All the blog posts from my time in Tanzania studying wildlife research techniques.

16 minute read

Created

I created a very brief diary while in Tanzania and thought I would go ahead and share my experience.

Context

I took a “Wildlife Research Techniques” study abroad course in Tanzania through Boston University’s School For Field Studies program the summer of my junior year in high school. I was able to gain 4 college credits from Boston University too for studying abroad. SFS is an international non-profit academic institution and the largest environmental study abroad program in the US for college undergrads. You can check out more about SFS hereif you want (it’s a great program, seriously).

So, without further ado, here are all the entries I created while on that trip, with the first having been created July 30, 2012 - a magnificent Monday.


Hello, good morrow, salutations. Oh and jambo. So I chose to attend SFS for 2 primary reasons:

One, I had never been to Africa and life is very well… non lengthy. I don’t really know if I will ever get a chance to go to Africa again later so why not me? Why not now, I thought? You know that quote or phrase where it outlines a person’s typical life and it says “play, play, play, work, work, play, work, work, work, work, work, marry, work, work, play, work, work, work, play, die”?? Something along those lines, anyway. Yeah, well I don’t really want to rush into the “work” part without some “play” but I also didn’t want to waste my summer time just VISITING Africa. I had to study something (my little 16 year old brain has to be constantly stimulated)… which brings me to reason two.

Two, I wanted to study something related to zoology at the time and “Wildlife Research Techniques”, which is the formal title of the course, sounded pretty close enough to me (sarcasm). I mean, obviously I thought it through a lot more than it seems but you get the picture.

So in conclusion, SFS was a pretty big opportunity for me, it was there, and I just took the chance when I got it. And I ended up finding out about it with a simple Google search. Of course, I had to go through tons of PDF lists of programs and many pages on Google’s search engine (so much fun by the way) , BUT in the end it was definitely… I mean, most definitely worth it.


July 30, Monday

First off, being a high schooler isn’t easy at SFS. The course material is a little difficult at times to grasp and you never understand any of the college inside jokes. HOWEVER, it made all the better difference for me, I could even say I learned a ton more cultural and social aspects of Tanzania than I thought I ever would. So for that, I am truly grateful because my experience here will most likely be forever ingrained in my head unless I develop some sort of amnesia. In which case, yikes.

Any who, this morning was filled with community interviews at various bomas (houses) of Masai. We had to find out what kind of herbs, plants, trees, etc they owned or had access to and how they used it on day to day basis. Even if they used for some sort of sacrificial ceremony, it had to be noted. Also, if any animals were used for cultural, personal, farming related reasons, it had to be recorded. So with our groups of 3 or 4, we were off to learn of the Masai culture and values in our local region. If you are a lady and reading this, you might have been a tad shocked at the info I found out and if you are a guy and reading this, you might have been a little pleased. Myself, being a bit of a feminist was kind of disappointed to hear how the men here make most of the decisions and control all the assets while the women are separated from the men all throughout the day and have actually more work to do than men do, which I found really surprising because I had thought before hand that women would have less to do if they had less to be expected from them socially and culturally. Guess not.

Afterwards, it was lecture time. This time, the lecturer was a lion researcher who studied in Tarangire and Serengeti and boy oh boy, was it awesommmeee! No but really, “The Lion King” and all of its less interesting sequels and spoof offs will never be the same for me again. He basically showed us the social dynamics of lions, like how infanticide (the killing of a cub in this case) occurs a lot when males move from pack from pack once they get old enough and yadaladada. Hold on, let me just break it down for you..

SO cubs are born and get raised by their mothers and there are some adult males who are responsible for protecting the herd and territory. The mothers all raise their cubs together if there are multiple cubs and all the female lions, whether or not they have cubs, have the responsibility of gathering food through hunting for the male lions. Okay, good so far? The messed up part is that the mother lions are completely responsible for caring for their young and get little to no help from the male lions in raising them. The males actually don’t end up hunting for their own food a lot because of their huge arrogant like manes, which make it harder for them to hunt and run fast. So all in all, even among lions, the work balance between females and males is not so balanced.

However, when those cubs grow up and get old enough, and if they are males, they have to leave the pack and join a new pack. That is, if the cubs are still alive and have not been killed through hunting, infanticide, disease, etc. The males that are old enough have to fight the existing males in a different pack and if they defeat them, send those males out of their pack or just straight up kill them. I know, I know, might be terribly confusing, but here’s a quick summary again. Cubs don’t die—> Get old enough to leave pack and attack another pack—> Defeat other pack male members? Okay so replace former male pack members and kill off any cubs in that pack through infanticide (really sad) —> Don’t defeat other pack male members? Either just die trying or run away and attack another pack.

Its strange, its sad, its the grrrreat circle of life… “and it moves us all..dum dum dum.”. Can’t sing for the life of me, sigh.


July 31, Tuesday

Sweeeeett day today. Went to Ngorogoro crater today (aka: Africa’s Garden of Eden). Abundant biodiversity here, in only the few hours I had, I saw lions, cheetah, hyenas, hippos, ostriches, etc. They weren’t very far away either, they were nice and close to get a quality Nat Geo pic. Not that I work for Nat Geo but you get the picture. There was even Nat Geo video quality moments when I saw a cheetah hunt a wildebeest, right in front of me. The bad thing about that situation was the overwhelming number of safari jeeps in the area. When we first saw the cheetah, there were about 5 cars. Then there were 10, 15, 20, and someone finally counted at least 30 cars when the cheetah started to hunt and stalk the wildebeest. One car went as far as almost interrupting the cheetah’s natural way of hunting by narrowly avoiding her tracking route.

Even though the rudeness of some people surprised me today, I was still amazed by the beauty of the crater. While in my jeep, I stood up in the back of the truck and just rested my head on the car and let my face bask in the sun. I was so relaxed, nothing could faze me in that moment. Not even the hundreds of wildebeest and zebras I noted around me. Just one of those little things you can’t get your head around.

The next step in this beautiful process? The Serengeti. The most famous national park in Tanzania and a well known World Heritage Site. Can’t wait much longer.

Unfortunately, you won’t be getting too many details from Serengeti because there’s no internet there (duh silly me) and I’m not bringing my precious laptop when hyenas could steal it or something (hah, not realistic but yeah).


August 10, Friday

WELL, back from the Serengeti. Words fail me (and everything is just a big fantastic blur so there’s that too). I can say without hesitation that the expedition was the most terribly exciting, sublime, and unique event I’ve experienced in a while. All the students had VERY, VERY close encounters with all kinds of wildlife (lion, cheetah, leopard, hyena, elephant, giraffe, etc.) Again, let me emphasize VERY close encounters.

Mid way in the expedition, something really weird happen. I was heading back to the SFS camp in Serengeti, and as I was about to sit back from standing up all day in the jeep looking at wildlife, the car stopped and someone yelled in surprise. “A rock!” was all I heard. Everyone stands up and huddles around Ashley, the rock yeller. Christian, our driver and one of the professors, gasped in surprise as well and now I was really concerned. “A pangolin! An actual pangolin!”, Ashley exclaimed. “A pangolin?”, I thought to myself… “What is that??”. I didn’t actually say that aloud, afraid I would be judged harshly for not knowing those sort of things.

I’m glad I didn’t because everyone was freaking out, including me and I didn’t even know what the bloody thing was. I slowly crept back down to my seat and quickly grabbed the African mammal textbook we use for the course that was lying on the ground. Faster than the speed of the light, I looked up the pangolin and found out it was a scaly anteater and quickly stood up again. “A scaly anteater?? Really? What’s so cool about that?” I thought to myself. Delusional people, I thought, getting excited over some anteater. That’s when people started to rant out facts about the little pangolin. “Yeah, its rarer to see than a rhino here… the majority of drivers have never ever seen one here in Serengeti… it walks like a dinosaur, with its arm close to its chest, bending down a little, and using its hind leg to walk upright… blah blah blah”. Oh dear. I’ve done it again! Jumped to conclusions. Turns out the weird looking little pangolin was more unique and fascinating than I ever thought possible for such a strange scaly looking little anteater. Aww shucks for me, for I am clearly the delusional one.

Any who, while feeling like an idiot for underestimating the importance of the pangolin I was seeing at the moment, someone called Christian, our driver. Another car had just recently got attacked by elephant! My heart skipped a beat and I waited for the next few seconds for him to finish the phone call. I noticed how all my jeep buddies seemed in shock too. Here we were anyways, just sighted an extreme rarity in the Serengeti, an animal barely anybody gets to see, and finally thinking my jeep would have the best story to tell at wrap time, and some other jeep gets attacked by an elephant. I know, I know, its terrible that that is what I was thinking about at the time but then I realized I was really scared for the attacked jeep. Were they okay? More news… a window was broken. Okay, so now I’m really worried. More news… everyone was okay. Relief.

To make a long story short, a rather large mother elephant attacked a jeep and hit one of the side windows with her tusk, completely breaking it in. Everyone had moved away from that side in time and everyone was okay, including the driver, who I would guess had his heart beating so hard when he was trying to get the jeep away from the elephant.

It happens and there are more details but the night is still young and dinner is calling to me. I swear though, the Serengeti felt like a movie mixed with all the following genres of thriller, comedy, drama, and documentary. Sound surreal? YEAH, it was.


August 12, Sunday

Last non program day. Oh and non program days is when the students can go off into town and enjoy themselves and just immerse themselves in whatever cultural activities or just shop.. whatever we want really. So I spent all my time in Mto wa Mbu (or as I pronounce it… ootoowamboo), a local town in the Arusha region. These many days have been a sort of blur, I have yet to grasp it all. My entire day was dedicated to the art of painting tinga-tinga and knife paintings. Sure, maybe I got SOME help on them but overall I got to say those paintings were some of my best.. ever. Mid way in the painting process (just waiting for them to dry), it was time for lunch. And quite frankly, lunch on a non program day is never really satisfying unless it is from Happy Days or Pizza Point, two local restaurants in Arusha. Pizza is a big thing for me back in Virginia, so Pizza Point was the obvious choice. A long walk from the painting workshop, the journey was made more tolerable with the college kids I had come to befriend since my first day here. Once I got there, I ordered my 10,000 tsh (about $7) margarita pizza, which is basically cheese pizza. The pizza was good, so life was good. The nice cold Coca-Cola in that 100 degree plus weather didn’t hurt either.

Molly, our SAM (Student Affairs Manager) , came in a little later and generously dropped us back off to the Masai marketplace, which is right across the painting workshop. I don’t know how it happened, but once we got out of the car near the market, the next thing I know I am in a shop and looking at the so called novelties all the shops the outside market has to offer. I say so called novelties because all the shops sell the same items really, you just have to be able to find a very good seller and be a really smart buyer. Bargaining is expected for the most part in the Masai marketplace and if you are a moozoongoo (white person/tourist/foreigner) versus a mwanafunzi (resident student), you can either get a really good or really bad price. Any who, I got sucked into shopping too, but I made sure I didn’t spend too much because I really wanted money for London on the trip back home. So I ended up getting some book ends with elephants and a little holder for whatever tinkers you have with an elephant also. Both gifts for buddies back home.

Initially, while shopping, I was with Lisa, a fellow classmate, but then I stayed in a shop too long and ended up by myself. Being my typical brave self, I dropped my purchases off in the safari jeep that was waiting for us and headed off to the painting workshop again.. alone. It was around 4:20, and we had to leave at 5pm. I forgot where the workshop was so I just headed in a general direction of where I remember it was. Luckily enough, the sellers here are really persistent and a t-shirt seller came up to me to try to sell something and I told him I was going to the tinga-tinga painting workshop (without really knowing where I was going). He said he knew where it was and walked towards a sketchy looking alley way. I was slightly worried I was being led elsewhere but the kids constantly waving hi to the brown moozoongoo (I’m Hispanic, and that seems to be a kind of rarity in Africa) made the trip less scary. Imagine my feelings of stupidity when I arrived finally to the workshop, all in one piece. The guy turned out be just a typical college student trying to pay off debts selling t-shirts. Maybe I’ll be in that situation one day. Haha.

After paying about $20 for my two paintings I had done on my own (for the most part), I departed happily back to Moyo Hill, my camp/home here in Tanzania. One painting was knife style, and had one Masai man on one side of a typical African boma and then a moozoongoo man on the other side, merrily living together as friends in their quaint little boma. The other painting was tinga tinga style, and had 4 elephants to represent the rest of my family, excluding me (only because there wasn’t enough room). My parents and little brother and sister made an interesting looking herd of elephants. I was and am really proud of those paintings still. I felt I had truly immersed myself. The day overall could not have been more satisfying. I mean, seriously, painting stuff by yourself (when you lack all artistic talent) with pizza and some shopping with good bargaining? Doesn’t get better than that.


August 13, Monday

Everything is getting overwhelming. Right now, 11:11 am, I am resting in my banda, ready to get packed soon, and am listening to the Lion King soundtrack with my banda mates. Specifically listening to the “Circle of Life”. Too much going on, my head hurts. So many mixed feelings rushing through my head. I am leaving tomorrow and I have accepted just fine that but I know deep down inside, I won’t be leaving anywhere near the same person I was.

So its 1pm now. Lunch time was typical, no debriefing afterwards this time because all the students had been debriefed for the last time in the morning and had taken a final photo session/group pictures with all the Tanzanian program members/staff/etc right under the gazebo. Very nice. After the photo session and debriefing with staff, it was time for a student and SAM only meeting. Molly, our SAM, asked us all to share a little about our experiences, like what we would miss about Tanzania and what we miss about home in America. Another question was what our best experience was, and I told everyone that when I was about 4 feet away from the face of a lion in the Serengeti and it even started to growl at me, I decided not to care. I decided not to care because I was so stuck in the moment, it didn’t even matter anymore if the stalking female lion right next to the jeep decided to bite my face, I was too close to care. Its eyes were so intense and I could only look back in awe. It was one of the best moments I have ever experienced with an animal.

Well, leaving tomorrow at 8 am to get to the airport on time (its about 5 hours away) and then I leave at around 7:40pm to Nairobi with the rest of the student group, then its off to London and finally New York City. Oh, and from there its an 8 hour drive to Norfolk, Virginia again.

So now its time to pack.\ The journey home is a long one.\ Nothing will be the same.\ Ever.\ …but I think I like it better that way.

Toodles now…

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