Sowing the seeds for black growth

The first botanical conference that Nokwanda Makunga attended was with her father, Oswald Makunga, who is believed to be South Africa’s first black botanist. As a child, she remembers doing experiments with her father, who specialised in the Iridaceae (iris) family, in his lab where he would get her to count seeds. He had trained at the University of Fort Hare during the 1950s, which was the first university to educate black people at tertiary degree level.

Makunga, a professor in plant biotechnology at Stellenbosch University, tells how she lives up to her name “Kwanda”, which means growth in isiXhosa, by growing and studying medicinal plants from the greater Cape Floristic Region.

“My parents were both in awe of plants and they inspired me to follow my dreams and choose my path in life and career direction,” she says. 

Makunga is one of 12 founding members of Black Botanists Week, an online movement started by Tanisha Williams, a plant ecologist and botanist in the United States, to promote, encourage and create a safe space for black people, indigenous people and people of colour who love plants.

Black Botanists Week, which is being celebrated this week, has its roots in Black Birders Week, a social media campaign to raise the visibility of black birders, which took wing after a racist incident in Central Park in the US last year involving birdwatcher Christian Cooper. A white woman, Amy Cooper, had labelled him as “threatening”, calling the police on him, merely because Cooper was black and occupying a space in nature.

For Makunga, Black Botanists Week seeks to inspire those that may not see botany as a career “as they may not know that people like me are engaged in this type of science”. 

Representation matters, she says. “Young people need to see people that look like them to be able to see themselves reflected in those people. That is one way in which we are going to grow new timber, if I can use a botanical analogy, for this particular cause.

“There’s also the notion, and I suppose it’s some kind of implicit bias or stereotyping, that black people do not have a great appreciation of nature or that we don’t understand conservation.

“But we have lived together with nature for centuries. There is deep knowledge and skills associated with traditional ecological knowledge, but that is not always reflected in academic settings.”

Exclusion is not always explicit, but systematic, says Makunga. “And it is those very systems that we need to change so that we can be a community that is much more welcoming to all kinds of different people that are interested in nature and all fields of plant sciences actually.”

Formally trained black botanists remain in the minority in South Africa, particularly in historically white academic institutions. In her department, for example, she was the first black female academic botanist among a staff complement of about 20 people. “But the numbers are growing, especially among younger people,” Makunga says.

Black Botanists Week aims to showcase and amplify the hidden faces and voices of black people who share a love for plants and nature and work with plants — those past and present — through their botanical legacies. 

What irks Makunga is “parachute science”, she says. “This is where you have researchers in countries from the north — white researchers — who come here to study African plants. They get field assistants and may be interacting with guides and sometimes other African scientists, but when they get back, there is not even that acknowledgement in that paper of the very people who helped them.

“Yes we have the biodiversity but at the same time we might not necessarily have the economic power to be able to participate in certain types of sciences that might get into these journals,” she says. “But African scientists are doing work that is as good as what is happening in other parts of the world.”

Itumeleng Moroenyane, a Black Botanists Week team member, recalls how lonely he felt while doing his undergraduate degree in botany in the early 2000s at the University of Cape Town.

“Being at the time, the only black queer person in the department, although people were nice, it was very isolating,” says Moroenyane, whose research focuses on building resilience of agricultural crops to drought and climate change and reducing the reliance on pesticides. 

“It was solely because there was a lack of representation from people that were like me. When you’re in a space where you don’t see people like yourself, it’s hard to feel like you belong at the table. 

“If you see people who are like you thriving and doing amazing work, it inspires you. You find that as the only black student in the group in a research project, your insights are not considered as valuable as your white counterparts.”

Moroenyane, who recently completed his PhD, illustrates this assertion with the example of his masters degree, which looked at how soil bacteria in fynbos was driving ecosystem diversity. 

“A lot of the work subsequently does not cite my work, or the insights or novelty of my work. There was a study that actually repeated the very same study I did. It’s as if there’s a curtain within South Africa, where white academics don’t want to recognise black academics,” he says. “It’s these micro-aggressions that black botanists are experiencing.”

He says Black Botanists Week is about changing these narratives despite these systematic barriers. “One of the things I love is that we’re showcasing the amazing work black botanists are doing despite these challenges.” 

Nature works as a diverse set of communities, Makunga adds. “This is a very important aspect as well that we need to cultivate within the botanical sphere: that we should be working together as diverse, inclusive units that facilitate each and every part of our collaborators’ growth.”

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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