screen as though in a trance. 

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Maropeng, Cradle of Humankind

For years, I spent time feeding my fascination for ancient people and culture, completely unaware of the treasure trove of evolutionary history 20 minutes away from my childhood home. I – now a paleoanthropologist- was completely unaware of the treasure of The Cradle of Humankind. The Cradle of Humankind plays a pivotal role in our understanding of our evolution as a species and I had never been there, not even once until I began my postgraduate degree in this remarkable field. This may seem like an odd confession but the more I read about it the more I realise that my experience (or lack thereof) was not unique.

Recently, a PhD candidate from the University of Edinburgh, Elsa Panciroli wrote an article for The Guardian on the image problem in palaeontology where she highlighted the barriers to diversity and the stereotypes that drive them. If ever you have watched “Jurassic Park”, “Indiana Jones” or even “The Mummy” you would notice that most of the heroes/scientists in these film share one commonality- they are all white males. This image has dominated the science since the early days with many women and people of colour actively excluded from the mainstream narrative.

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Do you see any similarities?

Could it be that I did not know about palaeontology because I was never actually the targeted candidate, groomed to become one? Could it be a systemic problem that has resulted in a lack of representation, specifically of African researchers? This, in a field that prides itself on our fossil record but too often, disregards the potential of African academics.

We often hear the term “representation matters”, it has even become a popular hashtag on Twitter but it is so much more than just a social media slogan, it is a mindset that should be adapted in every industry. As a young woman of colour in the field of palaeosciences, it was (and still is) important for me to see people like me in this space, and not only in the space but in senior positions.

In 2017, Dr Gaokgatlhe Mirriam Tawane became the curator of Plio-Pleistocene palaeontology at the Ditsong Museums of South Africa (she was also the first Black woman in South Africa to graduate with a Doctorate in palaeoanthropology) and for the very first time, I felt like I belonged. Dr Tawane is a phenomenal researcher and mentor, alongside other trailblazers such as Dr Dipuo Kgotleng and Dr Nonhlanhla Vilakazi of the University of Johannesburg. It still amazes me that in 2019 we are still seeing “firsts” as in “the first Black woman to achieve x.y,z”. But how do we change this? And indeed many will ask, is it even important that we do?

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Dr Gaokgatlhe Mirriam Tawane, from the Ditsong Museums of South Africa

The answer to the latter is a resounding YES, it is important that we actively strive to change the perception of palaeosciences (and STEM careers in general) so that we introduce diverse narratives to an otherwise monotonous story. It is important because there are many South African schoolchildren who enjoy evolution and cherish their experiences at places like The Cradle of Humankind but who will never know that we need them to keep that spark alive and join us in academia.

The answer to the former question is a lot more complicated, how do you change a system? I do not have the answers to that, in my naivety I hope to change the world but practically this has to be a team effort and this team includes the demographic palaeontology was originally catered for, senior white men. Dr Kathleen Grogan so eloquently stated this idea in her recent Nature Ecology & Evolution article discussing gender bias in the workplace when she said, “Water can’t fix the leaks in the pipeline.”

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The leaky pipeline of women in STEM

In order to address racial inequality and a lack of diversity in any field, we require an open, honest and uncomfortable conversation with all those who love science. We also need to actively ensure exposure to these fields in primary school, keeping that interest alive well into tertiary education. This means scrutinizing our outreach efforts as researchers in the field, policy makers and educators.

Often, calls for change are misinterpreted as disdain for a system, actually, it is a way of showing you care enough to know it can be better. I criticize my science because I love it, because I believe in its ability to unite people but I truly believe that we need the study of evolution, to actually evolve. How many women, how many Africans and how many people of colour with unique perspectives and a love for the science have we already allowed to seep through the cracks of a dated pipeline? I know I am not willing to lose another, not even one drop.