Interview with Imaginative Scientist Nyokabi Musila: What Science Can Teach Us About Art, Africa and Ourselves Tuesday 17 August, 2010

Kenyan blogger Nyokabi Musila has a scientific mind and an artistic spirit. She believes science is a tool that can help us decide which questions to ask. While living in London, Nyokabi came to wonder: “What does Africa really mean?” She continues to return to this idea, exploring the representation of Africa and Africans in the […]

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Kenyan blogger Nyokabi Musila has a scientific mind and an artistic spirit. She believes science is a tool that can help us decide which questions to ask. While living in London, Nyokabi came to wonder: “What does Africa really mean?” She continues to return to this idea, exploring the representation of Africa and Africans in the arts.

Nyokabi is a pharmacist with a PhD in pre-clinical drug development and is currently based in Nairobi, where she has been working in a research team that has supported the development of Kenya’s first national evidence-based policy for pediatric care. Also, a columnist for a national Kenyan newspaper, she discusses the medicinal properties of food.

She nurtures her creative side by writing on various arts, including film, theatre and photography that reflect African realities on the blog www.sci-cultura.com, under the not-so-secret pseudonym, “sci-culturist.” One of her latest posts discusses photography and film projects on Nubians in Kenya and colonial legacies in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Here she shares her views on scientific thought, the arts, Africa and what she wants people to gain from her writing.

Why did you start the Sci-Cultura blog? What does Sci-Cultura mean?

I started Sci-Cultura for the very self-indulgent reason that I wanted to create a space where I could express my thoughts and also engage with like-minded people who were interested in the similar topics. I was bubbling up with stuff I wanted to say and blogging was the easiest outlet. In effect it is a public journal. I started off rather impersonal and factual but somewhere along the way, quite early on, I unknowingly started to inject more of me in my writing.

The meaning of Sci-Cultura is a bit like the blog itself – it has evolved, which I suppose is reflective of me as a person and what is going on for me. I’m sure you’ve gathered that I made it up. I wanted a name that expressed my scientific persona and that also incorporated a single word that captures the human experience. Cultura is the Spanish word for culture, which just rolled off my mind and I liked the ring to it. Overall, it is about the meeting of 2 worlds – science and the arts. I had initially planned for the science aspect to be obvious but found myself being led to a more subtle expression – the root of science is about seeking answers to questions.

Can you tell us about your background, and how it influences what you feature on your site?

I started the blog as a Kenyan living in London, England. Someone has said this before – when you land in Heathrow, you take on a new identity – you are labeled an African. I felt the drive to explore how being African was being expressed in the arts and to answer the question: “What does African really mean?”I still don’t have a complete answer and I don’t think I ever will because it’s larger than life. But I’m ok with that because it still gave and continues to give me an answer, perhaps just not in the way that I expected. Not surprisingly, having recently relocated to Nairobi, my perceptions have changed and I find that I am no longer looking to answer that question because I am not confronted with it any more. I am now consumed by what being a Kenyan and more so, a Nairobian means and I am curious about how this 47 year old identity has evolved over time and what it means for individuals. It’s a very exciting period in our history as there is a lot of unchartered territory here.

How do you decide what information to include on your blog?

I don’t have a deliberate system in place. Blogging is supposed to be fun!

I write posts on what I get drawn to, which is a very random, uncalculated process because I get information from a number of sources, both on- and offline. In hindsight, however, what my posts have in common is that they inspire questions or are a building block to an answer or inspire my artistic persona or a combination of these. I am an avid fan of film and it’s no surprise that majority of my posts are on film. In relation, it has brought to life for me how much a blog is an intimate public journal and you can really get to know someone from a distance simply from reading their blog.

What do you want people to know about the African Diaspora, Science and Culture?

The African Diaspora is an incredibly diverse and complex group of people, who represent an unfathomably colossal range of beliefs, practices and values. These are people from the 53 countries in the enormous continent of Africa, not to mention the numerous ethnic communities within each country, plus generations who are descendants of African migrants, either by choice of forcibly through the slave trade. This implies that a blanket statement cannot be made for the African Diaspora as nothing can ever be true for all. The richness and diversity that this group of people brings is phenomenal.

For me, as I have already alluded to, science is not simply about lab coats and test tubes, which I think is how it is generally perceived, but about asking questions and seeking solutions. Also, on a more fundamental level, science is constantly around us in our daily lives if we choose to see it. From the laser beam in the supermarket til, to our cleaning products, to the components of what we eat, to the molecules released that are associated with emotion.

Culture represents everything about us. It’s how we live – what we think and what we do. These are over-simplified views, but sometimes, the more complicated things get the more simple they get too.

How did you develop what you call your “scientific mind”?

I think this has been a product of my personality. I am a trained scientist – I can be very analytical, which is a plus for a scientific career. I was always a curious kid and I asked lots–and lots–of questions, which was probably very annoying for the adults around me. I was very drawn to the science subjects in school as they provided some of the answers that I sought. Science explained the world around me and the workings of the human body which we can’t see but we know is there.

Years later, when I studied pharmacy in university, I sat in the lecture theatre with a big grin on my face when I learnt about the how pain killers work. The 8 year old in me finally had the answer to how the medicine that I had been given when I scrapped my knee knew how to find its way there. I had asked my mum how it knew where to go as it was the same medicine that I had been given on a previous occasion for a headache with fever.

Anything else you want to share?

Blogging has exceeded my expectations. I’ve met a number of bloggers in  “real life’” who are now friends. I don’t think I’d have gotten into Twitter, which is a wonderful resource, if I wasn’t already a blogger and already overcome the frequently stated fear of putting up stuff about myself online.  I probably wouldn’t have met you!

Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?

For me, living unchained is about unreserved self-expression. It represents living life to the full which for me is really living in the moment, taking it all in, as well as following my dreams or inspirations.

Nyokabi likes to hear different perspectives on the topics we discussed above. Feel free to reach her at scicult@gmail.com to share your thoughts, inquiries and beliefs. You can also follow her on twitter: @sciculturist.

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