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The Making of a Humanities Scholar: Beyond STEM in Africa

A distinguished African professor argues that the humanities together with STEM are necessary to build Uganda and infuse its development with values and ethics

Africans Telling Their Own Stories Since its launch in 2008, the African Humanities Program (AHP), funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York in partnership with the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), has grown a community of more than 400 humanities scholars to ensure that African history and stories are told by Africans. The program, which has invested more than $14 million to develop the network of humanities scholars through pre- and postdoctoral fellowships, aims to deepen the development of Africa’s histories, arts, philosophies, literatures, and musical and cultural traditions through the eyes of its native scholars rather than colonizers or researchers from outside the continent. Sister Dominica Dipio, professor of literature at Makerere University in Uganda, was among the first African Humanities Program fellows. In her essay and the accompanying video, Dipio underscores the importance of the humanities as an essential complement to efforts to advance science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in Africa.



Dr. Dominica Dipio’s current areas of research are in ritual performance and conflict resolution, folktales and legends, and ethnic stereotypes. (Courtesy Sr. Dr. Dominica Dipio)

When I was young, having finished school with very high marks on my A-levels, people asked me what I wanted to study at university. I had never been interested in fields that involved numbers, graphs, maps, and calculations. I wanted literature, languages, history, religion, and the fine and performing arts. I did not yet have a sense that the subjects I was most passionate about were at the core of the humanities. I only knew that they centered around creativity, expression, and narrative. But as I worked through my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Makerere University, and then my PhD at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where I studied women in African cinema, I began to realize that even though my research was centered on the humanities, it was dependent on components of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) — and most especially on the technical medium of film, which today I use to document oral histories, engage rural communities in conversation, and convey my findings to audiences.

There is no doubt that STEM is crucial to the goal of creating a self-sufficient and thriving Uganda. In a country where demand for higher education is booming, with a demand 50 percent higher than the global average, our universities can offer only a limited number of seats for STEM training, and as a result we find an unfortunately high unemployment rate for university graduates. In this context, it is not surprising that six years ago, President Yoweri Museveni called for universities to close down their humanities offerings entirely in favor of an almost exclusive focus on science and technology. Luckily for me and my colleagues who work in the humanities, this did not come to pass. On the contrary, since President Museveni made that statement, political leaders and educational policymakers have embraced the idea that genuine development must have at its heart the arts as well as the sciences.

In my humanities work, the technology of film is crucial to my success. It allows for a popular version of my research, a form that everyone can access. I take my films to villages and rural communities so that people can gather, watch, and discuss the subjects at hand. Recently, these conversations have centered on my observations and interviews with women around the country about the increasing absence of men in families these days. I have received requests to come to parishes, to show my film and prompt conversations about the health and progress of their communities.

In the past, my humanities-focused research was supported by foreign funding agencies, such as the African Humanities Program (AHP) and the Cambridge-Africa Partnership for Research Excellence (CAPREx). But a new Ugandan government initiative is funding my current project, which involves adapting and animating Ugandan and other African folktales to provide local content for schools and television. The Research and Innovation Fund (RIF), established in 2019, will provide 30 billion Ugandan shillings (more than $8 million US dollars) for scholars at Makerere University to sustain work that will drive the country’s development agenda. This new approach to research funding extends across disciplines, encompassing both STEM subjects and the humanities.


Sister Dipio on her work in film: “For us, Africans who are predominantly described as very oral people, the film medium is a very powerful continuation, in a way, of our orality. I am no longer that scholar who writes a fine paper and has it published in a journal.” (Video by Osmosis Films)

The marriage of STEM and humanities represented by my new research and many other endeavors supported by the RIF is the result of a growing realization in Uganda that in a truly cultured society the two disciplines must not be separated. Where STEM disciplines represent the shell/structure/body, the humanities encompass the gel/software/soul. Even the most famous scientist of the modern era, Albert Einstein, insisted that “all religions, art, and sciences are branches of the same tree.”

Just as my research in the humanities is augmented by my work with technology, the best STEM scholars I know draw upon their excellent writing and storytelling skills to convey the importance and urgency of their research to specialist and nonspecialist audiences alike. The mutually dependent relationship between the two disciplines is important. If STEM trains our young people to quite literally build our country, the humanities infuse those structures with values and ethics. Arts, literature, history, and religious studies are particularly suited to express such principles. Teaching humanities subjects to students means they will emerge not just as productive, technically proficient workers but also as thoughtful citizens.

This marriage of disciplines is crucial for how I think my own research can help to shape the future of Uganda. Local knowledge, whether in the form of personal stories or traditional folktales, is important. Our history, our traditions, our values can energize our present, lead us to new forms of development, and clarify our collective values. A humanities-STEM partnership that integrates our human ideals with the structures that house them will really take us far.



Sr. Dr. Dominica Dipio holds a BA in education and an MA in literature, both from the Makerere University in Uganda, and a PhD in women in African cinema from the Pontifical Gregorian University (Rome), where she also lectured on film criticism and African cinema. She is a professor at Makerere University where she heads the Department of Literature. In 2019, she was named to the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture.

Read more about the African Humanities Program (AHP).

This is an edited version of an essay that was first published on AllAfrica, a pan-African news source that receives philanthropic support from Carnegie Corporation of New York.



Help spread the word about the importance of infusing STEM with the humanities:

Sister Dipio: “The discipline of humanities infuses the STEM with values, with ethics.” (Video by Osmosis Films)

Video by Osmosis Films