By Nancy Chege
This is the story of how my life was beautifully transformed.
Many years ago, I enrolled for a Master’s degree in Agricultural Education which later turned into a nightmare. My statistical skills, data and information management skills were minimal and I felt completely helpless every time I thought of testing hypotheses. I could not differentiate between type one and type two errors, did not know there were assumptions guiding the use of ANOVA tests, and could not tell when to use regression, correlation or even simple descriptive analysis. When people talked about p-values, f-tests, t-tests, chi-squared tests, post hoc analysis and the like, I had no clue what they were talking about! In an effort to address this challenge, I contacted my colleague lecturers in the TVET institution where I worked, but all was in vain.
As a last resort, I went online looking for answers, even though I had minimal computer skills. This quest became a turning point in my life as that was how I discovered the MSc Research Methods course sponsored by the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM). Even though I doubted I was going to get such a competitive scholarship, I applied anyway. I therefore could not believe it when, after a few weeks, I got a congratulatory message. RUFORUM had granted me a scholarship to undertake the MSc Research Methods course at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) in Kenya!
This marked the beginning of a journey that would transform my life.
The course captivated me so much that I felt I could do things i previously thought were impossible! Before commencing the face-to-face classes at JKUAT, students had to complete a pre-requisite online course on “e-Statistics Made Simple” . My computer skills were low at the time, making it difficult for me to navigate through the Statistical Service Centre website where the course was hosted. Besides, I thought my fingers were too big to press the keyboard keys and the cracks on my palms, resulting from many years of peeling bananas when cooking for my family, would be rejected by the computers. I owe a lot to my friend, Mary Onsarigo, who encouraged me and gave me initial lessons on navigating the course.
After a while I became an expert in doing assignments and some of my online classmates started asking me for help because of the speed at which I completed assignments. I started enjoying online facilitation too and learnt the online etiquette (netiquette) within a short time, thanks to our online facilitator.
We eventually qualified to enroll in the MSc Research Methods course and, on 13 October 2009, reported to JKUAT for the start of the MSc course. Our class was diverse, with some of my classmates coming from other African countries including Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda and Ethiopia. Some of these students were learning English for the first time and I had given up on ever communicating with them due to language barrier. But wait… the facilitators had a plan to overcome that. We were placed in different discussion groups such that by the end of the course I had interacted with everyone, not to mention that my closest friend turned out to be my classmate from Burundi who had just learned to communicate in English. Through him I learned to be patient, even as he often scratched his head looking for English words to contribute to discussions. I endured such moments by continually saying to myself “patience patience patience…”. It paid off, because once we crossed the language barrier I was able to unravel the golden qualities in these classmates. These interactions contributed to my first transformation and raised the performance level of the class.
The way the course was delivered was superb! Difficult statistical concepts were simplified, even using games to simulate research designs. All the courses offered were very useful, interesting and presented by excellent facilitators. Slowly, all my previous challenges were addressed one after the other. Descriptive statistics, inferential statistics, statistical modelling, data and information management, statistical computing, geographic information systems, mathematics, and research projects among other course units helped to unravel difficult mental blocks I had encountered previously.
My greatest joy from this course was that, as my understanding of statistical concepts grew, I was able to complete my other unfinished masters’ degree single handedly, including data analysis that had seemed insurmountable. I therefore graduated with two masters degrees in the same year!
Upon graduation, the first beneficiaries of this course were my boss and his deputy who were struggling to complete their master’s degree research. I helped them redesign their project proposals and showed them how to simplify their work by developing a plan for data analysis. It is perhaps no wonder that when the deputy’s term of service ended, my boss nominated me to become his deputy, a position I hold to date. Prior to enrolling for the MSc in Research Methods, I taught Agriculture and Biology. However, after the MSc training I started teaching Statistical Methods and Research Methods as well. I requested for further training in online facilitation and today I head the e-learning section in my institution.
Some research supervisors from universities have discovered my abilities and continually refer their students to me for guidance in proposal designing, data and information management and data analysis in addition to giving me part time jobs at their institutions. I have written two guides; one in Research Methods and the other in Statistical Methods (awaiting publication).
Today, when I go to libraries and come across theses and project reports, my first stop is the methodology chapter and the objectives. I regret to say that there are so many recommendations out there based on wrong data analysis. When I think about which of the recommendations we are implementing were generated from wrong analysis, I shudder in fear.
The training has helped me make new connections is the research community. Today, I can read complex scientific journals, understand statistical jokes, engage statisticians in logical discussions and hold an argument from a point of knowledge. I am a member of the International Biometric Society and many online research methods groups where I answer questions about research methodology. I have also created online research methods groups to assist scholars. PhD students flood my inbox for help with data analysis because I am proficient with many statistical packages including GenStat, R, SPSS, and InStat. Recently, a student shed tears in my office after I gave her tutorials and supervised her data analysis. When it was over, she offered me some money which I declined to take. In tears, she explained how a statistician had asked for 500 US dollars for what I had done for free! To me, helping her was a way of giving back to society. What I was given freely by RUFORUM I will give back freely, at least for now.
Aside from the technical knowledge, the greatest discovery I made through the MSc course was that, collapsing the artificial “African walls” gave us power to interact with each other. It is my commitment to continue shrinking these walls even further. My Vilakazi photo, above, is a symbol of this commitment. Partnerships that help to strengthen TVET institutions will further make this dream a greater reality for the several young people seeking opportunities to meaningfully engage in agriculture across Africa.
Long live RUFORUM and my facilitators: Prof. Kihoro, Dr. Ateka, Dr. Mary Mugo, Dr. Mamati, Prof. Obanda (all from JKUAT) Dr Oeba (KEFRI), Dr. Margaret Mangheni (Makerere University), Ric Coe (ICRAF), Jane Poole (ILRI), Rodger (University of Reading, UK), Kurji and Mrs. McDonald (University of Nairobi), Jayne and Cheka (Zimbabwe). I pay special tribute to Prof. Adipala (RUFORUM) who even visited us in person to encourage us!
The Master of Science in Research Methods course at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture is a tailor-made regional programme developed through the support of the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM). The programme opened its doors to the first students in 2009.
Contact Nancy Chege by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org