The APN Team had the opportunity to sit down with a current APN grantee and Lead Investigator of an APN Collaborative Working Group, Professor Diana Gibson of the University of the Western Cape, at our recent conference on Peacebuilding in Africa: Sustaining Inclusive Civil Society Engagement. The conference took place in collaboration with the African Leadership Center and Wilton Park at Wiston House, West Sussex, England, in March 2017. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

APN Team: Professor Gibson, as a well-established and experienced academic, can you tell us how leading an APN-supported Collaborative Working Group (CWG) has influenced your work and that of your colleagues?

Prof. Gibson: Let me start by saying what the APN grant has meant for my career. Getting this grant signified a recognition of my own scholarship, and has provided important resources for my mentoring of young African academics in ways that help develop their capacity to make local knowledge and expertise visible. The program creates a very nurturing environment, enabling senior scholars to mentor and provide opportunities for young scholars to develop skills and expertise in research, writing, and publishing.

On a personal note, the grant has also enabled me to return to critically engaging with an area of interest that I am really passionate about, but had left for a while. Knowing that the APN is supporting the production of knowledge with practical relevance and policy applications is also inspiring.

How else has the Collaborative Working Group affected your scholarship?

It seems to me that the CWG is a carefully thought-out, incremental process. It’s not just about developing young scholarship; it’s also about knowledge production and introducing knowledge into the conversation in the policy and public spheres in ways that are extremely practical. Usually, people who are in policy speak to policy people, and academics speak to academics. Now, to be in a shared space where I am an academic but can also interact with policymakers at a very intellectual and theoretical level is really exciting, and in the end, I hope that some good will come out of it.

Beyond this interaction with policy, what have been the most important aspects of the APN program?

I found the APN’s efforts to help my CWG make contacts with other experts within and outside Africa incredibly helpful. For instance, by inviting me to this conference at Wilton Park, I have been given an opportunity to just sit and listen and think about issues concerning violence and peace in Africa in new ways, and to interact with leading international experts in the fields of civil society and African peacebuilding. Working within the CWG has also made it possible for all of us in the group to think not just about differences, but also potential similarities between processes of violence-making and peace-making, while remaining aware of the importance of local context.

Looking closely at the benefits of working with the APN, I think it contributes towards making African scholarship and knowledge on peacebuilding more visible and promotes it at a very high level. The emphasis on building connections with other scholars in various parts of Africa and at the global and regional level is extremely important. I also admire the way the program facilitates collaboration among talented scholars from different African countries and puts an emphasis on mentoring. From what the young scholars that I work with say to me, mentoring is really important.

Expanding on this idea of mentoring, do you have any advice for early career researchers?

In a context where research and funding opportunities have become incredibly competitive, it is very important to be proactive. They have to think of what they want to achieve, and put into place the different elements that will enable them to reach those goals. An important step in this process is to find good mentors, not just one, but more than one, who will be critical of their work—constructive not destructive. It is very important in their intellectual growth and engagement with issues, and mentors will nurture them.

Another issue to consider is building up a variety of research experiences, individually and within collaborative research teams, because there are different expectations and rewards for both. Networking and forging collaborative relations with other researchers and experts helps to extend one’s insights, skills, and knowledge into new areas and even into multidisciplinary endeavors. It is relatively easy for academics to retreat within their disciplines. There’s a kind of security one may feel within a disciplinary silo, but experience shows that if you adopt a multidisciplinary perspective, it opens up so many new ways of thinking and lenses into an issue that are really advantageous.

But, I do think it is important to initially apply for individual funding, to enable you to be very focused and disciplined. It also forms a good foundation from which to begin to apply for bigger grants over time. To do this, young scholars must learn how to write good proposals and research budgets, to manage research projects, and to write up and publish their findings.

They also need to ask themselves certain questions: What factors need to be considered for the choice of where to publish? Do they want to reach a specific audience? Do they want to go for more high impact publications where there are different kinds of expectations? Younger colleagues must be willing to go through the whole process of review and the feedback, and even maybe outright rejection of their papers. They should not be discouraged by the occasional rejection letter from journal editors, but should always reflect on what they can learn from such feedback and use this to revise and improve their papers, until they are able to actually publish in high-ranking journals.

Of course it goes without saying that the process of research always has to be about ethics and integrity, sustained throughout the process. It must go beyond just filing in the ethics forms and getting the ethical clearance; it has to be an ongoing process.

Finally, what trends are you seeing in your field that you find most exciting these days?

I come from an “old school” university background that was always financially constrained and did not have many resources, so people really had to struggle. You had to go beyond the call of duty to actually be able to do research and publish. For me now, I am finding myself in a situation where I am expected to mentor others, and also, in a sense, I am being mentored, which is both challenging and exciting.

It is a very nurturing experience because the APN is open to questions and to sharing its expertise, insights, and helping to link you up to people who will be able to assist you. Obviously, the APN is very alert to opportunities that might arise, and helps to make useful connections, such as bringing me to this conference.

The CWG experience has also helped me to think through the whole process of what it means to mentor younger colleagues. I can clearly see the impact of my mentoring activities. I was recently at a one-day symposium with one of the CWG members. His work was the focus of the symposium and people said to me afterwards: “He has grown so much, he’s a different person, he’s so confident, he has such a wide range of reference, he knows how to present and engage in these kinds of conversations.”

It’s not just about me but about the whole process. Thinking about him and his interaction with the APN, I can see he also has his own separate relationship with the APN and network formed through it. I can actually see him blossom and that’s wonderful. This kind of intellectual growth is what is really necessary in many African countries where people don’t always have such opportunities. Many young academics usually have to go abroad to be able to access such opportunities. To be able to be in African countries and still have them is wonderful; it’s really a worthwhile thing. I am now a convert to mentoring younger colleagues.

Thank you. That was really great.

You’re welcome.

Diana Gibson is a professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of the Western Cape. She is currently a Research Fellow of the International Phytomedicine Center at the University of Stellenbosch. Professor Gibson has published in national and international peer-reviewed journals on hospital ethnography, transformation of the South African healthcare system, ex-combatants and trauma, gender, sexuality and reproductive health, masculinity, gender-based violence, tuberculosis, and the use of plant medicines among the Ju/’hoansi San in Namibia, as well as on the literacy and numeracy practices of farm workers in the Western Cape. She is a 2016-2018 recipient of and lead investigator for a Collaborative Working Group (CWG) Research Grant from the Social Science Research Council’s African Peacebuilding Network. Her CWG is conducting a comparative anthropological study, “From Networks of Violence to Networks of Peace: Armed Youth Violence in Five African Countries.”