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.

How it all began…

By Yonela Z. Njisane

30 April 2015
Who would have thought (besides God) that I would be here now? Certainly not I  – my  supervisor can attest to that! Or not… I guess he always knew I had it in me. Growing up in one of the small towns of South Africa, I never knew anything about academics or scientific research until a much later stage in my life. It’s possible that I only became fully aware that there was such a career path in the middle of my master’s degree. Imagine that!

Yonela-1While I was busy trying to get through my undergraduate degree, with plans to immediately get a job and elevate my family, someone was watching, noticing my potential and trying to recruit me for further studies. I never made it easy for Prof Voster Muchenje to convince me – it took a number of phone calls and him sweet-talking me about how it would be a waste of intelligence and capacity if I were to choose otherwise. Of course I was flattered! Getting a bursary (Red Meat Research and Development Trust) was enough sign that I should return for my Masters. This bursary meant that my parents did not have to take care of me any further. When I qualified for another bursary to pursue my PhD I really should have known that this is my path, that I belong here.

Yonela-2However, I was haunted for weeks afterwards, and my fear of failure had a powerful grip on me. “Who am I to get this far?” My imposter syndrome was powerful enough that I even declined the PhD offer! Then one day it clicked; there was nothing waiting for me anywhere else. If I let fear get the best of me, I was going to miss out on an exciting opportunity, and would have wasted my efforts until now. I went back in February 2013 and, thankfully, could still take up the position.

So, here I am now, in the third year of my PhD degree in Agriculture-Animal Science studying cattle behaviour in relation to animal welfare and beef quality (a global hot topic). Even though this decision opened a lot of opportunities for me, it has not been all sugary sweet. Being at a resource-limited university, in a small rural town, one faces a lot of challenges regarding research. However, the need to progress and making something of my life has taught me not to concentrate on the limitations I face, but rather to look at them as stepping stones to seeking solutions, instead of complaining.

Hmmm, I did say “No whining” right? Yup! So let’s talk about this interesting project of mine that is so dear to my heart (I am an Animal person, and don’t worry about me being involved in their slaughter – It’s nothing personal). I am still in the early stages of the actual experimental trial. With the assistance of three of my colleagues, I have been spending 15 hours a day out in the paddocks with a group of 40 steers (castrated bulls)… There is nothing that beats escaping the office: no emails, no visitors, no meetings, sometimes no phone network (I know what you’re thinking “Damn! No social networks too”- haha! It’s hard for youngsters), and zero office work (Shhh! don’t tell my mentor I said that).

Yonela-3Of course, there is also sunburn (temperatures close to 40°C), huge floppy hats, and statistical analyses… It’s worth it, though, I promise. Watch this space; maybe I can also lure you into the world of PhDs, cattle, and making it big in the challenging world of academia.