Travel Tips from a Black Student Studying Abroad in Tanzania

As a black student studying abroad in Tanzania, I find that I have different experiences than my white peers. I assumed that I would be significantly more comfortable in my skin than I was in the States. In a reality dominated by Caucasians, I would finally be in an area with majority black people. The government, the institutions, the culture would all be defined by black people. In my first few days in Tanzania, I realized that that African culture is more diverse and complex than I ever could have imagined. As a result of my experiences, I thought it might be helpful to put together some tips for other black students who may consider studying in East Africa. However, most of these tips can easily apply to other students who aren’t black. These are in no way meant to be a reflection of what every black student will experience, but they might be helpful to consider before studying abroad.

Tips for being an African American student in East Africa

1. Do not assume you will feel at home just because you are in the “motherland.” I thought since I read some books and took some classes about black history that I would step off the plane and immediately get hit with the sensation of being home. In reality, I probably had to adjust to the culture change just as much as my white counterparts did. It never dawned on me that among height and skin color differences, my ancestors most likely came from West Africa. Many black Americans fall into the trap of romanticizing Africa without taking the time to actually learn about its history. I found that I had grouped Africa into one big unit and remained blissfully unaware of the hundreds (maybe thousands) of its various cultures. Tanzania alone has over 100 different ethnic groups. The point is, you might not feel as comfortable as you expected. You might even have a sense of privilege because you were born in the States and not in Africa.  Keeping a journal was a great way to work through my feelings. It might not be a requirement for your program, but I highly recommend using one. Studying abroad throws so many experiences at you that you might not remember the little things if you don’t write them down. I looked back at what I wrote even two weeks ago and was surprised at how much more I’ve learned.

2. Read up on some African history before you leave the States. This tip is an extension of tip #1. It’s not enough to recognize that Africa is a broad and diverse continent; learn about the cultures specific to the place you are going to. At the least, learn the appropriate greetings before you arrive in a new country. I made the mistake of saying “Mumbo” to an elderly man. For those not familiar with Kiswahili, “Mumbo” is the equivalent of “Hey” or “What’s up.” I wondered why the man gave me a very disapproving look and didn’t acknowledge my greeting. It turns out I said the wrong greeting (which is considered disrespectful). If I had done my research, I would’ve known that “Shikamoo” is how you greet elders in Tanzania. This tip is important for every student studying abroad, but it is essential for black students in Africa. Many times, you will be the first African American that local people interact with. You want to make a good impression on people you meet because you represent all of us.

3. Look for similarities between the local culture and yours. As I said in an earlier post about food, I eat a lot of greens here. They remind me of the collard greens my grandmother occasionally cooks. And the beans and cornbread she loves to eat so much is a main staple in Eastern African cooking. As I continue my program, I notice similarities between Tanzanian people and the black people I know at home. It’s so interesting to see how certain widespread aspects of African culture influenced ours. You may read about heritage in a history book, but it is a completely different and humbling situation to experience it firsthand.  You don’t have to analyze every single thing, but pay attention to the little things you notice (and write them in your journal). You will be glad you did.

 

KODAK Digital Still Camera

A waterfall we hiked to in the Udzungwa Mountains.

 

4. Speak to as many people as you possibly can. In smaller towns and villages, everyone speaks to each other. If you walk past someone without acknowledging them, it is considered very rude.  This might not be the case in every situation, but still take the time to speak to people. This goes hand in hand with tips #2 and #3.  Besides appearing to care about local culture, speaking to a variety of people is a great way to learn more information about where you’re staying. Most of the people I’ve meant are very open to having conversations. They even try to teach me more Kiswahili when I don’t understand what they said.  It’s a great way to step outside of your comfort zone and get more out of your experience abroad.

5. Take a moment to appreciate where you are. I realize I have a great opportunity to study in an African Ecological Monitoring Center in a National Park. Not many people can say the same thing. The program is challenging, but I can look outside the window and see monkeys jumping through the trees. I can take a hike up a nearby mountain and see elephant footprints and their markings on the trees. Earlier this week I had the opportunity to go on a three day safari trip in Mikumi National Park. If you get stressed out, take a moment to look around. Remind yourself where you are.

 

An elephant in the middle ofthe road in Mikumi National Park

An elephant in the middle of the road in Mikumi National Park.

 

Here’s the last and most important tip: Enjoy yourself!

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Filed under Africa, Janelle in Tanzania

Studying Abroad with a Chronic Illness or Disability

Hola de Peru,

Living in Huanchaco is such a beautiful experience. I am in love with the sights, the sounds, the smells, and most of all the kind people I’ve met. I am in an ethnographic field school which takes me to three different cities across La Libertad region of Peru: Trujillo, Huanchaco, and El Milagro. I have a very different experience than my classmates do, however, because I have a physical disability and am chronically ill.

Walking the streets of La Libertad, I notice every doorway. Thresholds are an immediate sign of whether people with disabilities can easily enter or exit. Entrances here are typically flat (the same level as the ground) or they have a large step up to enter (much like in the U.S). Government regulations have only recently dictated that public buildings have access ramps, so anything constructed before that legislation is not required to be accessible. There is also a correlation between poverty and access: the wealthier an area, the more accessible it is, and the unfortunate vice versa.

Then, of course, I have my individual struggle with my health. Each day is an uphill climb at 50% capacity. Luckily I have a great cane, a program director who supports and believes in me, and the incredible Gilman team backing my every step up that mountain.

 

on huanchaco beach

This photo was taken on the north end of Huanchaco beach and shows the view of the markets and the fisherman’s pier. The beach is accessible for people with disabilities on the southern side, but not on the northern end. There are too many rocks and it becomes quite steep to get from the road to the ocean.

 

Studying abroad with health challenges definitely has its own unique set of challenges, but that is no reason that it cannot still be an incredible experience. Here are some tips that have helped make my experience go a little smoother.

  1. Some countries and cities are more accessible than others. When deciding where to study abroad, do some research about the destination. Are buildings required to have access ramps and/or elevators? Is public transportation accessible to your needs? Are roads paved or dirt? Will you be able to get your medications in the host country? It’s important to consider these things in addition to the academic program.
  2. Build a support network. I cannot stress enough the value of making friends who will stand by you and support you when you feel ill. Find a friend in each class. Become close with your roommate. So far, having supportive friends has made the experience abroad more manageable, accessible, and enjoyable.
  3. Along those same lines, have an open line of communication with your professors and your program director.  Let them know how you are doing, what you need, and what would make the experience more feasible for you. It is very likely they will be more than willing to accommodate your needs. That has certainly been the case for me.
  4. Learn medical terminology in your host country’s language. Before coming to Peru, I made sure to brush up on my Spanish vocabulary of the human anatomy and symptoms. If you can express how you feel and what your body is going through, you can better receive the medical help you may need.
  5. Similarly, find out your prescription names in your host country. Some medications go by different names in different countries. If you will be receiving refills while abroad, be sure to know what to ask for from the pharmacist. It’s also a good idea to have a note from your doctor listing and describing all your medications (both in English and your host language).
  6. Call venues ahead of time to see if they are accessible for your needs. If you are going out and are worried the destination may not be able to suit your needs, give them a call and find out. Call restaurants and ask if they can accommodate your food allergy. Ask if a building has an elevator. You can even ask what the venue is like so you can determine what support-gear or mobility device you will need. If the venue cannot meet your exact needs, they may be able to work out some other type of accommodation.
  7. Rest and take care of your health. I know being in a new place is exciting, and it is incredibly tempting to want to fill every minute. However, you will have a much better experience if you also take care of your body. You will miss out on more if you are only functioning at half-capacity. Take siestas, say no to late nights every now and again, get enough sleep, stay hydrated, eat well, exercise (if applicable). Your experience abroad will be so much better if your health is a priority.
  8. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. This is the tip I struggle most with. But you will not get what you need if you don’t ask for it. Talk to your professors, your friends, people you meet on the street. They can offer assistance and are often quite willing to do so.

 

at huaca de la luna

This is at the Moche site ‘The Temple of the Moon’ and is one of the oldest archaeological civilizations found in Peru. I had to break out my cane at the Huaca because the only way in or out was through several flights of stairs. We also went to Chan Chan that day, which is a Chimu site, and is completely flat and is entirely wheelchair accessible!

 

Studying abroad is a very attainable goal for people with disabilities! As my health declined in my teenage years, I worried I would never have the chance to study abroad. Now, I am living in Peru, learning more than I ever dreamed possible! Just because I’m sick doesn’t mean I can’t accomplish my dreams. I simply have to go about them a different way. And there is nothing wrong with different.

Best of luck to you all in your journeys, travels, studies, and dreams! May you have good health and amazing experiences!

Saludos!

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Filed under McKinley in Peru, south america

As I Wait For Lunch

Let me start off by saying that I love food. I don’t consider myself a picky eater. If I did, then I would not have been able to survive in Eastern Africa for more than two days. Since I arrived more than two weeks ago, I have tried food that I’ve never heard of before. I looked at my study abroad as an opportunity to expand my horizons and try as much local Tanzanian food as I could. I ate a fish with eyes in it for the first time (I still don’t know what type of fish it was) and loved it. Indian cuisine was also a first for me. The spices made my eyes water, but it was delicious. I have already developed a few new favorite foods.
While we were still in Dar es Salaam, we visited this restaurant next to the mall. I wanted to try something new, so I ordered a side dish called ugali. I had heard my professor talking about how much he liked it earlier. The waitress set down the ugali and some shredded chicken with greens in front of me. At that moment, I discovered one of my favorite foods. Ugali has the look of mashed potatoes, but it is has much more texture and character. It was absolutely amazing with the chicken. The only problem was how heavy it was. As I kept stuffing my face, the ugali expanded in my stomach. I thought my fellow students would have to roll me onto the bus. I still don’t know how I stayed awake through the afternoon lecture about Tanzania’s rich biodiversity.

 

Shredded chicken and ugali

Shredded chicken and ugali.

 

My absolute favorite food would have to be samosas. They are little balls of heaven that I get occasionally for breakfast. Beef is cooked with onions then wrapped in a type of dough and fried in oil. They taste like African tacos, if that makes sense. And I love tacos. I’m so addicted to somasas that I’m trying to find a way to bring some with me to Pennsylvania.
The best thing about the food in Tanzania is its natural taste. There is no extra processed sugar or salt in any of the dishes I’ve had. Everything is grown organically and made fresh. I think I was having sugar withdrawal for the first week of my program, but now I have more energy than I have in a long time. I still can’t get over how much better the fruit is here than in the States. And there’s some type of hot sauce with every meal. These sauces make Frank’s Red Hot taste like water, but they have so much flavor after you get over the heat. I could probably eat hot sauce as a meal.
Now that I’m in the Udzungwa National Park Ecological Monitoring Center, all of my meals are eaten onsite right across from the dormitory style housing. The only thing I like more than the food are the ladies who prepare it. They check up on the students if one of us isn’t feeling well. They teach us a few words in Kiswahili every day. And I could listen to them sing all day.

Breakfast is at 7:30 every morning. It usually consists of bread with jam or Nutella and coffee. Sometimes we get a hard boiled egg for some extra protein. There is usually some papaya, watermelon, or avocado to go with the bread and a smoothie to wash it down with. We have a vegetarian lunch at 1 pm consisting of rice or pasta, lentils, and greens. I find that I’m filled without meat, which I never thought would happen. Dinner is at 6:30 pm, and it is the highlight of my day. We eat fish or chicken, a starch, and more greens. I think I’ve had about 60 different types of greens at this point, but they’re all good. In fact, the greens remind me of the collards that my grandma occasionally makes. I sometimes think about how amazing is that some of African culture still exists in the black community of the United States today. I’m sure my grandma would like these greens too.

 

Grilled fish and chips at arestaurant on the coast of Dar es Salaam

Grilled fish and chips at a restaurant on the coast of Dar es Salaam.

The best part about all the food is that all the students and our two faculty members eat together at every meal. We make jokes, we have serious discussions, and sometimes we just enjoy each other’s company in silence. As a busy college student, most of my meals are junk food that I eat in a rush before I get to class. Very rarely will I sit down with someone else to share a healthy meal. It’s so nice to be able to sit with students that share the same experiences and interests as I do and just relax. With 9 credits in 6 weeks, the days can get pretty stressful at times.

This experience has inspired me to start making time to eat better when I get to school in the fall. I’m already thinking about making my boyfriend and friends eat with me more often. Food is an essential part of Tanzanian culture, and now it is a central part of mine.

 

 

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Filed under Africa, Janelle in Tanzania

Jeff Reflects on His Year in South Korea

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Filed under East Asia, Jeff in South Korea

Touchdown in Tanzania

Mumbo! My name is Janelle Thompson and I am going into my third year at Pennsylvania State University. I am currently pursuing a major in BioRenewable Systems and a minor in Economics. When I found out I was studying abroad in Tanzania for the summer, I couldn’t believe it. The experience seemed like such a long way into the future. I had finals and projects to keep me distracted from thinking about leaving the United States for the first time. But as soon as I was back home in Pittsburgh, the reality of what I had committed to began to sink in. I started to download the intensive readings and projects syllabi for my time abroad. I put whatever music I could find on the school’s loaner laptop. I even went to a REI co-op to buy hiking boots, a sleeping bag, and plenty of hats. The packing list my professors gave to me was filled with things I had never heard of or used before. I hadn’t been camping outside, I never hiked up a mountain, and I had never been more than 10 minutes away from a working cell phone tower.
My mom and grandparents decided to make the trip to Washington D.C. with me to send me off. They made my arrival to Washington D.C. feel like a vacation until we passed Dulles Airport on the way to the hotel. I was fortunate enough to see the Natural History Museum and some very famous buildings, but I had a nagging feeling in the back of my mind while looking at the giant whale bones and mammoth display. “This is actually happening” was on repeat in my head the whole weekend.
On the Monday morning of my departure, I was too tired to be nervous. I prayed with my family and said good bye after an early breakfast. The first flight to Dubai was over thirteen hours long, the longest airplane trip I’ve ever been on. From Dubai to Dar es Salaam was another five hours. By the time I got off the second airplane, I wanted nothing more than to sleep the time difference off. But we had two hours of the worst traffic I had ever seen before reaching the hostel our group was staying at. It was a new language, lifestyle, and culture to get used to.

 

KODAK Digital Still Camera

The view from our hotel is Dar es Salaam.

 

As the weeks have gone by, I am becoming more comfortable with my surroundings. The Ecological Monitoring Center in Udzungwa Mountains National Park is now my home for the next month. I will be focusing on improving energy efficiency for the local villages. I’ve seen monkeys, zebras, giraffes, and a few elephants. I’ve visited the surrounding villages filled with life and music. Yes, not having constant access to my phone (and therefore my friends, family, and boyfriend) is harder than I thought it would be. But I am reading more than I ever have, I am having more conversations, and I am learning about a new culture.

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Filed under Africa, Janelle in Tanzania

Native Foreigner

“We shall not cease from exploration and at the end of all our exploration we shall arrive where we started and see the place for the first time” –T.S. Eliot

Upon my return to the U.S. I felt the results of reverse culture shock almost instantaneously. I was warned about this prior to my journey back home, but at the time I didn’t grasp how much it would actually affect me.

Everything feels unusual to me now. Just when I felt I had adjusted to a new environment, my whole world was reversed. At first, I was extremely happy to be back. Some things felt so familiar and natural to me. Soon after though, I found some situations and places uncomfortable. I felt changed, and everything else felt the same.

 

NF1

This was my last visit to the international house. Unfortunately a friend and I had to say goodbye to our beautiful program director, Abigail, who has become a dear friend to us all.

 

The first thing that stunned me was the food choices. In Ghana, I was used to a diet with not much of a selection. In the States, I had almost the opposite problem. My first day back, I went to a breakfast buffet and was completely overwhelmed with the overabundance of food options available. From then, it was a gradual tuning out of the common courtesy I had known in Ghana, to the ones required in the U.S. I was used to saying please before every question, and having thorough conversations with complete strangers. I suppose the main dissimilarity that I continue to notice is the dramatic change from a collectivist society to an individualistic one. I had a difficult time adjusting to this when I first arrived in Ghana, and now it is the hardest to shake. People at home are not willing to have a drawn-out conversation with you if get lost, they don’t invite you to eat with them if you don’t have food, and they don’t typically think in terms that would give every person in a scenario the best outcome.

 

NF2

This was our group all together one last time at the airport before we had to go our separate ways.

 

I am now approaching the completion of my first week back to the U.S. Although sometimes I still feel strange in particular situations, I feel like I am home. I do consider myself to have undergone a subtle transformation while I was gone. Now, certain circumstances and individuals don’t seem so black and white to me. Going on this journey was a blessing to my development as an individual, and I will always hold it as irreplaceable and valuable to me.

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Filed under Africa, Coryl in Ghana

Then and Now

Before traveling abroad, many people take on an overly confident tone that they can handle anything that life throws at them. After all, this is nature’s fight or flight mode kicking in. When faced with a challenge, you can either decline it and run away, or face it head on and do your best. Of course, when faced with the challenge of study abroad, I decided to tackle it headfirst through applications, purchasing a plane ticket, and researching the culture I hoped to become immersed in. It wasn’t until now, the end of my experience, that I can take note of my hubris in my abilities to bear certain stressful situations. It is not simply “fight or flight,” but a long process of determining what you can and can’t do and how to enjoy the process along the way. Additionally, no one likes to see themselves as a villain, so it was difficult to admit that I’d struggled with prejudice against those who didn’t share similar moral and/or political beliefs – something that is all too clear to me after my experience at a school where I seemingly held most of the population in contempt.

 

7

Taken four days before departure, this photo shows how excited I was for the season and for my upcoming adventure!

 

Before departure, I considered myself someone who could lead, handle difficult situations, and was as tolerant as anyone could be. I was a confident beacon of multi-culturalism among friends and my community members back home, so I thought an exchange in a developed country I’ve already been to would be easy. I found afterward that I was overly confident – I was not as prone to adaptations or functioning under high ambiguity as I thought. I’ve discovered in myself a person more rigid than I thought I was, adamant in my own personal beliefs and politics, unwilling to bend. However I did also find that I am not nearly as disheveled as I thought I was. I am someone who truly can live independently – managing my time well, conducting research, managing small crises, and resolving problems efficiently.

A lot of the things I thought would be a breeze, like meeting new people and working with different kinds of folks turned out to be my biggest challenge. Affluence made me uncomfortable in this elite environment, and I felt myself as an outsider among organizers and communities in need, like the refugees I got the chance to meet and work with. Having come from a community of need myself, I felt in an awkward position that I belonged to neither group – something I realize might be social culture shock. I was not able to look past certain viewpoints in people I met. In these ways, I disappointed myself. But for me, study abroad represented a prime opportunity to confront some of these weaknesses and move past them in my character. Through this work, I’ve discovered that I can handle mediating arguments and I’ve learned when to walk away from certain topics. I use my time wisely in accordance to what I need and I’ve grown stronger as an independent woman.

I feel as though I’ve improved in several ways that I wanted to before I left – I’ve become more patient, a better listener and observer, and challenged my survival skills. I’ve become even better at asking for and receiving help, and am more willing to confront my problems and look for alternative solutions.

Overall, I see major improvements in my way of living and my personality. This experience has really taught me the need to enjoy situations in which I do not have control and may not necessarily feel constantly comfortable.

 

72

Taken on the last day of class I had in Reims, even my friends noticed that my smile is a bit strained, as I was anxious to be done with the semester and return to Germany to see my family before returning home to NY.

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