Emily Lynch is an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Biology, Global Health, and African Studies. She spent her summer in Durban, South Africa participating in a Zulu language intensive cultural immersion program with the FLAS fellowship.
I think a common theme people take from traveling alone is the development of newfound independence. Being in a foreign country by yourself requires you to take initiative in taking care of yourself and getting things done. Understandably, I would have never guessed my biggest lesson learned from my summer abroad would be the exact opposite.
I would claim that I’m a fairly independent person. I like to do things by myself and take care of myself without asking for help. But that independence only takes you so far in a place where you don’t even know on what side of the road cars drive.
I was informed after arriving in South Africa that my program was delayed for an additional 10 days, and I found myself alone with no communication with my host program or family, and no place to stay. [Insert panic here]. Luckily, I found a connection with someone from my home church back in Minnesota and ended up staying with his mother. Rade welcomed me into her home like family and was insistent on doing everything to make me feel comfortable. It was an unusual connection that ended up teaching me an incredibly important lesson that little did I know, would be repeated throughout my summer. One day during our afternoon coffee she said to me, “Now Emily, if there are only two things that I’ve learned in my whole life, it’s that 1) the sun will always come up tomorrow and 2) someone will always help you.” This was the beginning of me learning to accept help from others, something that has been difficult for me to do my entire life.
I got confirmation of my program the night before I was to start, and the next morning walked into the lobby where I was to meet my host family. Before I knew what was happening, I had a little boy hugging and hanging on to my leg. My little brother, Nkonzoenhle, was 5, and didn’t leave my side from that day forward. My mama called him my tail, or “umsila” in Zulu. He was a troublemaker with the sweetest heart. My mama was my biggest advocate and took me under her wing immediately. My baba was quiet with a heart of pure gold. My host sister became my best friend and constant companion. These people went from complete strangers to people I relied on for everything. Getting fed and to class everyday was much more difficult than it sounds. While I loved learning Zulu, my program was less organized than chickens running around with their heads chopped off. Humor among pure chaos was necessary and bonded us in ineffable ways.
Two weeks into my program my baba fell very sick and was isolated in intensive care in the hospital. The days were filled with long rides to the hospital and tears. There was a huge hole without baba at home and the stress of his sickness and the chaos of my program made us all weak. But as Rade taught me, the sun continued to rise and someone was always there to help. All the extended family came from near and far, stepping in to help. My mom contacted our whole circle of family and friends back home in the U.S. to come together in prayer for baba. Day after day, we survived with the support of each other. I took care of Nkonzoe, my sister took care of me, and mama took care of the hospital details for baba. A popular Zulu proverb describes this as Ubuntuism, or “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity,” an accurate description of how I got through each day.
This summer I learned a lot. I learned a small fraction of the vast and beautiful Zulu language and culture; I learned the good, bad, and ugly of being 9,300 miles from home; but most importantly I learned to depend on others. I learned that no matter what, I could still count on a beautiful sunrise every morning over the Atlantic and the kindness of humanity to get me through every day, indescribable life lessons.
Stephanie Laemmert is a graduate student at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy who studied as an exchange student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison last spring. Laemmert recently spent her summer months in Tanzania conducting research on the meaning of “native courts” in British colonial Tanganyika and discursive legal culture.
I was not aware that “laughing yoga” even existed before I joined Dr. Arvind Pathak’s “SWAS Health Care Center” in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. When Dr. Pathak announced in my first session to finish the day’s labor with a laughing exercise, I felt terribly self-conscious. The whole enterprise seemed ridiculous to me and I caught myself watching the other students. Would they join in childish laughter, a number of grown-up people who had just made their tiring way through Dar es Salaam’s exhausting after-work traffic to reach the 6 p.m. yoga class in time? That was the day when I heard Janet’s booming laughter for the first time and could not help myself but join in. Ever since, I loved the laughing exercise. In fact, it is everybody’s favorite exercise.
Dr. Pathak is a short, wiry man with gentle brown eyes and a never fading smile. He is dual citizen of Kenya and India, a Hindi native speaker born in Northern India, and educated as a medical doctor and yoga teacher in Gujarat. His studio in Dar es Salaam is a sub-branch of his successful yoga center in Nairobi he founded in 1992. Besides yoga classes, he also offers Ayurveda massages and naturopathy advise. His studio is located in Dar’s buzzing Upanga West district on the third floor of a high-riser overlooking the busy trading neighborhood of Mnazi Mmoja and Kariakoo. The view is indeed breathtaking. In a city where each of my strolls is accompanied by young men or school kids calling out at me, or traders trying to sell their goods to the “rich Mzungu”, in the yoga class nobody finds my appearance even noteworthy. The student body is a colorful mix of languages and religions. Most students are either Tanzanian-born Indians or recent migrants from India. The official language of our yoga class is English, although I can hear several Indian languages including Hindi, Gujarati and Tamil. There are also Lebanese students, and of course Janet, one of the Swahili students, with the booming laughter. Some bring their kids, others their husbands. There is a lot of laughing and some talking going on, and at times Janet and I do not understand a single word until Dr. Pathak switches back from Hindi to English.
Contrary to my experiences in European or American Yoga studios, the spiritual element is very little pronounced. Dr. Pathak’s students are not in search of answers to the big questions such as the meaning of life or the best relaxation strategies in an increasingly depressing world. Neither is Dr. Pathak offering meditation or lecturing us about Buddha’s life. (A few months earlier in a meditation session at a Madison yoga studio, I had just learned about Buddha, sitting and breathing under a tree.) Dr. Pathak’s Hatha Yoga approach seemed to me, from the beginning, pragmatic – and rather refreshing. We learn a huge variety of utterly functional exercises: some are for people with digestive difficulties, others are supposed to improve eyesight, still others focus on the ubiquitous problem zone of the lower back, of which so many of us are painfully aware due to long hours spent sitting in front of our desks. Fitness is as important as breathing and flexibility, and Dr. Pathak makes us work hard indeed. The rest of the one hour class is devoted to Surya Namaskara, the sun salute, in its many arduous variations.
Everybody has the smile of the laughing exercise still on their face at the end of the session when Dr. Pathak asks us to “pray to our God.” He makes sure to add that each of us address the god of their belief, if any, and then we finish with what Dr. Pathak translates as “universal Vedic prayer.” And he is a real Dar es Salaam Swahili cosmopolitan, too: after 14 exhausting rounds of Surya Namaskara, Dr. Pathak asks us to lie back on our mats and relax with a casual “lala salama” (Swahili for “sleep tight”).
Segun Soetan is a graduate student in the Department of African Languages and Literature where he teaches as a Yoruba T.A. This summer, Soetan conducted research in Nigeria on the country’s film industry, Nollywood.
I was glad when our plane from Atlanta, Georgia, finally touched down at the Murtala International Airport, Lagos, Nigeria around 4pm on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. Feeling nostalgic, and for the umpteenth time, I ran through the research itinerary in my head – I will rest for two days, visit friends and family over the weekend, and then hit the road the following Monday. I was so elated to begin my first overseas research. My research was about the Nigerian film industry –Nollywood—which has been rated the second largest film industry in the world after America’s Hollywood. For the research, I had to meet with four prominent filmmakers in Nigeria, possibly to interview them and follow them to film locations.
Stuffing my backpack with media equipment – audio recorder, video recorder, my Sony Alpha 390 DSLR camera, laptop, emergency light and writing pads—I began my research journey on Monday, June 15, 2015. Crisscrossing the undulating Lagos terrain and the hilly landscape of Oyo state, I followed filmmakers around from one location to another—most times, frustrated from aborted schedule plans, and at other times, famished from waiting endlessly beyond schedule. I gradually became aware of how the gigantic film industry work; traveling almost every day, I learned more about the nation in commercial buses and taxis through various gossips and political discussions around the new government that was just formed, the president, and other aprocos about popular individuals that were indicted by the Nigerian Economic Financial Crime Commission (EFCC).
My experience with the Nigerian film industry first hand contrasted sharply with the glamorous life the Nollywood stars displayed on social media sites. Meeting them personally introduced me to their world and the reality of their hyped status. I realized that the social media sustained their dreams and not the reality of their living conditions, especially actors and actresses from the Yoruba language genre who relied more on the goodwill of their patrons for sustenance. More than I had anticipated, I realized that film making in Nigeria, especially for upcoming artistes and filmmakers, is very daunting and not so lucrative. Film marketers and pirates appropriate the larger chunk of the gain. In most of the film locations that I visited, there were no proper planning – time, logistics and equipment. Imagine having to wait for an actor for more than 5 hours before he sauntered in without any apology! What you cannot take away from the industry though, is a mixture of joke and sweat from the crew members as they set up equipment in the blazing tropical sun, which altogether, set their spirits sailing while working uncompensated. The conviviality, audience supports, and the desire to ‘make it,’ form the actual spirit behind Nollywood and its accentuated glory. Oh Nollywood! I promise to see you next summer, but not without my helmet, in case I’ll still ride on those frenzied ọ̀kadà.
Allen Xiao is a UW-Madison graduate student working in human geography. This summer, Xiao completed field work in Nigeria and shares his experience with local transport, language and culture. Now back in Madison, Xiao is coordinating “Post-colonial Consciousness: Representations of China in Africa”, a Borghesi-Mellon Workshop.
I am a Chinese student pursuing Ph.D. in human geography at UW-Madison. Before I came here, I had been to Nigeria twice when I was trained in anthropology in Hong Kong. The country is not fresh to me, but this journey was still thrilling as I began to act as a junior Africanist, equipped with Yoruba language skills which I picked up in the vibrant African studies community in Madison.
I didn’t go to Nigeria for fun. I carried my research questions to Lagos, the largest metropolis in West Africa. This summer, I am especially interested in how Nigerian people, in contrast to Chinese migrants, mobilize (or fail to mobilize) themselves on the roads in Lagos.
As an ethnographer, I am a local, taking all kinds of vehicle every day in the city. Dáńfó (above) is the most ordinary bus carrying passengers from one place to another. It usually bears 16-20 people, four people a row except the front seat. Kéké (left), which carries four passengers, is a smaller tricycle running in a short distance within limited areas. Ọ̀kadà (motorcycle) is banned on the main roads in Lagos but can be still found in some districts. Apart from these three major commuting vehicles, Lagosians also take BRT bus, mólùẹ̀ and taxi. However, Chinese migrants rarely take local transportation, especially dáńfó.
When I entered the dáńfó on my own, the driver curiously asked me, “Òyìnbó, where are you going?” “Òyìnbó” literally means white man and can be understood as foreigner. I am quite used to the way they called me on the street, “Òyìnbó wálé (come)”. Sometimes, I suddenly replied in Yorba, “Kí lo ṣelẹ (what’s going on?). And all of them laughed to tears and were surprised I was able to speak Yoruba. Back to the driver’s question, I answered, “Iyana Ipaya”. The driver felt amused, “Òyìnbó knows Iyana Ipaya?” I responded, “Òyìnbó knows everything”.
In order to survive, I have to know. In Lagos, there are no street signs for the dáńfó route. The dáńfó buses going in a certain direction usually park at particular sites. I need to figure them out by myself. In this way, I interacted with drivers, conductors, passengers, and passerby every day. They taught me how to become a Lagosian traveling in a terrible traffic jam and how to strategically bargain with people. I chose to do so not only because I want to obtain local knowledge but also because I can’t afford taking taxi in Lagos. Despite the economical dáńfó , I still bargained frequently as Lagos is desperately expensive to ordinary Nigerians and also to the poor graduate student from the U.S. You can’t imagine that 300 naira (1.5 US dollars) can be spent crossing a state border from Ife to Ibadan, whereas this amount can only cover a journey crossing a bridge from Obalende to Ikeja during rush hours. Rush hours (7-10 a.m. and 4-7 p.m.) are also my productive research hours. I wandered on the street to observe how the police managed the traffic (above) and interviewed them later. Due to the chaotic urban life in Lagos, Nigerian passengers and I were all exhausted and fell sleep in the dáńfó . Sometimes they leaned on my shoulder (below) and sometime vice versa.
Indeed, Lagos is a special city. I realized it especially when I traveled to other cities in Yorubaland. Accompanied with my Yoruba teaching assistant Ope, I went to Ijebu Ode, a small city in Ogun state. I ordered different Yoruba apparels there, including fìlà (hat), bùbá (loose blouse) and ṣòkòtò (trousers). When I put them on one day (below), people began to call me “omo Yoruba” (Yoruba’s son/boy).
In the field, I learned much more about Yoruba culture than I did in the class, such as clothes, food, and even festival. I was fortunate to attend a local New Yam Festival in Oka Akoko, a small town in Ondo state. I met with Oba Adeleye, the king of Oka Land and witnessed a fantastic festival celebration (below), including worship rituals, conferment of Chieftaincy title, and cultural performance. This experience reminded me of many cultural memories in my hometown in Central China and in my previous field sites in South China. The comparative cultural perspective is what I treasure and what I could contribute to African Studies.
After a study abroad course in Uganda this summer, Curriculum and Instruction Professor Maggie Hawkins and her students share memories, reflections and changed perspectives.
by Maggie Hawkins
For three weeks in July and August 2015, six graduate students and two faculty members from the School of Education spent three weeks in Uganda as part of a study-abroad course with a dual focus on comparative education and qualitative research. The course was a collaborative effort between the UW and Makerere Schools of Education; I was invited the prior year to engage with Makerere faculty in designing and implementing an intensive 2-week graduate-level course on qualitative research approaches and methodologies for their students and ours, and it came to fruition in this experience.
Our first week in Uganda was spent visiting and working with schools. We initially spent several days at a government-aided primary school in a small village, learning about Ugandan educational policy, curriculum & pedagogies from staff, and sharing instructional materials and lessons. We then visited several types of primary and secondary schools, ranging from faith-based to elite. And we traveled to Queen Elizabeth Park to have a safari adventure.
The following two weeks were spent at Makerere University in Kampala, attending class in the mornings, with a variety of afternoon activities (including visits to a home for teen mothers, an orphanage, and to schools to gather interview and observational data for class assignments). Through discussions with Ugandan peers focused on research epistemologies and stances, approaches and methodologies, identifying research foci and questions, designing studies, interpreting data, and researcher positioning, students learned much about not only qualitative research, but also the culturally-embedded nature of educational research, and comparative differences in educational environments, policies and practices.
What follows is a series of essays and photos by the participating UW students, each addressing different aspects of the trip, attesting to their experiences and learning.
by Simone Lawrence
“Hi, Muzungu!” shouts a Ugandan child from under a hut along the side of a dirt road. “Muzungu” – an endearing euphemism for “lost [American] traveler” – seemingly served as an instant code word for a slew of unseen children to race towards us with vigorous waves and eyes lit with genuine delight to welcome our group of travelers. Our presence often resulted in a trail of hospitable and friendly Ugandan youth accompanying us along our hike to the local primary school in Lweza.
The enthusiasm and greetings multiplied once arriving at the local primary school. The smiles were infectious and the innocence was humbling. The students’ unimaginably limited resources both inside and outside of the classroom had no effect on their willingness to learn nor their joyous outlook on life. They welcomed our many duffel bags filled with new school supplies, and our individualized teaching lessons on how to (1) read and write in English class, (2) memorize famous black history figures through yoga poses in History class, and (3) visualize place values through the use of various games in Math class.
by Giselle Martinez-Negrette
This summer I joined a group of five graduate students and two professors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a study abroad program in Uganda. Our goal was to learn more about the educational system of this country, and to take part in a qualitative research methods course with some Ugandan students and faculty at Makerere University in Kampala. During our stay, we spent three weeks visiting schools and communities, talking to teachers, and learning from professors and classmates.
Prior to my trip, I had some preconceived, probably film infused, notions about Uganda—its people, culture, and social environment. However, I never expected what I found there. Uganda is a country bustling with sounds, colors, smells, and living environments that compelled me to adjust my frame of mind from the organized structures I am used to in the US. Almost every moment I spent there was filled with new realizations.
I was mesmerized by the hope and joy I saw in the eyes of children who, despite the difficulties around them, were excited to be at school. I saw an unwavering resilience in the women I interacted with; they talked to me about their roles in shaping a better future for their families and country. I was particularly humbled by the attitudes of the young girls at a teen mothers’ home we visited. From them, I learned that even if you’re pregnant at age 15 and are holding a newborn baby in your arms, dreams are stronger than the harsh realities of life. Also, I was excited to hear the voice of men strongly believing that education could provide a new path for their nation. My Ugandan classmates reflected the strength of individuals who have realized that it is time for their voices to be heard. They appreciated our perspectives, but they also made clear that they were ready to show the world their Uganda and their Africa.
As I reflect about my time in Uganda, one question keeps coming to mind: How has a summer in Africa impacted me as a person, graduate student, and as a teacher? My time in Africa reminded me not to take my education for granted. In Uganda, education is still a “luxury” and not a right for many. It is highly appreciated and connected to dreams, hopes, and a better future. Uganda compelled me to move away from all the known theories into an unknown reality. I closed my eyes to the physical world and opened my mind to the voices of children, so eager to learn that they never got tired of greeting us over and over again: “you’re welcome our visitors.” I was impelled to make connections and better understand, where before there was only evaluation. I was reminded that culture permeates people’s minds and ideas; it influences how we see the world, and how we hope to be perceived by others. Uganda, this summer, filled my mind with a renewed curiosity about the power of education. It left me wondering how my work as a graduate student, researcher, and teacher connects to an ever-changing world where theory and practice sometimes don’t speak the same “language” and often times fail to meet. Africa is situated within the winds of present change and a strong past; and this cacophony worked powerfully in me to renew my education perspective and to inquire beyond what I can see.
by T. Lael Simmons
Highly vigilant of my surroundings, I walked with a convoy of pale-skinned companions who seemed to be gliding on puffs of air that rose above the Ugandans in our midst. Like a tyrannical teacher’s nails across a chalkboard, the words crept up to greet us – Mzungu! Mzungu! The slum children called out for coins, shillings, something to make life easier. I looked around to realize that I wasn’t walking on the same air as the others; my path was a bit closer to the Ugandan pavement – though not yet close enough to touch the ground. Mzungu! Mzungu! Something told me these rhythmic calls weren’t being directed at me…
I slowed down and let the procession proceed – a bevy of brown-skinned children gently offering the palms of their hands for help, circling around the Mzungu. They didn’t slow down for me; they followed the puffs of air that rose a bit higher – Mzungu! Mzungu! But they forged ahead – never breaking stride, or making eye contact – perhaps afraid they may fall from their perch and into the palms of the darker other.
Suddenly a man’s booming voice shouts – Obama! Obama! I turned towards the commotion and realize he’s pointing to me with all seriousness. No hands reach towards me any longer – for a moment I was alone. Startled, I ran to catch up with my travel companions to cross the bustling streets of Kampala. One of the street children silently, swiftly shoved my shoulder as if to say she saw me, too, and my name was not Mzungu or Obama.
by Karissa Warner
The course in qualitative methods at Makerere University brought together graduate students from UW and Uganda. For me, it was a unique experience that allowed me to put theories into practice. While readings and discussions were foundational, the fieldwork in the course was invaluable.
Working in teams made up of American and Ugandan students allowed us to approach research methods from different perspectives. While I was able to learn from the Ugandan educators, I was also made to reflect upon my own stance as a teacher from the United States. Our field work included informal observations within Kampala to get a feel for cultural practices and compare our own interpretations of what, for Ugandans, were acquired social norms. We also performed formal observations in a school setting. Together, we analyzed our observations, and we shared our interpretations, which made our own cultural biases, as they relate to education, explicit. We also performed collaborative interviews of Ugandan teachers. Through the interview process, I learned the importance of acknowledging my role as an outsider and how important having a cultural informant is for a social researcher. I am fortunate and grateful to meet and work with some talented scholars who share enthusiasm in learning about comparative education. In turn, my own interest has been sparked in pursuing further collaborative endeavors in global education research.
by Laura Hamman
Each morning at Makerere University, as the sun slowly breached the hills of Kampala and dispersed the nighttime fog, I left the guesthouse for a jog around campus. The calm of daybreak was occasionally broken by the noisy cry of a stork overhead, a speedy boda boda (motorcycle taxi), or the laughter of children in colorful uniforms as they traced the pathways towards school. As I worked my way up and down the hilly terrain, I was grateful for this peaceful time to reflect upon all that I was experiencing in Uganda, to consider what I had learned thus far and the questions that remained. As I honed my critical eye on issues of educational equity and researcher positionality, I constantly found myself turning inward, reflecting upon my how my own cultural norms and academic training affected the lens through which I viewed Ugandan society and its education system.
Some of my preconceptions about Uganda had been confirmed—there were, indeed, many rural communities with limited resources yet resilient teachers and students—while others had completely missed the mark. For instance, when I arrived to class on the first day, I was struck by the level of formality in dress: my Ugandan counterparts were sporting suit coats and ties. My own attire of long, summery skirts and dresses, though intended to be respectful, seemed terribly informal in comparison. I also quickly learned that we held different paradigms through which we understood teaching and learning. During one of our graduate classes, we watched a short video of a Ugandan classroom and it became clear that “actively engaged in learning” has multiple manifestations, depending upon the interpretive frame. Some of my Ugandan colleagues, working from a cognitive lens, perceived children to be actively engaged when highly focused on the task at hand, even if working independently; conversely, my training through a sociocultural framework led me to understand engagement as necessarily social, with peers working together to negotiate meaning. Through our subsequent discussion, I came to realize that both definitions are valid and that my own view limited what I was able to see in the video of the Ugandan classroom.\
Through these experiences and others, I began to push the boundaries of my own understandings about educational research in different contexts. It became clear that to work towards educational and social equity as a scholar and researcher in international contexts, it is necessary to not only become immersed in the country’s school system through site visits, curricula analysis, and interviews with staff and students but, additionally and perhaps more importantly, to immerse oneself in the context as a learner, recognizing that there are multiple ways of making sense of teaching and learning and that it is only through dialogue and collaboration that “making sense” becomes transformative. As I begin my third year in the Ph.D. program at UW-Madison, I know that my experiences in Uganda will continue to impact the way I think about educational research and the possibilities for working towards a more equitable global society.
by Stephanie Shedrow
We needed to leave at 7:45. It is now 7:55 and I am rushing to get my two-year-old out the door so I can make it to class. As we step over the mounds of dirty laundry piled up in the living room I realize I forgot my laptop. Running through the kitchen to retrieve it I glance, longingly, at the coffee maker, knowing caffeine will be my only savior after my sleepless night of getting kicked in the head by my daughter—who ended up in bed with us at 3:00 am after a crying spell—and my husband’s endless snoring due to a cold and ear-infection. I grab the laptop, scale the laundry, and get my daughter into the car. It is now 8:02. I won’t have time to get anything to eat until after class, nor will I be able to finish the assigned reading. “Why is my life so complicated?” I ask myself as I navigate through the winding suburbs to the babysitter’s house.
Three months later I sit in a van next to Mugerwa, the driver taking me from Makerere University in Kampala to Entebbe international airport. I have completed a three-week study abroad course in Uganda. During our fifty kilometer trip, Mugerwa and I talk. After talking about our children (he has five), Mugerwa asks me how many siblings I have. He seems surprised when I say only one sister. Mugerwa explains that people in Uganda have many children. Mugerwa quietly says, “Ugandans must have many children because of disease and stuff.” I felt a lump swelling in my throat.
While incomprehensible to my heart, my mind can easily understand how diseases plague Ugandans—both young and old. What is difficult to internalize is what I presumed Mugerwa meant by other stuff. During our stay, my professor explained that while many Ugandans struggle to pay school fees and purchase school uniforms, the uniforms themselves are a vitally important symbol in Uganda. They are an indicator that children are being looked after and cared for. In Uganda, many children are orphaned, living with only one parent or relatives. These children, who often cannot attend school because of lack of resources, become targets for abduction.
Yet uniforms are not always enough. During an interview with the Head Teacher from a public school in Kampala, we learned that parents often were reluctant to send their children to that school because it did not have a fence and was on a bustling street. The children were not safe, even while at school.
As I sat there next to Mugerwa, the van slowly crawling through villages, I saw dozens and dozens of mothers and children through my open window. Women carrying babies on their backs and a giant tub of fruit on their heads; children enthusiastically playing with empty pop bottles and discarded tires; a nursing mother gazing into her child’s eyes while still tending to her store. I thought of all that I had heard, seen, and felt in the past three weeks. Suddenly my “complicated” life seemed ridiculously easy and simplistic, and I felt a new appreciation for the tenacity and courage that all Ugandans, but especially the mothers, exhibit on a daily basis.
My time in Uganda was priceless and I plan to return and revisit the schools and people I made connections with. During the trip I worried I would forget all the life-lessons I gained along the journey. I haven’t yet. I often think about those whom I met a half-a-world away, and wonder what they are doing and how they are managing. I try not to think of myself as “lucky” because I don’t want to position myself or my life as better in any way. But I do know that my daily tasks are easier and my worries are much less burdensome. I hope to be able to keep this newfound perspective for years to come; and for the next time my daughter’s tantrum embarrasses me at the supermarket, makes me late for class, or prevents me from getting any sleep.
Bethany Wilinski shares her experiences conducting field research for the first time with her family in Moshi, Tanzania. Wilinski received her Ph.D in Educational Policy Studies and Curriculum & Instruction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2014, and is currently an assistant professor at Michigan State University. During her time at UW-Madison, Wilinski served as the African Studies Program Publications Assistant and Outreach Assistant.
Each morning, as I unlock the front door of the house in Moshi, Tanzania, that is home for five weeks, a little voice cries out excitedly, “Meena!” It is my 18-month-old son, Danny, anticipating the arrival of Mama Amina, who cares for him while I’m out doing fieldwork. From time to time we hear passersby calling to Danny from our front gate—Mama Amina tells us there are some primary school children and students at the nearby business college who come by to say hello and touch his hair, which feels so different from their own. Every night at dinner, Danny asks about everyone who has featured prominently in his Moshi experience, and we assure him that Mama Amina, Mama Lea, the babies, the cat, and the chicken are all at their homes, too, eating dinner.
I knew that being in Tanzania would be different with Danny, but I did not anticipate how differently I would come to see familiar places and scenes, or how motherhood would shape my interactions and my fieldwork. Now, as I observe the activities of a preschool classroom, I think about the choices I am making about childcare and early education for my son. Watching preschool-aged children run after the car as we drive down a dusty road causes me to wonder about their mothers; how do they reconcile their concerns about having their children walk such long distances alone just to get to school? As I walk through the market with Danny on my back in a baby carrier, I feel a kinship with the other mothers and I remind myself that here I am not Bethany but “Mama Danny”; Tanzanian women are referred to by their first child’s name. I learn about child-rearing from the two mothers who spend their days caring for our home and for Danny, and I marvel at how quickly our small community has coalesced around this child.
Fieldwork with a toddler is not without its challenges, of course. None of us slept well for at least three weeks while Danny was getting over jet lag, and even now a good night’s sleep is rare, thanks to the new environment and the new nighttime noises that come along with it. We stay in an area where malaria is a concern, so we have to be vigilant about bed nets, bug spray in the evening, and a daily dose of Malarone. Danny has taken a liking to beans and rice, which are a staple here, but we still worry that he’s getting all the nutrients he needs. One of our suitcases was filled to the brim with diapers for our stay because we didn’t know whether we’d be able to get diapers in Danny’s size if we needed them. Road travel now makes me nervous in a way it never did before; we decided not to bring a car seat because we would be using taxis, which almost never have seatbelts. Now I feel like we’re tempting fate every time we leave the house in a vehicle.
On top of health and safety concerns, fieldwork is tiring! Unlike when I was doing my dissertation research, I no longer have the luxury of coming home after a long day and relaxing as I process what I saw and heard that day. The minute he hears the clink of our front gate, Danny appears, crying out “Mommy, mommy!” and the next part of my day begins. Evenings, after bedtime, are when additional work gets done.
In spite of the challenges, I wouldn’t trade this experience. Coming to Tanzania as a mom, with my child, has connected me to the place and the people I encounter in a new way. I love that Danny now regularly sings the songs—in Swahili—that Mama Amina taught him and that he says “Mambo?” to everyone we meet. When Danny twisted his ankle I was humbled by the experience of going to a Tanzanian hospital to seek treatment—standing around, waiting with a squirming child who desperately wanted to leave, wondering when a doctor might appear. For every moment of worry or concern, there is an equally joyful moment, like when Danny looks up at me with his big blue eyes, tilts his head, and says “happy.” So am I.
Ellen Geisler is currently working as a Peace Corps Response volunteer in Comoros, a small island nation between the African continent and Madagascar, where she is introducing beekeeping skills to Comorian men and women. Geisler is a UW-Madison alumna with degrees in Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies (BA’07) and Forestry (MS’14).
Life in Comoros is not without hiccups. Running water and electricity are intermittent at best in the capital city, Moroni, and non-existent on the rest of the island, Grand Comore. People out and about are very nice and always want to say hello and help if they can, which is a change from living in Wisconsin where people are nice but one usually doesn’t hear a steady stream of greetings from passersby. While some locals speak French, everyone on Grand Comores speaks Shingazidja.
This summer I spend my days playing with bees, snorkeling in pristine waters, getting acquainted with the overwhelmingly welcoming locals who chatter away in the unfamiliar sounds of Shingazidja, and recalling the distant memories of last summer when I was finishing a masters degree in forestry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and tending my own beekeeping business. Comor0s is an eternal summer.
I am introducing beekeeping skills to men and women in Comoros, a small island nation between the African continent and Madagascar, which has the highest rate of deforestation among the islands in the Western Indian Ocean. The overarching goal is to slow deforestation with the idea that beekeepers will earn income from selling honey and protect the forest that provides forage and habitat for their bees. I’m a Peace Corps Response volunteer working in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which makes this project a lucky combination of boots-on-the-ground Peace Corps spirit combined with UNDP financial and transportation resources.
Initial assessment revealed that all honey in Comoros is collected by robbing wild beehives, which results in hive destruction, personal safety risks and poor quality honey. To overcome the language barrier, I trained eight people who spoke French the basic beekeeping knowledge and skills and how to educate others about beekeeping. In July and August, these new trainers taught participants in each of their four villages about beekeeping and motivated them to overcome their fear of bees, build beehives from local materials and reap the benefits of pollination. The train-the-trainers class took place during Ramadan, when everyone was tired by noon because they were fasting and still eager to learn about beekeeping.
As for my work, I initially struggled to express the importance of working calmly and quietly when standing near a beehive. When one man in Dzahani insisted on chopping at the branch that was holding up a beehive, a loud and brusque action bound to aggravate the bees, I sat quietly and watched the chaos ensue. Words had no effect. By the time the three future beekeepers closed the hive of angry bees, the six distant observers had scattered, chased into the forest by bees. Only two people were stung, and they all learned that working calmly and quietly is essential. In the end, the bees themselves are the best educator about beekeeping.
Before I depart in November, we’ll organize a national conference and exposition for all the new beekeepers to meet each other, exchange ideas and raise awareness among the general population of the blossoming beekeeping industry. I’ll be back in snowy Wisconsin before I know it, and the days of playing with bees during the week and snorkeling on the weekends will be a fond memory. I’ll always think of the Comorians I work with as my beekeepers, and I’d love to return in four or five years to see the beekeeping industry they create.
I have often considered foreign correspondence as a career, and one of the most tactical points I’ve taken away from my experience thus far is the value of flexibility.
Sometimes the rain is unpredictable. Sometimes the internet is unpredictable. The water, the electricity, people’s schedules—they can all be unpredictable.
However, in my first week in Mukono, one steadfast ritual has emerged: Saida brings me tea at my desk every morning.
Saida is a young Ugandan woman who works as one of several hired groundskeepers for the headquarters of the Save the Mothers program. And though I rarely take tea, one specific interaction with Saida has illustrated a second valuable lesson about traveling and working abroad.
Before landing in Entebbe I knew almost nothing about Luganda, one of Uganda’s most popularly spoken languages, except that it was far from the conversational French that I have. Thank goodness everyone speaks English, I thought.
It does not take long after arriving, however, to realize that just because over 2 million Ugandans speak English, it is not the conversational language of choice. In fact, more than 80 percent of Ugandans do not speak English at all.
In Mukono, chatter is more often than not in Luganda, which inspired me to pick up a few of the key greetings and conversational phrases. This came in handy when Saida offered me tea one Tuesday morning.
After my routine “no, thank you,” Saida noticed my plastic water bottle was nearly empty. I was running late that morning and decided not to fill it at the drinking water spout on the way into the office.
“Can I fill?” Saida asked. I hesitated, feeling a bit guilty because I am more than capable of walking over to the spout. Saida insisted.
While she was gone, I wracked my brain for “thank you” in Luganda, thankful for the extra time to think which I’m typically not allotted in quick transactions at the market or restaurant.
I was beaming with pride when Saida entered, full water bottle in hand, as I confidently—and surely with the most obnoxious American accent—thanked her in Luganda. “Webale nyo!” I said. With a larger smile than my own, Saida laughed and laughed. “Who taught you?” she demanded. I told her I had been picking up some words from friends. She left the office still grinning.
Saida was not the only one who got a kick out of my Luganda. I sat smiling for minutes after the encounter—it felt good to connect over something as simple as “thank you.”
Meagan Doll is a senior studying Journalism and Mass Communication with certificates in African studies and global health. This summer, she is in Mukono, Uganda reporting on issues related to maternal health in partnership with Save the Mothers, an international NGO committed to improving the health of mothers and their babies.
After about a week in the capital city of Kigali we headed southwest to the university town of Butare. Butare’s main street bustles with activity as motorcycle taxis, matatus, and bicycles rumble by.
Maneuvering through pedestrian and wheel traffic past the ever-popular Matar Supermarket (a go-to place for fresh popcorn, Nutella, flashlights, and avocados) we arrived at COPABU (Coopérative des Producteurs Artisanaux de Butare), which specializes in wood carvings while also offering a nice array of handbags, baskets, wallets, and other decorative art. The shop is crammed with merchandise and is no place for the clumsy. Visitors must demonstrate grace and agility to avoid bumping into plentifully laden shelves.
Much of the craftwork is destined for tourist consumption and represents iconic imagery of Rwanda like baskets with elegantly pointed tops, gorillas, and mothers with children. Local Rwandans also shop here for home decorations like wall hangings made of dyed millet, beans and shells.
We had the fortune of meeting COPABU’s current president Annonciata Nyiramisago. She guided the group to a nearby sustainable tree farm where the cooperative harvests the wood that artisans transform into sculptures and other products.
Catherine Reiland is the assistant director of the African Studies Program.
On a late afternoon we made our way to a girls’ boarding school run by the Rwanda Chapter of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) and located in one of Kigali’s suburbs.
The secondary school, founded in 1999, represents a movement in Rwanda to promote education for all women and girls.
U.S. teachesr Sarah Hinton, Cyndi Gueswel, and Doug Goetzinger met with about 10students on the school’s expansive lawn. The consummate teacher, Mr. Goetzinger quickly drew a map of the United States to demonstrate the location of the Midwest and Wisconsin. The girls, whose aspirations included professional basketball and engineering, taught the assembled teachers about Rwandan traditional musical instruments and wedding attire. Later the students took the visiting teachers on a tour of the school’s grounds which have a breathtaking view of green hills.
Catherine Reiland is the assistant director of the African Studies Program.