by Meshell Sturgis ('17, MA in Cultural Studies)
“So, how was your time in Tanzania?”
It’s the question one might expect when returning from study abroad. People are curious about things like the weather, the people, the sites, and the wildlife.
And yet, for most of us—a total of 12 UW students—the answers are complicated.
We had chosen to participate in the early fall Exploration Seminar Critical Perspectives on Ecotourism in Tanzania for a variety of reasons. We came from many academic fields to think about the local impact of eco-tourism as a global force, economically, political, and ecologically. We brought different disciplinary lenses, but also our own personal histories and lived experiences. For some of us, it was the first time outside of the United States, or the first time we were divided from our families. For those of us of African descent, the visit had a different symbolic meaning and connection. Most of us learned that critical perspectives on eco-tourism in Tanzania meant critical perspectives on ourselves, too.
Ben Gardner and Ron Krabill, the IAS faculty who led our seminar, share an interest in cultural politics and African studies. Gardner, who recently published Selling the Serengeti: The Cultural Politics of Safari Tourism in Tanzania (2015), has conducted long-term research on the relationship between local politics, transnational policies, and grounded struggles in the region. His connections formed the backbone of our trip, providing us with opportunities to learn about disputes over land rights among the indigenous Maasai, foreign investors, business owners, land owners, and the nation-state.
By design, our group of tourists-scholars moved through many spaces. As Professor Gardner puts it, “we aimed for a nice balance of traveling to different places but spending enough time in each place to slow down and get to know the unique qualities of those places.” Our trip began and ended in a small town called Maji ya Chai (water like tea), an hour outside of the larger city of Arusha. We spent the first week getting our bearings, learning basic Swahili, and developing the critical lens we all agreed to take up while on this trip. Then, we packed into our safari vehicles and headed out for a whirlwind of traveling and camping. In the Lake Natron region, we hiked up the Ngare Sero River and visited a women’s cultural boma that provided insight into how the local Maasai were organizing economically. Next we drove to the Ololosokwan Village, in Loliondo, where we teamed up with a group of high school students to do field research together. In the Serengeti National Park, we were immersed as tourists—viewing game, taking nature tours, and visiting tourist spaces like ecolodges— but we also got the locals’ perspectives on these practices through visits to NGOs like the Pastoral Women’s Council.
Returning to our home-base in Maji ya Chai, we began to unpack all that we had encountered, and prepared to return to the states. In our reflections, a theme about the relationship between time and space emerged: our experience of both were altered in studying abroad. Traveling through Tanzania, but also listening closely to those who lived and worked there, had prompted us to think a lot about colonial legacies and political power at local, regional, national, and international scales. It also prompted thoughts about the particularities of place, the meaning of home, and the feelings that attach to these potent, embodied ideas.
For Esther Wambui Ndungu, a second-year UW Bothell student, the experience affirmed connections and a sense of her homeland. Before meeting up with us in Arusha, Tanzania, she had been able to visit her family in Kenya: “Time flew by so quickly during the study abroad experience. I was so at home, I wanted to stay even longer, but unfortunately school was resuming. I made great connections that will last in my memory. In the future, I plan to go back and visit, and eventually move back home to Kenya.”
For Bianca Birchfield, a fourth-year IAS Environmental Studies major and Policy minor who has a four-year old son, being away from home intensified those feelings in quite a different way: “Time in Tanzania went by super slow. Missing Abe was a big part of that, but the environment and culture of the place also had a strong effect on my perception of time. We spent a lot of time analyzing what we were doing as well as why and how we were doing it. Coming out of that immersion, it was a struggle to come home and to roll right back into the swing of things.”
“There is a difference concerning the way westerners and Africans perceive time,” Esther observed. “Africans don’t take time as strictly as westerners.” “Time is constructed by the surroundings you are in,” Bianca concurs, noting how “Tanzanians seemed to not talk or handle time the way I am used to in the U.S.”
For me, I felt that I was time traveling back into the history of my own identity as a Black woman, and simultaneously being propelled into my futures as a global citizen, all the while learning to be present by just sitting in the sun on a log with a friend. That theme, about creating relationships and being present with friends, shines through most of our reflections. Although we had different experiences moving through Tanzanian space and time, we all really valued the small moments that came through being abroad together (pamoja in Swahili). Supporting one another, listening, laughing, sharing, and challenging one another and ourselves to absorb all that we could.
IAS faculty members Ben Gardner and Ron Krabill (above). Group photos below.
With thanks to Stephanie Hansen (International Studies, UW Seattle), Dani Marangoni-Simonsen (Biology, UW Seattle), Ruth Sawyer (Cultural Studies, UW Bothell), and Jordan Smith (IAS, UW Bothell) for their contributions to this article and for sharing the experience.
Applications for the 2017 Exploration Seminar to Tanzania are open and due on March 1, 2017. Check out the details here.