And…..I’m back (only a month late)! I know, I know, I should have done this post a long time ago. However, things have been very crazy as of late. For starters, my 4-week trip to Tanzania ended up being extended twice, for a total of 6 weeks. Then, after finally making it home, I had exactly 6 six days before I left once again to drive to Switzerland (10+ hour drive) for 4 days, then to a conference for 3 days in the southern part of The Netherlands, which was then followed up by a 2 day “retreat” with my research group. All and all, things have FINALLY settled down which means time for a blog post. So, with that, let’s talk Africa!
Warning: this may not go as you would have expected. In previous posts, I told about my project and what we were doing daily on the lake. For the most part, this didn’t change. So, instead of saying the same thing again, I’ll deviate a bit and focus on a completely unexpected part of the trip. I’ll throw in a lot of pictures along the way.
Have you ever stopped to think about how amazing the world is? Seriously, have you ever really thought about it? I know it’s a pretty generic question. In fact, it’s probably just as easy to argue the opposite – just watch the news. The world is full of some pretty nasty people and places at the moment. However, after spending six weeks living and working in Tanzania, I have to argue the opposite – the world is an amazing place. I had the opportunity to work on the largest tropical lake in the world, day after day, for a month and half. I went days without electricity or running water (on multiple occasions), slept only a few hours a night, burned most days under the African sun, and on the others got so sea-sick and cold from some of the strongest, nastiest storms I’ve even seen. Every plant, fish, bug, or rock that I touched had some sort of spine, edge, or chemical that resulted in a cut, burn, or rash. If I wasn’t being eaten alive by mosquitoes (with a risk of malaria) then I was being attacked by some of the most ferocious ants I’ve ever encountered. Retreating to the “safety” of the lake (away from most insects) just meant you had to watch the water (where I’m trying to catch the fish I study) for the ever-present threat of crocodiles. Basically, what I’m trying to say is, I spent six weeks in Africa and it is something I will never forget. In fact, I can’t wait to go back!
Now I know what most of you are thinking – what’s wrong with me? To be honest, had I not experienced it myself, I would be thinking the same thing. None of the things I listed above sound fun, nor where they fun when they were happening. However, I think it is more about perspective than it is actual inconvenience. Despite all of the hardships and difficulties that I list, I was never in any danger. Never did I feel unsafe, or did I go hungry or thirsty. I simply had to do without most of the modern conveniences that I (and most of you reading this) am accustomed to. For everyday day that I went without Internet access, TV, or a hot shower (or without a shower at all), I was continually rewarded by the opportunity to live and work in a place we only see on the Discovery Channel. It’s Africa, it’s the where we all come from (aka the origin of the human race), and it’s a completely different way of life. Things I would never even think about in ‘normal’ life became commonplace. For an example, let me share a quick story:
Some days we would not go out on the boat and would instead sample at a near-by stream. This stream was only a few minutes walk from our rest house and was off of a fairly busy road. As such, we would often draw a lot of attention to ourselves by simply fishing in this small stream. On one particular day, I was alone fishing and soon had a group of 6-8 children (probably 8-12 years old) watching me very closely. Being that I had a lot of supplies that these kids did not have, I gave each of them some hooks and worms so that they could catch fish as well (they were there to fish for themselves and their families so that they could eat). I couldn’t help but notice that one of the kids kept hanging quietly around me and did not join his friends to use their new angling supplies. Not only did he watch me very closely, but he also was very intent on checking out all of my belongings (not uncommon, we “scientist” had a lot of strange things). It was only after a while did I realize that of particular interest to him was my unopened, 1.5 liter bottle of water. When I opened the bottle and offered it to him, he quickly drank ~1/4 of the bottle, before turning to share it with some of the other kids as well. It was only at this point did it occur to me that we did not have running water at the moment and that it had been out for a day or two. Whereas we had cases of drinking water in our rest house, there was a good chance that these kids were not as fortunate. For me, a lack of running water just meant I couldn’t shower and had to risk smelling for a few days. For these kids, it may have meant little, if any, drinking water. Before leaving for the day, I gave the boy all the bottled water we had with us.
Talk about putting things into perspective….
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t say these things or share that story to make myself seem all knowing or above anyone. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I share that story to highlight what I experienced from the people of Tanzania. Despite all of these hardships and inconveniences that would have most of us running away (believe me, I was ready to be back!), the people that I interacted with daily where some of the nicest, happiest people I’ve ever met. A lack of running water or the absence of electricity wasn’t a reason to panic and be angry, it was just a fact of life and life went on. One other thing that really stuck out to me was the theme of various conversations that I had with any number of individuals who wanted to talk (and everyone wanted to talk to the American!). The common theme of just about all of these conversations? Race…but not in the way that you’d think. To summarize what I was told on no less than 5 separate occasions, usually while having my white arm directly compared to their black arm: we all need to realize that, regardless of color, we are all human. Black, white, yellow, or brown, it doesn’t matter, we are all human. I being from America and they being Tanzania meant very little. I was simply a friend that did weird things with small fish.
Again, it’s all about perspective…So in case you haven’t been able to tell, my time working on Lake Victoria was nothing short of amazing! For this biology nerd, it was truly a once in a lifetime trip and I’d go back tomorrow if I could. It sounds a bit cheesy to say, but I couldn’t help telling myself that this is what I want from life. I mean I spent six weeks in Tanzania, “working” on Lake Victoria. How cool is that?! And the fact that I did this for my PhD thesis makes it even cooler. It’s crazy to think that fish, by working with them and knowing a bit about them, have taken me all over the world. How is this even fair? As I said before, I think the world is and is full of amazing places. For a biologist, the wildlife and scenery that I was able to see in Africa was absolutely incredible, but then again, watch the Discovery Channel can see you that. For me, the unexpected surprise was the people. And to be honest, it was sad to leave. I spent nearly everyday working hand and hand with two local Tanzanian men, our boat drivers Mhoja and Muhammad. Mhoja and Muhammad have been working with cichlid biologists for over 20 years (30+ for Mhoja). For this reason, they are an invaluable resource when trying to complete our research. Not only are they the steady hand driving the boats in rough water, but also their knowledge of the fish is second to none. Their know-how and skill is impossible to replace.
We also had a TAFIRI scientist, Godfrey, joining on most days to learn more about the cichlids of Lake Victoria. Godfrey, being very well spoken in English, was a key resource for our work, both on the lake and beyond (ever tried to speak Swahili?). Outside of the boat team, there were countless people at TAFIRI who made our job much easier (and many of which we made their jobs extremely difficult – with no complaints at all). Individuals such as Makoja, our driver picking up things in the city while we were out sampling and Leticia, our house “mom” who kept food on the table and our rest house clean, made it possible to complete the amount of work we were able to do (and believe me, there was a lot). Even if we were not working directly with them, you were never offered anything less than bright smile and an extended greeting to see how your day and work was going. All and all, the people* are what made things bearable and kept you going day after day.
On the science side of things (aka the whole reason for going), I was able to collect all of the fish and samples that I need for my PhD project. In fact, I got more than I had planned and will basically spend the next three and a half years trying to analyze all the data – yay science. I also collected ~100 live fish and, despite being shipped all over the world (Tanzania – Switzerland – The Netherlands) they are now in our aquarium and doing well. If all goes as planned, these fish will establish lab populations that will can be used for years to come.
So now that life is more or less back to normal, it seems I can get back to work on this whole PhD thing. Granted all of this fieldwork was directly related to my project, it didn’t feel like it. I got to spend 6 weeks in Africa, “working” on the largest tropical lake in the world, interacting with amazing people, and having the time of my life! If this is what ‘work’ will be for the rest of my life, I think I made a wise career choice…we’ll just overlook the whole ‘hard to find a job in academia thing’.
Until next time!