Category Archives: PhD Musings

Blogging as a Phd journey: an experiment…

The focus of this blog is an ongoing questioning of how we know what we know and how we change ourselves and the world with what we know. In other words how knowing does or does not emancipate, transform and liberate. Blogging potentially creates the opportunity to make more academic knowledge accessible and use the Phd and other scholarly work as a platform for dialoguing with others. Whether blogging does indeed create this oppportunity remains to be seen…


Who am I?  


A lifetime ago I started working in the water sector on a Water Research Commission funded project in the Kat River Valley Catchment, Eastern Cape, South Africa.  Since then I have been involved in various WRC projects all with a focus on the democratic and sustainability imperatives of the South African National Water Act. My early interests were not only water but a passion for democracy and social and environmental justice. During this first WRC project I developed a deep love and fascination with systems of water, particularly rivers as central to social spaces and social relationships. Within this socio-ecological space my interests flow around issues of power and learning. My particular interest in learning is the representation of knowledge, the politics of knowing, mediation and social learning. This leads me to investigate all sorts of ways of representing and producing knowledge for change including theatre of the oppressed, creative writing techniques, responsive workshops and web-based tools for social learning and communication. I also devour social science research methodologies that enable me to view and interrogate complex socio-ecological challenges.  My hero’s are Paulo Freire,  Steve Biko and Donavan-Ross Costaras. My heroine’s are Ursula le Guin , bell hooks, my wild-women friends, my intellectual mentors and my sister.

I am also a mindfulness  and Buddhist practitioner. I believe that we all have a commitment towards doing as little harm as possible. Part of this commitment is working with the forces within us that perpetuate negative mind patterns which directly effect the way we are in the world. Doing this training with compassion for myself and others is one of the most rewarding and most challenging journeys.

The Revenge of Dead Thoughts: A tale

The pressure is now on to finish my Phd! I am now writing it up as a series of four papers with interweaving texts. The University currently known as Rhodes holds an interesting workshop on how to write papers. I have not attended it but fellow Phd students have guided me through how the first step is to write your paper as a fairytale or a symbolic story and craft it from there. This is the symbolic tale that emerged when I took pen to paper and free wrote what I wished to say in the first of these papers which I’ve entitled “The Revenge of Dead Thoughts”.

Once upon a time, before we learnt to cognitively separate ourselves from our environments, the way we thought and acted in the world was intrinsically linked to the environment or context out of which we arose. As we walked and talked and thought the landscape, the trees, the sea, the rivers thought with us and talked to us. This has not changed. We still emerge, as physical and cognitive beings, out of the environment we find ourselves in. We are inseparable from this space but we have forgotten this. This forgetful moment has meant that some groups that are more powerful have taken up the space of naming the language of the world. They name it in one way and so, in the process, un-name it and the the way it is. They un-name all the relationships that people, animals and plants have with each other. In their quest for knowledge and power they name a relationship with the world as one of dominance and subservience.

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On an exposed rock face

It has been a long time since I have written a blog mostly because I have felt so disconnected from the intellectual task of doing a Phd and rather embroiled in a world or my sense of a world that is eating itself. I had a brief reunion with the Phd in August and then a weary fatigue descended and I suddenly could no longer get up in the early mornings to work. The mind fog, the unbelievable tiredness returned and I thought of my friends, like Nick (now in Cape Town) who battle with chronic fatigue and the surrender that it demands.

So I surrendered (with difficulty). I stopped forcing myself to rise up at 3:45am and slept until 6. I stopped working over weekends and instead took to rock climbing and spent my weekend days in the gym, with Donavan and Taryn, getting over my suddenly discovered fear of heights. We then took the real mountains and I rediscovered that deep peace of being in high places and looking down into valleys and across the infinitely diverse rock faces. I felt rock beneath my fingers and remembered my earlier life where I would escape from all conversation and all stress by clambering up mountains alone, not following any paths just setting my eyes on the top and making my way there through the bush and the rocks.

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Are people really aware of the danger we are facing?

This blog has been taken from a monthly report on the Changing Practice course which has just started in the Olifants catchment. The first ‘working together’ session was held in Emalahleni – yes, that town that you pass through on the way to the Kruger National Park. It seems like a pretty insignificant town sitting, in what has been entitled by some over zealous marketing department, as the ‘cultural heartland’ of South Africa. If you look more closely you will notice that situated around Emalahleni are mountains of coal, coal mines and the large Eskom power plants. It is known as the Witbank coal fields and it is this area that feeds electricity to South Africa. So as you sit in Johannesburg, sipping on a craft beer on this gentle Friday afternoon maybe spend a few moments thinking of what makes all of Johannesburg possible and who is paying the price.

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Brief notes from four provinces

Two and a half weeks ago I set out on a work trip that took me from the province of Mpumalanga, across to the province of Limpopo, back to Gauteng, down to the Western Cape, across to the Eastern Cape and finally back to Mpumalanga again. This was the second time I took the bus instead of flying as part of my personal commitment to reducing CO2 emissions. It makes the journey long but there is something that feels right about the time taken to consider distance. There is a camaraderie when standing in a queue waiting for the bus with mother’s and children carrying their food and purchases from the big city back home. On the trip down to Cape Town a man upstairs managed to down a bottle of whisky and was half way through his second before the manic bus host noticed. In line with the bus companies policy the manic bus host tried to evict him at the next garage stop. He refused to be unclamped from his whisky or his seat which resulted in the police being called. At 2am in the morning I peeped through the curtains and watched as a very vocal young man jovially pranced off between two overweight policemen. The manic host decided that it was this was an important moment. He turned on all the bus lights and with eyes darting from one corner to the next,  gave us a long lecture about alcohol and bus trips while waving the half full bottle of whisky that he eventually managed to pry from his intoxicated passenger. Taking the bus is a long and very grounded experience.

Below are some brief notes from the four provinces I visited and the work that I did there:

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It is no good being free, if others suffer: exploring agency

This post is dedicated to the late Akong Rinpoche who still teaches me and to the brave young South African women who saw the moment and acted to make sure we did not forget.

I took a month off work in July to work full time on my PhD. I spent the first two weeks frustrated and unable to find a way into the theory. Then I remembered feedback given by a fellow participant at a research school I recently attended. She wrote: “I really think if we want to be transformative, we have to look at the approach we take to transformation, because we can bring transformation, but will it be the needed transformation? Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s possible for one to realize the value of transformative/ or transgressive/ or just learning in general if you can’t relate to it through personal experiences and beliefs. Of course we can theorize, but that only produces intellectual property, which is useless to the people that need sincere discussion and engagements.” This made me think of a time when I felt I had no agency and how I relied on my personal experiences and beliefs to get through this time. These thoughts helped me break through my block and start writing.

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Naming ourselves so we can name the world

I recently attended a conference on popular education entitled ‘forging solidarity’. Popular education has been around since the 16th century. Popular education is not adult education or informal education it is a form of interaction that sits at the crossroads between politics and pedagogy. The aim of popular education is a collective liberation against oppression or to put it another way a conscientisation of individuals and groups who are working together to transform society.

Paulo Freire, a 20th century educator, is most well known for his contributions to popular education and how the educational process can be designed to be liberating both for those that are born into an oppressed group and those that are born into a group that oppresses. What I love about Freire’s ideas is that emancipation is only possible if both the oppressed and oppressor need to be liberated from that which perpetuates unjust practice in the world. This unjust practice is possible because of the way in which we internalise ways of being that enable us to see ‘the other’ as less than us. It is also made possible through the competitive desire for ownership of the means of production and thus the wealth that is gained from this ownership. To justify this ownership, oppressor communities need to create myths of being and acting in the world which make it possible for oppressive practices to continue. One such myth is that everyone has an equal chance of gaining wealth and it all comes down to how hard one works. Another myth is that Western races are ‘more advanced’ in terms of cultural, political and economic structures and this is the reason for their progress and dominance in the world. All that has really happened is that Western structures have been able to institutionalise unjust practices that are now taken as ‘normal’ and ‘right’. The way forward is the myth that less advanced nations to simply catch up. This is obviously not going to solve the inequalities in the world.

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Forging Solidarity – What does it mean?

I’m sitting at the airport in Johannesburg and I’m feeling slightly guilty that I’m taking another flight to another research meeting in another part of South Africa. The excitement of going to meet with the ‘popular education’ crowd in Cape Town is slightly subdued by the fact that I will once again be contributing to the burning of a mass of fossil fuels. I am currently not displaying actions of solidarity with our planet.

Over the last few days I have begun to slowly teeter around the stories I want to tell as a Phd student. Suprisingly it has been an emotional process. I find myself writing pieces and feeling a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. At times I have felt sunk deep into my body with my eyes watching the world from within a heavy mass of matter. The words and thoughts in my mind have taken over and demand attention. It is not a comfortable place to be. When I sit in front of my computer with the lump in my throat or the body mass of me feeling many times heavier. It is uncomfortable. Uncomfortable is not even the right word. It is a feeling that says this is not just an intellectual activity you are about to embark upon. It is, once again, the time of telling and the time of telling is sometimes a painful and vulnerable time when the voices of the people I have worked with, the books I have read begin the long, slow process of meaning making and intention setting. Once these thoughts start forming they will not be stopped until they are said and sometimes what is written is not what I wished to be written or expected to be written. Out of unexpected places the thoughts arise while my body acts as the raw conduit for this mental activity. Yes, I sit infront of the fire or infront of my computer but as the thoughts dance and frame so the emotions rise and fall. My little body sits silent but inside there is another world, another process playing out and I am no longer in control.

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Genealogies, Foucault and Paris

Yay! This blog is the first few pages of THE ACTUAL PHD text. It will probably change over time but ‘IT IS WRITTEN’. It’s a final position on how Foucault will be conversing with this piece of work.

I have always had a love for roots and rhizomes. We are often taught to think in straight lines. We consider our life as a straight line: from birth to death. But when we dig up a little plant out of the dirt there we find a different pattern. Intricate, delicate tendrils that manoeuvre their way into a relationship with the soil. As the roots sit here in my hand, their trailing mass dangling beyond my fingers I contemplate how without the soil these roots are nothing. They will die. Not only that. They have no meaning. They are one with the soil. They belong in the soil. Roots without soil are a thing without a function.

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