Notes From The Field - 001
Updates, insights and experiences from my time in Ghana conducting fieldwork at the intersection of technology, tropical forest conservation and local ecological knowledge.
For my regular readers, it has been an incredibly long time since you last heard from me. The last few months have been incredibly hectic, from undergoing surgery to catching COVID and prepping (physically and mentally) to move country for my fieldwork in all the gaps in between.
I am now in Ghana and have been here for just over a week. I will be based here for 3-months, conducting my research, working with local communities and collecting data before I return to Cambridge. I am here in Ghana to investigate the role of technology, bioacoustics and machine learning, in tropical forest conservation. At the centre of this work is the building of a participatory framework, challenging the status quo in conservation to remove or ignore Indigenous/local communities, advocating for and implementing community engagement and agency at all stages of the project’s implementation. For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into too much detail about my research here, but for anyone new to me, this platform or my work you can learn more here and here.
As a quick overview though, my current PhD title is Monitoring Ghanaian Forests with Bioacoustics, Machine Learning and Local Ecological Knowledge. Below is a breakdown of what this actually means?
🌱 Tropical forests are important sites of both climate and biodiversity crises, feeling the effects as well as being a key part of the solution. They also support and are of cultural importance to Indigenous and Local communities worldwide
🌱 Monitoring tropical forests is an essential part of conservation creating actionable insights for communities, NGOs and policymakers
🌱 Bioacoustics is a conservation technique that uses audio sensors to listen to the forests. Forests are orchestras and the sounds within them allow us to identify specific and important species like birds, as well as anthropogenic activity like logging.
🌱Machine learning techniques allow us to more accurately, and on larger scales, analyse the environmental data recorded and provide actionable reports and insights.
🌱 Community agency, engagement and local ecological knowledge are essential to successful and sustained conservation activities. In Ghana, structures such as Community Resource Management Areas (CREMAs) give over the management of forest sites to local communities. My goal is to develop and create tools for and with communities for just and equitable forest conservation.
I am not promising to send out these updates on a specific schedule, my plans and activities are moulding and morphing daily, and at times I will not have access to WiFi/mobile data. However, I hope to use this space to shed more light on the work I am doing, make conservation research activities more accessible to a wider audience and generally keep my friends, community and academic colleagues updated. Additionally, there is always a huge gap between what people think researchers and scientists do and their reality. Only 2 weeks in, I already have had people’s own perceptions or assumptions about my work projected onto me, with questions flooding in about what I have learned and discovered and the conclusions I have made?! Although this is an incredibly exciting time in my life, one I will remember forever, it is also a time filled with immense anxiety, overwhelm, fear, doubt, uncertainty, flexibility, slowness and confusion (not to mention lots of boring admin). So this newsletter/blog will also provide insight into what conservation and technology research (at least mine) looks like.
Last thing (I promise). I am using this space to communicate to a wide range of audiences: academic, personal and public/social media. This is intentional, it is not realistic for me or within my capacity to write separate and targeted blogs for each audience. So I hope you will have patience and acceptance for the ebb and flow between broad, specific, emotional and scientific ways of communicating.
With all that out of the way, I’ll get into what the last couple of weeks has looked like for me.
A Focus on Family
One of the reasons I chose to conduct my case study in Ghana is because it is the country of my heritage. Both my parents are from Ghana and many of my family members live here. I first came to Ghana as a toddler, to live with my Grandparents for a year and since then I have visited a few times to be with family. However, it is been over a decade since I was last year (when I was 12!).
I landed at Kotoko International Airport in Accra on Monday 7th March 2022 at around 8 pm GMT. My Uncle (maternal) works at the airport and so was there to greet me when I landed. Dressed in a long-sleeved top, denim dungarees and socks and stocks (Birkenstocks), I was not prepared for the heat that was about to hit me. I remember Ghana being hot, but not this hot! My fieldwork has started at the tail-end of the dry season, after the harmattan and before the season of rain begins.
My Uncle helped me drop off my luggage at a hotel he had booked me in Dzworulu and took me for my first meal on Ghanaian soil, jollof - a classic! I had intended to stay in Accra only for two days but was convinced by my Mum and Uncle to stay for a week, to get settled in and be surrounded by family. It wouldn't be till later on that I would be incredibly grateful for this advice.
With my plans changed, I spent the week working on wrapping up a big project (more soon) and attending to work that had carried over from my last weeks in the UK. These bursts of work were squeezed into the gaps I had between eating copious amounts of food (Ghanaians can eat!) and visiting/seeing some historic sites in Accra like the Kwame Nkrumah Museum, The Accra Arts Centre and Independence Square as well as passing by inner-city okra, carrot and cabbage farms.
As the week went on, I began to adjust to my surroundings, remembering the sounds of taxis beeping, the smell of bofrot on the street side and of the rich, red colour of the earth here. I walked past farms in the middle of the city, where okra, carrots and cabbage were being grown (below). I watched a live band performance where members of the audience descended on the stage to dance their hearts out (below) and taught my little cousins how to swim. It was a week focused on family.
The day before I left Accra for Kumasi, my main base here in Ghana, I was able to meet with a couple of the senior directors at the Environmental Protection Agency of Ghana. It was great to learn more about the agency that creates tangible policies in many different ecosystems in Ghana and was also a chance for me to formally inform them of the work I planned to do, receive feedback, resources and advice.
That evening, I made sure to patronise a local hairdresser to get my braids redone. It was the best hair experience of my life and for those of us with afro hair who use protective hairstyling, having gentle, soft-handed hairdressers is a god-send. If you are ever looking for a hairdresser in Accra, visit Tilly Hair Ghana.
The day was finished with a big bout of packing, sorting all the clothes I had hand washed from the week and getting an early night ahead of an early start the next morning.
Season of Solitude
My time in Ghana will be split between Kumasi (the second-largest city in Ghana) and my forest field site. Kumasi is home to the Kwame Nkrumah University for Science and Technology (KNUST) where I am a visiting student and where my local co-supervisor is based.
The journey from Accra to Kumasi was a beautiful one, made along the infamous Accra-Kumasi Highway. Most of the drive passes through the Eastern Region of Ghana, surrounded by the imposing presence of thickly covered mountains, reaching peaks of nearly 900m. The valley itself is also thickly covered, dense with vivid green canopy cover.
After 5 hours we arrived in Kumasi, at the KNUST campus.
After an initial hurdle with one hotel, I finally settled in at a guest house. Before that though, I was shown around the KNUST campus, to see all the student dorms, the faculty buildings and the on-site commercial centre where many banks, grocery stores and even a University-specific hospital are located. The campus is just stunning. It is as if the buildings themselves are sunken into the forest itself, with any space void of a structure thick with trees and the sounds of many birds. I was able to capture a snippet of the dusk chorus on one walk through the campus (below).
It wasn’t until I returned to my room and said goodbye to my Uncle’s colleague who had kindly driven me the entire way, that the enormity of what I was undertaking dawned on me, or rather hit me squarely in the face. I instantly became overwhelmed, anxious and very very homesick. It’s a strange feeling, being simultaneously away from and within your home. As if wanting to mirror my emotional release, as I went to bed an incredible storm broke out. Thunder rumbled and clapped so loudly that the windows rattled and the walls shook and the rain fell down in strong, heavy lashes.
By the next morning, and after calls with my mum, sister and partner, I felt better. Reminded of my purpose, the purpose of the trip and the huge amounts of support, help and love that surrounded me, I felt ready to tackle what lay ahead of me, most of which was unknown.
The Work Begins
My first full day in Kumasi (16/03/22) started off with breakfast at the guest house restaurant followed by a morning of work on a presentation I was preparing for a faculty seminar the following day. The faculty I am associated with there is the Faculty for Renewable and Natural Resources. The seminar was going to be an opportunity for me to present my work to senior academics in the university to receive feedback and advice. I then made my way to the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana for a meeting. Again, I was met by incredibly beautiful surroundings, with the research offices embedded within a landscape not too dissimilar from a forest itself. Later that afternoon I had my first in-person supervision with my co-supervisor who I had only spoken to over zoom! We spent the meeting catching up on the aims of the research, some key actions that needed to be taken in the first week (like settling on a forest field site and meeting the Forestry Commission in person) and some interesting points of inquiry that could further shape the way I conducted my fieldwork.
Because my research is interdisciplinary, there exist many tensions between the different routes I can undertake. Additionally, because my aim is to really centre a sociological perspective in my work and to also centre and give space to community engagement, many decisions that would be made preemptively in a typical technology or computing project, must be made on a different timescale and in collaboration with all the involved stakeholders. This is why I did not come ready with a field site, there are specific community introduction protocols, especially in meeting physically with community leaders and chiefs, that need to be taken in order to be respectful to and be accepted by a community. Additionally, although I have mapped out key research questions and directions of exploration for my project, this work is intended to be collaborative so details like, which species I will observe or where the sensors will be deployed or which community members will work on the deployment team are dependent on community input too.
The presentation of my work to the faculty (17/03/22) went really well. There was a good turnout, of around 30 or so academics from Graduates to the Faculty Dean. There was a huge amount of interest in the technology and surprise at just how small and dainty AudioMoths, the sensors I am using, are. I also received a huge amount of feedback from different members who pointed out possible limitations, tensions or barriers. This meeting was really energising for me, especially because the atmosphere created by the other academics was jovial and supportive.
I gave this presentation again on Monday (21/03/22) to the Deputy Director and Manager of Collaborative Resource Management at the Resource Management Support Centre, a technical division of the National Forestry Commission in Ghana. It was a really productive meeting with the team being really excited by the technology, seeing the many ways it could push forward their national conservation strategy, especially within the Wildlife Division department which focuses solely on wildlife monitoring and protection. They had a lot of feedback, ideas and questions and are supporting my work from a logistical standpoint.
Really excitingly, we are currently coordinating an initial reconnaissance (a preliminary visit) to two possible field sites on Friday. I’ll finally be able to get into my walking boots, get on my waterproofs and head into the forest!
I am very excited to get into the field and report on those experiences, but please also remember that I am processing my experiences and thoughts as I go and processing them to create content in real-time is not really my style (I very much like to sit and think on things for a while).
Until then, I have a tonne of reading, writing, meeting and planning to do. 👋🏾
I hope you enjoyed reading through this initial newsletter and that it allowed you to get a better understanding of the pace of my research and the activities I am conducting throughout.
I would love to hear any feedback, comments or thoughts from you and really look forward to speaking with you soon!