Uganda: The Making of a Humanities Scholar

Prof. Sr. Dominica Dipio
Sister Dr. Domenica Dipio is a professor at Makerere University where she heads the Department of Literature.
21 April 2020
guest column

When I was young, having finished school with very high marks on my A-levels, people asked me what I wanted to study at university. I had never been interested in fields that involved numbers, graphs, maps, and calculations — I wanted literature, languages, history, religion, the fine and performing arts.

I did not yet have a sense that the subjects I was most passionate about were at the core of the humanities — I just knew that they centered around creativity, expression, and narrative. But as I worked through my bachelor's and master's degrees at Makerere University, and then my PhD at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where I studied women in African cinema, I began to realize that even though my research was centered on the humanities, it was dependent on components of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) — and most especially on the technical medium of film, which today I use to document oral histories, engage rural communities in conversation, and convey my findings to audiences.

Watch: The Making of a Humanities Scholar with Prof. Domenica Dipio in Uganda

In fact, the technology of film is crucial to my success — my filmmaking is the popular version of my research, the form that everybody can access. It's what I take to the villages, to rural communities, so that people can come and watch and we can have discussions around the subjects at hand. Recently, these conversations have centered on my observations about the increasing absence of men in families these days; I interviewed women from around the country about the subject. When people heard about my work, they began to request that I come to their parishes, to show my film and engage in discussions — these jam-packed events served as a jumping off point for them to thinking about the health and progress of their communities.

In the past, I found support for such humanities-focused research thanks to foreign funding agencies, such as the African Humanities Program (AHP) and the Cambridge Africa Partnership for Research Excellence. Programs like the AHP — supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York and operated by the American Council of Learned Societies — have been important for me and hundreds of scholars all over the continent to pursue research in the humanities, and to provide the opportunities to collaborate and learn from other African experts. It is but one of a number of American and European philanthropic programs supporting the work of people like me.

But I am excited that my new project, which involves working with a team of storytellers, scriptwriters, actors, musicians, and engineers to adapt and animate Ugandan and other African folktales to provide local content for schools and television, is being supported by a new Ugandan government initiative. The Research and Innovations Fund (RIF), established in 2019, will provide 30 billion Uganda shillings (more than $8 million U.S. dollars) for scholars at Makerere University to sustain work that will drive the country's development agenda. What is new is that, rather than focusing on STEM subjects, this research funding cuts across disciplines, encompassing both STEM subjects and the humanities.

Sister Dominica Dipio

There is no doubt that STEM is crucial to the goal of creating a self-sufficient and thriving Uganda. In a country where demand for higher education is booming, with a demand 50 percent higher than the global average, our universities can offer only a limited number of seats for STEM training, and as a result we find an unfortunately high unemployment rate for university graduates. In this context, it is not surprising that six years ago President Yoweri Museveni called for universities to close down their humanities offerings entirely in favor of an almost exclusive focus on science and technology.

Luckily for me and my colleagues who do work in the humanities, this did not come to pass. On the contrary, since President Museveni made that statement, political leaders and educational policy makers have embraced the idea that genuine development must have at its heart the arts as well as the sciences. The marriage of STEM and humanities represented by my new research and many other endeavors supported by the RIF is the result of a growing realization in Uganda that in a truly cultured society the two disciplines should not be separated. Where STEM represent the shell/structure/body, the humanities are the gel/software/soul. Even the most famous scientist of the modern era, Albert Einstein, insisted that "all religions, arts, and sciences are branches of the same tree."

Just as my research in the humanities is augmented by my work with technology, the best STEM scholars I know draw upon their excellent writing and storytelling skills to convey the importance and urgency of their research to both specialist and nonspecialist audiences. The mutually dependent relationship between the two disciplines is important. If STEM trains our young people to quite literally build our country, the humanities infuses those structures with values and ethics — the arts, literature, history, and religious studies are all particularly suited to express such principles. Teaching students humanities subjects means that they will emerge not just as productive, technically proficient workers, but also as thoughtful citizens.

This marriage of disciplines is crucial for how I think about my own research helping to shape the future of Uganda. Gathering and analyzing local knowledge, whether in the form of personal stories or traditional folktales, is important: the process reminds us that there are things about our past that we can draw from, and there are things that we need to challenge ourselves not to go back to. Our history, our traditions, our values — these can energize our present and lead us to new forms of development as well as a clarification of our collective values. If we can integrate our values with the structures that house them, this will really take us far.

Sister Dr. Dominica Dipio holds a BA in education and an MA in literature, both from the Makerere University in Uganda, and a PhD in women in African cinema from the Pontifical Gregorian University (Rome), where she also lectured on film criticism and African cinema. She is a professor at Makerere University where she heads the Department of Literature. In 2019, she was named to the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture.

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