Working and swiping my way towards a guiding thread

At the age of 32, it feels like a very long time ago that I worked as a journalist in my early 20s. It is the profession I saw myself growing into when I was younger and the one that I approached with vigour after school through various internships. My ongoing freelance work next to my first-year university studies at a local newspaper in Germany offered me a glimpse into the politics embedded in conveying stories through this medium. Realising its limitations made me pursue my anthropological studies even harder, which, unlike the form of journalism I had encountered, permitted a long-term, in-depth approach to analysing everyday phenomena. At the same time, it allowed me to cultivate my passion for writing. My university studies also led me to permanently re-locate to South Africa 10 years ago.

Fast forward: currently, I am a PhD candidate at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Cape Town. Here, I have spent the past three years doing research and writing my thesis on the behavioural use of the dating application Tinder. This involved using Tinder to recruit study participants and grappling with how – and with whom – intimacy is cultivated in Cape Town, starting with right and left swipes on online profiles. The focus of the ethnography resulting from this lies on how individuals perceive themselves and others in a partially cybernated process of relating and the ways in which these perceptions are reflected in interactions. Identity formation as well as the interplay of structural influences and individual behaviour also played a crucial part in my ethnographic studies on male refugees in Cape Town and on suburban neighbourhood surveillance. Both were awarded with a distinction and published as monographs with Langaa RPCIG. I am also currently contributing to a research project on professional identity formation among first-in-family students at the faculty of engineering at UCT.

My journey thus far writes itself rather easily. However, it is only now that I feel I can draw out a consistent, guiding tread across it. For the most part, things seemed topsy-turvy and very much characterised by unknown factors, including visa issues and concerns about securing financial support. What I discovered relatively early as a theme and as fuel to keep me pursuing my studies is a passion to engage with the lived experiences of people. Looking back, I can now claim this to be evident in my endeavours to date, just like my profound interest in facilitating dialogue across and beyond disciplines. Yet, these things only filtered through more clearly with time. I consider myself lucky in having developed a genuine desire to immerse myself in study contexts in an engaged, enthusiastic manner. It is even luckier that I had the opportunity to nourish this desire throughout my scholarly career so far. This includes my studies at UCT and my work as a Junior Research Fellow at the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division (HEARD) at the University of KwaZulu Natal. The most interesting moments have been the ones in which heads were conceptually bumped. Working on and with digital technologies for my PhD got me involved in the Digital Humanities (DH) community and I am among the founding members of the Digital Humanities African Network (DHAfricaN), which is a needed extension of DH scholarship towards perspectives of the global South. I also started regularly contributing to workshops and conferences across the globe, which the ongoing global pandemic has rendered more accessible in an online format. These engagements have been particularly exciting, as they opened up a lot of ground for discussion and, thus, for me to spin the proverbial ‘guiding tread’ of my voyage further.

I am still eager to extend discussions even further and make them accessible to a wider audience – not specific to disciplines and not even necessarily limited to the academic ivory tower. This is why I started writing my own blog (The Junck report), which is my way of marrying my love for social anthropology on the one hand and my persistent devotion to journalism on the other. As I am typing away on my thesis and thinking about how my many years at university (mostly at UCT) have shaped me, I want to share more of my experiences and, through them, connect with people on a similar or perhaps rather different journey. The SAYAS blog is a great opportunity to do so.

Facebooking from the field: My journey into agricultural science communication

Why should agriculturalists be active on social media?

A sweltering summer’s day in the Lowveld, the sun at its zenith baking down into the valleys. Shrill cicadas cut short by the mechanical hum of a tractor’s engine and the dull thundering of a plough ripping through topsoil. A young boy stands on the edge of the field, watching. The rich smell of freshly turned earth floods his nostrils.

This is one of many childhood memories watching my grandfather with bemused curiosity, as he transformed a landscape in front of my eyes. A plant-breeder by profession, he instilled in me a deep-seated fascination for the world. I spent many an hour lost in the maze of gardens, greenhouses, and cultivated fields utterly mesmerised by his craft. However, these experiences did not exist in a vacuum. As I grew older the ecological impacts of the agro-food system and the inequalities of our country became increasingly evident to me. I saw that my childhood memories were a product not only of my grandfather’s hard work as a scientists and a pioneer in the South African plant breeding community, but also of his access to quality education and governmental support for land and agricultural inputs. I knew that I wanted to leverage my own privilege and interest in agriculture to play a part in creating a more sustainable and equitable food system in South Africa.

My grandfather, John McOnie, during his early years in eSwatini inspecting sorghum lines

I hold a BSc in Applied Plant and Soil Sciences from the University of Pretoria, where I am currently finishing off an MSc in agronomy. My research looks at how small-scale farmers across sub-Saharan Africa use social media to form online communities, and identifying how these platforms can be used for agricultural extension, training, and to enhance university-community engagement. I absolutely love my work and can talk about it for hours on end, so much so that there is a TEDx talk about it.  However, most people don’t share my enthusiasm for what my law friends call ‘the study of grass and dirt’, and our field faces an image problem on two fronts.

Firstly, the general-public’s perception of the agricultural industry is plagued by misconceptions and misinformation. The erosion of trust in the system is attributed to a history of poor science communication, the meddling of political and corporate interests, and the repercussions of unsustainable practices. We see sensationalised reports of how the food system is broken and needs to be fixed, but the food system is not a single entity that can be mended with a few patches or a panacea. It is a complex and multifaceted entanglement of humanity, agroecosystems, economic and environmental policy, science, technology, and climate. It is by no means a perfect system, but it is a system that has been under constant development and refinement for the last 10 000 years. More than ever before the general population is isolated from the communities that feed them. As agriculturalists we need to win back the trust of people who will likely never plant a seed in their lives, in order to lobby for the evidence-based policies needed to create a more sustainable and equitable food system. Secondly, as outlined in the 2017 ASSAf consensus study ‘Revitalising Agricultural Education and Training in South Africa’, the agricultural sciences face a number of structural and institutional challenges in recruiting and retaining the next generation of agricultural scientists and academics. The reality is that (to quote the study) “agriculture is not a career of first choice”, and we face a desperate shortage of students across our respective disciplines.

The next generation of agricultural scientists in a profile pit at the 2019 Youth Ag Summit in Brazil

I believe social media is the solution to both of these problems. On these platforms we can connect directly with our consumers, allowing us to show the human element of the industry and unpack the nuances behind contested but scientifically-supported practices. At the same time we can give prospective students a real-time view into our fields, orchards, pastures, profile pits, and labs. To do this we need more farmers, agronomists, horticulturalists, geneticists, plant pathologists, soil scientists, agricultural engineers, weed scientists and crop biophysicists generating online content about our work.  One of my goals of 2020 is becoming one of these agronomists, creating content not only about my work but also about the complexities and oddities of the global food system. I am thrilled to be a part of the 2020 SAYAS blogging team and to share this experience with you!