Standing on the edge of a precipice

I will end this year as I began it, with the dream of a wily, confident and adventurous eight year old. I have been one of the fortunate ones. I have always known what I wanted to do for a living. It was not continuously romantic (certainly didn’t feel that way while dissecting a human brain) but it was always there and it was comforting. I, unlike like some others, never found it predictable or boring but felt bolstered by the fact that I was moving in the right direction. But now, placed under extreme stress of being the only person in the world working on a particular project, significant personal changes and new responsibility, I have the current feeling that my clearly defined path has become a bushy wilderness- one out of which a tiger could leap out and take me.


I’m sure that this is a common feeling for people approaching the milestone of 30 and probably has more to do with the feeling of mortality and less to do with the piling up of experiments you will never complete. Nevertheless, with 3 years to go to the big 3-0, I am acutely aware that I have particular comforts that I take for granted. As I close in on my final PhD year, I can feel the sense of loss of my eternal student status. I will now have to get a real job. What I do is challenging and often down right impossible but I have some very real perks. Starting the work day really whenever I feel I need to is a blessing. I have also realised, with a surmountable sadness, that at some point I will have to leave my wonderful lab – my scientific home for the last 5 years and 3 degrees. There is an incredible comfort in knowing where the pipettes or the hidden stash of reagents are. Having worked in the States for a couple of months, returning to my lab is nothing short of an epic homecoming.

Ultimately, at our core, scientists are creatures of habit. We need things just so – so that we can trace back to the point of a potential mistake. One needs to be in a routine so that methodically we can work out if that discovery was real or just a slip of the pipette. Life is a series of habits, and now I must shortly break them. The thought horrifies me. Looking forward, I’m sure there is a great amount of exciting new challenges to be had. Really though, all it feels like is a distant haze that is just beyond the steep precipice of doom that has recently presented itself. I have emerged from 2016, a year fraught with its own unique challenges (a Trump, a Brexit, a Zuma, a Gupta or 2) and I can’t see a fully cleared path.december-handover Instead, I catch glimpses of it out of the corner of my eye.

But, ever the optimist, I will keep looking until one reveals itself to me. I might need to use a panga to clear my own path, but this uncertainty too shall pass. It may pass like a kidney stone; but it will pass. Uncertainty leaves many different doors open and quite excitingly, in science as in life, we can find ourselves on quite a different journey than what we started out on. Openness to a swift change in direction is what leads us to the best discoveries. Life after a PhD is as confusing as life during one, but is just where stuff  gets good. It’s going to be a hell of a journey. Best grab my panga.

A Seat at the Table

This is effectively my last blog for SAYAS. I am so grateful for the opportunity to reflect and share my thoughts with a wider audience. When I thought about what I wanted my last piece to be, the title ‘a seat at the table’ popped up not only because it is the title of my current favourite album by Solange, but it also sums up the reason why I pursued a doctorate: I wanted a seat at the table.

I have quickly learned that this degree is not enough and I must stay open to doing something completely different.

As an African scholar, it is very evident that there is precious little space for our voices in mainstream academic scholarship – even when Africa is the subject. Celia Nyamweru found that part of the challenge is that African-based scholars have additional time and resource pressures, that their European and North American colleagues do not necessarily face. Moreover, publication selection processes in international journals are opaque, and African scholars often struggle to access the international networks that give their Western counterparts a boost.

I hope that as universities grapple with the fact that it can’t be business as usual (thanks to #feesmustfall as well #decolonisethecurriculum), they would also think very carefully about how to equip emerging scholars to be internationally competitive and add value to society. I wonder how many talented scholars have been left out because they don’t have appropriate access to professional networks or simple mentorship.

I’ve seen that for young African academics, one of the biggest challenges is to get your foot in the door. Year after year, there are roughly the same voices; with space for only one or two new people. Projects and funding arrangements are often agreed to in conversation in corridors, by people who have long grown comfortable with one another. This means: that as an emerging scholar, you either have to have a promoter or you have to find a way to get noticed.

In the final few months of 2016, I was privileged to attend the Fourth Post-Graduate Academy at the Tshwane University of Technology, hosted by Professor Mammo Muchie, as well as the Fifth Post-Graduate Academy (now called the Afrikana Post-Graduate Academy), jointly hosted by Professor Muchie and Professor Chris Landsberg. The purpose of the academy is to up-skill post-graduate students, and emerging scholars, from a variety of disciplines. It also provides an alternate path to professional network building.

As great as the ideas driving academy are, it is not enough, and it does not abdicate individual, as well as institutional responsibility for ensuring that the ivory towers are inclusive, and produce candidates of a high standard. None of us can leave the hard work to someone else, or to some other institution. Each academic, each student, needs to hustle – becoming the change you want to see.