Indigenous Knowledge (IK) and the new face of Uganda’s PhD

Photo: William Odinga Balikuddembe

The first time I spoke to Dr. Expedito Nuwategeka was on the telephone. In my mind I saw the image of a 60-year old man sitting on a wooden chair with piles of books at his table. However, that is not the image I arrived to at Gulu University on an April afternoon to meet him.

I was facing the block which houses his office, in the Department of Geography, Faculty of Education and Humanities, when I called him in order to confirm our exact meeting point.

“Are you seeing a van parked under a tree?” He asked. I was looking at it. “Just come to that car,” he said. I looked into the car when I got there but there was no one. He called:

“Look behind,” I turned and saw a much younger man, dressed in a black t-shirt, wave his hand from under another tree, urging me to join him there. He was with several of his colleagues and students. They had sought the shed and some fresh air from under the tree, I thought. Gulu was extremely hot with temperatures beyond 30 degrees centigrade. I too was struggling to cope with the weather.

After searching and failing to find another tree where we could have an undisrupted conversation we went to his office. His desk had a laptop and an empty paper tray, no piles of paper or books, as I had envisioned prior to our meeting.

“I always clear my desk,” he responded to my comment that his desk was empty. The simple interpretation of this is that he doesn’t like to keep work pending.

We were a minute later leaving for the Dean’s office just next door. We sought refuge here away from the attention of those who required his services and there seemed to be many as he was now the Acting Dean.

Nuwategeka just turned 39 on April 19. Here I was sitting with a young and casual scholar, a PhD image most Ugandans can hardly imagine.

When he completed his Masters degree in Geography in 2011, at Makerere University, Nuwategeka immediately started to look for PhD opportunities. He soon got one. In 2013 he was one of the two BSU project winners of a PhD scholarship at Gulu University. He was to study Indigenous Knowledge (IK) used by the Acholi in land suitability evaluation for agriculture in order to find out how that could be used to lead to social stability (Thesis: Indigenous Knowledge in Agricultural Land Suitability Evaluation: Opportunities for Conflict Prevention and Social Stability in Amuru Distict, Northern Uganda; article published in Journal of Agricultural Extension and Rural Development). He chose Amuru district as his study site.

The Acholi are a major tribe in northern Uganda, whose livelihood largely depends on agriculture. By the time of the study, most of them had just returned to their villages following two decades of displacement into camps by a civil war3.

“There was a lot of land conflicts related to mainly ownership, but also connected to land productivity management4,” Nuwategeka tells me. “It was realised that after the people settled, if they did not look after their land very well in terms of keeping it productive, they were running another risk of falling into instability.”

The thinking here is that when some land becomes unproductive, groups start to fight for the existing productive land. “You get migrations and then intra tribal conflicts as one group is viewed as if it is invading another’s territory to find productive land,” Nuwategeka stresses.

Nuwategeka’s study was premised on acknowledgement of two key factors: 1) The Acholi had IK in agriculture carried on through generations; 2) there was new knowledge which was formal, scientific, but it didn’t seem to be solving the agricultural and environmental problems.

His idea for the PhD was to make a hybrid for land evaluation from IK and the modern scientific knowledge.

“Most times technical people tell us you can use this land to produce this crop, but then you find that indigenous people have their own way of doing it which is not given attention and when recommendations are made by technical people they are not followed, then you get projects collapsing,” Nuwategeka tells me.

This hybrid would allow for the acceptance and usability of the modern agricultural knowledge alongside the IK. His PhD model, parts of which he has published, brings forward that hybrid.

Intriguing findings

Despite over 20 years of displacement and social disruption, Nuwategeka found that the Acholi still maintained their IK in agriculture, including the generation which was born during the war when there were no organised agricultural activities in the villages. People were living in internally displaced peoples (IDP) camps and relying on aid and handouts.

“It is a big tool to bank on,” Nuwatekega says about IK, which is usually not documented. “Its transmission system from generation to generation is very strong and even its results have been tested. This land has been inhabited I think for more than 1000 years but it has never run into a desert because of being mismanaged, based on that knowledge.”

Nuwategeka also found that the IK land suitability evaluation for agriculture among the Acholi was as efficient as the formal and scientific evaluation. He documented his findings.

The IK questions

The Acholi base their agricultural IK on simple questions and parameters, basically reading from their environment.

“If you are going to plant this kind of crop what do you look out for in the environment; If you are going to do this kind of agriculture how is it going to impact on the productivity of the land?” Nuwategeka states.

Someone, for example, who wants to grow maize, would look out for indicators plants, which are wild, such as spear grass, to tell that a particular place is suitable for maize. The Acholi can also look at soil macro-organisms, vegetation density, soil colour, texture, landscape and other qualities to tell the suitability of land for particular crops.  

IK rating

He focused his study on maize, beans and rice because they are widely grown in Amuru for both commercial and domestic consumption. He got the formal land suitability evaluations, which guide which crops grow well under what conditions and against that, generated his own indigenous-based evaluation.

“My field is geography and agricultural geography so I had to match the two models to show how much they agree,” he says. What difference did you find? I ask. “I found that they agree on average 71 percent. So you don’t have to have been to school to make a very appropriate decision meaning this indigenous knowledge can be rated almost at the same level with formal knowledge.”

There is, however, a common perception among Ugandans that the modern or formal scientific knowledge overrides IK. Chances to discard IK, in favour of the former, are quite high.

IK and the ecosystem

Nuwategeka has so far published two papers from his PhD work, but implementation of the results is pending.

“It is my next project when funding allows – implementation in the communities where it is relevant,” he says. One of his aims is to make a policy brief to popularise the study outcomes especially in the district local governments in the Acholi sub region.

“The potential it has is big because this is work which is living with people,” he says. “Unfortunately, it is not given attention by people who implement policies. I think there is a general trend everywhere in Africa where we tend to think that knowledge from the external is superior and that is really not nice because knowledge is developed from within a community.”

Nuwategeka’s study is relevant to a number of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), most importantly Goal 15: Life on Land. It emphasises conservation and restoration of ecosystems. “How to sustain life on land, that goal, I feel my research fits in very well, there,” he tells me.

Academic environment

Nuwategeka’s PhD was supervised at Gulu and at the University of Copenhagen. The main difference he found between studying in Uganda and Denmark is access to resources. “Whatever you need in Denmark it is there for you. For example the library has subscriptions to very many journals. Here you have to visit a physical library and you really have to struggle to get resources,” he says.

While in Denmark, he was able to master GIS. “I did a lot of map matching. I got a personal trainer who was paid from the project and that is a skill I wouldn’t have gotten fine enough with if it was not for that PhD opportunity,” he tells me.  He has since collaborated with a university in the UK which has given them equipment to start training Gulu students in GIS.

“I am already taking the responsibility to introduce the classes,” he says.

Career Prospects

The PhD, conferred upon him in 2017, has given Nuwategeka prospects for career advancement. “I have applied for promotion.  They need a PhD, three publications, which I already have, even in excess, so it is a matter of the internal processes of the university and then I am as good as promoted,” he says.

His main focus now is to build the capacity of others mainly through post graduate training. “I am already examining Master’s thesis for other universities –, Kyambogo, Makerere – because of this qualification. I have the capacity,” he says.

He has also spearheaded the writing of a PhD programme for his faculty and it has been cleared by the university council. It is awaiting approval by the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE).

Nuwategeka has completely switched to teaching. As we near the end of our conversation he tells me:

“I am a teacher by training at undergraduate, a secondary school teacher, a teacher of geography and economics. I don’t see any career changes. I like what I am doing. There is nothing wrong with me if I die teaching. In fact my grandfather died when he was a retired teacher. I can also die a retired teacher,” he says. 

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