What does it mean to know a place, an ecosystem, or a subject? This question has long fascinated Jean Kayira, the Director of Antioch’s PhD in Environmental Studies. Does environmental knowledge simply mean facts and data and details that can be written down in academic papers? Or should we see it as also including stories told by elders, insights passed down through Indigenous knowledge and the experiences of people who have lived in an ecosystem?
For Kayira, the question is both academic and personal. She grew up in a small village called Chozoli in northern Malawi. This small, landlocked country in southeastern Africa is rich in wildlife, in agricultural traditions, and in the cultural knowledge of how to live as part of nature. So from her childhood, Kayira learned about the rearing of animals, which crops to grow, soil fertility, and how to treat crops with natural pesticides.
In primary school, Kayira first experienced how that knowledge could be disregarded and diminished. She was an outgoing child and sometimes shared with her teachers and classmates the methods and solutions that her family used at home. Kayira remembers sharing her grandmother’s trick of mixing charcoal with lukewarm water and spraying that on aphids, effectively ridding her plants of pests. Her teachers were quick to discourage this way of learning. Instead, they emphasized approaches that were included in textbooks, approved by Western scientists and government officials. They told her that the classroom is “not what you do at home” and that “this is the good knowledge you need to learn.” As she tells the story now, she reflects on how deeply she internalized this message. “So then,” she says, “we didn’t ask questions.”
Only much later did Kayira read the theorist Paolo Freire, who explained that this style of education turns students into “containers” to be “filled” by the teacher. “In the banking concept of education,” writes Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.”
Today, Kayira sees that hierarchical approach to knowledge as profoundly wrongheaded and backward. Instead, as a teacher and director of a doctoral program herself, she strives to create a hybrid space for learning, drawing on the practices of anti-oppressive education, decolonial education, social and cultural theory, postcolonial theory, and empirical research to allow many knowledge systems to coexist. “Dialogue, respect, and ethical engagement are key to helping my students achieve academic excellence,” she writes in her teaching statement. “The art of teaching is to ask the right questions and encourage students to learn to ask insightful questions themselves.” This includes encouraging students to look beyond what is presented, to explore silences, to engage with Indigenous epistemologies and decolonizing methodologies, to learn experientially, and generally to go beyond traditionally accepted print-based forms of authority as they consider sources and shape their own projects. It is a powerful combination—and one that has naturally emerged along her path as a student, scholar, teacher, and citizen.
Resisting Hierarchy, Dancing, Singing
For Kayira, working to replace hierarchical systems with more egalitarian ones is a longtime passion. Growing up in Malawi, Kayira experienced life under a totalitarian government. This unfortunate circumstance had the side effect of allowing her to see how a social movement for change finds success—and to participate in it.
In 1992, just a year after Kayira graduated from the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, the Student Movements for Multi-Party Rule coalesced as these movements often do with young people. Protests swept through Malawi, calling for an end to the rule of the president-for-life regime that had been in place since the 1970s. Kayira, along with many other concerned citizens, attended rallies organized in her city by pressure groups. In these protests, Malawians from many walks of life joined together in decrying the president-for-life who ruled over the country with a totalitarian regime since 1964. As Kayira explains, “People were tired.”
Kayira had a new job teaching high school, and she had just had her first child. Still, she actively participated in the protests. Images of social upheaval often include violent clashes, but this wasn’t the case for much of the actions in this movement. As she recalls today, “I went everywhere with my daughter. I carried my baby; I went to every meeting.”
Kayira attended pressure group rallies that were being held in the city where she was teaching, specifically the Alliance for Democracy pressure group. The non-violent protests felt safe and were even fun to attend, grounded in community and celebration. As she explains it, “We would dance and sing.”
In part, it was this very safeness and sense of play that may have made the protest movement so effective; scholars have found that nonviolent movements are often most successful when mothers and children feel safe to participate. And, true to that research, the movement eventually succeeded. The massive protests eventually led to Malawi becoming a multiparty democracy in 1993, and in 1994 it held its first multi-party elections.
This was a formative experience for Kayira, one in which she got to see how people can make big changes in their world.
After that, she continued living and teaching in Malawi through the ‘90s, and she and her husband Kenton had two more children. Still, she dreamed of bigger challenges. “I always had goals for myself,” she says. “I told myself I will get a PhD, and I want to be a professor.” Although she loved Malawi, opportunities for education in the United States and Canada pushed Kayira and her family to emigrate.
Finding Hybrid Solutions
In some ways, Kayira had to leave her homeland to find the ideas that would connect her to it more deeply. In 2002, she moved to the U.S. to study for a master’s degree at Clark University in Massachusetts. Her husband, Kenton, was already living there. It was a challenge at first, obtaining a visa and moving across the globe with her three daughters. But it was there that she encountered the critical ideas that would inform her hybrid approach. During and after her MA studies, Kayira found herself reflecting on her past education in Malawi. She wondered why the Indigenous knowledge and practice she had learned at home were not acknowledged in school. This led her to start looking for a PhD where she could engage with these questions more. Eventually, she settled on the University of Saskatchewan, where she received funding to dig deeper into these questions.
The family drove straight to Saskatoon in the middle of a snowy December. Arriving at their new home, they couldn’t even open the doors—which had frozen shut. As she and her family members adjusted to their new blustery environment, Kayira attended university and organized her courses around her children’s schedules. “It was not easy,” she says, “but I had a very supportive group.”
In the program, Kayira thrived as a scholar investigating the ideas that most fascinated her. Even as she drew on postcolonial theory, she began reexamining certain aspects of Malawian culture that seemed to resonate right alongside the writings of theorists like Edward Said, Franz Fanon, and Paulo Freire. Malawian culture has a deep-seated respect for the idea of uMunthu or Ubuntu—an Indigenous African philosophy that teaches about the interconnectedness and interdependence of all living beings and holds community to be one of the building blocks of society.
“A space where multiple knowledge systems work together, hand in hand, really fits well with the Ubuntu concept, which is about interconnections and interdependence,” says Kayira. She quotes the Kenyan philosopher John Mbiti’s explanation of the concept in the saying, “I am because we are, and because we are, therefore, I am.” As she explains, “It’s not just myself but everything that makes me who I am.” The concept of Ubuntu, she came to see, challenges the western worldview that centers individuals, other living beings, and the natural world as disconnected, discrete, and quantifiable.
Another key idea that she came to during her postgraduate study was sankofa. The term is Ghanaian and refers to a bird with its head turned backward, taking an egg from its back. It has been taken up by many Africans and members of the African diaspora as a metaphorical symbol emphasizing the importance of reaching back to knowledge gained in the past and bringing it into the present to make positive progress. The very use of symbols and metaphors to think through problems is an example of how to challenge Western models of understanding. Recognizing the value of both is key to shifting environmental studies into a global context that reframes the natural world—not as a thing to extract from, but as a system humanity is one part of.
The dissertation she wrote to complete her degree was titled “Re-Learning our Roots: Youth Participatory Research, Indigenous Knowledge, and Sustainability through Agriculture.” It engaged ideas of Ubuntu, sankofa, postcolonial theory, and many of her other interests to argue for more inclusive models of understanding the world—not discarding the benefits of the scientific method and Western thought but combining them with local and Indigenous knowledge in synthesis.
“Why can’t we create that, a third space?” asks Kayira. “It’s not wrong to go back and take what you forgot. It’s not too late. It’s not.”
Conducting Research that Reflects Values
At Antioch, Kayira has been creating that third space as faculty and program director of the Environmental Studies PhD Program for Antioch New England. She has found her dreams met not just as a professor but also as someone promoting a view of scholarship that doesn’t prioritize only certain types of knowing over others. She has found her voice as a strong advocate of decolonizing practices—at both the personal and professional levels. She approaches this work with humility, too, acknowledging that decolonization is a journey and not a destination. It requires the humility to realize that there is a lot, as she puts it, to “learn, unlearn, and re-learn.” And this process must be repeated again and again. She draws inspiration from Maxine Green’s idea of “always becoming” or “I am what I am not yet”
She brings this energy to her role as program director. In this job, Kayira has many duties. One of these that she emphasizes it to respond to student questions—and she makes a point of proactively asking students for their advice around how the program is being run. Part of putting her theories and values into practice is taking seriously what her students say. As she explains, “We listen to what they say about the program and have done a number of changes because of their feedback.”
Kayira’s other duties include teaching, supervising dissertations, and conducting her own research projects. Some of these research projects have even led her back to her home country of Malawi. Kayira explains that much of what has been published regarding Indigenous Malawians and their traditional knowledge is prejudiced and looks down on them. Most scholars don’t attempt to understand Indigenous people’s perspectives or their experiences, let alone work to center them in their projects.
Kayira is working to bridge this gap. As she says, “I wanted to know what the community members were thinking.”
In 2019, she took a sabbatical from her duties at Antioch and traveled to Malawi, spending time with community members near the country’s National Parks to research topics that have huge effects on the area—in particular, elephant conservation in Kasungu National Park. Malawi’s elephants are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as vulnerable, largely due to poaching and illegal wildlife trade for ivory, and conservation of these animals is a high priority for the government of Malawi. However, the government’s initiatives have not met with much success, as elephant poaching continues to increase globally. Kayira wondered, though, if the perspectives and views of communities living near these protected areas—communities where most live below the poverty line—had been tapped.
To get a clear representation of the issues, Kayira talked with elders, women’s groups, men’s groups, conservation groups, ecolodge owners, park officials, and government officials. The varying points of view were important to understand what is at stake for different people in Malawi. Knowing these motivations can help frame how people feel and think—providing insight into why they make decisions.
To conduct her study, Kayira used a decolonizing lens, paying attention to hierarchies within groups and the impacts of colonialism and capitalism, which are usually embedded in people’s unexamined assumptions about why things are the way they are and why people believe what they believe. She also constantly examined the power she brought to the work and the participants. “I know that I have a lot of power in me,” she says. “A lot of times, I go to the community driving. And, well, nobody drives there. It’s very rural. So I’m aware of that.”
However, Kayira does her best to immerse herself back in the culture. She says being Malawian helps her foster trust. “I can speak the language,” she says, which opens the door to conversations non-native researchers simply couldn’t have. Furthermore, she explains, “although the communities that I worked with are not my hometown, I spend time with people, participate in activities, and I make sure I dress properly, meaning I have to have a chitenje, which is a wrapper around my waist, and a head wrap.”
Kayira’s understanding of cultural practices has helped her navigate connecting with many stakeholders. Knowing people in the National Parks system connected her to a village chief, who connected her to the wider community. This is one example of holding multiple ways of knowing together in research.
Speaking to all these different people, Kayira found that one of the most prevalent issues was always elephant conservation. The communities adjacent to national parks agreed that they do want to protect these endangered species. At the same time, they understood why poachers were entering the parks—and they themselves faced major economic consequences from living close to large groups of elephants, which would often steal their grain and destroy their crops.
She learned that the electrified fence surrounding the villages, which had been erected by the National Park to protect them from the elephants, had stopped working. Its solar charging station had failed. The people living in this village had no means to fix the fence, and without its protection, the elephants would smell the food within the villages and trample the broken barrier. She saw the shattered brick homes the elephants had demolished. She listened as community members told her about their other methods of deterring the great creatures, which included making loud noises and trying to drive them off with fire. But, they told her, their efforts did not always work.
They also shared previous experiences they had with a non-governmental organization that tried to help them. With this organization, the community created a beehive fence. It is believed that bees or evidence of their presence in the form of hives or buzzing sounds can be used to limit crop raiding by elephants. At the same time, the sale of honey and other bee products improves the socioeconomic status of communities. Unfortunately, this initiative did not work for reasons such as that most hives were not colonized by the bees and that the hives were too far apart and too low to the ground. This made it easy for the elephants to cross without disturbing the bees. Furthermore, there wasn’t an obvious market to sell the honey.
The community was conflicted—they loved these elephants, yet the animals were destroying crops and their livelihood. It is a difficult problem, and one that simply telling the community members to respect elephants more is not going to solve. Ultimately, Kayira’s research did not overnight fix this deep and persistent problem. But she did help officials and people in the village understand each other’s positions.
This is the ongoing work of Kayira across her many positions of responsibility: bringing together different sources of knowledge to deepen understanding and reveal new solutions. She does this in her work directing the PhD in Environmental Studies, in her research back in Malawi, and also in her community of Keene, New Hampshire, where she is deeply involved in community garden projects. Steadily, collectively, and with respect for what has come before, Kayira is helping lead a new way forward.
LEARN MORE: Listen to the interview with Jean Kayira on Antioch’s Seed Field Podcast, “A Problem as Big as Climate Change Calls for Diverse Ways of Knowing.”