New beginnings — moving out East

By Keafon Jumbam

Seven hours into the journey from Cape Town to my new campus in the Free State, it dawned on my hired driver that he didn’t know where we were going! This was a long distance driver, highly recommended by friends; surely he should know his way around? “What is the name of the place again?” he asked, looking bewildered. “Phuthaditjhaba” I responded, alarmed at this sudden turn of events. “Heh!” his voice dropped to a notch, “I think I’ve driven past it before. It is very far — on the way to Durban,” he sounded tired. Silence enveloped us like a wet blanket, with only the faint grunts of the car’s engine protesting the sudden speed increase. The sun was beginning to set and we were in the middle of nowhere. I started to panic.

That day had begun on a bad note when both my alarms failed to go off in the morning. I woke up late and disoriented but managed to squeeze all my belongings into my car, thanks to the packing skills of my Zimbabwean flat mates. Then I hit Cape Town morning traffic, which slowed me down even more. By the time I met up with my driver, it was 10h00; hardly a great start to a trip estimated to last 10 hours!

I was heading back to school to start a PhD in Zoology after a six-year break from studies. My resignation from a cherished position I held at an outreach project was met by gasps from colleagues who exclaimed, “You didn’t tell us you were interested in foxes?!” and church folks who emphasized “It is flat country over there, very unlike Cape Town, hardly any mountains!” Sure enough, I was going to miss Cape Town and my job which had even brought me in contact with the former Minister of Education, Naledi Pandor.

Meeting minister Naledi Pandor (Credit: Iimbovane archives)
Meeting minister Naledi Pandor (Credit: Iimbovane archives)

But I had become desperate for a new challenge, and this PhD was exactly the kind of mental stimulation I needed to grow and widen my horizons.


What I hadn’t anticipated was this bumpy start. By midnight we were still nowhere near arrival. Countless stops later, and with most petrol attendants clueless about our destination, we miraculously made it to the gated campus at 02h00. Sleep deprived but cheerful nonetheless, a residence head student ushered us in. “I think you will like it here,” my driver said, smiling for the first time and admiring as much as I did, the neat pavements and freshly manicured lawns. We were led to a newly built residence named Tshimolohong, or “New Beginnings,” — a befitting name for a freshman like me.


My new home and new beginning, Tshimolohong!
My new home and new beginning, Tshimolohong!

I wish I could say I lived happily ever after, but eish, the challenges had only just begun. I had arrived right in the middle of school break and campus was vacant. I didn’t know a single soul, supervisor included — talk about starting over on a clean slate. But the pressing issue was to get registered immediately since everything depended on it: funding release, access to online academic material and even access into residence. It didn’t help that my arrival also coincided with a litany of public holidays! To keep sane, I went on an adventure, exploring my new town and taking in the breathtaking Drakensberg Mountains surrounding my campus. Thanks to these mountains, I can boast of experiencing snow up close and personal.

Qwaqwa campus has lovely frosty lawns in winter...
Qwaqwa campus has lovely frosty lawns in winter…


Fast forward to two months later and I’m voyaging yet again, only this time I’m venturing into the Kalahari Desert for fieldwork. I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to see; it felt like I had driven from a rural Sotho kingdom (i.e. campus) straight into Europe (i.e. Kalahari research community) without even attempting to cross a border, talk less of leaving the continent! I had never seen so many European researchers, most of them Brits, congregated in one place like this before. While on campus, I often repeated myself to be understood, despite being in a predominantly black community. Now, here in “Cambridge in the Desert,” don’t even get me started on the assortment of accents. And did I tell you I happen to be the only black researcher in the mix? Yep, life just got interesting…

My journey into the world of Kalahari foxes…

By Keafon Jumbam

30 April 2015

Keafon-1I’m in the heart of the Kalahari Desert surrounded by red dunes, shrubs, trees and grass scorched to death by the blazing heat of the desert. This is my second year of PhD research on the behavioral ecology and endocrinology of maternal care in bat-eared foxes or batties. Before moving into the world of foxes, I had mainly worked on invertebrates, completing my BSc Honours research on Marion Island spiders and a Master’s degree on invasive Argentine ants. I then took a break from schooling and plunged even deeper into the world of ants by working for an outreach project called Iimbovane (meaning ants in isiXhosa. We used ants as tools to raise awareness of South Africa’s biodiversity and species distribution across the Western Cape (see Quest, June 2010, pp. 8-11).

Keafon-2I quickly hit a mental plateau due to the repetitiveness of my job and started itching for a new challenge. When this PhD opportunity came along, I grabbed it because there was a familiar link to my past – batties feed almost exclusively on invertebrates – but also an entirely new dimension. This would be the first mammal I ever research. The really unique thing about batties is that fathers shoulder most of the parental duties. While I personally think the human race could learn a thing or two from this phenomenon, the real question is: why do females abandon most of their maternal duties? To find answers to this puzzle, I record their behavior – we follow them on foot for 2hrs at a time. I also collect fecal samples to check for stress hormones – some researchers suspect that mothers are stressed because their mainly insectivorous diet may not meet their nutritional needs. Lastly, I employ sampling techniques (pitfall traps, sweep netting) to investigate how their food varies seasonally.

Keafon-3The best thing about my PhD research is the intellectual growth from learning new things about batties, bonding with other researchers, bouncing ideas off each other – all of which keep my mental juices flowing. Another definite plus is travelling; I love seeing new places and I get to travel to conferences and nature reserves. I feel fortunate to be this close to nature and to come across many rare animals that most people will only get to learn from textbooks. The downside includes long periods spent away from loved ones, especially during family time, like Easter. The remoteness of the reserve makes network reception a constant battle, further stalling any attempts to make contact with the outside world. Another challenge is spending many hours alone following a nocturnal animal in a reserve full of wildlife, venomous scorpions and snakes, all the while hearing strange noises emanating from nearby bushes. Sure enough, there are plenty of scary encounters to share with you, but I leave that for my next blog…