So I have passed my first day and half in Pietermaritzburg (PMB) and have learned more than I could in a month of explanations. There really is nothing like being onsite to see things and see how they go. Walter (Prof. de Milliano) picked me up yesterday and took me to the Golden Dragon for supper after a quick stop by UKZN to meet some of the staff (Fee de Stadler and Lesley Brown who had helped set up my visit). We had a good long talk over dinner about the difference between help and empowerment, which totally harked back to my Training and Development in Sustainable Agriculture class (thanks Margaret Kroma) and the idea that development has to be driven from the goals and the needs of the participants to be useful, not just coming into help by giving inputs of money, equipment and the like that aren’t sustainable and that don’t empower people to act for their own contexts. More on this later but I’ll just point to my previous blog entries on Edutaining Myself to Death at some point. And hearing the conditions that people are actually working under, it’s amazing what they have accomplished. In one or two years the students in the ACCI program have learned and brought themselves to a level that people in the field 20 years have accomplished and held their own. By all accounts the students are succeeding brilliantly and are prepared with the best of the best. One student from the first cohort is finishing a year early. Others have compared well against people who have been in the field for years. Most all of them are doing cutting edge research in the sense that though it is not new in some parts of the world it has not been done in Africa with traditional crops or in the sense that it deals with biotechnology applications for better disease resistance, food security, combination of locally desirable traits with better nutrition and the like. It’s research that will make a practical difference in people’s lives.

And we’re a part of it, can contribute to it, and especially can learn from it. This has been a good lesson in partnership, in what we can learn from our partners as well as what we can contribute.

Wednsday began my first whole day at ACCI. I managed to get lost in the short distance from the UKZN gate and the ag building but a very nice young man who had studied abroad in Michigan helped me out (and I do believe that he called me ma’am which in addition to the getting lost made me feel about a zillion years older instantly but that’s neither here nor there).

I first met with Tongo (Prof. Pangirayi Tongoona) who took me on a tour of the building and the greenhouses which was very enlightenting. I now know what things look like when they are talking about pearl millet and finger millet and the whole greenhouse set up is just ingenious. They’ve got a greenhouse that is heated by water coming from sunwarmed tanks—the whole thing is very efficient. And Tongo is clearly a man who know his plant breeding as well as his students, as his tour and later conversation proved.

I also spoke with Ms. Beulah John today who has been teaching students reading and writing skills, some searching and literature review skills (along with the librarians whom I will met tomorrow). She has a sound grasp of educational theory and a love and support of the students that is truly remarkable. She not only teaches them the above skills but also grant and proposal writing, financial and project management and a host of other skills that I wish all of our graduates got. She and the folks at ACCI do not believe in sink or swim. They take into account language difficulties, personal problems, and disabilities. They do not excuse poor performance but nor do they cut people loose for not performing to an unsupported standard. They believe in empowering students to reach their goals and potential. It’s truly inspiring.

I also got to meet with the 2004 cohort who are a bright and ambitious group. They are about to go out for their field research and I talked to them about the services they have received—some of the have used our ILL. And I talked to them about what has and hasn’t worked well. They are a clear-eyed and ambitious group and they had excellent suggestions about our current and future plans (especially what might work on the SMS project) and were interested to hear about TEEAL and AGORA. I hope this will be the beginning of an ongoing conversation when they are out in the field.

Walter and I went to dinner at this excellent Italian place called Pesto, where I promptly threw out every food regulation I had been set and had melon delicatezza, beef carpaccio and an excellent butterfish with two glasses of wine. We talked about development, Walter’s study abroad experience, the program and a number of other things. A great time all in all. Our waitress cam up afterward and asked us if we were South African; we said no and she said she could tell by our attitude. Interesting.