Bringing the lighter side of science to life

Thursday October 25 2018

Kafeero demonstrates how one can make fire

Kafeero demonstrates how one can make fire without using a matchbox but chemicals. Photos By John Batanudde 

By Desire Mbabaali

Seeing him on stage for the first time, one can easily mistake him for a magician. Fire burning on his head, making big coloured foam from simple liquids, not to mention big fumy explosives that cloud the stage as he concludes the show with his ‘Science is fun!’ catch phrase.
A degree holder in Biological Technology from Kyambogo University, Martin Kafeero is not ashamed of admitting he was not a good scientist at the beginning. “I was not curious about science, but during my internship at Uganda Virus Research Institute of the Medical Research Council, I got inspired about science. I was training in the lab which deals with HIV culturing, (growing and multiplying HIV viruses outside the human body),” he says.
While doing this, he met incredible people, one of them being Andrew Obuku, an immunologist, who taught him high tech research in analysing cellular responses to different infections and inspired him a lot. When he returned to Kyambogo University to finish his course, what he had learnt kick-started his love for science.

Nurturing the mad scientist
“Becoming the mad scientist started as a joke. I was supposed to work at UVRI but that did not work out, so I decided to go to Burundi. I did not know anyone there but I went and volunteered with the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation in 2012. In 2013, I went to Tanzania because I had friends there and a project I was to work on. But while there, things failed to work out and I could not come back to Uganda - but I saw an opportunity,” he narrates.
At the time, Tanzania had registered a high number of students failing at O-Level, especially in science subjects and this was not an opportunity he was going to pass.
“I started the Initiative for Science and Technology Tanzania, a non governmental Organisation, with the aim of inspiring and helping students be passionate about Science and Mathematics. With that, I started the science show, taking it to schools. During the shows, I teach students through different experiments, for example how to make fire without using a matchbox but chemicals such as potassium permangane, glycerin and water,” Kafeero says.
He adds that he later came up with a new approach to greenhouse farming – using water bottles to build greenhouse structures and that won him an award with Compassion International. He was also funded to take the model to schools and it was through all this work that he won the Australian Awards Fellowship, where he went to the Australia National University for training in Science and Development and Science Communication from 2015 to 2017.
“After the training, I came back to Uganda mid last year. In Tanzania, I had developed a strong team so I left them to run the organisation. They actually turned the NGO into a science centre and I am still an advisor,” he says.

Starting over in Uganda
Back in Uganda, he started a company - Science Times which stages science shows for events, schools and special effects for the movie and music industry. “In April, I conducted the Circus Africa Project funded by the Australian government with a target of helping teachers utilise locally available and cost-effective materials to teach Science in class.
He adds that the company also operates in Kenya and Tanzania. They organise workshops for teachers and visit schools to raise children’s curiosity to Science through the shows.
“As the Mad Scientist, this is what I do. I go to schools and I astonish students with science. Basically, we mix science with entertainment to show people that science is not boring. On top of the science, I have a team of dancers that are not necessarily scientists but are passionate about it. We dance in lab coats to show people that even scientists dance,” he says.
Kafeero says the group has performed at several events including the Stanbic National Schools Championship, the Golden heart concert at Kololo, Botswana Film Festival in Botswana as well as schools and universities such as Mbarara University, Vienna College Namugongo, Seeta High School, GEMS Cambridge International School and Lubiri Secondary School, among others.

The money
Kafeero says on average, they charge about Shs300,000 to perform at a private school, about Shs700,000 for a private or international school and about Shs2.5m for events. He adds that the cost will depend on what aspects the school or event organiser wants incorporated into the show.
“The schools book us and pay us, depending on the experiments they want us to do. It is unfortunate that we are currently going to urban schools which can afford the money because the materials and equipment are very expensive,” he says adding: “We, however, plan on reaching out to the ministry of Education so that they fund some projects to enable us reach rural schools.

“We may promote practical science like we do, but if teachers are not capable of adopting to this, then we might not make a lot of progress, so practical sciences need to be encouraged. Government must invest in science, training teachers to teach innovations using the available resources,” he concludes.

What others say

Geoffrey Murungi, Teacher of Chemistry, Seeta High school, Main campus
“Science involves unlocking and introducing abstract concepts so that students can appreciate them. The mad scientist brings science nearer to the students in a simple way which motivates them. For example, he did experiments that showed the laws of motion, action and reaction where the student is able to see science near them.”

Timothy Michaels Wekanya
Colleague, Mad Scientist team.
Students are primed for learning. For pre-adolescents for example, learning does not just happen in class, learning is life. Around every corner is a new curiosity, so when we do not teach science in the early years, we are missing out on this prime time. So that is where we come in, with a different, more effective way to teach science to students and masses alike by incorporating dance, music, art and games to teach in a way that is interesting and arouses curiosity.”