Bongekile Kuhlase: Plant distribution on remote Marion Island

Bongekile Kuhlase is a Plant Ecology student from South Africa. Her research focusses on modelling plant distribution on Marion Island.

Bongekile is sharing her story as part of the BES journal’s Black History Month blog series. We are promoting and celebrating research from Black ecologists around the world, and will be publishing BHM blog posts throughout October 2020.

I’m Bongekile Kuhlase, a MSc Plant Ecology student at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. My work is based on modelling the environmental and biotic drivers of the plant distribution on Marion Island. Marion is small uninhabited sub-Antarctic island, 2000km off the coast of South Africa. It was my dream to travel to this remote island and spend a year in isolation, after hearing about Marion in my undergraduate years. So when the opportunity arose to join the plant ecology group starting a new project there, I grabbed it with both hands!

Being a Black ecologist offers challenges that one wouldn’t expect in modern society. There is a constant battle, as lots of knowledge and information is passed on in a language you do not speak. At times, even meetings are conducted in a language you do not understand. However, it just forces you to be able to stand your ground and demand change, even something as small as having plant guide books in English, to even larger scale impacts like using indigenous knowledge as a reliable source of information.

Marion Island at Boulder’s beach, 2019.

If I could see one change in academia then I’d like to see a change in the way people are treated. We must all be treated equally and fairly. Being offered equal opportunities to progress is something that I hope is addressed in my life time. I’d also like to see a change in the sexual harassment policies in the field, men should not be able to make crude and sexist comments which are dismissed because they are a renowned expert.

Penguins at Prinsloomeer, Marion Island, 2019.

There have been minor shifts in attitude from the scientific community towards members of the Black community. More colour has been introduced in our department. However, it is rarely in positions of power. There are hardly any Black ecology lecturers to act as mentors and help you navigate the scary field of academia, but there has been a growth in numbers of Black ecologists in industry.

My main advice for other student or early career Black ecologists would be…The road is tough and mostly lonely but find your tribe, people who will always be there to support you. It is crucial to have a life outside of your career, so you don’t feel like a failure when things aren’t working out. Also fail forward, let every failure be a learning process, let it grow you and don’t be scared to fail.

Bongekile Kuhlase summiting Mascarin Peak, the highest peak (1230 metres) on Marion Island, 2019.

I would like a spotlight a fellow Black colleague and ecologist, the dynamic Dineo Mogashoa, who works as a graduate intern at Anglo American. She is also a former field research assistant on Marion Island, where she studied wind dynamics as the main driver of vegetation patterns on Marion Island. Check her out on her social media as @CycloneDineo on Instagram and Twitter.

Bongekile Kuhlase

You can read all the posts in our Black History Month collection here. Please check back throughout October 2020, as we will be publishing more posts throughout the rest of this month!

If you would like to contribute a post yourself, please get in touch.

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