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Towards Knowledge Celebration

Insights from a research festival in Matatiele-South Africa

'If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.' – Margaret Fuller


The above quote by the late feminist scholar Margaret Fuller emphasizes the importance of sharing knowledge. It also encourages us to view  knowledge as a vibrant entity, to be celebrated in all its diversity: scientific knowledge, technical knowledge, local knowledge. By recognizing different ways of knowing and being we can co-create new knowledge that contributes to solutions for societal challenges of today and tomorrow.

From March 12 to 14 2024, we celebrated knowledge in all its forms during a three-day research festival on the Water-Energy-Food (WEF) nexus in the city of Matatiele in South Africa. The festival is part of the project “Water-Energy-Food Communities in South Africa: Multi-actor nexus governance for social justice”, carried out by a Consortium of Dutch and South African universities and funded by the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Dutch Research Foundation (NWO). It was organized by Environmental and Rural Solutions (ERS), a local NGO that has been supporting rural communities in the region since 2002. The main aim of the festival was to create social impact. But why a festival? And how did this festival create social impact?

A research festival can be seen as a method of  so-called “knowledge utilization”. NWO defines it as the utilization of knowledge through productive interactions with targeted stakeholders to create social impact. Productive interactions are described as contacts between researchers and societal stakeholders in which they try to use the knowledge to fulfill societal goals.  Knowledge utilization, however, is not a linear one-way process in which researchers merely present their findings to society. It is all about active and meaningful participation and interaction.

Nevertheless, most research festivals focus on disseminating or sending “research” and ideas around the utilization of scientific knowledge. They are like academic conferences, but with a different audience. The WEF festival in Matatiele, however, was different. It combined research findings with community engagement, fieldtrips and art performances, such as songs, poetry, dances and theatre.  It recognized the important role of local knowledge with regard to the WEF Nexus, and of interweaving local and scientific knowledge to enhance epistemic and restorative justice, which is a specific type of justice focusing on past and present harm to people, species and ecosystems. Participants were encouraged to use their local language and present local solutions. The festival was thus not just about sending out research findings to the general audience, but about sharing and connecting different types of knowledge, and about celebratory ways to learn from one another.

On the Festival’s first day, post-graduate students from the University of Fort Hare shortly presented the applicability of their research findings to the community, with ample time for questions, comments and suggestions from the audience. Part of these research findings were related to problems the communities are facing with wattle trees, an invasive plant species that causes conflicts over water resources.  It also counted with art performances by local school children, who, through dances and songs, expressed their solutions to WEF challenges. Their main request was for more education on water and food security. Teuns Phahlamolaka, NRF representative, also emphasized the importance of education and quoted Nelson Mandela’s words: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Day 2 of the Festival was dedicated to on-the-ground problems and solutions: Finding out  more about the local reality when it comes to WEF Nexus. The participants were divided into three groups and each group visited specific projects in the Sibi Traditional Area, including spring protection (water group), invasive species used for charcoal (energy group), and climate smart gardens (food security group). At the end of the day, the three groups joined again at Nkasela hall, where they were received by the local chief and were presented with a performance of traditional dances by the local youth. The fieldtrip provided the participants with the opportunity to engage with residents, school children and local leadership around the reality of the nexus in their communities. It emphasized the importance of working closely together with local chiefs, respecting local and traditional belief systems, and thereby enhancing community ownership.  

On the festival’s third and last day it was Cultural Day: Participants were invited to come in their traditional attires and share more about their local culture.  There was also plenty of time for art performances, including a theatre play on local WEF challenges performed by the Ecochamps. Ecochamps are youth change agents from local communities that engage their community in environmental conservation. Participants also worked in their groups and, based on their insights from the fieldtrip,  co-created posters with problems and practical solutions. Each group shortly presented their solutions, followed by a group discussion on how to enhance improved community participation. One of the main ideas included the creation of “knowledge hubs”: spaces for multi-actor dialogue about problems and solutions with a high involvement of the local community, thereby valuing local knowledge.

During the final session on  co-creating and influencing policy towards enhanced social justice, participants reflected on key-insights from the festival. Many participants emphasized the fact that we cannot forget we are operating within an African context. Or, as one of the participants put it: ”We need African solutions to African problems”. Participants mentioned the need for more Ubuntu: local solutions in which we all look out for each other that highlight the spirit of sharing. Ubuntu is part of African philosophy that highlights the working together as the main principle toward social justice.

This festival can therefore be seen both as a product and a process of knowledge utilization for social impact. The sharing of scientific knowledge with stakeholders can make an important contribution to societal challenges. However, the festival also created an informal ambience, encouraging active participation by all. When societal stakeholders feel at ease to voice their perspectives regarding local problems and solutions, new, actionable knowledge is created. Knowledge that benefits both science and local communities. Knowledge that needs to be recognized, honored and celebrated.

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