They are questions most people are unable to answer, or even imagine. Thanks to a recent semester in Tanzania, however, three Franklin & Marshall students can fill in the blanks:
What is it like trying to fall asleep in a mud hut made of cow dung?
How does it feel to be on an open prairie with nearly one million wildebeests?
What does being branded in the ankle feel like?
Just south of the equator, in the heart of the United Republic of Tanzania, Carli McGoff '10, Megan Nicholson '11 and Josephine Raezer '11 learned the answers to those questions and countless others between January and May. They did so as part of the Wildlife Conservation and Political Ecology Program offered by SIT Study Abroad, which they discovered through F&M's Office of International Programs.
With a strong interest in wildlife and animal behavior, all three F&M students found the Tanzanian wilderness to be educational. However, their three-day homestay with local Maasai families might have been the most memorable. Their sleeping quarters comprised mud, manure and banana leaves.
"I bathed in the river, collected wood, had a lot of ugali, goat milk and rice and bonded with my 'mama' and six 'little sisters,'" McGoff says. "They were so welcoming and kind. I was more out of my comfort zone than ever before, but that's what made my experience so memorable."
Nicholson, who is working at the Philadelphia Zoo this summer, says the language barrier was a challenge. "When we started our first homestay (in Bangata), we knew almost no Swahili, so we used hand gestures to help communicate," she says. "Then we started learning Swahili and were able to break down the barrier and learn about the family. However, the Maasai homestay was different. They knew almost no Swahili and we didn't know their native language. I was taken around by a 6-year-old girl, who was like my closest friend."
Despite a broad culture gap, the students found a common bond with their Maasai hosts. "Fundamentally, people all need the same things across the globe, like a mother loving her child," says Raezer. "It doesn't matter if it's in Tanzania, Mexico or the U.S. Humans share values all over the world."
The students performed four-week independent research projects near the end of the semester, interviewing Tanzanians and collecting various data. McGoff studied changes in the Maasai diet over recent years due to an increased dependence on agriculture and a prevalence of more sedentary lifestyles. Raezer interviewed 40 women for a project on childbirth practices in rural communities.
"What was intriguing was the variety of information women had about their options and risks," Raezer says. "It wasn't standardized. It was disheartening to know that so many women struggle with childbirth."
In a town called Mto Wa Mbu ("Mosquito River"), Nicholson also felt disheartened when she evaluated the living conditions in five orphanages. She heard stories of corruption that contributed to a state of decline in the orphanages. "To know that those children have better living conditions than they did at their homes really stuck with me," she says.
During their travels with 22 other students in the SIT program, the F&M contingent saw Tanzania's natural beauty on a regular basis. They hopped between national parks, including Serengeti, for a total of 33 days of camping. By chance, they even saw the migration of nearly one million wildebeests across the Tanzanian countryside.
However, the students find it difficult to pin down one memorable moment from the trip. Aside from seeing some of Africa's most diverse wildlife, they learned the challenges of living in another culture—and even got branded as part of a body modification ritual during their Maasai homestays.
"It was difficult living in another culture…and we were all pushed to our limits," McGoff says. "Sometimes you don't have to speak the same language to communicate. A smile, tears, laughter—from my experiences traveling, these things are universal and can bring people together."