“This is work in progress. I feel I just opened the door”

Dr. Christine Oryema’s experience studying in Denmark would be the envy of any Ugandan PhD student who does not get the opportunity to study abroad, especially in countries that provide an ideal study environment.

An ethnobotanist based at Gulu University, one of Uganda’s public universities, Oryema was among the beneficiaries of a PhD sponsorship through DANIDA’s ENRECA programme. This gave her the opportunity to spend more than 12 months of study time at the University of Copenhagen as part of her PhD programme.

During our conversation in her office at Gulu University this February I asked her to compare the study environment between Uganda and Denmark and her response was spontaneous:

“I like it in Denmark. Every lab is gazetted. Light is constant. The workers are there to help you. Work is done within the shortest time. The people who are within the labs are friendly,” she told me. “If you are cleared from here to do you tests that side you come back with results which you are contented with. You do the tests yourself. They just give you a procedure and tell you ‘when you are stuck tell us and we come and help you.’”

Gulu University is establishing a multipurpose laboratory as part of a larger government programme worth $105m, funded by the African Development Bank (ADB), to strengthen young universities. Oryema feels that even when it is complete, this laboratory may not deliver the Danish experience.

“We expect the laboratory to be well equipped but how about the human resource? We shall need a lot of training for the people who will handle the equipment. In Denmark people know the things,” she tells me.

Competencies gained in Denmark

Oryema recalls learning a lot of things while in Denmark which she otherwise might not have learnt in her home country. “I gained competence in lab analysis. The second thing is the statistical packages. I learnt how to use Stata [statistical software]. I had no idea even what Stata meant. The good reading environment made me to learn Stata by myself. I went to Denmark with SPSS [software] in my mind. I had some data which I had given someone to analyse for me and he had used SPSS and when I reached Denmark my supervisor said ‘I don’t understand these things. You have to use Stata.’ She got me someone to help who was also busy with his work but there are things he taught me which are still with me,” she says.

The other competence Oryema says she gained is with referencing. “I use reference manager which I had even never heard of. The skills may be getting lost now but when I was there I learnt a lot of things because of the good reading environment,” she says.

“Then there were the courses, seminars. There you learn so many things: Courses like the qualitative method course, the quantitative research course, writing skills course and many more. My supervisor would identify and say Christine apply for this. She would identify almost all the avenues where I could get what I needed. I like my supervisor because she never left me alone. She would connect me to the labs, writing letters in advance, linking me up to people. She was a resourceful person,” Oryema tells me.

Career development

Oryema regrets that she has not been able yet to academically grow the different areas of her research. Her PhD thesis is entitled: Ethno-Botanical Importance and Nutritional Compositions of Edible Wild Fruit Species in Gulu District. But the PhD pushed her into promotions from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer, Acting Deputy Director of the Institute of Research and Graduate Studies (IRGS), and currently Acting Director of the institute.

“I need to go back to my research. But the PhD has helped me to gain seniority and I have also tasted administration. Even if I get out of this office I will get out when I know that it was because of the PhD for which I was supported that I was able to reach here,” she tells me.

Improving research collaboration

DANIDA is currently supporting another programme in Gulu University, Building Stronger Universities, as part of research cooperation between Gulu University and five universities in Denmark including the University of Copenhagen (lead University), Aarhus University, University of Southern Denmark, Roskilde University and Aalborg University. Oryema finds this opportunity closed as it supports arts related areas only.

“They should also bring open-ended programmes, like they did with ENRECA, so that people can compete and collaboration increases,” she suggests, before adding something personal: “As for me, I still need money. I need money to go back to the community to disseminate my findings and also continue with the research.”

As I stand up to bid her farewell after a very revealing and enriching discussion about indigenous fruit trees of Gulu, out of courtesy, she chooses to walk me through part of the university compound, and that is when she tells me: “We have facts which could help but there is no money in the university. This is work in progress. I feel I just opened the door. There is still a lot in this, and it will help the whole nation.”

Note: Dr. Oryema was supervised by Hannington Oryem Origa (Uganda), on Research Gate; and Prof. Nanna Roos (Denmark)

William Odinga Balikuddembe is a science journalist based in Kampala, Uganda