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Watching the dung-beetles: NotesfromastudentssemesterinAfrica

By Michael Sitzman

Section: Arts

March 31, 2006

Kidogo changu pokea na dua njema nakuombea.
(Please accept this little from me, along with my prayers.)
Swahili proverb

In the dead of night, compound guards were knocking at the door. Pardon us for waking you, Miss;

we thought you might like to see the aardvark weve spotted outside

Ive observed it in many countries with few resources, and it seems to apply to Kenya as well: When there is so little to give, one grants a mere favor, a kind wish, maybe a prayer. And that suffices as a gift. And so it did for Nina Savransky 07 one night on the other side of the planet, as she stepped out of a hut to see an aardvark at 3:00 in the morning.

It was with three other students that she shared that hut at the School for Field Studies last semester.

Id always wanted to see Africa, she said as we talked in Java City. I liked Egyptian stuff as a kid.

Searching for an ecology/environmental program for her Junior year, Nina found out about SFS after a TA recommended it. After being accepted, she attended an orientation with the 28 other students from around the country;

and yet, she still didnt know quite what to expect.

They were greeted by the Risk Manager at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport: Dont touch anything or leave the compound without telling anyone. Drink plenty of water. Wash your hands. By all means, talk to people

A five-minute ride out of the airport found the students already among giraffes and baboons on unpaved roads. A bit of a shock, she admitted as we spoke, but remained otherwise rather nonchalant about matters, with a sort of calm, wistful demeanor that is unusual among the college set. Even for a student who has traveled around the US and Canada, and to Europe, Scandinavia, and the Ukraine, she seemed by her speech to possess a certain wisdom beyond her years.

The compound was like a summer camp, said Nina, complete with a dining area, library, and classrooms. Her class lineup included Wildlife Management, Wildlife Ecology, Environmental Policy, and Swahili Culture, and they earned her Brandeis credit in Environmental Studies. (Students could also opt for credit in African-American Studies or Sociology.) In addition, there was a directed research project in which she and others conducted interviews with local people to investigate how social and economic values influence the subdivision of land in the local district.

“Its a beautiful country, said Nina. Exactly the way it looks on TV. The remoteness of the location and the lack of Internet access afforded students abundant free time without distractions. She and fellow students would take long nature walks in the bush for bird and plant identification. Sometimes they spent hours just watching dung-beetles. They also took trips to Tsavo, Amboseli, and Masai-Mara National Parks. It wasnt overwhelming;

just different, she said. That cool nonchalance once more.

The Maasai are the predominant ethnic group in the region. Maasai kids loved to feel the students straight hair. As in most developing nations, according to Nina, the local people largely believe Americans to be rich, and are gradually turning away from traditional dress in favor of Western clothes. Christianity is also making inroads, slowly replacing native religions. But many traditional ways remain, and the group had the opportunity to attend a local Maasai initiation ceremony, in which Warriors (men in their 20s) returned from a long seclusion, heads shaved, and became Junior Elders.

The international group of students, highly politically aware, could sense the ethnic tensions in a country that was voting on constitutional changes. Most of Maasai opposed the proposed amendments, whereas the countrys ethnic Kikuyu president was the campaigns principal promoter. In the end, the status quo took the prize.

Speaking for the future of the young country, which gained independence in the early 1960s, Nina sees a nation of politically conscious citizens, aware of their power to effect changes. In a land that has endured a 30-year drought, many want to see resources taken from the national parks and invested in local development. The problem, said Nina, is that people are not aware of the effects of agriculture on the land, and that the national parks benefit the society by generating foreign tourist revenue.

And what effect has this trip had? It made me become more assertive, said Nina. I no longer hesitate to say what I think. I also learned not to see issues, such as womens rights, through American lenses. Her advice to fellow students: Go abroad. Keep an open mind. The hardest part of coming home: Knowing Ill never see some of my new friends again. And on the future: Maybe an internship after college for a couple of years go into ecology, conservation biology;

I dont know!

And Kenya? Im definitely going back. Finally, a big smile. Go, girl.

horseradish

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