The beginning of the end

By Yonela Z. Njisane

Rubbing shoulders with the big guns -- the new Dr Amanda Yucca Chulayo
Rubbing shoulders with the big guns — the new Dr Amanda Yucca Chulayo

Just the other day a senior colleague and a big sis, Dr Amanda Yucca Chulayo, graduated with her doctoral degree in Agriculture-Animal Science. It was a great achievement and the beginning of a new chapter for her. For me it was inspiring and motivating. The thing is, she is “one of us”- another girl from the small town of Cofimvaba, blossoming for the whole world to witness.

Myself and Amanda, some years ago. I would like to think the conversation was about our work on cattle, getting some tips from the sweetest breed - Boran.
Myself and Amanda, some years ago. I would like to think the conversation was about our work on cattle, getting some tips from the sweetest breed – Boran.

Seeing her make it out strong despite of all the ups and downs I have seen and heard from her about her academic journey made me reflect on my own share of troubles. See, the journey itself may be bitter at times but the fruits to bear at the end are certainly sweeter. I know it’s hard to think about the sugary side of it when you are busy climbing the mountain with its obstacles.
As Greg Child said “Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit, is the answer to the mystery why we climb”


The last picture I took with the Boys just before they were transported.
The last picture I took with the Boys just before they were transported.

It sure is a climb…
I am currently in the phase of my studies I would like to refer to as “The beginning of the end.” It has been a long and hectic five months of data collection and everything before and after that. The Boys are gone and I don’t really want to talk about it. They were loved dearly.
In short, we wrapped up all the behavioural observations and physiological sampling. I had to organize all the administrative issues around the slaughter processes. The observations and sampling was followed up during transportation and slaughter. And now, at the “almost” end, I am only left with some lab analyses.
Well, for obvious reasons, a part of me is glad it is all slowly coming to an end. But so far, I’ve learned more than I thought I could, and I think it’s not nearly the end of the learning process for me, even though I am edging closer and closer to that Dr title.
I think I am going to start writing a journal on “lessons of the day” just to make sure no day goes by without a dose of daily development. For instance, I have learnt a lot about myself, other people, different animal species and a long list of skills during this period of my studies:
• Selfie 101: I learnt that Yonela (Myself) is a strict, highly organized (Oh Yes I am!!!), straight forward and a professional person, period! She pays attention to details and she doesn’t really allow room for negotiations when it comes to that. Over time she can lose her cool when her patience is being tested. She gets frustrated when things are not going in order. She may be a sensitive person but she is very forgiving and has a big heart. She has learned to talk about herself in the third person 😉 and she might be doing better that she realizes…
• Society 101: I have learned that not everyone is as bad as I always perceived (personal experience). There are still good hearts out there, like those that tirelessly devoted their time and energy assisting me with my field work. As a good friend said in Shona “Yu werokamu” which means “we help each other,” and if it wasn’t for them, I don’t think I would have ever practically learned and seen the significance of that concept.
Of course you also have to learn the tough lessons about people. A friend made me realise that people will always talk. Whether you do “good or bad” there will always be those that are simply not satisfied with you. Sometimes you may know the reasons but sometimes you may not. But you can’t live trying to please other people. The lesson there is that you always strive to do the right thing, stick to your path without even trying to please anyone but God… in that way you will be safe.
• Animal 101: The time I spent at the farm was my favourite part of this PhD process. I always say that animals are the best creatures. I learned that it’s not just dogs and cats that are interesting, with that ability to amaze and make you smile. All animal species are fascinating and entertaining in their own way (but, sure, I may be biased a little bit…).

The Boys filling up in the afternoon for an evening snack -- it's their favourite time to graze.
The Boys filling up in the afternoon for an evening snack — it’s their favourite time to graze.

For instance, I didn’t know that donkeys were such anti-social creatures. We (with the Boys) were in the same paddock with them the other day and they would make sure to move further away whenever we got closer. But most of all, the animals I have studied all taught me to stay true to myself and always stick to the people that support and understand me.
• Time 101: Who would have thought that I (without being pushed) would make decisions to go to the field on weekends – even long ones and holidays? When I joined postgraduate studies I was told that there are no holidays at this level but I would always steal myself some time. I now have learnt the importance of each and every second. Time adds or subtracts towards the goal, depending on how it’s used.
Don’t they say you reap what you sow? I believe that! For every sacrifice there is a reward. One of the greatest examples is in the Bible, that of Jesus on the cross. One just needs to focus on the mission at hand and be disciplined, keeping the ultimate end in mind. What is a couple of holidays and weekends compared to the time of harvest? The ultimate goal…

All in all…

The last day of paddock behavioural observations -- my catwalk to the finish line.
The last day of paddock behaviour observations — my catwalk to the finish line.

One has to take a breath every now and again to reflect. As the Greek philosopher Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and that is true about the smaller parts of that life, including the PhD journey. Every journey is a teacher; either you take the lessons positively or negatively. What matters is the destination, which should inform your decisions. Whenever you feel discouraged, find inspiration from wherever you are. It could be from within or from other people or things. Just keep taking those steps towards the finish line.

Which doctor to be? What I could’ve been, and what I am now

By Yonela Z. Njisane

The question is “Should I have become a doctor or a Dr?” Growing up, I always knew I would be a doctor someday. Yup! I strongly believed I would be a great Veterinary doctor/surgeon. The thing is, where I come from, you see a lot of sick animals with no facilities to help and that pains my heart. I lost a couple of dogs growing up and I know how disheartening that is. I just wanted to make them all feel better and healthier.

I had it all planned out until I realised how long it takes to obtain that qualification; around 7 years if I am correct. To my surprise, I have now spent more years in school pursuing an academic doctorate instead- this is now my ninth year in tertiary. Even though the time factor initially worried me a lot, it’s probably just a lack of knowledge about how to get into the veterinary degree that stopped me from pursuing it. At first, I had plans to go back to vet science after my BSc Agric. (2011); then it shifted to returning after my MSc Agric. (2013). In my mind, I guess I never gave up on it, even though I didn’t go through with it.

The Boys basking in the morning sun
The Boys basking in the morning sun

However, just recently I found confirmation that I am better off with the path I chose. A vet told me he had no other options but to put my puppy (Storm) to sleep. That, for me, would have been the greatest challenge in the job. I can never stand seeing an animal suffer in anyway, let alone dead, especially by my hand. I sometimes wonder how I am going to cope come the end of my PhD trial — which means slaughter, by the way — considering how I adore the Boys. At least I am not the one who is going to pull the trigger, that’s how I console myself. That part is not my job.

As fun as working with animals can be, challenges will always be there regardless of the path you are in, I guess. One of the Boys almost died the other day. Almost! Thank God we got to the scene in time, even though we were all sure that it was too late to redeem him. I was so close to breaking into tears until I heard him gasping for his breath, fighting for his life.

The Boys
The Boys “race squashing” in the stockade… every month… why can’t they be calm?

If only they knew that instead of all the stomping and squashing in the race every monthly managerial routine, they could just relax, allowing a smooth and a quick process. But hey, they’re just cattle. For me, it would have been a more emotional time than just a loss for the trial. But I learned that you just have to always look out where animals are involved, you have to always be there.

For instance, while some of you were on holiday during the Easter weekend, we were chilling at the farm, in the pastures, with a couple of moos, neighs and baas. It was the paddock behaviour observation week. Holiday or not, it had to be done. The weather was just plain cruel, it was freezing so much that the best way to keep warm was to do some aerobics (turned out someone was taking a video the whole time. Damn these phones).

Another survival trick in the field. A
Another survival trick in the field. A “Hakuna Matata” hat that my friend Coco brought me from Kenya. Turns out these non-floppy hats are useful in all weather conditions!

I must also say that, cattle behaviour does not change just because its holidays either. You can expect changes from external stimuli like an overly excited barking dog passing by looking for a challenge (thank God it hasn’t happen during observation times). Did you know that while our cattle in the villages respect dogs, even excusing themselves when barked at, my Boys just charge right back? In an innocent and inquisitive way, running towards the barking dog — so cute to watch! I’m so mad at myself for not capturing the scene in a video.

I was even more impressed by the braveness in my Boys when a “crazy” ox with huge horns was somehow “claiming his territory” on first discovery of the males that had been newly moved to their (ox) camp site. The ox had an attitude for days, making noises and even kicking the ground, blowing dust. That was just it though, some act. My Boys saw right through him, ignoring the whole show and carrying on with their business.

The only thing that got them on their toes (just a little bit) was the super-sized horses from the university traction centre.

The moos meet the neighs. Yes, that's the scientific term.
The moos meet the neighs. Yes, that’s the scientific term.

Had I known the huuuuuge horses were just big babies who demanded constant grooming, I might have kept my distance too. But hey, I am not complaining at all, everyone needs scratching every now and then.

So in all, I choose to look beyond what the end will or might be and just make the most of every single moment I get with my Boys (and any other animal I come across), ensuring that they are happy and healthy. I will cross the other bridges when I get to them.

Me and the giant baby,  Neigh.
Me and the giant baby, Neigh.