Eva Ross writes about her research feedback which took the form of colourful booklets co-created with her respondents.
For my Masters research I explored the Cederberg breadmaking culture and broader changes in foodways in the area. Breadmaking plays a vital role for rural communities of the Cederberg. Bread is made in outdoor ovens and has been baked on hot coals for centuries. Although certain elements have adapted to environmental, economic, and cultural changes in the area, bread marks a dynamic cultural footprint with a close connection to landscapes and ancestors. When my research began, FynbosMengsels, a local community collective at the Cederberg settlement of Vleiplaas, was establishing a breadmaking business and I saw this as a vital opportunity to support this initiative through research.
During one of my initial field visits to the Vleiplaas community I could feel a sense of research fatigue. I wanted to find out why. Tracy, one of the landowners who works closely together with the community, was concerned about ‘yet another researcher’ in the area. One of the concerns articulated was that the community had not felt tangible outcomes from most research. Although research ethics have advanced in recent years, at a local level there had been little effort by researchers to share their outcomes, with many academics and students believing that their work is complete by sharing the final paper or thesis. Research findings, however, need to relate back to the lives of those who have contributed to the study and to be the theoretical foundation for practical interventions. As such, their presentation in everyday language and the use of visual methods can help participants understand the research outcomes (Smith, 2021).
Process of creating the booklet
The idea for the booklet was born during earlier discussions between the communities and the co-creating wild foods team. With growing awareness about the value of their traditional knowledge, community members wanted to have a book that helped to preserve their food culture and knowledge for future generations, and as a medium to express their culinary culture. In particular, many participants articulated that they would like a book about local plant knowledge. Since my research focused on the local bread-making and outdoor oven culture, it was important to be transparent and clear about expectations to avoid dissonance.
I wanted to find a way that my research could be relevant, engaging and tangible for participating communities. The idea for the booklet was discussed with the Vleiplaas community during a focus group discussion and all attending community members voted for the booklet. At the Moravian villages ideas about the content were collected during the interviews. I tried to be as clear as I could about expectations and used a booklet that was created within the Co-creating Wild Foods project to exemplify the outcome. The conversation about the booklet also seemed to be a good way to start the conversation about my research. I hoped that the booklet would help to give people a feeling of reciprocity and appreciation when participating in the research. Ideas ranged from photos of people and ovens to recipes and instructions on how to build an outdoor oven. It was great to see the overall excitement and engagement of people in creating the booklet. Documenting the recipes and taking the photos was a beautiful and valuable part of the process.
I was fascinated by peoples’ effort, passion and knowledge about bread-making and ovens, developed and adapted over centuries. Listening to childhood stories and discussions about breadmaking innovations between participants was an inspiring and humbling experience. I hoped that through this process, the knowledge about breadmaking and their knowledge keepers would feel appreciated and seen. Many community members were excited about the photos of themselves, their bread, and their ovens. As such, one participant expressed, “I want a photo of my wife and her oven in the booklet!” with a big smile and was thrilled to then see the photo in the printed booklet. Others preferred to not include a photo of themselves but only their ovens.
At Vleiplaas we co-created the booklet in a participatory workshop. In the workshop we discussed and decided on the structure, content, and photos. It was important to me to create a sense of ownership and involve participants as much as possible in creating the booklet. In this workshop, people came up with additional ideas and one breadmaker shared a beautiful story about bread being a ‘living thread to the past’ that connects the community to ancestors and history but also the future, as the culture will continue to live on.
After the workshop I started to create and design the booklet in Afrikaans, with Jaci van Niekerk helping with the language editing. Although I worked on the booklet with great excitement and felt honoured to document the communities’ knowledge and illustrate it with many beautiful photos – a part of me wanted to take my laptop, go back to the communities and let them decide on every single element of the booklet. In the end it was their booklet, their knowledge, their photos and their story. I tried my best in putting it together but secretly hoped that people would have further suggestions and feedback.
Feedback sharing workshop
Both booklets were shared with the participants during a feedback workshop with the Co-creating Wild Foods team. Peoples’ faces lit up when they saw the booklet, and, in particular, liked the photographs of themselves and their ovens. We went through the booklet page by page. This was a fun and engaging process. The participants really liked the booklet but – and for me even more important – was their willingness to give inputs. Many people gave suggestions for improvement, and spotted typos and errors.
Giving the communities the opportunity to be co-owners of the research outcome was vital. My actual learning went far beyond the research enquiry, some of these lessons shared in a blog article about decolonial research. The most meaningful moments for me were those when participants took ownership, taught me, and corrected me, in so doing realising the value and uniqueness of their food-related knowledge and culture. This is an important shift in mindset that is urgently required in a world that remains led by neoliberal ideologies which reinforce commodity agriculture and processed food production – and which displace traditional, and often more nutritious, diets.
Currently, I’m still in contact with the communities, supporting the marketing of their breadmaking business remotely. The engagement with community members beyond the research agenda was a crucial aspect of engaged scholarship. I’m thrilled to continue working with these communities in my PhD study starting in August 2024.
Smith, L.T. 2021. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. 4th Edition. London & New York: Zed Books.