Rêve de PhD. C’est accompli.

After four years of PhDing, I submitted my thesis last November and on Monday (the 26th of February, 2018) I passed my viva voce (oral defence) successfully! It has been a long journey, and at times, it felt like neverending, but at last, it is all and well done. Looking back, I wondered why I wanted to do a doctorate in the first place. What inspired, motivated and ultimately made me do it?

Going not knowing

My journey as a researcher has been a zigzag path. When I was applying for undergraduate studies, I was clueless – or to be precise, I was interested in all and all. I studied physical science in college, and I nearly applied for mining engineering. But I changed my mind in last minute and got into commercial finance. After a year of business studies, I decided to go back to physical science, but this time in Environmental Geography. Upon graduation, I worked in different jobs from car rental agency to restaurants and retail stores, and freight forwarding and trading company.

Still unsure of where all these jobs would lead next, I found a graduate programme that matched my interests in both the environment and business – a graduate diploma in Sustainability and Business Management at HEC Montréal, the Université de Montréal’s School of Business. It was a first of the sustainability programmes at the time.

After graduating, I took a whole summer working on organic farms on the West Coast of Canada. It was during this time that I felt drawn to agriculture and farming. Once again, I took up many jobs: restaurants, sales agency, and volunteer work in local neighbourhood sustainability committee and environmental NGO. I never imagined to do another Master’s degree, but after a profoundly engaging experience in the organic ways of growing food, I decided to further specialise in agriculture and food research at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

Stepping into the unknown and coming full circle

My dream to embark on the PhD journey was a gradual one. In 2010, as part of the Master’s dissertation, I was in Rwanda for the first time – I was taking part in the baseline assessment of mothers and children’s nutrition and food security in the Eastern Province of Rwanda. It was also my first fieldwork in Africa, and everything was so fantastic and magical – the people, the place, new language and my passion for rural development. But, the most beautiful thing was the familiarity of agricultural conditions that I vividly remembered from my childhood in rural Korea. My grandparents were rice farmers. My parents left family farming behind, but my father used to run a small farming inputs shop where we sold chemical fertiliser and herbicides to rice farmers. So I grew up playing in rice fields. I studied until ten years of age in Korea, and my family moved to Canada. The amazing thing is how my grandparents and my parents’ generation’s decision to help us (my generation) to move away from rural conditions, ironically led me back to the agricultural issues in other parts of the world. And the agricultural development challenges in Rwanda seemed to me a perplexing puzzle. There was a strong political will to develop and modernise smallholders, and the farmers always seemed keen to partake and follow government’s agenda (when I asked). But there were also many contradicting signs in the rural areas that I observed in the field. I completed the fieldwork and my Master’s dissertation, but I raised more questions that I couldn’t put to rest. I had to go back and learn more from the farmers. That’s how I got into the PhD.

There is no me without you

There are so many events and people that I am forever grateful and indebted to, which made this research journey possible. My utmost respect goes to all the research participants, many of whom were smallholder farmers. They’ve offered me the most precious gift of all: trust. Through their life stories and experiences, I’ve gained much insight on rural livelihoods and development. Their lessons will continue to guide me beyond this research.

Every end is also a beginning. I am looking forward to applying what I have learned during my PhD to whatever work that I will embark on next. “Not my will, but thine, be done”.

Rêve de PhD.
C’est accompli.

I am forever grateful to my parents who have taught me to dare to dream. I am always in awe when I look back and reflect on where I come from, how I became who I am, and what a blessing this life has been so far. I am that I am thanks to you.

 

 

 

 

 

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Olive dreams

Back in September, I read an interesting article from the Smithsonian on EVOO (extra virgin olive oil). The article featured Tonio, a sixth-generation olive oil producer in Altamura, Puglia, Italy. The traditional olive production and harvest require lots of hands (mainly the whole and extended family and neighbours) and uncompromising dedication to quality. In the article, it featured that today, many work-away volunteers come to join the family harvest in November. It piqued my interest, and I decided to email Tonio and ask if I can be a part of the olive team. Two weeks later, I get a reply from Tonio, and he wants to chat over Skype. It was an interview! We had a great discussion – about farming, the traditional way of producing food, the importance of natural and locally grown food, and of course olive oil. I had a good feeling after the interview too. Last time I worked full time on a farm was six years ago (in organic farms in the British Columbia, Canada). I felt that this may be a timely opportunity for me to revisit the life and hands-on work of family farming while I am still working on my thesis (intellectualising about small-scale agriculture). So I decided to get my hands (and mind) grounded!

Here is Altamura

Here is how it worked: a team of seven people work with Tonio for three weeks to harvest the olives. Depending on the weather conditions (if it is not raining), we would go to the field – working from 7:30 AM until sunset (around 5 PM). Harvesting olives involve the following. First, shaking off the branches and knocking off the olives manually and mechanically (using hand rakes & pneumatic rakes, long sticks, and picking with hands). Then, setting up large nets underneath and collecting and packing olives in crates. After that, loading up the full boxes in the van, and then bringing the goods to the local press for oil extraction. And repeat for eleven days. With no day off.

The work is tough. We endured long hours of uncomfortable posture: continually looking up and straining neck and shoulder muscles, bending up and down and picking up crates that are over 40 kilogrammes and then carrying it over long distances on an uneven field. We had to work at a high pace in coordination with an equally tired and exhausted group of seven. And having only one break (at lunchtime) to manage all the work seemed a punishing challenge. And it was! My romantic ideals of traditional olive harvest in Italy quickly vanished after the first morning of work. Welcome to the reality of organic family farming in the 21st century. Capisce!

First morning, still smiling...

the first morning (still smiling)

using pneumatic rake

pneumatic rake

Marc-Antonio (the grandfather of Creanza famiglia)

Marc-Antonio (the grandfather of Creanza famiglia)

olive train

olive train

harvest

olive ride

lunch break

short break

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day 11 – harvest is done

What kept us going and survive (and in the end thrive over) this gruelling challenge? We were exhausted, but as a group/family, we were able to live and work together despite all the hardship. We shared our pains, life stories, laughs and most importantly, good food. Tonio’s mother (the grandmother of the Creanza famiglia) and his sister-in-law Rosanna, cooked fantastic food for us. I was speechless every meal (with a full mouth); it made me forget and drop everything at the dinner table. It was me and the food. I tasted, actually tasted the food. Beyond deliciousness, simple everyday food healed and nourished our body and soul; and moreover, it transformed us – strangers from different parts of the world – into a family. Italians got it – we nurtured our relationships around the kitchen table, and our body and soul full-heartedly agreed with love for natural and quality food.

at the table

at the table

Burratina: a strung pouch cheese

Burratina: a string pouch cheese

Burratina, Capocollo (cured meat), Pepperoni (pepper) and olive & bread

Burratina, Capocollo (cured meat), Pepperoni (pepper) and olive & bread

Inside burratina: more stringy & creamy cheese!

Inside burratina: more stringy & creamy cheese!

it is impossible to waste food in Italy

when food is this good, it is impossible to waste…we scarpetta everything, which means cleaning the plate spotless with bread

At the end of the harvest, I realised how hard it is to continue the traditional way of farming and to produce good quality food today. It is hard not only physically but more so socio-economically.

Today, we rely upon and buy food from supermarkets where we (as consumers) are accustomed to large quantities of food from all around the globe. This scene is an artificial (and inaccurate) picture of reality. We see a distorted view of an abundance of food available to us regardless of the seasonality. What’s more, we favour aesthetically uniform shapes and colours of produce, where nature’s diversity has a low place in our markets. Besides our obsession with perfect looking foods, other aisles are full of prepackaged and already-made foods that industrial food giants lure us to believe in ‘convenience’. That is, the convenience of saving our time and money. In other words, they propose a hassle-free life: do away with preparing, cooking and setting (and cleaning) up tables, all of which make the experience of a proper family eating collaborative and engaging. We seemed to have little patience for cooking and eating. It’s almost as if we don’t care, and we are told just to shove whatever into our body without taking the necessary time and appreciation from where and what, by whom, and when and how it arrived at our table.

Most of us eat at least twice or more a day. We do this EVERYDAY, for life. Shouldn’t this be a joyful and meaningful ritual? And what if we all enjoyed and shared this joy more with people around us? Besides the life-changing experience of olive harvest and meeting and connecting with amazing people from all walks of life, I confirmed that one of the greatest treasures and pleasures of the everyday life is in our food. Right under our nose!

O live!

Viva olio!

international olive dream team (from Korea, Germany, Canada, Nigeria, the USA and Italy)

An international olive dream team (from Korea, Germany, Canada, Nigeria, the USA, and Italy – missing Tonio in this picture)

Tonio - keeping the traditional farming alive

Tonio – keeping the traditional farming alive

olive dreams

I am living the dream. And the olive dreams continue…

 

An Earl Grey morning

In the Bible it rained 40 days. They called it a disaster.
In England we call it ‘Summer’.

≠ a weather quote from Pinterest 

Oh, it’s pouring rain. Hey, the rain stopped, and it’s sunny. Oh wait, it’s raining again. That’s right. I am in England.

It’s been two weeks since I arrived back in England. The memories of blaring sun and dusty laterite roads of rural Rwanda are slowly fading back as I am braving the pouring rain without an umbrella (I misread the weather, again). I got soaked, but I felt refreshed and awakened to the fact that the fieldwork chapter is over (although I still feel much attached to and often reminisce about), and now I must move onto the next chapter, that is, desktop research. But the turn seems quite sharp. It’s August, and the university is extra quiet – there is hardly anyone at the PhD office too. From the intensive fieldwork’s day-to-day lifestyle to a large (empty) campus where I find more seagulls than people, I feel nostalgic. So the rain helps, it reminds me exactly where I am and it prompts me to accept both the rainy and sunny days. I might as well enjoy the Summer. Rain or shine this is it, it’s all I’ve got to enjoy in England. I also look forward to studying more in-depth the data and the life story interviews with the farmers. It will be amazing to see the details of the conversations coming back to life, revealing the minute details that I may have overlooked or slipped out of my radar in the heat of the fieldwork. Arriving in the office, I change into dry clothes, hang up my drenched shorts and sandals on the bookshelf, and I happily make myself a cup of tea (and everything feels a bit more warm and brighter). A quintessential English remedy!

An Earl Grey morning

An Earl Grey morning

Homecoming

I can’t believe it – I am back in Canada”.

Two days have passed since I am back from the fieldwork. Compared to the intensity and busy-ness of my last week in Rwanda (I was meeting government officials and NGO people up until last minute), I feel out of place finding myself sitting and watching over the Saint-Laurent River with ducks and ducklings peacefully floating on the shore. A sharp contrast from the evergreen hills in Rwanda. It will take a few more days I guess.

But all in all, I am content that the fieldwork is over. I look forward to exploring and analysing the data in detail.

On my last day in Rwanda, my local friends and family organised a farewell party. We slaughtered a goat and had a feast. We exchanged kind words and wishes; shared gifts and fun memories of our time together, and we sang and danced. As always, this visit was no different: their generosity and care yet again moved me. We lived together for over six months, and I feel much more in tune with the local customs and the way of thinking and living. For example, I have developed a very sensitive hearing for water that trickles through the pipes. There is rarely any water in the pipes during the day, but the water usually comes back in the middle of the night (it can be after 10 PM or in the early morning). So even when I am asleep, I sometimes wake up and go out to fill the water cans. It’s somewhat funny, but I think of it as a sixth sense – a survival instinct for water.

IMG_0891

 

Perhaps you are wondering how my everyday life was like in Rwamagana. Here is a brief rundown.

My local family and home –

My friend Eric is in the middle and beside me is Eric’s little cousin, Providence, who is the only survivor of her family. Eric supported her studies throughout her high school and college. I lived with Eric, Providence and her friend Vestine (first on the left) who is attending a local university in Rwamagana.

family picture

family picture

 

Everyday living –

We used charcoal stoves for cooking. It’s smoky & messy and hard to control the heat and cooking time. I tried cooking several times, but it was so time-consuming that I only managed to cook on weekends.

Mélange - local eggplant, beans and tomato sauce

Mélange – local eggplant, beans and tomato sauce

We don’t use cutting boards in Rwanda. We cut and slice everything in the air. Another thing I had to learn.

Chef Eric showing me how it's done

Chef Eric showing me how it’s done

We washed everything by hand. We had to ration and coordinate together so that we could maximise our water use. We laundered our clothes first, and then we used the grey water to clean shoes, bicycle, and the floor. Water efficiency is a necessity.

IMG_0682

We don’t have a refrigerator. We always bought fresh food from the local market. I am convinced that I can live without a fridge. (If there’s a market or a vegetable garden close by home) Fresh sourcing could have an added advantage of never buying more than what is necessary for two to three days of food needs. No food waste from spoilage, guaranteed. We got dairy and meat products for immediate consumption. If conditions are right, I am going to try this (refrigerator-free living) for myself.

IMG_0165

 

The question that came up the most during the farewell party was: when are you coming back?

Good question! I don’t know when my next visit will be, but I am so amazed and comforted to know that I have people and place I can call family and home in the heart of Africa – that is Rwanda.

Thank you for everything and especially thank you (yes you!) for reading my posts. Your kind encouragement, interest and readership helped chase away the fieldwork blues. It was an individual work, but I was never alone. Like we often say in Rwanda: Turikumwe! (We are together!)

Murakoze cyane (thank you very much) and take care until next time!

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Long live the (dairy) Queen!

Earlier in June, I attended the 10th Agriculture Show organised by the Rwanda Agriculture Board. It’s an agriculture expo where all the agriculture-related players and stakeholders in the country come and present their work and projects. It was well organised, and I was able to meet several interesting people including officials from NGOs and Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Resources.

On a fun note, I accompanied Patrick – the chairman of the milk coop that I have been working for in Rwamagana – who was invited to participate in the dairy cow competition. The competition rule is straightforward: a cow that produces the most volume of milk wins. After much anticipation, the results came out, and Patrick’s cow (her name is Kakazi, and it means ‘fine lady’) won the third prize. She is the third best milk producing cow of the year (with an average of 9.7 Litre per milking). The first two cows were pure exotic breed (Friesian) but Kakazi was a cross-breed (a 7th generation cross between a local Ankole and Friesian cow).

The objective of this competition was to showcase the potential milk yields of different breeds of dairy cows. The higher milk yielding dairy cows (exotic breeds) are currently promoted by the government as a technological (genetic improvement) solution to accelerate the modernisation and transformation of the dairy sector. On the other hand, there is also a renewed interest in protecting and conserving the local breeds especially the Inyambo. Inyambo cows are the traditional breed that represents the beauty and symbol of the old Kingdom. Some of the traditional dance moves are inspired by the shape of their horns (see picture: notice the dancers’ arms mimicking cow horns).

Although the cow’s value and place in Rwandan culture have changed in the new social order and economic context, I can’t deny the fact that the cows are still king (or I should instead say queen) in Rwandans’ mind and heart. There are traditional greeting and expressions that capture this essence very well:

Gira’inka.” (I wish you a cow | Have yourself a cow) – A traditional greeting.

Yampayinka!  (This one is hard to translate, but the closest equivalent would be: Holy Cow!) – When you receive a gift of a cow from a friend, family or even stranger, you would exclaim this expression with the utmost surprise and gratitude. Holy cow, who wouldn’t be!

Welcome to Agri-Show

Welcome to Agri-Show

Let the milk competition begin!

Let the milk competition begin!

The competition is hot...

The competition is hot…

Patrick impatiently waiting for the result...

Congratulations Patrick and Kakazi!

Kakazi and Patrick

Kakazi and Patrick

Up close with Kakazi

Up close with Kakazi

And the winner is...Kakazi!

And the winner is…Kakazi!

Inyambo cows and the cowboy singing and praising the herd

Inyambo cows and the cowherd singing and praising the herd

Time to celebrate the win - dancing with the Intore dancers

Time to celebrate the win – dancing with the Intore dancers

Yes...I'm trying...

Yes…I’m trying…to surf?!

Asking Patrick to join the dance - but he preferred to sit and watch me embarrassing myself!

Asking Patrick to join the dance – but he preferred to sit and watch me embarrassing myself!

 

Elle est belle la vie!

It’s just another day in the village…”

But I am always surprised and delighted to find moments and glimpses of beauty from the ordinary. Although I find myself in resource-lacking and poor infrastructure villages, I don’t necessarily see ‘poverty’ in peoples’ lives. Yes, children run barefoot in the village (but they do wear shoes when they go to town or school – it’s mandatory by law in Rwanda). Yes, their clothes are not the cleanest (but they are hardworking farmers, and hardworking farmers mean soiled clothes). Yes, they have little disposable income, but they do everything and above their means to feed and stay healthy as best as they possibly can. Perhaps I have hung around long enough that my senses and standards of living have adjusted to their level and I don’t notice the poverty as starkly as my first arrival in Rwanda.

Ah well, I better live and enjoy the fieldwork like there’s no tomorrow. Because tomorrow (when the fieldwork is over, and I’m gone back home) I will probably find myself spending hours in front of the computer piling through the mountains of data. Then, when the data (the monster) that I have collected start to be overwhelming, I will close my eyes and remember the laterite dust and sweat and the heat and the rain from the village work. What stressing over data? Compared to the fieldwork challenges, it’s not a monster. It’s just a paper tiger!

Coming back to ‘now’ – when I look back and remember the beautiful moments that I experienced, all the hardship and sweat that I poured during the fieldwork evaporate like sweet summer rain. If only I had this hindsight right from the beginning of my fieldwork! I guess I learn better doing twice.

Village boys fishing in the rice ditch - with nothing but stick and string (and skills!)

Village boys fishing in the rice ditch – with nothing but stick and string (and skills!)

Today's catch (with a proud smile)

Today’s catch (with a proud smile)

Green, bright sun, and baby blue sky = Rwandan flag

Green, bright sun, and baby blue sky = the colours of Rwandan flag

A thousand blossoms

A thousand blossoms

Wish you were here

If time can fly – my last five months of fieldwork was like the Air Concorde – gone so fast and (me)tired”.

I have exactly a month left in Rwanda. I find the last month of fieldwork always challenging: there’s still plenty of work to take care of, but the mind is distracted to “what if” and “what’s next” questions. There are also plenty of doubts and unnecessary worries such as “have I collected enough data?” (usually collecting too much of unnecessary data is the problem.)

However, during fieldwork, I was fortunate to find, witness and enjoy some fantastic moments, laughs and remarkable sights. Here are some of my “oh~wish you were here” moments.

Land of a thousand hills

beautiful Rwanda (Rwanda nziza)

At the King's Palace: a shepherd sings to royal cow (Inyambo)

At the King’s Palace: a cowherd sings to a royal cow (Inyambo)

 

A boy shepherd (maybe 5 years old?) at work

A boy cowherd (maybe 5 years old?) at work

 

A boy shepherd (at another village)

A boy cowherd (at another village)

 

Drawing on the sand - I drew a cow for the village children (they weren't impressed...)

Drawing on the sand – I drew a cow for the village children (they weren’t impressed…)

 

so I drew a big SUV the next time! (children approved :-)

so I drew a big SUV the next time! (children approved :-)

 

Monkey business...at Nyungwe Forest

Monkey business…at Nyungwe Forest

 

when every inch of terrace matters

When every inch of terrace matters

 

big hug from Rwanda

A big hug from Rwanda