"Cultural Window" Essays
Students wrote the following essays about their experiences on Earlham's off-campus program in East Africa. As is typical of Earlham off-campus programs, students are immersed in the local culture: staying with host families, learning the language, engaging in service projects and visiting interesting sites in Kenya and Tanzania.
Program leaders Brent Smith, professor of biology, and Nancy Taylor, associate professor of art, are also chronicling the semester, with occasional contributions from students. Read their blog below.
Mgeta Homestays and Arrival in Iringa
After our time in Kenya we flew back to Tanzania and moved to the south central part of the country. First, we traveled to Morogoro, a bustling mid-sized city at the base of the impressive Uluguru Mountains. There we are hosted by Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA), Tanzania’s primary agricultural, rural development and engineering university, and our educational partner. Our focus in Morogoro and the mountain region of Mgeta is the Waluguru people, their culture, and the sustainability of their agro-ecosystems and economy. Our group heard two lectures from SUA professors on the Waluguru and on soil and water conservation in the Uluguru region.
We then traveled up into the mountains where the students spent 5 unforgettable days living with wonderfully hospitable Waluguru farmer families. The district is very densely populated with people farming on steep, mostly terraced mountain slopes that have been almost completely deforested. The trails to houses and farm plots are steep, rough and narrow. Everywhere you go seems to be straight up- or downhill! Most houses are mud brick with thatch or metal roofs, and none have electricity or running water. Each family has a separate cooking building, generally very simple with a thatch roof where the women cook with wood, balancing pots on three stones. Outhouses and bathing areas are small and simply covered with corn stalks or plastic. Students participated in their family’s daily activities, farming, carrying water, goat tending, going to the market and visiting. We were so impressed with how strong and hard working our hosts were. Most work very long hours, often doing extremely hard physical labor.
Early on, we all went on a steep hike up to the remnant Uluguru Forest that caps the mountain range. The Uluguru range is part of the Eastern Arc Mountains that are considered one of the world’s most important and critically endangered biodiversity “hot-spots”. These mountains have a high degree of endemism (species found only there), and the pressures of population growth have led to heavy deforestation (5000 km2 to less than 100 km2 over the past 100 years). Steeply terraced farms abut the forest to its very edge. This hike offered students a unique opportunity to see first-hand the immediacy and complexity of the conservation and human sustainability issues involved.
This was a challenging homestay, and Brent and Nancy are very proud of how well everyone did. It has given us insight into how the vast majority of Tanzanians live, and we will be thinking, talking and writing about it for some time to come.
We arrived a week ago in Iringa, about 5 hours further west on the Tanzam (Tanzania-Zambia) Highway. Iringa is a pleasant highland town in south central Tanzania where we are enjoying warm days, cool evenings, and wide views of boulder strewn hills. For the next three weeks students will be doing volunteer projects (leading to a major ethnographic paper) while staying with local families. We have five students teaching science in secondary schools, three working with HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs (the Iringa district has the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the country at 15%), two on a dairy farm, two in the sewing and carpentry programs of a vocational school, two with disabled weavers, one in a veterinary shop, one in an orphanage, and one with an agricultural development program.
"Pamoja!" ("Together!") to Keep Lamu Green:
A Community Clean-Up Project
We are two juniors currently on the East Africa study abroad program. We recently visited a small island, Lamu, on the coast of Kenya. While there, we experienced first-hand how detrimental poor urban planning can be to a community; we witnessed the results of a lack of a sanitation system. Throughout this trip we’ve noticed a constant theme of poor sanitation (trash) in rural, impoverished areas. We noticed that on the north side of the island, where indigenous Kenyans reside far from any tourist activity, trash failed to be picked up and was consequently dumped literally everywhere-around houses and in the ocean. The most striking was the amount of trash dumped in the ocean, especially in the Domoni beach area, an area that locals rely on for food and tourism. Even swimming further north of this beach, we noticed the impacts of trash on the water quality and fish populations.
Along with overfishing, using a side of the island as a waste disposal area has really taken its toll on the local fish populations, consequently negatively affecting those who depend on fish for income. We felt a strong need to fix this by cleaning up Domoni beach, striving to leave a sustainable imprint. During our short independent travel, we met with local youth group leaders to discuss a plan of action, which led us to meet with, and eventually get sponsored by, the Lamu Red Cross, City Council, and the Ministry of Health. In our short time in Lamu, we managed to make fliers, hire the town crier to spread the word, acquire donations of water, rakes, baskets, and gloves, and buy enough snacks and soda for 50 people.
On the day of the cleanup, fellow Earlhamites and 50 Kenyan community members, ranging from elementary school ages to retirement, came out to help. As the morning progressed, we were able to attract more members through our chants of “Pamoja!” (Together!). Not only did we sense a strong will to clean up from the volunteers but also from the community members passing by, giving their support. Five community volunteers were inspired to form a “Keep Lamu Green” youth group, which will continue to clean up the ocean every Saturday. We personally funded this endeavor using only $35 USD, not including $40 spent on shoes for youth who didn’t own them and 30 liters of water.
This event impacted many members of the community, and members are still inquiring about fliers we left up in town, wanting to know when the next clean-up is. This event represents us as Earlhamites, taking into account sustainability, environmentalism, activism, and community outreach. We are currently in the midst of planning our next community clean-up day, as a lot of places we have visited in East Africa lack proper sanitation systems, negatively affecting the overall health of the inhabitants. We recognize the importance of cleanliness of those suffering from debilitating diseases such as HIV/AIDS who are using Anti-Retroviral Drugs, drugs that require a healthy living environment to work properly.
Laura Corichi, Biology major (‘14) and Abby Primack, Biology major (‘14)
Update From the Coast of the Indian Ocean
During the last month we have been in the coastal area of Tanzania and Kenya, along the Indian Ocean. We spent the first week in Dar es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania, working on the HIV/AIDS and population growth parts of our Sustainability class. We visited an HIV/AIDS support group and even accompanied some of their counselors on home visits to people living with AIDS, in the "unplanned neighborhoods". That was a powerful experience. We also visited the US Embassy, had a good presentation by the Dar staff of the United Nations population fund, a lecture from a social historian on poverty in Tanzania, and a wonderful lecture (illustrated by looking out the window) on the development challenges of Dar from an urban planner.
We then flew to Mombasa, in Kenya, and took a long bus (and boat) ride to the small, very Islamic island of Lamu. Here students were welcomed into families, and a very different culture than that of our first homestay. Living with women who veil, some completely, is a whole new world. We had a variety of lectures and a lovely day of sailing on dhows, the handmade wooden boats that have sailed the Indian Ocean for hundreds of years.
A number of students chose to stay in Lamu for their three day free travel period, while others worked their way down to the coast to Malindi. Those who stayed in Lamu were instrumental in organizing a very successful garbage clean up. More to come on that soon!
We reconvened in Mombasa, went for a lovely snorkeling day as an introduction to our studies of reef ecology, and now we’ve moved to paradise – Tiwi Beach, south of Mombasa. Here we are living in small cottages on the beach, and everyone is cooking for themselves. This is a rare treat, and the only time on the program that we really have control over what we eat! The ocean is beautiful, with an exposed reef for low tide explorations.
Here we are doing reef ecology projects, interspersed with three days of intensive writing for our Human Demography and Environmental Sustainability class. As I write this, I am looking at a sunrise over the Indian Ocean.
Game Parks and Kiswahili Classes
Since our last update we have spent time in two of Tanzania’s most famous game parks and have completed our Kiswahili classes.
After two weeks of Kiswahili classes and homestays in and around Usa River, we headed for a week of adventure. Joined by the program’s long time Kenyan Maasai friends, Agnes and Simon Turasha, we loaded into our trusty green Land Rovers and drove up through the cool highlands and back down into the dust. From there it was on to the incomparable Serengeti on a very long, dusty, wash-board ridden road. Our home for the next four nights was a campground in the southern part of the park where we were serenaded by lion roars, hyena whoops and buffalo grazing very close to our tents each night. On the first morning we arose to find a family of elephants browsing just behind our dining area. We had four wonderful days of safari, enjoying both the fantastic wildlife and the views of the “endless plains” that make up the Serengeti, which are particularly beautiful in the evening light.
Having read about the ecology and behavior of eight more mammal species, students continued to teach each other within their safari groups. We saw thousands of gazelle, large herds of buffalo, hippos, giraffes, all kinds of ungulates and all four big predators: lots of lions and spotted hyenas, a cheetah hunting and a leopard eating its kill (a Thompson’s gazelle) in a tree. Among the most special times was watching a litter of jackal pups romp and play.
Brent and a group of students declared a birding safari one morning and saw 58 species in a few hours!
Having Simon and Agnes with us was a treat, and they were wonderfully open about sharing their lives and knowledge with us. Agnes (with the women) and Simon (with the men) talked about the lives of Maasai women and men, and we had later diverse discussions ranging from land tenure to AIDS among the Maasai.
As we left the Serengeti we visited Olduvai Gorge, the famous “cradle of humankind” where the Leakey family made many of their major archeological finds.
We then climbed back up into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, along the high lush crater rim. We spent one night in a modest lodge (with hot showers!), and the next day we descended into Ngorongoro Crater, truly one of the most dramatic and beautiful places on earth. Surrounded by the steep sides of the crater we observed hundreds of wildebeest, zebras and gazelles, plus lions, elephants, hippos, and a great gathering of crowned cranes. We were quite fortunate to see, rarest of all, a black rhino!
We all then returned for a final week of Kiswahili and homestays. Nancy visited all of the host families last weekend (phew!), and reports that the families are delighting in our students. Tomorrow we will host a thank you party for our families and teachers, and the students are preparing speeches in Kiswahili and several group songs. The next day we’ll be off to Dar es Salaam, to start the next part of our program. More later…
The Program Begins!
Our first week has been an exciting adventure and an orientation to many of the issues we will be exploring this semester – animal behavior and ecology, environmental sustainability, and human cultures.
We spent our first day in the village of Mulala, on the slopes of Mt. Meru, visiting a wonderfully welcoming family and their cheese cooperative. We took a long walk through this lush, steep, heavily farmed area, learning about both crops and the uses of many native plants. The summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro peaked out from the clouds just as we returned to the home and sat down for our first Tanzanian meal, almost all locally grown, and certainly delicious.
That night we were welcomed to Tanzania at the home of a friend with a meal known to Tanzanians as “nyama choma” (i.e., meat burnt or barbeque!) that featured a whole goat (including the head) roasted all day over a fire and decorated with vegetables. After a very active day, students still had the energy to feast and dance, much to the delight of our hosts.
For the next five days we traveled to two major national parks, visited a local town, and spent two days with a Maasai community, all the while learning about the important, and often conflicting, needs of the human and wildlife populations. This was our first camping safari, supported by our terrific Klub Afriko drivers and cooks. We were also accompanied by three Maasai experts on environmental and wildlife issues, including a retired director of Tarangire National Park.
Entering Lake Manyara, our first national park, we were greeted by blue monkeys. We watched baboon troops, giraffe, vervet monkeys and impala, while one student in each of the safari cars taught us what they had learned about the animals from our behavior book. We took a break at the hippo pools where we did indeed see lots of hippos, hundreds of birds (including pelicans, egrets, cormorants and storks), with gazelle, wildebeest and zebras in the background.
In the afternoon, we went with local guides on a cultural tour of the small town of Mto wa Mbu (“mosquito river”), had our first experience with Tanzania’s amazingly peaceful mixture of ethnic groups, learned about rice and banana farming, held hands with many small children, and even tasted banana beer.
Moving next to Tarangire National Park, where we camped under a huge baobab tree, we continued to learn about the ecology and behavior of wildlife and to delight in close up views of everything from the tiny dikdiks to hundreds of elephants. Seeing all the animals is always a delight, but seeing predators is often a particular thrill as they are much rarer than herbivores. This was the most amazing visit Brent and Nancy, and our drivers, have ever had to Tarangire as we saw three cheetahs and also wild dogs. Wild dogs are extremely rare and endangered, and sighting them, even at a distance was amazing.
Many of the animals in Tarangire can only survive if they can migrate outside of the park for part of the year. As the human population near the park has grown, and as the local Maasai have begun to turn to agriculture (in addition to their herds of cows and goats), there have been increasing conflicts between the needs of humans and wildlife. In order to start to explore these issues, we ventured down a very long, rough road into the Simanjaro plains and to the town of Loibersoit. There we visited with local Maasai families and, through translators, interviewed them about their experiences with, and attitudes toward, the wildlife and the nearby national park. This turned out to be an extraordinary opportunity for students to explore the complexity of the issues involving rapidly growing human populations, changing land-use patterns, and the conservation of biodiversity.
Our day there ended with an evening of singing and dancing with the Maasai, to the delight of both the wazungu (us) and our hosts. We will return to this community in December for our final home-stay, and we were all glad that we didn’t really have to say goodbye.
Leaving Loibersoit we drove to a community east of Arusha, Usa River, where we will do three weeks of intensive Kiswahili instruction. We had our first day today. The students will be staying with local families (their first of 5 home-stays), and they all just left with their families about an hour ago. We are looking forward to hearing their stories tomorrow morning!