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. 

June blog pic 1

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.

June blog pic 2

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.

HELP…..I’M NOT READY TO “ADULT”

I have always made jokes about how I want to be a housewife after getting my PhD. A housewife with a PhD in Physics has a nice ring to it. I just recently celebrated my birthday (April baby) and I should admit that it wasn’t one of my happiest days. I woke up on my birthday last month and realized that I am 26. Everyone kept telling me how close I am to 30 after wishing me a happy birthday. Just the other day I was celebrating my 21st and thought to myself that I have all the time in the world. I was depressed half of the morning of my birthday and refused to leave the house. Finally, when I did leave the house, I tried to avoid as many people as possible who knew it was my birthday.

I always say that I have a fear of “adulting” but it never really occurred to me how serious this was until now. Everyone keeps asking me what I want to do with my life, sometimes I am honest enough and tell them I don’t know but they don’t believe me so instead I say I want to be an academic because that answer doesn’t have as many follow up questions.

I know I want to stay in academia and do a post-doc somewhere in Europe but I cannot seem to visualize myself in that situation. I am almost finished with my second year of PhD, this means that I am almost finished with this degree and will have to make serious life choices. Do I really want to stay in academia? Do I want to start a family? Do I want to get married? Do I even want to get a job? So many questions that I don’t have answers to.

MayI am at that point in my life where I cannot continue avoiding responsibilities by staying at school. I will definitely not start a completely new degree just to stay in school longer but at the same time, I don’t know if I want to leave school. I have repeatedly said that I want to stay in academia for the past 5 years that I can’t actually imagine myself anywhere else. At the same time, I can’t help question if this is really the right fit for me.

My friends and families around me are getting married, having babies, starting new jobs and building houses. I feel no pressure whatsoever to do the same which worries me a little, I feel like everyone has their lives planned out and then there is me. I’m just like “I wanna do a post-doc after my Phd”, I don’t know where, when or how but I am going to do it. People have detailed 10-year life plans, I don’t even have a detailed research plan for 3 years.

Growing up is difficult, especially since you realize along the way that not everything goes according to plan. Do we really know what we want to do with our lives or do we just go with the flow? Why can’t life come with a manual?

So my refusal to grow up is justified by all the unanswered questions I mentioned above but what are the reasons I feel like staying young is better? Well for starters, the responsibilities that come with growing up are too much. As a young person, the most you have to worry about is making sure you eat every day and remember to pay the rent. Even when it comes to the rent, if you find yourself without money that month, you can easily call home and cry your eyes out.

I have a rough idea of what is out there waiting for but at the same time, I feel like I don’t know enough to be out there. I know the best way to really know is to go out there and learn as you go but I don’t know if I’m ready to put myself out there. Every time I spend time with my mother/aunt and they tell me all the problems they have to deal with, I don’t know how they handle it all. I am scared that if I grow up “mentally”, I will have to start thinking about grown-up things. I will have to be more responsible for most aspects of my life. I am currently proud of the fact that I can walk into a grocery store and buy vegetables as part of the groceries. Am I ready to start worrying about utility bills and getting a payslip every month?

Honestly speaking, academia right now feels like the best option for young people like myself to be in. I know very few people in my life who actually want to stay in academia and for that reason, I keep them close because I need all the support I can get. Academia has flexible hours, allowing us to only work when we are most productive. As scared as I am about working, I am not scared about being an academic. I mean I hear academics complain about the admin that comes with the job and the endless frustrations of dealing with students but that doesn’t scare me as much as sitting in an office every day from 9-5pm writing reports.

I think I am ready to be open to the idea of “adulting”, after all, the clock is ticking (both biologically and approaching the submission deadline).