Learning to change course: Adaptation in my ‘river of life’

youth blog

By Nadia Manning-Thomas.

Nadia will be sharing her story at Youth: The future of sustainable landscapes to be held at the Global Landscapes Forum at 9am CET November 16, 2013.

If you can’t make it to Warsaw, watch the event online at www.landscapes.org/live-stream.

My name is Nadia Manning-Thomas. I am 34 years old and so am still considered part of the youth segment of society (hopefully!). I want to introduce you to my ‘river of life’ and how I adapted to new demands and opportunities by learning how to change my course over the years.

The source of my river is my home island of Barbados. Despite a wonderful upbringing by my parents, good schooling, and of course the undeniably good conditions that Barbados has to offer, I was yearning to see the world from a young age. I got the chance to represent Barbados at one of the United World Colleges – Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada – which would be the start of a major change in course in my life’s journey. I spent two fantastic years in the forests of Vancouver Island with 200 other students from 83 different countries doing the International Baccalaureate, undertaking every extracurricular activity I could and discovering many new things.

I had decided that the next step in my path would be studying geography at university. And while I was chosen as the proud recipient of a one-per-year full scholarship for an outstanding international student to do an undergraduate degree at Grinnell College in Iowa, USA, Grinnell did not offer Geography. So, I made the decision to change course, both literally and figuratively. I finally decided on an anthropology major with an archaeology specialty, an environmental studies minor, and equivalent credits in global religious studies.

Fortuitously, this gave me the opportunity to do a study abroad program in Tanzania during my third year at Grinnell, which involved a semester of courses at University of Dar es Salaam, a few months of fieldwork and a homestay with a local Tanzanian family.  And it was during my fieldwork in Tanzania that my river shifted direction again. I remember very vividly a day during our 2-month archaeological dig in Laetoli, near the Ngorongoro crater, when a group of Maasai morani (warriors) gathered around us as we were carefully chipping and brushing the surrounding rock encasing an exciting bone we had found. In the limited English they spoke they asked us what we were doing, and in our limited Maa we replied naively, “We are looking for old bones.”

They seemed puzzled but nodded agreeably, before leaving us swiftly. We didn’t think much of it. But about an hour later the group of warriors returned proudly carrying a cloth sack, the contents of which they emptied in front us. Before us now lay many, many bones of various types, ages, and states. In shock we asked them where they had gotten all these bones and they waved their arms around to depict the general area where we were working – what we considered to be our ‘site’ and what they considered to be their home. When we asked them how they had gotten the bones, one of them promptly lifted up his spear and brought it down just above the bone we had been working on, ejecting it from its bed of rock where it had probably been sitting for about 100,000 years, and smiled broadly at us.

It was obvious at this moment that what we were doing was not only misunderstood by these guys, but was probably considered silly or useless in the midst of their own lives. They were experiencing major issues around their pastoralist activities with the government cutting down on their range of movement and often forcing them into sedentary lifestyles on marginal lands. As a result people were suffering from a lack of food, access to clean drinking water and basic services in this new imposed lifestyle. This area now had major TB infection rates, high cases of malaria and other health problems. They needed to adapt, but this was not an easy thing to do.

And so on this day, despite my love for archaeology, my mind and heart made a shift to trying to respond to the priorities and needs of people of the present day. Helping people to adapt to the changing world inspired me to adapt to my own changing world.

My chance to try this out came as I neared the finish of my University degree. I was awarded a post-graduate fellowship to spend a year in Namibia with a local NGO, the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia, at their research station in the middle of the Namib desert, Gobabeb. This one year stay quickly turned into three, where I was again exposed to the extreme vagaries of rural life, especially in arid areas. Working with communities on the desert margin, I became even more aware of the pertinent issues of water, agricultural production and livestock keeping in peoples’ lives, and the key role of continuous adaptation.

After three years of wonderful on the ground experiences and a lot of learning-by-doing, I decided that to be more effective in my work I needed to pursue further training. I undertook a Masters degree in Development and Environment studies at the University of Reading’s School of Agriculture in the UK. During the degree, I became acutely aware of many of the disasters in interventions that had occurred in development, often due to taking action before really understanding the situation or exploring options, and not basing interventions on good information. I wanted to learn more about the way that knowledge could be effectively generated and applied so as to deliver the best possible outcomes. This way of thinking would lead me down another very different part of the river.

As I started looking for jobs I found an advertisement which I thought was perfect for me, a research position looking at livelihoods, water, agriculture and development at the International Water Management Institute. The only hiccup was that it was presented as a post-doc position and I hadn’t ‘yet’ done a PhD. I took the chance and applied anyway, writing a passionate cover letter about my experiences and ideas on the topic. Out of almost a hundred applications (so I am told) mine was picked out — the only application for a post-doc position without the doc! Nevertheless I was again given a chance. A position including both research and communication working on knowledge sharing was put together and offered to me. Two new branches of my river, now formed: agricultural research and knowledge sharing.

I continued along this interesting course of knowledge sharing in agricultural research for almost seven years within various centers and programs of the CGIAR before I changed course yet again.

To find out more about my new change of course and the key lessons I have learnt as a young person along the way…tune in to my talk as a ‘Thought Leader’ at the Youth Session on Saturday 16th November at COP19 in Warsaw, Poland. I am sure you will be pleasantly surprised 😉

[Hint: www.danaqa.com ]

Nadia will be sharing her story at Youth: The future of sustainable landscapes to be held at the Global Landscapes Forum at 9am CET November 16, 2013.

If you can’t make it to Warsaw, watch the event online at www.landscapes.org/live-stream.