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.
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.