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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

To celebrate International Women's Day, and to honour the work that women in academia do to help make our world more food secure, we are profiling some of the brilliant female academics who work at/with the University of Cambridge. Archeologist Chioma Vivian Ngonadi explains how understanding our ancestors' agricultural practices can enhance our present day knowledge of food security and resource management.  

I completed my doctoral studies in Archaeological sciences at the Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge. I decided to study Archaeology because it is a subject that makes us think about how our past is displayed in our present. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was based at the George Pitt-Rivers Laboratory for Bioarchaeology, in Cambridge. My research focused on understanding in detail how West African iron smelters in Lejja, Southeastern Nigeria fed themselves, sustained their lives and integrated with the quest for food from c.2000 B.P. My thesis demonstrates that the early inhabitants of Lejja had a longue duree of dynamic agricultural practises supported with sophisticated industrial-scale iron working technologies. I identified this from deeply stratified settlements found when I conducted extensive excavations.

My work is important to food security because it has contributed to practical understandings of the subsistence practices and plant foods exploited in Nigeria. This has practical applications for us because understanding these practices and the longer term histories of African farming systems could greatly contribute to the present day food security issues, environmental management (including soil and vegetation) and resource knowledge (such as indigenous ecological knowledge and genetically diverse local crop varieties).

Growing up as a girl child in Nigeria, I was always fascinated by science, innovation and technology. I have also been inspired by women, especially women from patriarchal societies who have worked very hard to overcome their challenging backgrounds, and have excelled as astronomers, ecologists, and physicists, amongst others. As a result, I was motivated and encouraged to walk in the footsteps of these women, and this inspired me to be in academia. Unfortunately, despite significant improvements in the last few years, women are still underrepresented in roles in science, academia, research and innovation. Women in these roles are not as well-known as they deserve to be.

We need to mentor, inspire and encourage young girls to pursue careers in science and technology. There should be more outreach events, seminars, conferences and workshops specially designed to celebrate the achievements of women in science, and to help them to tell their stories to younger audiences in primary and secondary schools. We can start by sharing our career stories in our science classes, history classes, and through social media platforms. We have devoted time and sustained effort to understand the world that we live in, and we have proved over time that gender should not be a barrier to excelling in any discipline or career.

I got to where I am today not only on my abilities but also by the opportunities provided to me by my mentors. I have two wonderful supervisors, Professor Martin Jones and Dr. Matthew Davies who supported me tremendously during my PhD in Cambridge. Senior colleagues back in Nigeria assisted me, and I have also collaborated with other women in academia such as Dr. Pamela Eze-Uzomaka, Dr Alexa Hoehn and the co-founders of the European Society of Black & Allied Archaeologists (mostly women) who have contributed significantly to my career growth. My mentors have helped to increase my professional visibility and have helped me to define my career aspirations.

Interdisciplinary knowledge and practice is essential for me. Archaeology is not a subject that is taught in primary and secondary schools. However, it pulls from many different disciplines, from science to botany, zoology, geography, geology, anthropology, materials science, and so forth. Most archaeologists work from a broader perspective by applying methods from the aforementioned disciplines. In my PhD research, I used some concepts from botany, environment sciences, anthropology and geography to reconstruct and analyse the human environment in the past, dietary practices, and plant use.

COVID-19 had a huge impact on my research. As a mother of two young children, and with lockdown and school closures, I have not been as productive as I was before the pandemic. I have struggled with juggling my academic work, home schooling, and taking care of the house; this has caused delays in some aspects of my research. I am so grateful to my husband who has been very supportive and helpful during these challenging times. With the new virtual world that we live in at the moment, my children sometimes make unavoidable appearances during my meetings with colleagues, or on online trainings and seminars. They have started calling me zoom mummy because of the amount of time I spend on zoom meetings. Each day I have to remind myself to take it a step at a time, and I have also learnt to multi-task. For example, I can be in the kitchen cooking while listening to one of my children reading a book to me, and we will be having our conversation. I also make use of early mornings and late nights to do a lot of my academic work.

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on female researchers and has affected their academic productivity. With most women being the primary caregivers in their households, and with trying to balance academic work with increased domestic workloads, they do not devote as much time as needed to their research and article writing. This has led to a decrease in their academic productivity. Limited funding and resources due to COVID-19 have also affected research outputs; without sufficient funding early career researchers are faced with huge challenges in continuing their research/programmes, and this could lead to lower scholarly contributions.

For me, International Women’s Day is a global day dedicated to celebrating the social, economic, political, cultural and academic achievement of women. Over the years, women have worked very hard to innovate, create and contribute to the world around them. Through their hard work, courage and resilience, they have played extraordinary roles in re- writing the history of their communities and country. To women whose voices are not heard, especially those that are in the rural areas and that are the backbone of their families, this day is for you.

Please find more on Chioma's work here:

Image supplied by Chioma: Chioma (R) in a pepper farm nursery with a farmer.