by Patty Huston-Holm
On paper, the Ugandan chicken industry looks good. The Uganda Bureau of Statistics reported, for example, a 3.2 percent poultry production increase from 2011 to 2012. This means more local food, including eggs, and improved income for farmers.
But for fourth-year Uganda Christian University (UCU) student Mulepo Allan Dickson, that’s not good enough. He is concerned that only 37 percent of each slaughtered chicken is used with the legs and head going to waste. On an October afternoon during a research proposal defense in UCU’s science lab and before his peers and faculty, Dickson presented his research about how life could be better for chicken farmers if they used these discarded parts for feeding fish and pigs, how legs and heads could be ground into dog food and how they could become fertilizer.
Stretching students to the “what if” levels is what learning should be about, according to Elizabeth Balyejusa Kizito, head of the UCU Department of Agricultural and Biological Sciences. She is excited about this project and others, including a student’s study focused on finding a substitute for egg in mayonnaise and another one that involves grafting tomato rootstalks for enhanced resilience to prevalence soil borne diseases. Dr. Liz, as she prefers to be called, sees her primary focus as helping students bloom.
“Students need to burst like flowers,” she said. Just as flowers attract insects that carry pollen to fertilize other plants and seeds, students should blossom educationally and carry their knowledge and skill to a greater purpose.
Her fascination with science began at age 10 when her family moved from the city life of Nairobi, Kenya, to a rural village in Uganda. With roughly three-quarters of all Ugandans working as farmers, most children are not allured by the surroundings of trees, cows, maize and flowers. Liz was enchanted by it all.
Her affection for animals had her first thinking about a career in veterinary medicine, knowing the bulk of that work in Uganda would evolve around chickens, goats, cows and other income-producing livestock. But naysayers told her that very few Ugandans become successful in that field. So she moved to agricultural science, aspiring to do research, which she did among getting degrees from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Makerere University. She had no plans to be a teacher then.
It was Liz’s first boss in her research job who sparked the instructor in her. This boss unwittingly and unknowingly was a teacher. As she worked and reported on molecular breeding tools for cyanogenesis in cassava, this supervisor emphasized time keeping, deliverables and effective communications. His two common questions for all those he mentored were: “Have you told your grandmother about this? And has she understood it?”
In primary and secondary school and even when studying for her bachelor’s degree, nobody had put knowledge and skill in quite that context. After years of primary, secondary and university memorizing, Liz was being asked to focus always on the outcome, to question, to do work in a timely manner and to be able to explain clearly what she was doing to any person regardless of age and education level. Interactive, personalized teaching strategies are evident in Liz’s classes, which she now facilitates as a senior lecturer at UCU.
“From day one, I tell them I am not giving you notes – no notes to memorize,” she asserted, leaning over a wooden table in her light blue UCU staff shirt. “They need to find their own notes. I want them to think, creatively and critically, and to ask and to cause those around them to do the same. Learning driven by curiosity is fun.”
For Dr. Liz, her frustrations are summed up in one word – time. She doesn’t have enough of it. With more time, she could better unleash student creativity and confidence that have been squelched for years, especially for girls. She encourages students to fail if by that they have learned something. She knows that reinforcing this kind of interactive thinking will encourage innovation, making the world a better place.
Young, creative ideas for change are especially critical in the area of science, which includes farming. According to the World Bank, there is a disconnect between the 75 percent of Uganda’s population engaged in farming and less than 25 percent of the country’s GDP coming from agriculture.
A rice-breeding project led by Dr. Liz was designed to help fill that gap. Under her leadership, UCU students were engaged in a three-year (2013-2015) grant that involved teaching 400 local farmers about pest management to yield more crops.
Dr. Liz is passionate about applied research. Her team at the department has developed an extensive outreach program within Mukono. She also is discussing with an American chemist the possible pilot of new aeroponic farming to explore how it can be applied in Ugandan contexts. This new agriculture technology produces crops with 10 percent less water than traditional planting – a plus for the drought-stricken conditions of parts of Uganda.
Liz has found a niche at UCU, largely because of its Christian focus. Sometimes, she thinks about Psalm 23 that encourages her to remember “the Lord is in charge” when she worries or is tested or tired or all three. On this day, she is thinking about Luke 12:28 as it tells her that “from everyone who has been given, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
She expects no less from herself and her students.