Interview with Aboud Jumbe

Aboud Jumbe is a native of Zanzibar, who received his BSc and MSc from the University of Delhi, India. He is currently in the department of Environmental Science at Bangalore University. David Bradley recently highlighted his ground-breaking work in studying pollution and remediation of urban lakes in India: Heavy metal in urban wetlands. As part of the background research for another article I asked him about his career in science so far.

Is there anything you would have done differently to get to this point in your career?

There was an immense peer pressure from a certain quarter of people in my community who thought my taking natural sciences career was a waste of time and a wrong choice. This was based on a pure assumption and a wrong perception that science was becoming increasingly outdated with business and entrepreneurial innovations of the small and medium service industries of today (read the NGOs that were being funded under the category of the Cross-Cutting Issues e.g. Public Health, Environment, Primary Education, Gender, Poverty Reduction); and that only a few existing low-wage public sectors that offered pure science careers had a fading future. To me this was a present day purging of pure science careers. Fat salaries was considered the holy truth of those who believed differently. Perhaps a big error on my part in the early years of my career was to focus so much energy and passion about what I deeply believed in – to the wrong people who had little interest besides pushing paper. That created a vacuum of mutual understanding.

What would I have done differently then? First, I should have been equipped with more expertise about techniques on theoretical innovations such as the right social and practical research methods that could have given me an impetus in improvising my part of the science base to public-friendly outputs and re-establish the mutual link between science and society. This is where I think the black hole of connectivity between science and public policy especially in my part of the world exists.

The ad hoc approach of the service industry within a civil society that has been built upon a comparatively easy and direct financial mode of investment under the global brands of development aid has virtually eroded the foundations of a pure science all the way down to a school level.

How can a society expect sustained growth in social development without strong foundations of pure and natural sciences? I was advised, perhaps sarcastically by a colleague of mine, that I should have joined politics to fight for science. What an irony!

Secondly, but most importantly, I thought maybe it was the right time to reclaim schools from the old conventional method of teaching basic science and start training middle and secondary school level students with a new approach. I wanted to go back to schools and share my experience at the new level. Teaching natural science has always been a critical part of my sub-conscious mind and perhaps this is the only option which I believe I should have taken off with during the early part of my career soon after leaving college. I still do believe in that though.

So, what problems did you face?

It didn’t take me long after leaving college with a Bachelor’s Degree in Science (Chemistry, Botany, and Zoology) and returning home to realize the intensity of the opposition towards this field from various recruitment sectors – both public and private. Everywhere I went I was met with a high level of cynicism and was forced to accept that my degree was “useless” in the increasingly globalized market. My degree was categorized as “too general” or “not commercial enough to enhance the profile of a private firm”. Others even went to the extent of a blanket criticism on why I did not opt for a business oriented degree and let my years of education go to waste!

That hurt, and the only option left for me was to reconcile this level of negative criticism and pressure with opportunities of higher qualifications and advanced experience elsewhere.

Environmental studies was a new academic theme to me and I first got the idea of pursuing my post-graduate science studies in Environment from a college friend from Sri Lanka who was interested in pursuing the ecology of climate change. I had a different angle since my focus from the start was to establish a permanent bond between pure & applied science and public-private partnership at the grass-roots level.

Somehow it started to work. After my post-graduate degree in Environmental Science, I felt the need to mainstream my ideas and engage ordinary people affected with a variety of issues of major concern. It was relatively easy and comfortable to carry out field work studies, environmental status, situational analyses, with a variety of methods that actively involved the participants on the ground. My favorite part was participatory appraisals that catered for the direct needs of the people and their study areas based on direct surveys related to environment, health, food security, and poverty alleviation strategies.

For the moment it seemed that all was working well until similar issues of concern were raised at the decision-making level. Through my years of adaptation I learned that, regardless of the success of the given tasks on the ground, when you and your boss share different visions you come close to open confrontation, then there is no other alternative than to expedite your exit strategy and go back to the drawing board.

So your approach is all about local empowerment?

If you empower a local community with environmental assessment, monitoring, and the ability to acquire data from their natural or applied surroundings for the purpose of community based policies and management programs, you not only revive interest in science outside schools, colleges, or laboratories, but also strengthen the ability of a community to measure and assess the basic elements of environmental health and conservation.

How can this happen in the developing world?

Anyone living in a world that is surrounded by absolute poverty and socio-economic despair is left with little option as to the relevance of what they wish to become. The only thing left out is the conventional old nursery school rhyme that calls upon the pupils to decide between being a doctor, a pilot, or a teacher! That rhyme goes on becoming the basic foundation of primary school’s “do’s-and-don’ts” specifics and you get to know pretty early on about your fate in this race because by the time you are in the middle primary school and after years of anxiety and fear of failure, you are now made to believe fully that in this environment, science is the only way out of that human level poverty!

By the time you are in Secondary and High School, you know that in the absence of any innovation and sustainable entrepreneurship or hope of a better future in the local economy, recruitment in a formal sector with a privilege is a salvation any one of us would die to be picked for. So you begin to innovate locally, first by trying to pass your examinations, literally. At this point, passing your examinations is deemed redemption and failing in school means being thrown into the perils of life out on the streets!

Given the limitations in University admissions, or Scholarships overseas, and the rising hardships within families and stagnant communities, science becomes the only hope to get or push you out of the middle of the Indian ocean islands of Zanzibar towards a better tomorrow elsewhere! It is a story that has its own ups and downs, with a resilience to move forward, no matter what.

So you start to apply for scholarships and sponsorships as you prepare to receive not so good replies sometimes. In the beginning, rejection letters give you an immeasurable amount of disappointment and sleepless nights. But you never give up and you keep writing and applying for scholarships/sponsorships as the agony of waiting leaves you in a permanent anxiety. Until a moment comes when the prayers are answered and three minutes of a phone call changes your destiny forever.

What makes you move forward is when you hear successful stories about your peers who went to the same dilapidated schools but eventually became successful professionals in different careers e.g. Computer Science, Electronics and Engineering, Telecommunications, Environment, Life Sciences, Medicine, Pharmacy, etc. outside Zanzibar and in countries such as the UK, US, Canada, Western Europe, Turkey, Malaysia, India, the Gulf State, etc.

So, any final words of advice for would-be scientists?

Perseverance is all that matters in science. One has to persevere obstacles and difficulties encountered in the laboratory, or trying to sort out problems out in the field, during a peer review of your publication, and even having to absorb all sorts of criticism (positive and negative) from various quarters! Science is not for the faint-hearted and requires a lot of adrenalin to be able to move forward with your peer reviewed work, albeit under domestic and public pressure. Science is freedom. It lets you ask questions why?