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Semester “Made Me More Comfortable Seeking Experiences”


Junior Matt Lebowitz reported on his travels in Tanzania as part of his political ecology and wildlife management study abroad program. He’s now back in the U.S.

May 19

I’ve now been home for a week, and predictably more than a little culture-shocked. Dismantling reflections from a semester packed with new experiences has proven a more daunting operation than I had foreseen. Organizing my newfound impressions of conveniences such as supermarkets is difficult when one is forced to adapt rapidly to their circumstances. In response, I’ve tried to take a similar approach to re-acclimation as I did to the entire semester, and so far just going with the flow. 

While this strategy has probably lessened the impact of returning to America to some extent, I’ve remained relatively boggled by things like supermarkets, and it turns out there are just as many people who’ve asked me about my trip to Tanzania as there were before I’d left. So, I’ve quit trying to contextualize my experience within anything except for my own character and educational development.

Having looked through that more personal lens, I can say that my semester certainly pushed me to be more comfortable in seeking experiences than I had been before. Think about it: you’re in a place that looks, smells, sounds and functions so differently from what you're used to, and you need to get something done efficiently. That sort of situation rapidly builds and rewards focus, openness, logic, curiosity and creativity. 

I now feel better prepared in general to physically and culturally explore parts of the world largely glossed-over by the attentions which our convenient little lives at home demand of us. Fears and anxieties about graduating from Hamilton next spring and entering the professional world have diminished, and I can’t wait to use my newly-honed outdoors skills and experience while leading an orientation trip in August. 

I had worried about returning to the rigorous academic culture of Hamilton after learning by experience for an entire semester, but I actually find myself looking forward to a return to the classroom setting. I think this semester has certainly tried my critical thinking skills and academic openness, and my academic personality has changed sufficiently to make me excited to reapply myself to new things on the Hill.

These blog posts, even if they haven't done anything for you, have at least kept me partly sane and wholly truthful in reporting on my experiences. I hope that my words might inspire students in the future to travel to Tanzania and discover what experiences lie within the country and within themselves. 

Thanks for following along with me as I went through this past semester. Blogging is a two-way street, and I’m happy to have had such a positive first experience with this medium and such an enthusiastic audience. So thank you again, for messaging me your questions, engaging in discussion, and learning with me this whole time. Catch you all during the next adventure!

Kwaheri kwa sasa,

Matt


April 28

Tanzania Takeaway: A Community-Oriented Culture

I can’t begin to describe how welcome it was to have five of my fellow students come join me here in Moshi on April 22. They had each traveled from a different study site to join me in writing up our Independent Study Projects, and we had a wonderful reunion after three weeks of distance. A good dinner and some catching up, and I was reminded how very nice it is to be around familiar faces once again. 

I spent my last few days in Moshi knowing that my time in Tanzania is winding down. This more reflective sentiment colored the long evenings at local restaurants that rewarded days full of ISP work. One night I met up with some folks from Manchester whom I had met in Ushongo, and I was asked what my largest takeaway from my travels around Tanzania had been. I couldn’t provide a thoughtful enough answer then, but I can now. 

I realized that there are two answers here. The first deals with my discoveries about Tanzanian culture, while the second involves my own reflections upon this semester. On the first point, I think my most significant discovery about Tanzania has been realizing how community-oriented the culture is, especially when compared with the trademark individualism of America. 

This community orientation was evident at every step of this past semester, from the first time I went to a Tanzanian church service, to the time my homestay family rushed without hesitation to help neighbors affected by flooding, to my incredible stay in Maasai land. In nearly every interaction with Tanzanians I’ve observed and participated in, I’ve witnessed a civility that is often absent from interactions between American strangers in day-to-day life.

On the second point, my largest takeaway from this semester has been the importance of keeping an open mind, an action involving flexibility, adaptability and openness. While I’ve certainly improved these qualities within myself during my time here, the fact that I came into the semester with an open mind benefited me enormously.

At Hamilton, I study literature and history; even with Jason Townsend’s Society and the Environment course under my belt (a class I highly recommend), it was certainly daunting to travel to an unfamiliar place to study a brand new subject with students who have all been studying it for years. The SIT program isn't so structured as to provide a schedule and account for every single event. Therefore, much of this semester has been very confusing, full of extreme and rapid transitions.

My recommendation for students considering this wonderful, crazy, intense, rewarding program is to keep the most open of minds, to leave expectations at home, and to savor each moment, good or bad, because it's all a huge growing experience.


April 21

Tanzania-April 2017- Moshi, Mt. Kilimanjaro
Mt. Kilimanjaro towers over the city of Moshi.

On April 11, I left Ushongo and the sea behind me to travel back inland to a city called Moshi. Situated about two hours east of Arusha on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Moshi is also home to Mweka college of Wildlife Management, where our group had stayed for several days back in February. The other student with whom I was staying in Ushongo had left for the second half of her ISP, and my good friend Neil had left to return to his Peace Corps duties in Rwanda. Alone in a largely unfamiliar city for the next 10 days, I took this chance to explore, interact, work and reflect.

Almost immediately, I found the best street food I’ve had in Tanzania so far right next to my hostel, and it’s safe to say I’ve overindulged in well-seasoned kebabs and delicious Zanzibar pizzas since arriving here. Considering that I can buy five kebabs and two Zanzibar pizzas for the equivalent of $1, I’d say the food fits right into my student budget.

Down the street in the other direction, hundreds of market stands line the streets and extend to saturate the inner-city network of alleys. Walking through one of these alleys, taking in the sights and smells as the call to prayer blares from the minarets poking up from behind buildings, is truly an experience to be had.

I’ve made friends with the hostel staff, and we’ve spent a few nights playing cards in the moonlight, drinking Fanta and eating kebabs. I’ve also come to know quite well the bartenders at a restaurant down the street because many nights I’ve gone to sit at the bar and watch soccer with throngs of people. Each person here supports one English Premier League team, sometimes almost religiously. I had never been that into EPL soccer before coming to Tanzania, but with so many people asking me which team I support, I wound up having to pick one. Go Arsenal!

It hasn’t been all fun and games, however. I’ve been working quite a bit on writing my ISP. I’ve now compiled a study considering over 140 different species of fish and several invertebrates commonly harvested by fishermen in Ushongo, and my goal is to accurately represent the status of multiple fish populations in the area and how changes to those populations may affect the local economy. So, I’ll continue to organize my data, perform further research, and compile my report as I enjoy my exciting new city setting.


April 17

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The paradise of the village of Ushongo Mtoni.

For the past week, I’ve fallen asleep to the sound of waves and woken up to sunrise over the Indian Ocean. White sand, sapphire blue water, coconuts everywhere... the paradise of the village of Ushongo Mtoni, just south of Pangani in coastal Tanga Region, sure is making it difficult to focus on work! Of the 400 people in this rustic beach village, around 75% are fishermen, and they have become my greatest assets.

I’m here to work on my Independent Study Project, a compilation of data collected on fish and other commonly harvested ocean species, such as octopi. I have been interviewing fishermen here to attempt to understand which fishing techniques are used to catch which species, movements and size trends of marine populations, and the prices of each species at market, which often differ between seasons.

Talking with many locals and accompanying some on fishing trips has taught me much about fishing in the region. The locals use their knowledge of trade winds, reef locations and seabed features, and depth and distance from shore to give them the best chances at a big catch. I wanted to study marine ecology for my ISP because curriculum of the abroad program does not venture into that territory, and while it has certainly been a challenge to build a base of knowledge on the subject from scratch, the knowledge I have gleaned from my studies here has been incredibly rewarding.

While I’ve surely been hard at work here in paradise, there has been plenty of downtime as well. I’ve been happy to have my old friend Neil Edwards ’14 with me, visiting from Rwanda where he is stationed as a Peace Corps volunteer. We struck up a friendship with one of the lodge owners in the village, and spent much of our leisure time at his beach restaurant, playing pool and going for swims. We met a kitesurfer from Zanzibar, a nuclear engineer from Italy, volunteers from Holland and Norway, and made some new friends from Germany. This rotating cast of characters certainly made our stay more entertaining.

Next I’ll travel to Moshi to complete another part of my ISP. More on that next week. In the meantime, I’m going to crack open a coconut and see if I can find some fresh fish to grill for dinner.


April 11

Arusha, tanzania
Arusha

This past week, I’ve been exploring the city of Arusha more thoroughly. Our group has based itself at a local hostel while we complete proposals for our Independent Study Projects (ISPs). I’ve made several local friends, and have been reflecting on how my perception of this city and its people has changed over time and exposure. 

When my group first ventured into downtown Arusha, I had been prepared for very different, even hostile, experience. We had been warned to keep our possessions deep in our pockets, to not follow or take favors from strangers, and to look out for each other. I think that, to an extent, these words predisposed me to distrust locals and delayed my immersion in the culture of the city.

While it is always a good idea to exercise common sense in big cities, especially unfamiliar ones, I’ve learned several lessons about what it means to interact with locals as an mzungu, a white person. First, I’ve learned always to try to engage in conversation with people, even the persistent street sellers who will walk with us for blocks to try to sell us “authentic” Maasai art, safari hats, or t-shirts emblazoned with “Jambo Tanzania!” These people (predominantly men) were at first overwhelming, but the dynamic changes when you are able to talk to them.

In Swahili culture, conversations of even the most insignificant type often begin with an extensive exchange of greetings. Friendly inquiries about health and family are included even in greetings between strangers. As I’ve come to understand this, I’ve also come to understand how rude it can be to dismiss someone without even looking at their wares with a hasty “Hapana, asante.”

The street sellers will often reward politeness and attempts to speak Kiswahili with help (crossing a busy street, or perhaps warding off other sellers) or valuable local knowledge (where the best restaurants and bars are, for instance).

There is a balance, however, between politeness and assertiveness in dealing with street sellers. Last month, a street seller whom I had met a few days earlier found me in the center of town and began to walk with me. I knew he was going to ask me to buy something, because otherwise he would not be walking with me, but I did not want to be rude and preemptively decline. He walked with me for blocks and blocks, helping me to buy minutes for my phone and some extra batteries. When finally he asked me to come with him to his shop, I felt very badly when I said no. Sometimes assertiveness, even if it comes off as impolite, may save both people from further impoliteness down the road, literally and figuratively.

I’ll value the lessons I’ve learned in interacting with people as a member of a vastly different culture and class, and I pay more attention to them the more I learn. Tomorrow I leave again for Ushongo on the coast to begin my ISP. Man, I can't wait for some fresh seafood!


March 26

Last Saturday we left mystical Ngorongoro Crater for the village of Loborsoit, located very close to Tarangire National Park and the site of our Maasai homestay. Our anxieties grew as we rumbled down rocky dirt roads, farther and farther from the familiar. 

Quick lesson: the Maasai migrated into Kenya and Tanzania from South Sudan in the 17th and 18th centuries. The governments of both countries have discouraged the tribe from engaging in its traditional semi-nomadic, pastoral lifestyle: the Maasai measure wealth through numbers of cattle, and have historically moved around to wherever the pastureland is best for the cows. The consequent destruction of land through extensive grazing has resulted in numerous conflicts with conservationists over the years.

While many Maasai have become integrated into the monetary economy and modern life of urban or peri-urban Tanzania and Kenya, many still retain their pastoral lifestyle. The Maasai speak a mother tongue called Kimaa, and I was unsure how much I’d be able to communicate using our Kiswahili skills. We arrived in the village at midafternoon and met our host families. My mama (yeyo in Kimaa) collected me, and she put me more at ease with a ready smile. 

The most traditional Maasai live in bomas, collections of mud huts surrounding a central corral in which a baba, his wives and children, and sometimes extended family all live together. Our boma consisted of five or six one-room sleeping huts (essentially actual beds surrounded by a mud and dung wall and covered by a thatch roof), separate kitchen structures, several storage sheds, and then a myriad of huts and shelters for baby goats and calves. 

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Matt Lebowitz '18 and his Maasasi mama Maria.

My mama, Maria, spoke broken Kiswahili, and we were able to communicate fairly well as we sat in the kitchen hut preparing tea that afternoon. She had dressed me in several red shukas, light flowing robes that are the main article of Maasai clothing.  I met baba that night after my meal of rice and mchicha (African spinach), and he also could speak a little Kiswahili. We sat outside and talked for a bit, and I found out more about my boma. Baba has three wives and 17 children, most of whom live at the boma. I also met my host sister, Juliana, 13-years-old and very energetic. That night I slept in a tiny bed with two Maasai warriors. I didn't sleep very well.

The next morning, we went to our family’s church, a Lutheran service, and my baba sang in the choir. The energy of the music and the harmonies to the worship songs convinced me that I could have stayed much longer than the hour and a half we were there. The rest of that day and the next, I continued to learn about life at the boma. 

The first and most glaring aspect of the boma that I noticed as a healthy, privileged Westerner was the near-complete lack of sanitation. From 6:30 a.m. until after 8 p.m., flies swarmed the boma, attracted by the herds of animals and the copious amounts of dung. When nature called for the humans, the surrounding fields were used. The close living quarters, proximity to livestock, and unreliable clean water sources all contribute to the capacity of disease and illness to spread very quickly. 

Despite these conditions, life in general that I observed in the boma is slow and deliberate. Each morning I woke up at 6:30 to help bring the herd to pasture, then I would return for chai and mandazi (fried sweet bread). During the day, I went on walks with my mama, during which we talked about life and the differences between ours, sat under shade with baba and discussed politics and world affairs, and hung out with many of the children in the boma, all of whom were intensely interested in my skin, hair, clothing, camera and guitar.

When you ask someone in the boma what time it is, often they will give an answer like “midmorning” or “almost evening.” People there don't worry about the exact time, they just do what they have to do each day at the pace that the activity requires. From my own perspective, I think that when people have to work hard to attain the most basic aspects of their livelihoods, they can't afford to get hung up on little things. 

The people I met at my Maasai homestay were the most easygoing of any I have met thus far, and they helped me to assimilate for a while into an extremely unfamiliar situation. I'll always be grateful for their hospitality and acceptance, and their willingness to teach me about their language and their culture.


March 23

The past week has been the highlight of my semester so far! Last Sunday we left for Serengeti, an icon of wildlife preservation, a symbol of the region, and arguably the world’s most famous national park. I soon understood why the land’s name means “endless plain” in Kimaa; much of the park is a sea of grass, leaving much of the wildlife wide open for observation - and predation.

As soon as we entered Serengeti, we found ourselves smack in the middle of the Great Migration, the annual movement of animals dominated by over 1.5 million wildebeest, 500,000 gazelles, and 200,000 zebra (as well as many of those animals’ predators) around the Serengeti Plains, into Maasai Mara in Kenya, and back round again. As we drove into the park, thousands of animals surrounded us, crossing the road in many places and extending back to the horizon until they became little dark dots against the green grass. We found massive lion prints in the dust when we arrived at our camp.

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A giraffe drinks from a pond.

We continued our ornithology studies each morning, driving out to woodland, grassland and riverine habitats to observe bird species. In the afternoons we became tourists, going for the most eventful game drives of the semester. The green ocean is dotted here and there by kopjes (pronounced “copies”), rock formations that shoot up from the plains. The prominence and protection these rock formations offer results in the creations of microhabitats on and around kopjes. Snakes, lizards, rock hyraxes, birds of prey and large predators like lions and leopards call them home. We observed dozens of lions in several separate prides, sunning themselves on these magnificent rocks, as well as several leopards (with cubs), a gorgeous cheetah, and a successful, gruesome hyena hunt.

The savanna transforms into a dark, mysterious place at night. Our first night in Serengeti, a clan of elephants passed by 100 meters away. Their unbelievably loud stomach rumbles sound exactly like the angry growls of some huge, scary monster, and can travel for miles. When I first heard those rumbles outside my tent back in Tarangire, I was terrified. In Serengeti, however, I was comforted by the sounds of those happy elephants!

Sitting around our campfire each night, we heard hyenas yipping and calling to each other every night. We shone our flashlights into the darkness, often revealing hyenas less than 20m from our location. They know to come into camp after dark to get food from the trash bin, and throughout the night we could hear them sniffing and walking in between our tents.

Despite missing March Madness at home, I studied a different NCAA at our next stop, Ngorongoro Crater. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority has been embroiled in conflict with local Maasai people over land rights and resource usage for decades, and we only scratched the surface of the complicated histories behind these issues. We are camping for two nights on the crater’s rim, and each midmorning the dense clouds that pool in the crater during the day’s early hours burn off and flow up and out over the rim in a spectacular sight.

I’ll remember our day inside the crater for the rest of my life. We saw two black rhino, elephants with tusks more immense than any we had seen before, scores of raptors, prides of lions on the hunt, hyenas, jackals, hippos, and vast herds of herbivores, all framed against the dramatic landscape of the crater.

It’s our second night camping at Ngorongoro, and tomorrow we head to the village of Loborsoit for our homestay with the Maasai. Many of us are a little nervous, and nobody quite knows what to expect. It will be a very abrupt transition, as has been a trend this semester. That aspect of this trip has certainly forced me to refrain from keeping expectations; so, I’m not sure what exactly my next post will say, but it promises to be interesting to say the least.


March 12

Last Saturday, I headed with three other students to Ushongo, a small, isolated village on the coast of Tanzania between Tanga and Dar es Salaam, to study fishing and boat building. Our group is beginning preparations for our independent study projects (ISPs).

We arrived on Saturday evening and set up our tents about 30 feet from the Indian Ocean as the light faded. The next morning, the heat woke us up before 7 a.m., as it would every day that we stayed there. It would be difficult for me to understate just how hot it is at the beach; during the day temperatures skyrocketed to sweltering heights, and the air was saturated with the humidity of the ocean in stark contrast to the dry heat we endured in Tanzania so far.

Most afternoons, strong winds coming off the ocean gave us a slight break, but once the sun set each day, the winds would stop and temperatures would climb once more. I didn’t even take my sleeping bag out of its sack.

Despite the heat, I did some pretty awesome things this past week. On Sunday, we hired some local fishermen, and took a four-and-a-half-hour journey on a skinny little canoe with a sail called an ngalawa, one of the most common boat designs here. We sailed to a small island three or four miles from shore and went snorkeling at a reef.

Beach at Ushongo, Tanzania
Beach at Ushongo, Tanzania.

The fishermen proved to be valuable resources, and the next day another student and I returned to them with a translator in the early morning. We observed and interviewed them as they fished. We caught several large red snappers, a snakefish and many smaller fish.

Another student and I also went octopus spear-hunting with a local fisherman we had interviewed, which was quite the experience. We swam out maybe a mile from shore with snorkels and flippers, struggling to keep up with the fisherman as his head swiveled under the water.

The water was still only waist deep even out that far. Within fifteen minutes, the fisherman stopped and pointed noiselessly underwater at an unremarkable hole in the sand. He drew his spear and thrust it into the hole.

Several long tentacles shot out and wrapped around the spear, fighting it. The fisherman pulled back hard on his spear and loosed the pasty red, four foot octopus. He then drew a small dagger and shimmied it in and out of the creature, and it released its ink in a huge cloud. The whole scene was intense and rather brutal, yet the dark cloud of ink expanding slowly underwater like a mushroom cloud made it strangely beautiful as well.

Ushongo is a village of around 400 people, the majority of them fishermen and their families. It’s is a very minor tourist destination. We hardly saw any tourists there, which, in many ways, freed us up to interact with the village more immediately.

We ate delicious food almost every night at a local mama’s house for one to two dollars each, talked with locals on perceptions of tourists, climate change and music, and made friends with a baby monkey. Now, I’m back in Arusha preparing to leave on our longest safari tomorrow to Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater and our Maasai homestay the week after next. It’s sure to be an incredible time!


March 5

Nine hours after writing my last post, our safari vehicle twisted up steep, dusty roads of the West Usambara Mountains. The rugged, open landscape gleamed here and there with sheet metal roofs of far-off villages, nearly obscured by thick haze. The air grew cooler and more humid as we eventually reached a mile in altitude, and several more perilous turns brought our convoy to the gates of Mazumbai Forest Reserve, a 320-hectare conservation project owned and maintained by Sokoine University of Agriculture.

The chalet at the Mazumbai Forest Reserve
The chalet at the Mazumbai Forest Reserve.

Coming round one last bend, my jaw nearly dropped when I saw the impressive main compound, a pristine Swiss-style chalet surrounded by several smaller buildings. We set up our tent village next to this grandiose house, its style and size incredibly out of place in the cloud forest.

The fun did serve to acquaint us with direction and elevation in Mazumbai, and we were able to immediately immerse ourselves in the new environment. The tops of massive trees towered 50 meters above us, swaying with the movements of dozens of black and white colobus monkeys playing in the canopy. We spent the past week exploring the forest and its ecosystems. Monday, our academic director turned us loose for the morning to “greet the forest.” Subsequently, groups of students ran amok through the rainforest for hours. I guess that’s what happens when you send a group of college students into the rainforest without a guide!

Down in the darker, cooler understory, bushbabies and vervet monkets leaped and scurried. Hundreds of insect species sang and hummed while we crashed ungracefully yet gleefully through the brush. Everything was new and exciting; I truly felt like a little kid again. That was some day.

Tuesday and Wednesday were spent collecting data on the abundance, variety, and growth patterns of different tree species in the forest. Thursday, we conducted interviews with members of surrounding communities regarding perceptions of the forest.

The villagers are prohibited from entering Mazumbai and two other adjacent protected areas, a situation which has produced some legal tension in the past. However, many of the villagers reported their satisfaction with the laws currently in place; are these answers really how they feel, or did the community leader hovering nearby influence their words?

We are preparing to head out next week for Independent Study Project (ISP) preparation week. The students will split off into several different groups, each traveling to a different location to study something different. I am heading to Ushongo, a small village on the coast of Tanzania between Tanga and Dar es Salaam, to study fishing and boat building and to decide on which of those two to focus for my own ISP. I can’t wait to explore another new place!

Kwaheri kwa sasa, Matt


February 26

The rainy season is beginning here in Tanzania, and with the rain comes both life and death. This past Thursday, a massive storm dumped over two feet of rain in a few hours. Roads turned to rivers, and rivers raged; flash flooding hit my village hard, with several of the other students’ homes flooding badly beyond repair, smaller structures being swept away, and cars and trucks sinking halfway into muck. On the news the next day, we learned that the flooding had been deadly more than a few times over.

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An angry sky over the Serengeti.

Dirt roads erode extremely rapidly, making driving perilous or impossible, and exposed power lines can't stand up to flash flooding. Better infrastructure is needed in order to make Tanzania's rainy season safer and less damaging to production.Tanzania’s relationship with rain is a challenging one. Obviously, rain is absolutely the most important aspect of life here; the vitality of all agriculture, most tourism and all ecological functions revolve around the benefits of the rainy season. Yet, Mother Nature places a massive strain on local infrastructure when she provides an area with enough rain in just two months to last the whole year. Local infrastructure, in many places, barely exists.

The day after the flood, this past Friday, we had a party to celebrate the end of our Kiswahili course and our homestays. Aside from a little bit of hail at the start, the day was beautiful and filled with dancing, eating and drinking.

All of the students and their families attended, plus many of the community members who had participated in our focus groups. The clouds parted from the summit of Mt. Meru, revealing its peak capped with snow from the storms of the past day.

As much as I will miss my host family and Ngaramtoni, it feels good to finally be on the move towards adventure again after three weeks of structured school courses. I am writing this post from the back of a safari vehicle, a little way into the 10-11 hour drive to Mazumbai rainforest in the West Usambara Mountains, near the coast.

Right now it’s flat and very hot and dry, and I can't wait to start climbing into the mountains, where we’ll camp at approximately 7,000 feet. I’m also looking forward to hikes and forest studies and to reporting back here at the end of the week!

Kwaheri kwa sasa, Matt 


February 19

It’s been business as usual here in Ngaramtoni, Tanzania - for the locals. I, meanwhile, have still been getting accustomed to changes in culture and attitudes toward the West.

Aside from continuing our Kiswahili lessons, we discussed globalization and its effects this week, culminating in an afternoon of focus groups with local villagers and translators.

I arrived in this country aware of what I think is a classic American misconception: that everybody knows at least the basics about what America is like, while Americans traveling abroad are simply touring a world that they have more or less dominated. However, the takeaway lesson from this week has been that globalization is not a two-way street.

When America, or another Western country, expands business to a developing country, that developing country isn’t necessarily becoming more “globalized” for having foreign business there. This one-way relationship, illustrated by my interactions with Tanzanians this week, was facilitated by my growing capacity to converse in Kiswahili.

Matt Lebowitz '18

Major: Literature 

Minors: American studies and history

Hometown: Princeton, N.J.

While clothing with American cities and logos is essentially ubiquitous (for example, I’ve lost count of the Yankee hats I’ve seen here), American movies have their own extremely popular television channel, and everybody wants to talk about the details of American domestic politics. Some of the questions I was asked this week by random Tanzanians are: “Do you have plastic bags in America?” “In America, does everybody live in skyscrapers?” and “Do you have culture in America?”

I struggle sometimes to comprehend this country: a place where people seem, at first, to be at least superficially embedded in American culture, but also where some people have as little idea about what America is actually like as Americans generally have about Tanzania.

I caution myself, however, not to jump to any conclusions; I’ve only traveled in the northern part of the country, and don't want to overgeneralize. I'm still overcoming my own ignorance as well.

I am working through my observation, and I welcome discussion. But for now on this stormy Sunday night, I'm gearing up for our last week of this homestay before we head to Mazumbai, a forest in the West Usambara mountains. Very much looking forward to reporting on that front.

Kwaheri kwa sasa, Matt


February 13

Since last Sunday, I’ve been staying with a Tanzanian family in the village of Ngaramtoni near Arusha and taking Kiswahili classes at Sokoine University of Agriculture, which sits in the shadow of Mt. Meru. In addition to my host mama and baba, I have three brothers and three sisters: it’s a very busy household! My baba owns a company which makes banana wine, and over this past weekend he took me to the factory and the farm, where I could see that most of the labor involved in the wine production is completed manually. 

Tanzania Host Family Party
Tanzania Host Family Party.

Living in this village and taking intensive language courses has given me the foundation to improve my Kiswahili, and I find that I’m now able to converse with Tanzanians about many topics. Because locals often initially assume that any white people (wazungu) they see are tourists or short-term volunteers, many people are delightfully surprised to discover that my group is here to study and can actually speak to them in Kiswahili. I'm still learning my way around the city of Arusha and its satellite villages, but most everybody on the street is incredibly kind and will make great efforts to comprehend any requests for directions in broken Kiswahili, which helps a bit with the culture shock. Still, I find myself boggled by the chaos of driving, the dozens of tribal languages that also exist in Tanzania, and the sheer unfamiliarity of the sights, sounds and smells.

My host parents and some of my host siblings don't speak any English. Most of my siblings work to support the wine business, but my youngest host brother (22) speaks English fairly well and begins law school in March. Because he’s on break, we have spent much time together this past week, playing soccer (ahem, sorry, football) with local Maasai herdsmen, practicing language and talking about our cultures as we played cards on the street corner late into the night. We still have two weeks here before our next safari, and I have a feeling my Kiswahili will improve and that there are more adventures to come.

Kwaheri kwa sasa, Matt


February 8

Last Friday I woke up at dawn to the Muslim call to prayer echoing around the streets of Arusha, ready to embark on our safari to Tarangire National Park. A compound word meaning “River of Warthogs,” Tarangire contains the densest population of elephants in the world, as well an abundance of massive baobab trees.

We camped for four nights in the middle of the park at a site without fencing, and it quickly became apparent that we humans had traveled out of our world and into another; lions, leopards, hyenas and jackals roam freely in the park, preying on the big herds of zebra, wildebeest, and cape buffalo that also call Tarangire their home during the dry season.

Aside from the footlong millipedes, giant spiders, screaming baboons, scorpions and the spitting cobra we found in our camp, we remained relatively undisturbed during our stay, and even regularly enjoyed seeing groups of giraffes amble past our campsite.

In the first four days, my sub-group focused on the ornithology of the park: we spent hours each day cataloguing the richness and abundance of all the bird species we observed, and I began to understand the ways in which birds interact with their woodland, savanna and river habitats within the Tarangire ecosystem.

Tarangire National Park, Tanzania
Tarangire National Park, Tanzania.

On the fifth day, the entire group relocated to a campsite near Lake Manyara National Park, an ecosystem connected to Tarangire but fragmented by development. The edge of the Rift Valley looms over the lake like a gigantic step, creating dramatic landscapes and unique weather patterns. In the nearby village of Mto Wa Mbu (“River of Mosquitos,” an apt name), we observed a local art group practicing traditional kisu and Tinga Tinga painting styles, watched Makonde tribe members carve beautiful ebony sculptures and tasted homemade banana beer. 

During our time here we also discussed different approaches to conservation, including issues surrounding tourism, governmental inefficiency and conflicts between the ideologies of conservationism and those of indigenous tribes such as the Maasai. These constitute an incredibly complex, nuanced and multi-dimensional situation here in Tanzania, of which I am only beginning to scratch the surface.

I want to explore this topic more in the field, but for the next three weeks I’ll be living with a large Tanzanian family in a village near Arusha, taking classes in Kiswahili and participating in seminars on political ecology. I can't wait to meet my homestay family!

Kwaheri kwa sasa,
Matt


January 29

It’s been a week since I arrived in Tanzania for the SIT Tanzania: Political Ecology and Wildlife Conservation program, and I can only begin to describe the things I’ve seen and done so far.

Near the town of Moshi, Tanzania
Near the town of Moshi, Tanzania.

From Thursday until Monday night, our 23-person trip camped at Ndarakwai Ranch in Northern Tanzania, an 11,000 acre experimental privatized conservation effort. During this time we gained field experience in wildlife tracking, ornithology, and ethnobotany and took a quick peek at local culture during a visit to a Maasai bomba, a small patriarchal village.

Because I primarily study literature and history, I’ve learned just as much from my biology-and-wildlife-focused peers as I have from our expert field guides. However, taking Kiswahili as a critical language last semester has prepared me very well to converse with native speakers, and I’m able to teach my peers these language skills as they help me to understand concepts of environmental science.

Yesterday we drove to Mweka College of Wildlife Management on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro near the town of Moshi, and today was filled with lectures on climate change, ecotourism, hunting, and mountain ecology. Tomorrow we drive to the SIT office in Arusha to prepare for our next safari to Tarangire National Park. Looking forward to writing more soon! 

Kwaheri kwa sasa, Matt

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