Fund a Fellow

Talking about GMO crops in Uganda: My experience

Patricia Nanteza

When one reads a book, there is usually a message or two that resonate with them, making the book memorable. I love African literature for its flowery language, vivid descriptions and the familiarity of the characters. In Dominic Malaisho’s The Tongue of the Dumb, the village clown sneaks onto a lorry transporting lepers to a secluded place – lest they continue spreading the disease! On the truck, the lepers share their sob stories of discrimination and pain.

One leper, in a moment of utter despair, declares that he wants to commit suicide. The clown, amazed, asks him, “Don’t you have a village witch or people that hate you? They should kill you; you shouldn’t do their work for them.” This line sent me into ripples of laughter, and almost five years since I read the book, that message still lingers at the back of my mind. What was the lesson, you might ask?

“We are our own public relations officers. We should at all times treat and speak well of ourselves. We should never do the haters work for them.”

Ok, I wrote a paragraph or two to justify my own boasting, but why not? If I am given the chance, I think I can disarm an army by simply talking to and with them. That is why whenever I talk to most people, especially farmers, about GM research, I usually make new “converts”. It is this attitude that I carried with me during our recent communication workshop in Masaka, a district located on the western outskirts of central Uganda.

We, the Alliance for Science Uganda Global Leadership fellows, wanted to take the genetic engineering (GE) conversation to the actual beneficiaries—the farmers. First, we wanted to explain what this monster called GE is and later relate to them what kind of GE research is taking place at research institutions in Uganda. With loads of optimism and youthful energy we headed out to Masaka.

But before we embarked on this activity, we had a planning meeting during which we agreed upon the different categories of people we wanted to talk with. I mention this because it greatly determined the quality and success of our engagement. Anyway, back to Masaka, where we met with a group of 60 farmers, political leaders, and agricultural extension officers.

When other fellows Nassib Mugwanya, Clet Masiga, and Peter Wamboga started talking, it then dawned on me that I wasn’t the only “gifted” one. Each one brought a uniqueness that is them. Nassib is light-hearted. He makes light of issues that would easily tick me off and often peppers his presentations with humor. He also has a great sense of team but often overlooks the importance of timely updates.

Clet is the research scientist among us and we often rely on him to explain the technical aspects of GE. Peter is quite passionate about the solutions GE can deliver to farmers. He is calm, fatherly, and keeps out for everyone. I have caught him several times reminding others that “Patricia had something to say, let’s listen to her.” Who would want that? But, because of the passion, Peter belabors issues over and over again that he enters the realm of verbosity.

Connie, the 5th fellow, brings smiles and the comfort of knowing a ministry of agriculture employee is a part of this noble cause. (Ugandans are anti-government but they trust government officials more than private sector ones - the irony that is life!)

Me, I am brief, crisp, and clear in my communications. This is because I know adults have short attention spans and I am more results- than process-oriented. When I talk with someone, I want to change their heart and mind, so I never meander lest I lose them. So, I was only too glad after the training when a lady walked up to me and said: “You are a good teacher. Your presentation was very clear, thank you.” I am sure the others were complimented as well.

During the workshop many things became apparent, including:

  1. Most people do not believe there is a difference between a hybrid/crossbred seed and a GMO. Maybe they are right, maybe not. At the very core of both products is a merging of different genes. We tried to tell and show them the difference and we succeeded. (Lest we are accused of lying to the public that a GMO is a hybrid).

  2. “If GM is good, why it has it received such bad and long beating world-over?” is a question that was asked in more ways than one.

  3. Most people who are anti-GMO are so because of ignorance. Once we told them the GM truth, they all reacted the same way: “I did not know!”

  4. Then the question I love the most, “If we consume imported foods containing GMOs, why cannot we grow them?” I hope our legislators can find an appropriate answer to this question, which will be legalizing the commercialization of GM crops in Uganda.

  5. Palatability or foods retaining their “natural” taste ranks as high up as disease and pest resistance. We shall pass on this message to all breeders.

At the end of the workshop, we had answered people’s questions and quieted their fears; in turn we had made allies of them. And in writing this piece, I am making Malaisho’s village clown proud.

The Uganda Alliance for Science is a network of concerned volunteers working to make agricultural innovations accessible to all farmers for sustainable food security and improved incomes. In a bid to amplify farmers’ voices, we do not work alone. We are representative of the organizations that employ us—NARO, SCIFODE, TRIDI and MAAIF—that have graciously allowed us the time to do this exciting activity.

There are also many other organizations in Uganda that are at the forefront of delivering biotechnology solutions to farmers through creating an enabling legal environment. These include PBS, UBBC, and a great number of science and innovation champions in Uganda and the rest of the world.

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