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Currents: thousands of little moments

Finding Passion and Purpose in Africa

by Jeanne Clark '11

I have been interested in Africa my whole life, and though I am not sure how this interest started, I know what fueled it. Throughout my childhood, the documentaries and television programs about Africa I watched made me want to experience the contrasting landscapes and incredible wildlife of the continent for myself. I never let go of that dream.

My first year at college was a very uncertain period as I struggled to determine what my time at Colby-Sawyer should look like. Then the tug I felt about going to Africa deepened when my Pathway, Migration, discussed the origins of mankind and the possibility of the first early hominids having come from Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. I cannot help but think of Africa as the raw birthplace of the earth and my own species. My classes at Colby-Sawyer encouraged my mind to “take off its Western thinking cap,” as Associate Professor of Natural Sciences Nick Baer says, and practice a global perspective. The School for Field Studies (SFS) is an organization with field stations all over the world for environmental, biology and public health study abroad programs. I was fortunate that the Colby-Sawyer Environmental Department has a partnership with SFS which enables seniors to study abroad during/in their fall semester, gain academic credits required for graduation, and have their directed research project (the most important aspect of the SFS program) become their senior Capstone. With the aid of my professors, I completed the application to spend Fall 2010 in Tanzania and Kenya.

I usually refer to my semester abroad as a dream come true.

I wish I could properly describe the moment I was able to see the Olduvai Gorge, which I'd discussed in my Pathway class on campus, while traveling to Serengeti National Park on expedition in Tanzania, but that seems to be the overall nature of sharing my experience abroad: it's a struggle to find words that might not even exist for the purpose I need. In the months since I returned, I have realized that my time in East Africa colored my life in more ways than I could have ever imagined. I never expected to leave a continent with two countries permanently printed on my heart, affecting every thought and action I have.

The SFS program I attended begins in one country, where the students take classes and learn about the area, and halfway through the semester switches to the second country, where students conduct their final directed research projects. All the professors and staff at each site (Moyo Hill in Rhotia, Tanzania and Kilimanjaro Bush Camp in Kimana, Kenya) are from the area, except for the Student Affairs Managers—the “Mom” of each site—who were also Americans. I began my semester in Tanzania, studying wildlife ecology, wildlife management, environmental policy and introductory Swahili with 27 other American students.

My group had the honor of being the first students at Moyo Hill, as the site had just been built over the summer.

Sept. 5, 2010

We arrived at our Tanzanian camp site on Tuesday, and as our Land Cruisers pulled past the gates (which had beautiful elephants and lions painted on them by a local artist), we were met by everyone who works here: all the staff, cooks and professors were there to cheer and welcome us with huge smiles.

It was overwhelming to walk down this massive line of people, shake their hands, try to understand their Swahili, and attempt to remember so many new names. I couldn't believe how happy they were to see us.

They built this new camp site in the past three months and it is beautiful. At the original site, we would have been living in tents with little or no access to a private bathroom. Here, everyone lives in a little cement banda with three or four roommates and has their own bathroom. Our chumba (a bigger structure for large groups of people) is in the middle of the camp, where we study and have all our meals and big meetings. We have one classroom, a small library and computer room and the staff has their own offices and bandas. The camp is surrounded by a fence of thorny bushes — believe me, you don't want to be caught in them.

As we plunged headfirst into classes and began to build relationships with our faculty and staff, I realized our classroom had no boundaries. Our classes were held in the designated classroom, outside, in town, in the surrounding areas, and—the best place—in the national parks. In Tanzania, we visited Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire National Parks, with a final stint in Serengeti National Park for a five-day expedition. The following is from a journal entry about our first safari in Lake Manyara:

Sept.16, 2010

The first time we saw an elephant, I really wanted to cry. I'm excited to see everything here, but for some reason I've always had a soft spot for elephants. Entire families of elephants walked right next to our Rover, passing by like we weren't there. I could have reached out and touched them. Words will never come close to describing how beautiful they are, and how adorable their clumsy young are as they follow in the lines. Someone said they don't know how to use the muscles in their trunks yet, so they just kind of wobble their heads back and forth to get them to move.

When we got to the park, we drove through thick forest for a long time and came to a clearing with a stream and hippos. Our jaws dropped as we stared out into the distance, because leading to the shore of Lake Manyara were hundreds of grazing zebra, wildebeest and impala. It was so unreal to see so much wildlife interacting together in the same place, calmly grazing. I'm glad I brought my binoculars, because even when we are close to the wildlife, zooming in on their faces is remarkable. I had no idea how beautiful zebras are; I want one.

And another from our expedition in Serengeti:

Oct.13, 2010

Spending five days in Serengeti National Park was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had. “Serengeti” translates as “endless plains” and is sometimes referred to as the “ocean of grass.” Imagine barreling down a bumpy road in a 10-passenger Land Cruiser, surrounded by tall, soft brown grass with patches of green with a few boulders on the horizon and a landscape dotted with acacia trees with, if you're lucky, a sleeping leopard or two in them. This is the bulk of Serengeti, but the park also has riverine and woodland/bushland habitats and several hippo pools. Hippo pools are the worst smelling thing you will ever encounter — I promise.

Our time in the park was spent doing many game drives, traveling lectures and several field exercises. My favorite field exercise was doing an assessment of bird abundance on a game drive, which helped us learn to identify the common bird species in the park. The bird life here is gorgeous, and it felt so good to be with students who get excited about one little bee-eater and will stop at nothing to identify the wildlife. We've all become attached to our bird guides; mine is now lovingly covered in mud and coffee because I bring it everywhere. The bee-eaters and starlings are my favorites.

Saying goodbye to Tanzania was emotional after setting down roots and calling it home for a month and a half, but Kenya welcomed us with open arms and a very different setting. Unlike the site in Tanzania, where we were part of the community life of little Rhotia, Kilimanjaro Bush Camp was in the middle of nowhere, with a greater chance of an elephant walking in than a person.

Nov. 8, 2010

Kenya is amazing. I enjoyed my time in Tanzania and was sad to leave, but falling in love with Kenya has turned out to be much easier than I anticipated.

Our site in Kenya, compared with Tanzania, is much more…wild. That might be the biggest reason why I fell in love with it. In Tanzania, we were in the community of Rhotia, but here we are off the beaten path, our camp is bigger, and wildlife is more abundant. And by wildlife, I mean that sometimes elephants accidently break in. Our bandas are small wooden huts with no electricity or water. They are just a place to keep all our things and for mosquito-netted beds.

In Kenya, we visited Amboseli National Park several times and had an expedition in Tsavo West National Park. One of the major highlights of our expedition was to see a very rare animal, the African wild dog.

Nov.15, 2010

The African wild dogs are beautiful and rare, and all our professors here have told us that little is known about any healthy populations in the area. During our drive to the sanctuary we saw not one or two but a family of 30 wild dogs hanging out in the shade, all different ages, sleeping, relaxing and playing. Time stopped. All of our cruisers were together and we crept up next to the dogs, taking turns to get a closer look, and gawked at their beauty and our amazing luck to witness something so extraordinary. All our professors, who have studied ecology and wildlife management in East Africa, said they had never seen anything like this — at best, they had only seen a few wild dogs in their entire lives. Everyone was holding their breath and each other's hands as we soaked in the moment.

My study abroad experience was full of these moments: difficult to describe, but overwhelming in feeling. There is something about living abroad that makes you see every layer of yourself. Being in a completely unfamiliar environment, surrounded by strangers, makes you seek to understand yourself in ways with which other experiences simply cannot compete. I have come to realize that when people ask about my experience, I don't tell them a story from start to finish. My time in Tanzania and Kenya is the culmination of thousands of little moments that moved me more than any other time in my life.

When I think of Tanzania, I remember losing my breath to elephants, holding local children in my lap during field lectures, and falling in love all over the place. When I think of Kenya, I remember the cutting call of ibises in the trees, watching the land explode into life with the onset of a short rain, and sobbing in an airport because I couldn't imagine letting go of it all. East Africa was the best and hardest teacher I have ever had, full of lessons I am only now beginning to understand.

Nov. 24, 2010

I found a small bird in the bathroom sink today. The bathrooms are outdoors, so it seemed the bird got confused and smashed into the mirror. It looked like it had been struggling to get out for a while and I was scared it had permanently hurt itself. I threw a shirt over it, scooped it up, and sat with it in a quiet corner of camp. When I unwrapped the bird, it didn't try to get away. It eyed me for a while, then dozed. I cradled it and thought about how my time here is coming to an end. I wondered what lay ahead of me in America, what my next steps would be. I tried to push these thoughts away and just be. I don't know how long I stayed with the bird, but just as my feet were beginning to fall asleep it woke up. Stood up and shook itself. Flew away. Nothing to it. It's funny how nature shows you how to move on

Jeanne Clark '11 graduated with a B.S. degree in Environmental Science. She plans to focus her career on global environmental issues.