"Ancient Yoruba knowledge can be used as a pathway to food sovereignty."
Karina Karim is a Brazilian engineer and educational reformer. She has created a nano-satellite that bridges the gap between ancestral knowledge and space tech and that can be used in urban gardening projects.
Orí in Yoruba means "head, mind and everything that is present in the real essence of the being". It was with orí and orixá (Yoruba deities related to nature and ancestry) in mind that the Brazilian engineer Karina Karim created ORISAT, a ground-breaking nanosatellite designed as a meteorological monitoring tool to be used in the urban vegetable gardens in the outskirts and by the traditional communities in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which are often rendered invisible by the government and remain unmapped.
“The knowledge and experiences cultivated by Orí throughout our existence are not lost even when we die, because, through the cultivation of the land, a community nourishes not only the body, but also the soul with this ancestral essence,” Karina explains. The nanosatellite is part of OIA, Innovation and Ancestrality Workshop – a project that Karina co-founded, and which aims to stimulate the participation in and development of young black women in the technology sector.
Aged only 25, the engineering student teaches as a volunteer at a public school in São Gonçalo in Rio de Janeiro. Among other accolades, Karina has been awarded the Neil Armstrong Best Design Award at NASA for developing low-cost projects and prototypes to improve day-to-day life on Earth and in space.
Maria Clara: You are an engineer who has been working on space-related projects. How can space projects create more regenerative possibilities for life on Earth?
KARINA: When we develop space technologies, we work through and seek to overcome several challenges. Going to Mars, for example, is a challenge because all medical studies indicate that we would not be able to adapt quickly enough to an environment so different from Earth. In addition, currently we could only get there, because the rocket would have to lose parts on the way, so that it becomes gradually lighter and gains speed to get out of the atmosphere. As we have to create all these studies to solve problems of this type, including creating technologies to survive on a hostile planet like Mars, we can have a really great return on technologies that can be beneficial for life on Earth. This return is also fast and immediate, due to the speed of space technology developments.
Maria Clara: The indigenous philosopher Ailton Krenak, author ofIdeas to Postpone the End of the World, defines the pandemic as a reaction to the exploitationof our planet. He considers the idea of renouncing life on Earth and colonizing Mars a "total dystopia". Krenak is highly critical of our obsession with going to Mars. What is your opinion?
KARINA: It is a very valid discussion. I really like Krenak, it is extremely important for us to include Afrofuturistic and Afrocentric perspectives, and social ways of thinking that are very different from our capitalist ways, which is where his criticism is directed. We could think about going to space in more sustainable and social ways. There is no diversity among the people, industries, and powers who are thinking about space exploration. When we don't have diversity problems arise. For example, when we currently talk about going to Mars, we discuss who will arrive first and what laws will apply there. This is a very big concern for Elon Musk, who argues that whoever arrives first on Mars gets to make new laws. This is currently the dominant idea of space exploration because it fits with our competitive-capitalist views.
Maria Clara: How can Afrocentric narratives help us to create other possible futures?
KARINA: When we have a specific group with specific interests guiding and leading discussions such as the one on space travel, a large part of society is excluded. But we need to be included in these narratives in some way to try to make the future more diverse and to propose alternative futures. For example, there are many projects to sell parts of the Moon to cosmetics companies because of its mineral-rich soil. But is this really what we need most urgently? Couldn't we create and develop vital medicines instead? We don't get to contribute to these types of discussions, because here in Brazil (and in the Global South more generally) we are led to believe that the research and conversations about going to space are very distant from our concerns. When we look at these narratives from other perspectives, such as Afrofuturism, we can see very different ideas from those that emerge from capitalism and colonization. These perspectives are vital for initiating healthier conversations.
Maria Clara: How do you perceive these conversations in your day-to-day life?
KARINA: The engineering club [a voluntary basic education project created by Karina in 2018] was created to discuss mathematics and science, but at the same time we started to develop projects in the space area. The participants knew that I was doing engineering and worked in space science, so I asked if they would like to explore this area. The students said that it wasn’t a tangible thing for them, that it was a 'cool story' that would never come true. It bothered me a lot because in the same way, I once dreamed of going into mechanical engineering, and I never thought that I would really end up working in aerospace and with NASA. So we started to produce small aerospace experiments and at the end of the year the fifth grade students whom I was teaching produced a rocket made from plastic bottle rockets. Most of the students in this class were black girls. Seeing these girls launching rockets and making connections between space science and their daily lives was amazing. It was during this period that I began to understand that it makes no sense for me to produce technologies that do not serve my community.
Maria Clara: How does OIA create community-centred social technologies?
KARINA: We started the Innovation and Ancestrality Workshop (OIA) the following year, with a focus on development and encouragement for black girls in high school to engage with technological subjects. We want to ensure that those who finish high school have training of sufficient quality to take on more responsible roles in society, encouraging them to become agents of positive social change. So OIA seeks to bring anti-racist action into education, to have local impact, and to integrate schools and community. It is working bit by bit, from school to school, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, from community to community. We hope that it spreads, the idea of this type of education, this type of inverted classroom, building a network at local and global levels.
Maria Clara: How did the idea to create ORISAT come about?
KARINA: In 2018, I developed the Clubinho de Engenharia. Then I invited a colleague from my college to join and for two years, we taught alone, investing our own money, even bringing breakfast to students at school, because this school had serious money problems and couldn’t always provide food for all students. Sometimes I would bring students some snacks, but one day I was unable to take anything and a girl hugged me and asked me if I had not brought anything with me: “It is because I only eat in the morning when you bring in breakfast.” I don’t understand how these things happen. Many things that I do are driven by anger. Take the diversity of Brazil as an example, its rich fauna and flora, our developed agribusiness, and at the same time we returned to the hunger map last year ...
Maria Clara: And eleven new billionaires emerged ...
KARINA: I can’t get my head around that. After this day in the classroom we realized we couldn’t stop there. There was already a vegetable urban garden project at the school, so we started to invest in this project, researching what we could do to collaborate. Then I met Thais Silva at UFF. In engineering, you can count black women on one hand. So we entered into a partnership to develop a project directed at high school girls. This is how our idea for OIA emerged, its premise being education for liberation, based on experimentation and not only stimulating inclusion, but also supporting the retainment and development of young people in the technology sector.
Maria Clara: How does your Yoruba ancestry feed into OIA?
KARINA: Yoruba is one of many legacies from the African continent that are very rich and which are based on community, on the interdependence of the individuals who generate a self-sustaining society. The concept of interdependent community applies both in a micro and a macro way. This Afrocentric perspective suggests that we are all interconnected, ubuntu, not only with people but with everything, including nature and the land. This idea of living in a community that is related both to people and to nature in our surroundings is the pedagogical basis of our project.
Maria Clara: How does the idea of community developed at OIA relate to quilombos?
KARINA: Quilombo, in its Bantu etymology, means ‘warrior camp in the forest’. It was popularized in Brazil by the colonial administration who used the term to refer to the mutual support units created by the rebels seeking to end slavery in the country. In the 1970s, the quilombo was once again studied as a symbol of resistance, aligned with the reaffirmation of the African heritage and the search for a Brazilian model capable of holding ethnic and cultural diversity.
Knowledge in quilombos is transmitted through the generations, through orality and observation of practical experiences. Here is the convergence with the educational proposal of the OIA. The old knowledge related to the collective organization of work, agricultural production, cultivation and harvesting includes ways of transporting, storing grains and other products. This can be used as a pathway to food sovereignty in the region - something extremely important in a country where almost 10% of the population are in a situation of severe food insecurity.
When we turn to the quilombos that still exist, we can observe practices of occupation of space and natural resources that can be considered as models for a sustainable regional occupation. When we got involved with schools, and specifically the Rodolfo Siqueira school [where Karina developed her education projects], it was the question of food that moved us most. Many innovations are already emerging on the outskirts of the city. So we need to use and foster this, guided by Afrofuturist ideas and Afrocentric technology, and by benefitting from observation and experimentation. To feel the land, feel how the vegetables are growing. For thousands of years, we have had control over our gaze and our senses in relation to nature, and we can still interpret nature with our senses. Basically, ORISAT's idea is to automate observation and sensual information, data we get through smell and touch in our daily lives. ORISAT is a facilitator. We equipped the minisatellite with a set of seven sensors that map soil, air and other information. Analyzing this data we have a technologically optimized forecast for our plantation ventures.
Maria Clara: How does ORISAT work and how does it collect this data?
Maria Clara: Where does the project name come from?
KARINA: Ori is the orixa that rules your life. Everything you produce, everything you are, goes through Ori because it is the orixá of the head. We feed Ori throughout our life, but at the same time it is also an inheritance from our ancestors. The Ori that I carry today comes from a long ancestral line, as if I had already come to earth with the knowledge passed through the Ori of all my ancestors. It is a kind of knowledge that we absorb and transfer to people. It is passed on orally, since African-based cultures have a very strong base in orality, but also from the land, because when we die this is where we’re buried. It is the same land that will generate all the food, all the fruits that will help the next generations to develop.
Karina Karim will feature on a Brazilian programme called Maker Connection next week, which spotlights people creating social change via tech. You can watch it online here.
Words by Maria Clara Parente
Maria Clara Parente is a Rio de Janeiro based journalist, artist and documentarist. She is the co-founder of This is not the Truth, a platform for Emerging Narratives that explores possible futures in the present.
Karina Karim is an engineer, futurist and educator. The photos in this article are from her personal collection.