Category Archives: Africa

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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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.


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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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.



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.



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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Then and Now


When I began this journey, I expected that I would change and grow as an individual, but I did not know the extent that study abroad would actually affect me. Of course, if you dramatically alter your typical routine and move to a new country, you’re bound to notice a change in how you used to act and think about things. Still, I had no concept of just how much I would find myself changed.

I have around eleven days left in Ghana. These past few weeks have brought long days with ample time to think about myself, and the time I chose to spend an important part of my life in. It truly is kind of insane to think about taking four months to go somewhere you’ve never been to spend time with people you’ve never met and immerse yourself in a culture you know nothing about. Yet, I did it, and it all went by at an unbelievably fast pace.

Admittedly, I have recently been in a kind of rut. I lost my phone in a car, mosquitoes have officially taken over my legs, and I feel as if I’m handling the weather worse than I had before. May has seemed to blend together in one long day where it seems there is no ending or beginning. Finals are stretched out over three weeks, and most of us have seen/experienced the majority of what we had planned to do already. I yearn for my favorite foods, my friends back home, and my university. Naturally, the empty space has allowed me a bit of time to reflect on my study abroad adventure. At the beginning of the semester, I took a self-assessment test to evaluate how mentally prepared I was for studying abroad. Recently, I took it again to reflect and value how much I have grown since my arrival.


Instantly, a question that caught my eye when retaking the test was a query about my willingness to confront problems and look for alternative solutions. I would say this is something that I struggled with prior to coming to Ghana, but being here has forced me to deal with challenges head-on. Often when trying to get somewhere on time, there is a delay in the public transportation system, or a simple trip to get food takes way longer than you imagined it would. Instead of getting angry and giving up on whatever I had wanted to accomplish, I was forced to find an alternate way to get where I needed to go, or to get what I wanted.

One other major difference that I noticed in myself was under the resilience category of the test. It asked what your ability was to keep a sense of humor when placed in a stressful situation. Stressful situations are inescapable, and they have happened to me more than a few times during my experience in Ghana. For example, language barriers have constantly been an issue that I have considered to be stressful, especially when it is problematic trying to buy food. Most of the time, it just takes a little patience and kindness to turn around this setback. This is a valuable skill to have no matter the location, and it makes a person deal with an issue that is bound to happen at some point in their life.

I hope you find yourself in a place you’re not familiar with to do things you’ve never done before. I promise it’s worthwhile.

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Your Guide to Ghana

As my classes come to a close, I’ve begun to reflect on my time spent in the country that I’ve called my home for the past three months. It has been packed to the brim with adventure, amazement, and wonderful memories. Now that I have become familiar with many aspects of Ghana, I want to offer a guide of my personal favorite suggestions of where to go and visit if you choose to study abroad in this part of West Africa.

  1. Cape Three Points

Last night, I arrived home after a tiresome journey from the furthest southern point in Ghana. It is called Cape Three Points and it holds the most picturesque beaches that I have seen in this country. At Cape Three Points one can participate in a variety of activities from surfing to taking in the views from a quaint lighthouse after a hike through a nearby village.



I could not believe the color of the water, it was intense and inviting. We all had to soak up the views for a few minutes to take it all in.


The lighthouse. It takes about twenty-five minutes to hike through the village and up the mountain.


  1. Cape Coast

Another point of interest that any traveler should venture to see is a place called Cape Coast. This popular and historic spot is known for its national park, a natural rainforest where visitors can tiptoe through the treetops on a stunning canopy walk. Along with that, be sure to take a tour in the old slave castles that were used in the Triangular Trade.



High up in the treetops, I enjoyed the view of the lush rainforest. As long as heights don’t frighten you, this walk is fairly extraordinary. If you’re lucky, some visitors spot elephants down below!


In a slave castle called Elmina, this door is haunted with the memories of slaves who entered and never returned. It was an enlightening and somber experience to walk through the walls of the castle so riddled with unforgettable atrocities. 


  1. Mole National Park

Mole is a national park destination where visitors can stay in northern Ghana. The park is home to a wide variety of animals such as elephants, baboons, and warthogs. One can can take an early morning or late night safari on a hike (or a jeep!) and see the wonders that occupy the African savanna.


Our late night tour started around 9 o’clock and lasted for around two hours. We saw a multitude of animals while touring the dark sanctuary. 


This was one of the magnificent elephants we encountered on the early morning hike. It was an remarkable occasion to have witnessed a real African elephant so close and observe his daily routine at the water hole.


  1. Bojo Beach

If you find yourself looking for a pleasant and peaceful day trip, Bojo is the place to go. The private beach is only accessible by a short canoe ride. The island makes the perfect place for a cool dip in the Atlantic Ocean, or tanning spot while reading your favorite novel.

  1. Wli Falls

Located in the Volta Region, this waterfall is essential on the must-see list. The falls take about a twenty-minute hike to reach, but the view is well worth the excursion. Even the chilly water is welcoming to take a break from the heat.


All of the members of my study abroad program came together for a group photo in front of the falls. (Also including two other Gilman recipients!) Swimming in this splendor was surreal, and probably one of my favorite moments in Ghana.


  1. Afajato

The tallest mountain in the country dwells in the Volta Region. Though exhausting, the hike up is more than worth the journey. On top, the view full of natural beauty represents the spirit and wonder of the country.



I could not help but pose with the Ghanaian flag after feeling particularly accomplished following the tricky mountain trek.


  1. Kumasi

Next to Accra, Kumasi is one of the largest cities in Ghana. There is an abundance of activities to do, but Kumasi is known for its unique shops and art centers. At the village of Bonwire, one will find the traditional kente cloth weaving. Not far from this spot exists a market where handmade wood carvings are sold in designs so detailed it’s hard to believe the craftsmanship.



This is one of the expert weavers of kente. He may spend days or weeks on the same piece of cloth, depending on the number of colors and intricacies that are woven into it. It is a skill that is hard to master, and takes years of practice to perfect.

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