Abraham Mamela, Communications and Engagment Specialist (Episode 10) | Abraham explains why communication only works if you understand the context
“You can communicate as you want, your message can go out there, but you really have to work out the ground. The ground is about different things, it’s about culture, it’s about our diversity, it’s about many things, about regions, about knowledge systems. You have to learn from the perspective of those you want to help.”
In this episode of the Research Adjacent podcast Sarah is talking to Communications and Engagement Practitioner Abraham Mamela. Based in Botswana Abraham is currently working as a Consultant Communications Coordinator at the Alliance for African Partnership, connecting universities across the continent. He was recommended for the podcast by Faye Watson (of episode 8 fame) who met Abraham when he was in the UK as an intern then Engagement Fellow for the Wellcome Trust.
The symbiosis of communication and engagement
Abraham began his research-adjacent journey at the University of Botswana, creating news stories and press releases about all kinds of research. To develop his communication skills he first joined a development programme run by Research Africa and then an internship at the Wellcome Trust in London. It was at Wellcome that he was introduced to the concept of engagement and where he developed a global perspective on research.
“The work gave me an experience of looking at things from a global perspective, not only from my society’s perspective. We have to understand the many moving parts, which is why I believe we are stuck in low and middle income countries. It exposed me to that perspective of understanding that, yes, the two go together, communication and engagement. You cannot effectively communicate without really engaging. So they have to piggyback off each other. There should be that symbiotic relationship.”
Genome Adventures: where science meets fun
This relationship with Wellcome meant that in 2014 Abraham successfully applied for funding to support his first big project and one that still resonates with people today. Genome Adventures created a series of comic books which helped explain the importance of gene sequencing and other biomedical research. They have now been translated into 10 languages including Arabic, French, Portuguese, and other local languages. And Abraham is still asked to come and give talks about this project today.
Why context and culture are key
His global perspective has also helped him to see the ways that African countries could become more knowledge-driven and prosperous if they focused more on connected systems which place research sensitively within the local culture.
“From my experiences with the science community, when they talk research ecosystems, it’s mostly about PhDs. Yes, we should have more PhDs. We should have more labs or facilities. We should create the infrastructure. But it’s spoken mostly from this perspective. But with less emphasis on another aspect, which is this cohesion, or the culture and that is the biggest limiting factor.”
The current emphasis on science as it is done in laboratories creates a system where external funding and researchers do work ‘on’ Africa without creating solutions which make a real tangible difference to African communities living with everyday challenges.
“And what has been happening has been that a lot of researchers coming in and going out. Publishing and going back. We’ve seen a lot of pharmaceuticals coming in, developing whatever, and then leaving. But we’ve seen less of the benefit to the ground. The reality if you are doing a vaccine study in Africa, it’s likely to immediately benefit the pharmaceutical companies. The person you are interviewing cannot connect the importance of you interviewing them, and being part of your project to anything that puts food on their table, to anything that hits them in their pocket or that changes their lives.”
Co-creating solutions for high-stakes problems
And with some of the challenges they are facing the stakes are high. Abraham explains why tackling issues like the spread of zoonotic viruses, which can transmit from animals to humans, needs co-created solutions.
“The perception of the disease that you want to solve is mainly understood from the perspective of those who are dealing with the disease for many years. Let’s say, for instance, Ebola. If you go to communities and say, ‘stop eating bushmeat so that you stop spreading Ebola’, you are working against the tide. But rather, if you say, look, ‘we have a problem, shall we co-create a solution that can help us eat bushmeat safely’. It’s intertwining and infusing the science and the culture. Otherwise, the science will work against the culture and the culture will push back.”
He is optimistic though. He feels that funders like Wellcome are leading the way in connecting research and culture, and that other funders are beginning to follow in their footsteps.
Find out more
- Connect with Abraham via LinkedIn or Twitter
- Find out more about the Alliance for African Partnerships
- Check out the Genome Adventures comics
- Read articles by Abraham which expend on some of the issues discussed including sustainable ecosystems and research value chains
- Heartstrings and Heartbeats – a public engagement project aimed at exploring mental health among creatives which led to this music video Troubled
- Arting Health for Impact – street art installations focused on community-specific public health concerns.
How was it for you…?
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