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  Study Abroad  Student Writing Contest  2008 Contest 3rd Place Winner
Student Writing Contest WinnerStudent Writing Contest 3rd Place Winner

Study Abroad in Tanzania

On Borders, Bananas, and Being Back

Presenting research in Tanzania
The author presents her research in Endulen Hospital in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to village authorities and hospital staff.

“Do you know what the problem with America is? Oceans!”

A high school history teacher explained several times to our class that having oceans on either side of our country affects our orientation in the world, and thus the ideas we build upon that foundation. At the time, I understood what he was trying to say, but hadn’t yet had the chance to internalize the message. The oceans that he was talking about were the big blue spaces on flat maps that reflected spatial conceptualizations of the world outside of America: when we imagine ourselves front and center, everywhere else is just periphery.

But the world is not flat and it’s impossible to locate the center-point on the area of a sphere–you could not say, “I am here,” if the sphere were blank. And countries are not, in fact, separated by colorful, highlighted lines. On the ground level, one thing flows into another. Anyone is capable of knowing and understanding this–going abroad is about living it.

I studied abroad through the Midwest consortium, Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) on the Tanzania Program from July – December. ACM is an organization through which students can participate in several abroad programs that encompass learning at universities along with fieldwork and a capstone independent research component. (If you don’t go to one of the colleges in the consortium, there are still many viable programs that emphasize special interdisciplinary issues, and encourage independent work and unique experiences. Two similar organizations include: SIT World Learning, as well as CIEE.) It is to your benefit to travel with an organization that provides both an interdisciplinary curriculum and practical experience.

I was definitely more excited than I can express during preparation for my trip. The notion of going somewhere "completely different" is certainly liberating and exciting. However, with time in Tanzania, I came to be comfortable with the fact that in going abroad, I wasn’t hopping out of my borders into another set, but rather was being given the chance to realize the fluidity between people and places, as well as the responsibility to act accordingly and be an ambassador of this humbling knowledge.

In this way, I came to see my own experience as an ongoing translation between differences and similarities: which differences were significant? Which similarities were universal? Which of each were useful lenses through which to study and communicate? These questions were especially pronounced during my field research. My research group was camping inside of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in the north part of the country. While heralded as one of the most exhilarating tourist destinations in Africa or perhaps the world–and though it surely is a spectacularly beautiful place–we were camped behind the area’s only hospital, with slightly different concerns. My own research involved going through hospital records mapping the malaria inpatients and outpatients in the villages of the conservation area. I supplemented that with community interviews, in order to obtain a cross-section of community attitudes toward the hospital’s curative role in their own malaria burden, as well as their view toward preventive measures. The numbers that I charted and the opinions I recorded were all useful information, but my learning happened between the lines. Reactions to being interviewed or emotions toward preventive measures were often misaligned with my expectations, and these were most often the sites of transition for me, as my perception of what is appropriate and reasonable changed with the understanding of others’ stakes, interest, and situation in place and time in regards to the issues I was studying. In the end, the simplicity of the lessons is what constitutes that humbling knowledge–realizing that I would probably feel the same way as many of the mothers I interviewed made me feel slightly embarrassed that I would have expected something otherwise.

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania
A view from the top of a hill close to the author’s campsite, showing the expanse of the Conservation Area, as well as a nearby Maasai boma (village).

The truth is that borders are only as real as the staff in booths checking your passport. There are certainly administrative differences between one place and another, but the emphasis here is on the more conceptual notion of boundaries and notions of identity. When you study abroad, you are a person leaving home, traveling to somebody else’s. Your presence in another country is certainly meaningful and interpreted in a variety of ways, but at the end of the day there is little deviation between the basic human needs and desires of the people in the place you came from and the people in the place that you are. Societies and cultures draw their own lines about what is considered appropriate behavior, and being in a different country is what facilitates contact with these alternative–specifically, the opportunity to study abroad allows a college student "new to the world" to formulate a mental map consisting of a landscape of livelihoods, with a topography of temperament, values and mores. As you study or travel or communicate with others, understanding that the behaviors or mores in a different place are interpretations of the common requisites of all humans makes a difference in how you do these things, and will enrich your experience immeasurably.

For me, studying and researching abroad provided a realistic frame of reference for learning about the way that public health studies and interventions are carried out. These lessons are, of course, applicable to any faculty of study. No matter what it is you’re doing, the most important thing is that you understand the connotations of how you are doing it. With these things in mind, I internalized the message my history teacher had been repeating in the course of my six months abroad: how we think often determines what we think. Studying abroad is all about the how.

All of this is not meant to paint a sobering picture of what it is to study abroad. On a more light-hearted note, the second most valuable part of being abroad to me is something that was also tied to notions of differences and similarities, but was not mentioned in any pre-departure orientation: Humor! I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone on this earth that did not enjoy laughing. And despite different ideas about what is funny in different places of the world, it is lucky for all of us living in it that learning a language–an integral part of many study abroad experiences–and making mistakes is funny to pretty much everyone. Our program had six intensive weeks of Kiswahili in the beginning of our trip. Fortunately, we also had the chance in that period of time to interact with the Tanzanian students at the University of Dar es Salaam. One of my favorite examples illustrates the way that humor serves as a common ground for interaction with people in different places:

In Swahili, a common greeting is “Habari yako?” – what’s your news?, or how are you?

One of the most common answers is, of course, “Nzuri.” – good.

One morning, a Tanzanian student asked my friend, “Habari yako?

And she enthusiastically answered, “NDIZI!”  …banana!

The unexpected response delighted the Tanzanian student, and amused the rest of us. I know that there are plenty of times I felt uncomfortable or embarrassed or out of place. But the things that stay with me are these simple memories, laden with meaning beyond just jokes–herein lies the fabric of our composition as humans seeking happiness through cross-cultural understanding. Whether bananas or something else, humor is powerful and should be recognized as such, in that the simple greeting and comical mishap could lead to more consequential conversations.

To me, these are the most valuable things to keep in mind while you are abroad. They will shape your experience in a constructive and mutually beneficial way. But the third element of my advice to abroad-goers is to recognize that your experience doesn’t stop when you board the airplane to go home. Before you leave, everyone wants a say in your experience. They want to tell what to do and that you’ll have a great time, and what to pack, and don’t forget to write to them! Hardly anyone talks to you about being back. Personally, I was more culture shocked coming back to the US, during our commercialized Christmas season, in all of the un-necessity than I was going to a place where I could so easily access the basic emotions common to people no matter the color in which they were outlined on our flat maps.

But being back is just as important as leaving, because your mind and heart are swelling with images and thoughts and experiences, and no matter how light you traveled, you are always coming back with more experience than you left with. In a journal entry a couple of months after being back, I wrote "There’s a weird reaction to certain comforts of home, a combination of ironic guilt and panicked nostalgia, and intermittent, secret appreciation for certain luxuries. Sometimes, I still don't feel back, but rather stretched across time and space."

About a year after I wrote that, I don’t think much has changed. When I ride the CTA here in Chicago, I see people skip a seat between each other, maintaining their personal space, and images are immediately conjured of the daladala in Tanzania, the vans that carry people to their destinations, where the only rule is that “there’s always room for just one more,” where traveling even five minutes down the road can be an adventure involving stretching, twisting, limbo maneuvers, and perhaps an encounter with an armpit or two. I walk into a pharmacy store to pick something up, and I see shelves lined with medications, all labeled nicely and organized by malady and my thoughts wander to my time in the field, where I managed to contract giardia and was given a regimen of medication from the hospital in unlabeled zip-lock baggies. I wake up every morning, and there is no mosquito net canopying my bed. I can drink water from the tap if I want to. I’ve surrendered to my fond memories of the place that taught me so much, and I’ve channeled them toward my work now that I’m back. My grades are better–my schoolwork is fortified by a command of knowing how to research and analyze. My focus is sharper, I may not know exactly where I will be working in the future, but I know what my passions are and what I stand for and the causes for which I will be working. Being back means keeping your experience alive. It means encouraging others to learn the same lessons you learned, and it means decentralizing our own orientation in the world for a more inclusive perspective of all people.

When we let down the guard of our own personal borders, we can transition between our conditioned expectations and the reality of the world around us. The same is true for learning to laugh at ourselves, finding the humor in everyday life and in the process, the common ground for us all. Being abroad is an incredible opportunity, and those able to do it are privileged. This is what my experience has provided for me, and that which I hope to share with anyone preparing to travel abroad: always be aware of your borders and don’t be afraid to shift them, laugh at your bananas and use them to dig deeper, and make the absolute best use of being back.

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