Author Archives: Janelle in Tanzania

About Janelle in Tanzania

Hi! My name is Janelle Thompson. I'm currently spending six weeks in Tanzania at the Udzungwa Mountains National Park. Feel free to check out some of my experiences!

I’m Back and I’m Better

When I first saw the chart titled “Stages of Culture Shock and Reverse Culture Shock” in the Gilman blog-writing syllabus, I have to admit that I was more than a little skeptical. Before my study abroad orientation, I had never even heard of reverse culture shock. My program was only for six weeks, not six months. I thought that it wouldn’t be enough time to change me in a significant way. I thought I already knew myself and what I liked. After all, I grew up in Pittsburgh around people of all backgrounds. I came to East Africa with the assumption that my background as a black woman would enable me to escape culture shock. I went to Tanzania with what I thought was a mind open to learning, but the reality is that Eastern Africa expanded my horizons more than I could have ever imagined.

Culture shock and reverse cultureshock graph


Even though I was learning in a completely new and fascinating way, I found myself becoming fiercely homesick during my program. In the second week, I was already ready to go home. I missed cheese, clear English, and talking to my family and friends whenever I wanted to. I began to count down the days until I would be on the plane back to the States. I found myself stuck in stage 3 of culture shock: depressed, homesick, and hopeless. But by the end of the third week, I wasn’t thinking about coming back home. I was thinking about my independent project, going hiking, and reading for class. I became so tied to my new reality that having one hour of internet access a day and taking cold showers quickly became a part of my normal daily routine. At some point, I adapted to Tanzania so much that I stopped noticing that I was in a developing country and started noticing the potential to keep in advancing sustainably.

At the start of the last week of studying abroad, I began to have a sinking feeling in my stomach every time I thought about returning home. I felt like there was more work that I needed to do before I could be satisfied with leaving. Leaving the Udzungwa Mountains Ecological Monitoring Center was like leaving the best summer camp I never got the chance to attend. I will never forget the phenomenal staff. Even with a language barrier, the amazing ladies that made up the kitchen staff managed to take care of us when we were sick, feed us three times a day, and teach the girls how to wear fabric like they did. The ecologists and field assistants in the National Park always had their doors open for questions. They would drop whatever they were working on to accompany us to villages or act as a translator when our Swahili failed us. Overall, I experienced and witnessed a genuine kindness and willingness to help other people, no matter what their race or nationality, that I want to pass on to whoever I can. The unparalleled work ethic and determination of the people (the women in particular) put my life and problems immediately in perspective. Never again will I complain about a class at Penn State after seeing a woman walk, talk on the phone, and breastfeed at the same time.


The view from my SanjayWaterfalls hiking trip

The view from my Sanjay Waterfalls hiking trip.

Our tourguide was roped into takiing a picture with me on top of the falls

Our tour guide was roped into taking a picture with me on top of the falls.


My goal is to make is to stage 9 on the reverse culture side of the graph: incorporating what I learned from my study abroad into my new life and career. I’m still adjusting to being back home in the States. For instance, I didn’t expect to feel so uncomfortable in a room full of white people. I notice how much water I waste brushing my teeth or how Instagram doesn’t have the same appeal that it used to. Fall semester at Penn State should be interesting! I know I will eventually get used to my normal life, but the experiences I had are still fresh in my mind. The lessons I’ve learned are not leaving me anytime soon, so I might as well learn from them and apply them to the future. Now when I look for internships, an international component is a must. Applying conservation in a developing country came with a whole other set of complex challenges. I’m inspired to see how other issues fit in as well. For example, what is the role of environmental justice in a second or third world country? Studying abroad came with the realization that I can weave multiple issues together into a cohesive career. Whether I end up in policy or in a lab, I will always be grateful for my experience in Tanzania for changing my life.


Me in Washington DC the weekendbefore I left for Tanzania

Me in Washington DC the weekend before I left for Tanzania

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Expanding my Horizons

I’m on the beach at Kilwa as I’m writing this post. I’ve never seen water this blue and far spread out. You can walk for so long without ever losing your footing. This actually looks like an image from a postcard or a screensaver on a laptop. Over the weekend I’ve been on the edge of the Indian Ocean relaxing and watching fisherman in their boats. I see why so many people go to beaches now.

I left for Tanzania almost six weeks ago. Since then, I’ve learned a little Kiswahili, I’ve played hide-and-seek with monkeys, and I swam in a waterfall that I hiked to. I’ve tried squid and loved it, and now I look for greens at every meal. I camped on the edge of a village for three days to do some village mapping. I made eye contact with a sleepy lioness and heard hyenas outside of the tent in Mikumi National Park. The Udzungwa Mountains Ecological Center became my backyard.  As my professor keeps reminding us, not many people get to see the things I’ve seen.


KODAK Digital Still Camera

The waterfall from my hike to Sanje Falls.


Even though I haven’t fully digested this amazing experience yet, I can tell I’ve changed in a few ways. First of all, I have become more focused. It sounds cliché, but this experience has put things into perspective for me. When I was mapping a village named Msosa, a young woman from the village council accompanied our group. We went out at 6:30 in the morning and came back at 6:30 in the evening. The whole time, she was carrying her sleeping baby on her back. At some point, she was talking on the phone, walking, and breastfeeding her child at the same time. While we were camping, the women that work in the center made us pasta and beef stew from three bricks and some firewood. I may complain about being in school sometimes, but I will never take it for granted again. If anything, I got a reality check in the sense that there is so much more going on in the world than some of the things I used to complain about. If these amazing women can hold down their families and villages, then I can successfully earn a degree from Penn State.

I’ve also found that I’ve grown academically and professionally. I’ve never taken 400 level classes before this experience. I assumed that they would be hard. But taking three 400 level classes in six weeks was more intense than any other academic experience I’ve ever been though. I read about the complexities of conservation in a developing country, and I get to see those complexities first hand. We were challenged to create an independent project that addressed the needs of the community while conserving the biodiversity and ecosystem of the National Park. At first, I had no idea what I was going to do. I came into the program thinking that I was going to do research and recommend an easy renewable energy option like solar panels. But after the first day in the village, I knew I would have to change my approach. I learned to think about a problem from new angles. At the end of the three courses I took, I had produced a 17 page paper on fuelwood trees and their multiple characteristics. I made tables, developed an index, and created scenarios based on the best type and species of trees for the local villages to plant.

Besides the coursework, I learned that I love to travel. I always thought I would, but actually leaving the country confirmed it. Working in conservation in a developing country was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. But it opened up a new world of opportunities I never thought about. Now I can see myself working for the World Health Organization or USAID. My passion for environmental justice has gotten so much deeper now that I know how to link it to issues like biodiversity and energy. Studying abroad is a completely different educational experience than in the States. At home, you can only care so much about an issue because it seems so abstract. But I got the chance to learn about biodiversity conservation in one of the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots.

I am excited to return home. My friends and family understand that I have been blessed with the opportunity of a lifetime. But not being able to communicate with the people I talk to everyday was really hard at some points during the experience. I remember being homesick about two weeks into my program. I was counting down the days until I could go home and eat cheese and talk to my boyfriend on Facetime. I missed my grandparents calling to check up on me every few days and my mom coming home with a pizza for a movie night. But each day I realized more and more how fortunate I was to be studying in Tanzania. And once I switched my focus to understanding all the issues around me, the days flew by.

Now that I have some time to reflect, I know I will miss certain things about my temporary home. For one, I love the people here. If there was a word I didn’t know, they were quick to help me learn it. They appreciated my attempts to learn and pronounced the words slowly enough that I could get them. The pride that everyone has here is incredible. There’s pride in families, in work, and in Tanzania in general. In every place that I went, people of all religions coexisted together in harmony. Neighbors looked out for each other and the children of the village were cared for by everybody. There was a genuine desire to help each other be as successful as possible. I wish more people in the United States could see what I saw.  I know I will be taking my lessons I learned back home with me.

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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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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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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.


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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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