UGA in Africa

Programs in the developing world give students an education they can't get on campus

UGA in Africa

The language difference is no barrier as children on Paje Beach in Zanzibar explore the differences between themselves and Dave Hanson, a graduate student from Springfield, Ga.

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The day begins just after dawn with breakfast, followed by visits to local government offices, a local bottling plant and a crafts manufacturer. Traffic, as usual, is thick and the bus carrying UGA students crawls along the dusty roads. As they pull back into the hotel parking lot in late afternoon the group lets out a collective groan when reminded of a two-hour hike planned through a nearby rice paddy. 

“Okay girls, put your masculinity on, let’s go,” calls out Brittany Lee, a senior from Brentwood, Tenn.

With guides ahead of and behind them the 13 students and two professors begin their walk through a thick cluster of trees, which opens onto the rice fields. A narrow, raised ledge of dirt serves as a bridge across the soggy land and the students step gingerly, single file to keep from getting wet and muddy. 

Halfway across, their chatter ceases and they stop, balanced on the dirt ledge, facing west.  Before them, framed by the last of the setting sun, is Mount Kilimanjaro, its majestic snow-capped peaks visible above the clouds for the first time since the students arrived. They stand silently for several seconds before drawing out their digital cameras to capture the scene in photographs.

This is no ordinary walk. This is Africa.

For the next 30 days, the 28 students and faculty will visit cities, islands, rural communities and wildlife preserves in Tanzania as part of UGA’s oldest study abroad program in Africa. It is the 10th anniversary of UGA in Tanzania, which now is joined by programs in Ghana, South Africa, Morocco and Uganda. The university also runs public service projects in Kenya, Tunisia, Liberia, Nigeria and the Sudan. 

Directed by the African Studies Institute, UGA in Tanzania now includes two groups of students who have separate class curriculum to fulfill but participate in many of the same activities. The original group of undergraduates takes classes in a number of disciplines, including Swahili, African history and politics, anthropology, and agribusiness. The second group, added last year, includes students from the Terry College Institute for Leadership Advancement (ILA). Their courses include Leadership in the Global Marketplace and Intercultural Communication. 

The program not only offers an opportunity for students to learn the language, history and economy of a country while in that country, but also a chance to become familiar and comfortable with its people, culture and geography. They tour businesses and government agencies, navigate local markets, snorkel in the Indian Ocean and observe big game animals in their natural habitat. Some stay after the close of the program to hike Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Tanzania. 

In addition to study abroad, UGA also sends students to Tanzania and other parts of Africa for service-learning projects. This summer, a team of eight students and four faculty/staff members visited Ukerewe island as part of an outreach program established in 2005 between UGA and Gertrude Mongella, a member of the Tanzanian Parliament and recipient of the 2005 UGA Delta Prize. 

The team went to try and help residents of the remote island villages address some of their most pressing problems: unsustainable agriculture and water resources, inadequate education and economic opportunities for girls and women, and poor maternal and child health programs. 

These programs, both study abroad and service learning, have been a priority for President Michael Adams since he arrived at UGA a decade ago. More than 2,000 UGA students participated in a study abroad program in the 2006-07 academic year, compared to just 629 in 1996-97. 

“We don’t believe our students can be fully educated if they don’t understand cultures other than their own,” says Adams, who visited Tanzania and met with the students there this summer. 

Brian Pruiett, a senior ILA student from Chatsworth, Ga., says the trip changed his perception of Africa, which was based mostly on media reports. 

“We get a very jaded picture of Africa,” Pruiett says. “We see people rocked by famine and unbridled corruption. If you make their conditions right, these people will excel. They want to excel.”

It is near winter in Tanzania but skies are sunny and temperatures balmy in Moshi, which lies just 5 degrees below the equator. In the air-conditioned van, students check e-mails on their BlackBerrys, chatter and sing as if oblivious to the bumpy roads and sudden swerves to avoid passing cars. Boston’s “Long Time” and “Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith blast from a boom box in the back of the van. 

The country, like the music, is decades behind the times.

At the Bonite Bottling Company, Coca-Cola is bottled in 16-ounce glass bottles, with employees plucking imperfect bottles off the conveyor belt by hand as well as other jobs now performed in modern facilities by machines. 

“If it ain’t cold, it ain’t sold,” reads a banner on one wall, a seeming contradiction in a place where few people have electricity and even fewer have refrigerators. 

In the local market, the students put their language skills to work. Each is given 1,000 shillings, roughly $1, and told to see what they can get for it using their limited Swahili. 

“We got a whole bushel of bananas,” says Natalie Nesmith, a senior from Atlanta, showing off a branch of green bananas that takes up the rear storage area of the students’ van.

Going to the market is difficult for the Americans, however. Locals recognize them as tourists before they leave the van and approach them asking for money or trying to sell them things. It is particularly overwhelming in the carver’s market in Dar Es Salaam, where vendors hawk scarves and paintings, handmade jewelry and wood carvings from open air booths. Bargaining is not only accepted, but expected of the shoppers.

“You like this?” one shopkeeper asks Cassie Mertzlufft, a senior from Athens, as he holds out a dolphin carved from wood. 

“I really love the giraffe,” Mertzlufft says.  

“Shilingi ngapi twiga huyu?” she asks, which means, “How much for the giraffe?” 

Fifteen thousand shillings, he says—roughly $15.

Too much. She looks over the carved zebras, bowls and Masai warriors and starts to leave. Suddenly the price drops. Two for 25,000 shillings, the shopkeeper offers, 

Two for 20,000, Mertzlufft counters. He takes her money and wraps the carvings. 

“Asante, sana,” Mertzlufft says, which means thank you very much. 

Tanzanians are desperate to make any money they can this time of year, which is the low season for tourists, says Lioba Moshi, who travels with the students and is director of the African Studies Institute. Nearly a quarter of the country’s people live on less than $1 a day and most eat only one meal a day, most often ugali, a starchy dish made from corn flour. 

The situation is the most dire in rural areas of the country, like Ukerewe, where the service-learning group is based. The area, with its agriculture-based economy, is threatened by environmental issues such as deforestation, unsustainable use of land and water resources, and soil erosion. Years of farming the same fields have depleted the soil of nutrients needed to produce healthy crops.

Students Jenna Hickey, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in wildlife/ecology, and April Conway, a master’s candidate in forestry, observe the reforestation efforts underway at Bure Gardens, a community cooperative on the island. 

Hickey points to the mounds of dirt, which look like speed bumps, along the path beside a field of seedlings.  

“They’ve already done some erosion control to keep the water from running down the hill,” she says. 

The students see evidence of the major issues facing the developing country both in Ukerewe and on the mainland. In Moshi, students visit an orphanage where many children have come to live after losing a parent to malaria or AIDS. The World Health Organization estimates there were 1.1 million children in Tanzania in 2005 that were orphaned as a result of AIDS.

Connor McCarthy, a junior from Mobile, Ala., is barely off the van when a small hand slips into his and steers him toward the children’s play area, a dirt slab between the rustic buildings where they sleep and bathe. Before long, he’s playing catch with a tiny 5-year-old girl named Rosie, who throws a soggy, fabric covered ball into the Frisbee he extends as a mitt.

A sink in the yard holds dirty dishes from an earlier meal. A little boy stands at the sink washing out a pair of socks in a plastic bucket. Small clothes hang on lines strung across the play area. 

Brittany Lee and Mandy Reimann, a senior from Marietta, put Georgia stickers on the children’s cheeks, bringing smiles to their faces. 

The kids crowd around Brian Pruiett as he hands out the Cadbury chocolate bars he has brought as treats.

“Is it good?” Pruiett asks one boy, whose face already is smeared by the soft chocolate. 

The boy holds out a piece to Pruiett.

“No, no,” Pruiett says. “You eat it.”

Before the students leave, the children perform a dance and skit, a custom for guests in Africa. They also challenge them to a tug-of-war.

“The children have never lost,” ILA Director Dale Gauthreau taunts his students. 

They don’t lose this day either.

Back at the Springlands Hotel in Moshi several of the business students meet with Mama Zara, their nickname for Zainab Ansell, who owns the hotel as well as Zara Tanzania Adventures tour company. 

The students are helping Ansell draft a marketing plan for her businesses. The exercise is teaching them about consumerism and economics in Tanzania, while Ansell is learning more about her potential market in the U.S.

“I thought I could give them some sort of a challenge,” she says. “I realized that Tanzania is now really well known in the United States.”

The trip is filled with such teachable moments. 

A visit to the salt marsh in Zanzibar’s Jozani Forest Preserve gives Kerrie Anne Loyd, a Ph.D. candidate in wildlife who is serving as an instructor on the trip, an opportunity to point out mudskippers, small lungless fish often seen perched on the multiple roots of the mangroves.

“Can you guys see how the mangroves help prevent (shoreline) erosion?” Loyd asks her students. 

Local residents once used the mangroves for firewood and building materials, Loyd says, but now protect them because they help maintain the ecosystem.

Students meet for classes and make daily entries in their journals, which are required. Some have papers due once they return to Athens. Most began preparing for the trip, with classes in African history, culture and language, months before the journey began.

Ben Nelson, a senior from Statesboro, is conversant in Swahili when he arrives in Tanzania. On the two-hour ferry from Dar Es Salaam to Zanzibar, he strikes up a conversation with Omar Hamisi, 22, an electronics dealer and seaman who lives on the island. 

Once there, Hamisi invites Nelson to his home and to the markets and neighborhoods he frequents. They ride the Dala Dala, the 15-passenger vans that locals use to move about the island. 

They trade information. Hamisi teaches him some of the local lingo. In return, Nelson translates for Hamisi the lyrics to American rap music. 

“He taught me the cool stuff,” Nelson says. “I’ve learned more here than I ever did in class in America. It makes me sad I’m going back to a place where they don’t speak Swahili.”

The trip is more than a study abroad for Nelson, who says it was a way to “get his feet wet” in a part of the world that fascinates him. He has thought of returning to East Africa through the Peace Corps. By the end of the trip, however, he remains ambivalent. 

“I know that I really like this place,” Nelson says. “But I know that we’re only being shown the very best.”

The excitement is palpable as the Toyota Land Cruisers pull out of the Serengeti lodge parking lot to begin the game drive through the renowned preserve.  

“Oh my gosh, there’s an elephant!” squeals Rachel Hagues, a program coordinator at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government and a Ph.D. candidate in family and consumer sciences. “Oh my gosh, there’s a giraffe!”

The students stand in the seats of the cars, their heads out the popped-up tops of the safari vehicles, watching for gazelles, warthogs, impala and flamingoes. A pool of black water gurgles as hippopotamuses come up for air. The cars pass long lines of zebras and wildebeest beginning their annual migration. At one point, the caravan stops to let a family of elephants cross the road. Unfazed by the vehicles, the dozen or so adult and baby elephants lumber across the dry land as cameras click. 

For three days, the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater and the Olduvai Gorge provide living classrooms for the students, who are awed by the Shifting Sands, a dune of volcanic ash that moves in the shape of a crescent across the gorge at a rate of 15-18 meters a year. In Olduvai they also visit the site where anthropologist Mary Leakey in 1959 discovered the skull of a male homo erectus believed to have lived 1.75 million years ago. 

In the Ngorongoro Crater, the students also have an opportunity to visit a Masai boma, or home, where a male tribe member lives with his wives, children and, sometimes, extended family. 

The Masai, native to northern Tanzania and Kenya, are a tribe that live off the blood and milk of the cattle, sheep and goats they acquire. Their wealth is measured by the number of cattle in their herd. The cattle are used as a dowry for wives. 

The boma is a compound surrounded by a thornbush fence designed to keep the Masai cattle safe from predators. Inside the fence are small huts, made from grass and held together with a mixture of mud and dung. Each wife has a hut for herself and her children; the first wife’s hut is the largest. The husband sleeps in a different wife’s hut each night. 

It is an extremely rare opportunity for the American students to go inside the dark boma and talk to the Masai men. For Natalie Nesmith, who will attend medical school when she graduates from UGA next year, it was a life-changing opportunity. 

Already interested in a career in public health, Nesmith saw the trip as a way to gauge her comfort level—to see if she thought she would be able to use her skills as a doctor in the developing world. 

She learned about the Masai culture and about how the once-nomadic tribe has become less transient as the government has attempted to provide them services, such as schools and health care. Despite good intentions, the change has had a negative effect on the Masai herds, which suffer from lack of water and food, and are becoming weak and contracting disease. A concern is whether those diseases will spread from the animals to the Masai people. 

Nesmith says she now can see herself going back to Africa to address such issues. 

“I knew I was interested in public health; that was the whole push to want to go to Africa,” she says. “I wanted to see something that was completely different from my own culture, my own background. I wanted to know, ‘Can I be a citizen of the world or should I make my public health stance in the States?’”

“When I was there, it completely affirmed everything. Although it was a completely different culture and completely different atmosphere, we are the same people.” 

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Read the ILA students’ Tanzania blog at

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