I graduated in 2018 with a PhD in English, having completed my study of East African environmental literature. Because the scope of my research included literature, geography, ecology, and environmental studies, it provided me with an expanded view of the connections between various disciplines but often demanded research approaches I was not quite familiar with. I was still struggling with how best to handle these emerging research challenges when I won the 2021 Individual Research fellowship. The APN award has enabled me to navigate the fuzzy boundary between the humanities and social science research and has greatly impacted my career.
I made the decision to apply for the APN fellowship when I met and had a conversation with Professor Cyril Obi, the program director of the APN at the 2018 African Studies Association (ASA) Conference in Atlanta, USA. I remember I asked him whether someone positioned in the humanities, particularly in literature, could apply for the grant. Having asked about my research, he made me realize that my research interests were in line with the program’s focus, though he emphasized that the program cherishes research-based knowledge, policy, and community impact. Initially, the choice of environmental literature as a research area for my PhD had been motivated by the need to interrogate the assumption that literature had little to offer to development. It is against this background that the APN research program represented a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of literature to development and peace in Africa. Although I did not receive the APN individual research grant in 2019 when I first applied, I did not give up and I succeeded in 2021.
My experience as an APN 2021 fellow was greatly enriched by the research methods and writing workshops. I benefitted immensely from the mentoring in my workshop group. During the workshops, researchers with related interests were given a lot of time to review each other’s work and clustered under one mentor, who provided helpful feedback. In my case, this mentor was Professor Rita Abrahamsen. She had clearly read my draft paper closely before the workshop because she thoroughly understood my research method. After an hour-long discussion of the methodological choices I had made and their implications, we covered so much ground concerning social research methodology that I felt as though I had attended an entire workshop on the topic. Since then, I have grown more confident as a researcher.
In addition to meeting highly experienced senior scholars, I benefitted from peer-to-peer mentoring and networking during the workshops. In the two APN training workshops, the first on research methods and the second on the writing and dissemination of research results, I was grouped in workshop sessions with four other researchers from other academic disciplines that had related interests. I got an opportunity to review papers outside of my core field, thereby widening my knowledge base. I read papers from other disciplines, including history, political science, linguistics, and philosophy, and was fascinated by the ways in which each researcher approached the issue of peacebuilding. This exercise also sharpened my skills in critical thinking and peer review. Secondly, the group discussions constituted a rich space within which one could learn to appreciate connections between one’s work and studies in other fields. Another advantage of the workshops is that they served as a perfect means of networking and building research communities.
Even though the Covid-19 pandemic situation prevented us from meeting physically, the two virtual training workshops brought together about 70 participants from across Africa. Moreover, the program invites its fellows and alumni to other events like public lectures, book launches, and policy dialogues, which further facilitate productive interactions and the spirit of community among African scholars and practitioners. From my group and others, I was able to identify four potential research partners with whom I have already begun conversations.
My background in literary studies and literary criticism had always constrained my view of the connection between my academic work and direct community engagement, but the APN research experience shifted this. I embarked on a study to explore the potential of traditional storytelling as a tool for peacebuilding. Whereas I had only been studying stories for their creative qualities, I got an opportunity during fieldwork to experience storytelling through traditional folklore—a neglected heritage— and facilitate contact between people previously antagonistic to each other on political grounds. Councilors at the sub-county level listened to each other telling stories in meetings that became pivotal to their interpersonal relations. By creating the rapport necessary for local councilors to conduct business with previously antagonistic individuals, storytelling proved to be a development-enabling and peace-enhancement tool. The impact of this activity was a great encouragement for me to expand the study and disseminate my findings widely. In May 2022, I was sponsored by the World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER), Helsinki, Finland, to present my paper at the WIDER Development Conference on “The Puzzle of Peace: Towards Inclusive Development in Fragile Contexts” (May 16-17, Helsinki, Finland). I also presented my research at the International Humanities conference at Makerere University in August 2022, and plan to submit the revised version of the paper to a peer-reviewed journal for publication. I also intend to use some of the data from my fieldwork to develop a book manuscript.
The APN program has propelled me to engage in social science research at a more advanced level. As a university researcher, I engaged political leaders as well as individuals at the grassroots level on the developmental significance of their oral literatures, thereby actualizing the link between the university and the local community. Moreover, knowledge of the community relevance of my work is a great encouragement especially in view of disparaging statements to the effect that humanities are irrelevant to development.1https://observer.ug/education/63174-museveni-chastises-universities-over-irrelevant-arts-courses; https://www.independent.co.ug/mak-dons-bitter-over-museveni-undermining-arts-courses/ As a result, I have become more appreciative of the policy implications of my research. While in the past I focused more on academic stakeholders in my research, the APN experience has encouraged me to consciously cater to both the academic and policy dimensions in the processes of data collection and dissemination of my research findings.
I am hopeful that the APN program will continue to shape the lives and research trajectories of African early career scholars long into the future. The APN has great potential to do so because the program upholds an excellent information-sharing culture. At least twice a month, an email providing information and links to research funding opportunities, post-doctoral positions, and calls for papers for international conferences and publications in various parts of the world is sent out to all fellows and alumni. When I receive these calls, I also share them with my wider network of African scholars. Indeed, some of my colleagues who are not part of the APN family have taken advantage of opportunities advertised by the program. As such, the impact of the APN program will continue to ripple throughout universities and research communities in Africa in the future, especially given the emphasis on the tripartite engagement involving researchers, communities, and policymakers.