My ten years of teaching science in Africa

Kazhila Chinsembu

This is my tenth anniversary of teaching science at university level: seven years at the University of Zambia (UNZA), and three years at the University of Namibia (UNAM). What a long-drawn-out part of my life these ten years have been!

But I wish to share with readers the thrills and spills of these ten years, hoping that my experiences may act as fodder for those that shape University policy in general and science policy in particular. As most often, it is not the science, but the socio-economic milieu in which scientists operate in, that is difficult.

I was privileged to study Molecular Biology at the Free University of Brussels, Belgium. Molecular Biology is the mother of Genetic Engineering, the exciting science behind the Steven Spielberg sci-fi movie version of Michael Crichton's novel, Jurassic Park.

Having isolated some Salmonella genes during my thesis research, and after graduating with a distinction, it was time to head back home to Zambia in the summer of 1995.

And that is how my lecturing career at UNZA begun, January 1996. Little did I know mine would be a typical story of the rise and fall of an African scientist.

The first challenge was the lack of laboratory equipment. Boy, this is the most vexing experience of teaching science in an African University. The message was clear the moment I walked into that empty laboratory. An old centrifuge in the corner reminded me: your ivory tower science ends here.

I was all alone, trained in the best laboratories in the capital of Europe, but working in a University facing political and financial neglect in the real Africa, Zambia.

One magic word came to my mind: collaboration. So I sought out some colleagues working in the STD and Virology laboratories at the University Teaching Hospital. We worked on Syphilis, Kaposi's sarcoma, and HIV. We wrote two books in the process, and a few publications. We even started a scientific journal. We conducted workshops for medical staff.

All this was happening while donor funding was available. And I thought to myself, at least, I was trying to become the scientist I had wanted to be. I even wrote a review of Salmonella virulence, based on my thesis.

But when the donor funds dried up, I began to ask hard questions, many questions about the funding of the University, the management of resources, and the seriousness of the political establishment in Zambia. I began to see the disillusionment in the eyes of many older academic staff. Their despair became clear.

Some were saved by appointments into government and parastatals. Others were rearing poultry. One of them in my department was driving a commuter bus he acquired while studying. There were all sorts of coping strategies, without which one's electricity and water would be cut off, or children chased from school, all because the salary was too meager to pay bills and user-fees.

The University faced a shortage of staff accommodation, so my family and I were shunted into a single hostel room at Marshlands village. This coincided with the dismissal of the Vice-Chancellor, his deputy, and the bursar, who had misappropriated University funds.

In fact, it occurred that the Swedish government through the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) had given about US$800,000 to UNZA for supplementation of academic staff salaries, but this money grew wings and went missing before any lecturer could benefit from the supplementation scheme.

This glaring mismanagement of the University was symptomatic of a much deeper problem in the country. And in such a state of deprivation, there was no room for science, more so the expensive science of Molecular Biology.

In the academic staff Union, we campaigned for improved salaries and conditions of service, and for the collegial management of the institution. We called for more political will towards the plight of academic staff, whose continuous haemorrhage from the institution, for greener pastures, was now alarming.

Some of our colleagues even joined the little-known Copperbelt University, which was offered better salaries by the Minister of Education. This is the same Minister that later imposed a new University Act, that according to him, was to prevent "hooliganism" at the campus. Our quest for better conditions of service was perceived as a threat to the political establishment.

Yet, in fact, the government had forgotten the recommendations of its own 1997 Bobby Bwalya Commission of Inquiry that stated:

"The quality of education in the University depends on the presence of a critical mass of professionals and skilled individuals who constitute the academic staff. Without significant attention to retention, motivation and commitment of this critical mass in the University, the problem of quality in the core functions of the University is bound to persist."

Earlier, the late Professor Lameck Goma, himself a renowned Biologist and former Vice-Chancellor of UNZA in 1971 stated: "It is essential to maintain in the University an atmosphere of freedom, stimulation, tolerance and critical openness to new or opposing ideas. The teacher, let alone a University one, must feel free to explore issues of public significance and moment, on which there may be no agreement, and to follow the truth wherever it may lead."

Another prominent scholar and author once asked: "Can we remain neutral, cocooned in our libraries and scholarly disciplines, muttering to ourselves ... I am only a surgeon, a mathematician, an economist, a teacher, a lecturer?"

A Danish scholar also once warned: "Your science will be valueless, and learning will be sterile, unless you pledged your intellect to fighting against all the enemies of mankind."

Educated by all these principles, most academic staff championed a new wind of change in the management of UNZA. But of course, in the midst of poverty, there were the so-called state intellectuals that were sponsored to say anything that was politically-correct: they were feeding meat to the crocodile, hoping to be eaten last!

The Union appointed a three-man delegation comprising Martin Kalungu-Banda, who now works for Oxfam in London, Douglas Syakalima, now a Member of Parliament in Zambia, and this author, to lobby then President Frederick Chiluba to view academics with different spectacles. But nothing changed. Enter the December 2001 elections; still there was no meaningful change.

That is how I threw in the towel. They say you cannot fight for the rest of your life. By this time, I had managed to get two World Bank-funded projects, totaling close to US$ 30,000 for environmental studies. I had also started work on the public awareness of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), and published a paper for the Biotechnology and Development Monitor, based in Amsterdam.

My scientific career was coming back, at long last. And as fate would have it, I was to become part of the 300 lecturers that between 1990 and 2002 constituted the brain-drain from UNZA, now called the Zambian academic Diaspora. I left UNZA in August 2002.

Now, here are the policy lessons for science and development in Africa.

There will be no telling economic development in Africa unless this development is science-led. This is the new paradigm. Scientists are professionals with rare skills locked up in their heads. These skills migrate to places where they are appreciated. Africa should invest heavily into the training and retention of African scientists. As President Yoweri Museveni has pledged, he would rather pay better salaries to scientists, than Permanent Secretaries.

Once we neglect the conditions of service for our scientists, our nations lose developmental time, because scientists begin to engage into the politics of survival.

Finally, science generates knowledge. Knowledge, like capital, is an economic resource. The road out of poverty is made of knowledge. Of course, science is expensive. But if you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance!


November 2005