These things we know: perspectives and insights from a conference

January 21, 2020

Over the course of my short stint at the Maternal and Child Wellbeing Unit at African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), I have had the pleasure of attending two local conferences. Of the two, I was most taken in by the International Food Conference at Kenyatta University that Dr. Elizabeth Kimani-Murage, David Osogo, Esther Anono and I attended in May. Not so much by the presentations though.  I could neither grasp the complex terminologies being splashed about, nor could I draw any positive vibes from the very technical presentations made! I think Dr. Elizabeth (a nutrition expert and research big-deal in her own right) felt the same way –at one point she remarked that sitting through a certain session felt very much like being in a Biology class. What I managed to glean from it all is that we need to stop eating- keep away from anything food! There is salmonella in this, and aflatoxins in that, microbes in this, and indestructible glyphosate in that.  As we eat from the soil, the soil is eating us et cetera, et cetera.  Soon enough we will be sick from some dreaded disease, or lose our minds or control over our bodily functions… on and on the threats went.

Well, none of it stopped any of us from diving deep into the snacks and lunches served right after.

I was much more excited though by what was happening outside the session rooms and the observations I was making, the things I was hearing, the people I was meeting. We had our flashy exhibition stall displaying images and digital videos that have emerged from our work, at APHRC, on the Right to Food. Out of the ten or so other stands, ours was the only one with visual materials which, I think, served to attract people that otherwise would not have stopped by, and obliged them to ask questions. Our stand elicited interest, criticism, disbelief– sometimes even silence.

Our stall visitors shared with us varying views. Many were drawn to specific pictures that they could relate to, or that shocked, or inspired them. For that, they appreciated the work we do at APHRC and are constantly putting out there in impactful ways. But the question on everyone’s lips was: what are we doing to address what we have uncovered? What are our next steps? The proverbial, ‘so what’ couldn’t be more amplified.

Easy. I had my script: “Since 2018 we have engaged community organized groups in several slums in Nairobi to create awareness on the right to food, and to build their capacity to enable them work with their communities to highlight and address the challenges they face with regard to this right. In addition, we have walked with community members throughout the process, getting them to discuss and depict their experiences and situations using innovative participatory visual tools such as, PhotoVoice and digital videos we have here. It is our hope that in this way people feel empowered enough to advocate for their right to food. Next, we will engage policymakers at community and national levels to present the case as-is from the community, and hopefully, work together to address the problem as sustainably as possible. Keep the conversation and action going on the right to food!”  

Convincing?

Then there was the group who would be interested in partnering with us. They work or have worked on similar issues, suggest useful ideas on sustainable innovations that can get things moving on food security or know someone who does and can link us up. Others were interested in learning more about APHRC and the kind of work we engage in. Others want to formulate their Masters’ thesis proposals around some of the issues we had pinned up as pictures in our stall. Others would not mind a job- placement at the Center.

Some were inquisitive, beyond our anticipation. “What are the population statistics in each of the 10 or so slums we are working in?” “How do you define a slum?” “Is your project venturing outside the scope of urban slums? “Why not?” “How do you intend to approach policymakers and implementers without coming off as controversial and sabotaging our project expectations?” “How will you change the mindset of the masses and key decision-makers to get things moving?”

Another interesting group firmly believed that we should cut out this public engagement and research charade. Instead, put money into people’s pockets then poof! Hunger, food insecurity and most other problems would be solved.

Then there was the other lot, the minority, who were hesitant- less optimistic. I think bold and upfront too. To them, there was nothing new about what we were showcasing, these things they considered ‘common knowledge.’  From experience, they had drawn that nothing much ever really changes. Not with the approach that the Right to Food project has in mind. Not with the normalization and desensitization that daily exposure to such scenarios impresses on people’s psyches. Certainly not with the general lack of political interest and commitment.

Yet, interestingly, when David inquired how they would go about it themselves, their responses sounded very much like what our project has in mind in the first place.

David says it is to be expected. There’s always that spanner that’s looking to spoil the works. However, this must not detract us from our cause. David believes (as I do) that research can play a greater role in getting things going- beyond the usual grind of generating evidence, furthering knowledge, advancing debates, disseminating to relevant stakeholders -then moving on.

For starters, that research evidence must be packaged in palatable ways that particularly, the common man and woman, and the non-technical policymaker can digest. Therefore, as researchers, we really ought to ‘come down’ to the level of the layperson. Embrace approaches that begin by identifying their priorities and concerns, and, engage them throughout the research process to arm them with facts and information that stimulates their thinking and empowers them as rights holders. Parallel to this, that the decision-makers that we ultimately look to, to bring about change, must be part and parcel of our research processes from the get-go so that they end up with the conviction to implement the recommendations that arise from our research efforts.

Second, that research, if properly documented and shared should cultivate a crop of academic activists to influence policy formulation, monitor and evaluate progress in implementation, and demand accountability.

Third, that research touching on matters food at the very least needs to be harmonized, controlled and undertaken in more rigorous ways. The responsibility here could lie with (i) research institutions with the duty to ensure observance of ethics in, and validity of food-related research, and maintaining harmonized databases, and (ii) food-related associations such as, the newly launched Kenya Association of Food Safety and Protection, that provide oversight and guidelines on how emerging findings should be packaged and consumed.

Last, and importantly, that we must be in this together – from the ground up – if we are to improve our food security situation. Acknowledge that food matters to, and affects us all. We need to contribute in our own little ways by stimulating the conversation on food security and food safety issues in the spaces we occupy. Self-reflection, change our attitudes and behavior. For sure, revisit our traditions and cultures.  

Impressive.

So then, what are we missing? A whole new pitch?  A revamped approach?

How do we get out of our comfort zones and bring others along? How do we get to change when everyone’s focused on, “what’s in it for me?” “For my career interests?” “My area of specialization?” When there likely lacks genuine passion, even among those at the center of it all, to pursue food security issues to fruition.  When (David again here) key role players such as the media, numerous local academic and research institutions, county government representatives, government ministries and line agencies were distinctly absent from what they should have viewed as a very relevant conference? And it was.  Its theme reiterated globally set goals of attaining food security, is nested in our Constitutional stipulations, and mirrors the food security pillar in our Big 4 Agenda.

Many questions.

But, these things we know.                 

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