Tag: culture

cowspiracy: a lesson in naivety.

The newest calf! - Photo Cred: David

I’ve always struggled with vegetarianism.

In college I tried to stop eating meat, several times. As an environmental science undergrad, the more I learned about food systems, the more I felt compelled to convert. I had a burning desire to succeed, almost as if my morality depended on it, but I never found the resolve.

So I tried, failed, tried again, failed again, etc.

Over time, I’ve come across three main arguments for renouncing animal protein:

  1. Humans were meant to be herbivores
  2. Eating other living things is ethically deplorable
  3. Factory farms are terrible

I’m not an anthropologist, but I simply don’t buy the herbivore argument. I seriously struggle with the carnivore sin idea. I love animals, I’ve raised them, and I’ve slaughtered them – maybe some people think it’s insensitive, but I still (very much) like to eat them. The factory farm angle I can get behind 100%… but on just that foundation, it’s very, very difficult to refuse a juicy, grass-fed burger and fatty, free-range bacon.

No argument has successfully managed to turn me off the omnivore path, despite my noble aspirations – until now (sort of).

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Is Instagram apathetic? #ActForNature

(Preemptive apologies to my non-Instagram readers.)

Let’s address the elephant in our collective virtual room:
Why do we spend endless hours photographing nature but very few actually defending it?

Social media is famous for its ability to escalate social movements for change. Consider the Egyptian Uprising, #Ferguson, #BlackLivesMatter, #BringBackOurGirls, and the #IceBucketChallenge for a start. But all of these movements were/are centered on Twitter, with Facebook as a sidekick. What about Instagram?*

This fall, Socality Barbie brought Instagram’s #liveauthentic movement’s artificiality into light. The press went wild, attacking the culture for it’s glaringly obvious inauthenticity. In my favorite article, Hilary Oliver argues compellingly that the #liveauthentic culture is a cry for meaning from the millennials’ that stems from our suburban, programmed, and privileged childhoods (read here).

These criticisms are fair, but I’d like to add my own.

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being mzungu.

I had only been in Tanzania for a week, everything was new – Swahili, Catholicism, the colorful patterns of women’s kangas and kitangas, and most of all the staring. As we joined the migration to the church I was uncomfortably aware of the glances, the giggles and the blatant stares. During the service I tried my best not to notice the turned heads. A little boy, no more than two years old, sat in front of me. He continuously shifted to look at me, wearing a blank expression. I made faces in an attempt to get a reaction out of him but he just stared intently. Then, half way through the sermon, he reached out and grabbed my hand. It wasn’t a gesture of acceptance or appreciation but rather one of a quizzical nature. He took my large white hand in his little black one and turned it over, again and again, grabbing at my skin in confusion.

I’m not African. This I knew from the beginning. I’m a mzungu, through and through. There is no fooling anyone. Despite this knowledge, when I first arrived in Africa, I found myself hyper-aware of my skin. I wasn’t used to standing out, to being different. I was uncomfortable going places with lots of other students and nervous about speaking Swahili. I cringed when kids screamed “jambo” and “mzungu” at me from inside their houses. The first time I met the Maasai a teenage boy asked me for money, when I told him I didn’t have any he replied, “but you’re a mzungu.” I didn’t want to be American. I didn’t want to be perceived as rich and oblivious. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. I wanted to blend in.

As the semester progressed I adjusted to being different. I stopped noticing the stares. I learned to return the sass. Learning Swahili and making African friends helped this transition immensely. I quickly fell in love with Tanzania, with the culture. I learned quickly that knowing Swahili earns you immediate respect and vowed to learn as much of it as I could. I spent increasing amounts of time playing cards, cooking, talking and playing soccer with new friends from town and the staff. I learned about Tanzanian culture, about how people treat each other and how they perceive the world.

My love for Tanzanian culture quickly turned in to jealously. I became frustrated with being American. I felt like I was on the outskirts looking in on a community more intricate than I could understand. My African friends make up a group built on appreciation, love, support and kindness. Everything people do is based around the needs of others. It is a community structure I hungered for, a way of life I wanted to adopt. I was fascinated by the concept of having a tribe as part of your identity. The hardest part of the semester was realizing that no matter how much I wanted to I couldn’t be a part of it, not truly. Instead of wanting to blend in I found myself wanting to fit in, but because I am American I felt this could never be achieved.

Then things started to change. First I started to miss my family. My whole family. I started calling my parents more, I reread letters from my grandparents over and over, I talked to my baby cousins on the phone, I started chatting with my brothers online. Then I started talking about them, all the time. When it was my night to present something about myself I chose to present about my family, showing pictures I hadn’t looked at in years. Then I started talking about Maine. I missed the ocean, the forest, running, swimming. I spent hours showing pictures of my home to my friends, African and American. Finally, I started talking about American culture. I found myself explaining why we shave our legs, why we have factory farming, what organic is, how our school systems work, what folk music is, why we run. The funny thing was, despite how absurd half my explanations sounded and the number of times I said “America ni kicha,” America is crazy, I found myself speaking with a tone of endearment.

America might not be perfect, but it’s mine, it’s who I am. In Tanzanian culture you are not only an individual but part of a tribe, part of a team. There are traditions and values that you are born into, that you willing surrender control over. This group identity gives Africans self confidence and strong senses of identity. In western culture this concept seems constraining, controlling. Yet, I wonder if the western idea of individualism has lead to a higher prevalence of insecurity among our people. If you are ashamed of your past you are ashamed of yourself. During this semester I learned not only how to accept who I am and where I came from but how to embrace it. The culture I come from is not only a part of my past but a part of who I am in a way I can never change whether I like it or not. I learned to recognize it and revel in it, to be proud of everything that has made me, me. Because of this I know I can now fit in anywhere even if I can’t always blend in.

‘going back’

During our homestay we spent the morning stooped in the kitchen building over a small fire stirring ugali, vegetables and chicken in the billowing smoke. After, as we waited outside for the table to be set, Kelsey turned to me and said, “It baffles me that in America we ‘go camping’ to go back to this.”

I’ve thought a lot about the concept of “going back” since then.

In America we are obsessed with the concept of progression, of development, of moving forward from a way of living that we seem to think is insufficient and unfulfilling. But as we moved further and further in modernity, materialism and ease we realized some basic cultural concepts as well as human needs and desires got left behind. Instead of recognizing that we had forgotten them, however, we addressed them as factors that needed to be added back in to our new life in new ways that fit our new model. God forbid we move backwards.

Tanzania has made these concepts and needs clear to me because the culture here never moved away from them. The two main concepts I am referring to are minimalism, and purity. The human needs and desires are nature, relationships, and mental health.

Minimalism in America is a new up and coming thing. Many people now see materialism as an evil, for reasons too numerous to name. You see cute thrift shops on popular streets. People bulk shop at health food stores that are ten times more expensive than convenience stores that individually wrap things. Reusable water bottles and bags are the hottest eco trend. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Well, there are no clothing stores in Tanzania, at least none that I have seen. Everyone buys their clothes used from vendors at markets if they haven’t had them handmade. Every local market is a thrifters paradise (and also explains why Tanzanian’s have a very, very interesting sense of fashion). In Tanzania, when you go to a small duka for things like rice or oil they are delivered automatically in bulk, measured out into reused plastic bags or plastic water bottles by necessity. One of the most baffling products in Tanzania is soda. All soda comes in glass bottles, all bottles must be drank in sight and returned to the shop owner immediately or the buyer pays a hefty bottle fee. As a result the soda is stupid cheap. In Tanzania minimalism make sense. You don’t waste more than you need to and you recognize that everything has value.

Purity is something we Americans are yearning for and the economy has decided to capitalize on it. All Natural, Organic, Local. People in Tanzania don’t even know what those words mean. At Moyo Hill everything we eat is local and all natural, not because its environmental, but because its cheaper. The way it should be. In America we decided that pure was for people with money, in Tanzania that logic makes no sense at all.

Nature is something, for a while, we disregarded as unrefined and backwards. When we started to miss it, instead of changing our lifestyles to include and celebrate nature we invented “camping” and “vacation.” Our relationship with nature became vacation, something only the wealthy can afford. In rural Tanzania nature is everything. It is how you cook, what you eat, where you get your money. It is what you look at when you walk out your front door, where your kids play because there is no such thing as a playroom. You go on a hike every time you go to the store. The weather sets your schedule and the sun is your watch.

Relationships between people lost footing as our obsession with money and individualism grew. More time is put into work and less time into family and community relationships. The idea is, if we have more money than our neighbors then our family will be happy. We created daycare and fences. The result has been depression, divorce, and the invention of counseling. In Tanzania, relationships are the most important capital an individual can accrue. Family is the center of everything and, most importantly, community is the foundation. If you don’t have people who care about you, you have nothing, and if you care about no one then you won’t survive. It is from these relationships that Tanzanians find happiness and success. It is love that makes life rich. No wonder people here are so damn content.

Mental Health. This one really caught me by surprise. In America our obsession with money and success has left us with a severe case of stress addiction. To combat this, instead of cutting out stressors, we found ways to help ourselves to handle them better: yoga, meditation, exercise. At home I do all of these things and more to keep myself relaxed. From the first day here when I went on a run I realized just how absurd all of it was. People in Tanzania don’t exercise, they don’t run, they don’t have gyms – they work, physical labor, and they walk, everywhere (and sometimes they play soccer). People in Tanzania don’t do yoga, they don’t meditate – they drink tea, they take breaks, they give themselves time to relax. Tanzanian’s don’t allow themselves more stress than is absolutely necessary, because when your potential stresses are as serious as theirs are you really should save all your strength.

America needs to rethink the “more, more, forward, forward will fix everything” mindset. Moving forward doesn’t need to mean moving away from the past. We need to admit that aspects of this life we have constructed are wrong. We need to admit that in some areas we have gone too far. We missed some crucial basics when we created this “modern world” and maybe fixing them by turning around isn’t necessarily admitting defeat.

More photos of the original homestay, cooking and relaxing over chai:

learning accents.

“Tell me,” our assistant Professor, Yohana, requested, “How do you learn the American accent?”

Radwa and I stared at him in confusion, “We just know it?”

“Hapana,” he shook his head, No. “Where do you learn it?”

“Where did you learn Maasai?” I countered.

“Hapana,” he said again, “Maasai is not written. It is different. How do you learn to pronounce words?”

“We learn how to pronounce words from the people around us when we grow up. I grew up in America so I have an American accent but if I grew up in England, surrounded by people with British accents, I would have a British accent. It’s not something we learn.”

Kweli?” He asked, exasperated. “But then how can you understand eachother? You write the same words but you pronounce them differently.”

Radwa and I looked at eachother, stumped, and shrugged.

“But then which one should I learn?”

interviewing in reverse.

“This man here has said, these are new faces to me, we have never met before, how do I know that I can trust you with the information to these questions you will ask me?”

Each of us stared at our feet, dumbfounded and afraid to look the our interviewees in the eyes . I tried to grasp the meaning of the man’s words and form an answer. Mwamhanga, our Professor, offered to respond. Next to me Christine whispered, “I feel like we should say something…” but before we could he was already answering for us.

It was the last day of data collection. Our Professor set up a focus group discussion with various representatives from the village bordering the Community Forest we were studying. After the embarrassing introduction we awkwardly asked the list of questions we had prepared. The two women in the group stayed quiet and two of the men led the discussion for most of its duration. As time went on the conversation got more comfortable. The group exuded excitement when talking about local medicines, seriousness when discussing climatic changes, and pride while explaining their agricultural practices.

When we approached the last topic, gender, I stole a glance at Christine’s question list and involuntarily inhaled sharply. She glanced up at me and grimaced, “It’s what he wants me to ask.” She straightened her 5′ 2″ body on the bench and bravely began.

Immediately, the men started laughing and shifting uncomfortably in their seats in response to her questions – What roles do women play in the Iraqw community? How are these roles changing? The women listed roles such as cooking, cleaning, gathering firewood and raising children. The men stated that because of development, politics and the spread of urbanism women are demanding more rights, that they are leaving the house more and becoming more vocal.

“Are these changes a good thing?” Christine asked.

Two of the men vigorously shook their heads. The increased freedom of women, they said, threatened marriages. If women are allowed to go out on the town and speak to whomever they like how can they be trusted?

“Let me ask the women the same,” Mwamhanga offered before we could stop him.

In reply the women looked at their feet and shook their heads. “I think you understand them,” Mwamhanga directed towards Christine, “They say it is a bad thing, let me ask them why.”

“You don’t need… ” she began – but it was too late. The room became quiet. The men chuckled to themselves and the women suppressed embarrassed grins. “It’s really okay Mwamhanga… they don’t need to say why.”

After finishing the rest of Christine’s questions we closed up our notebooks and bags to head home while Mwamhanga said a public thank you to the group. Just as we stood to leave, however, one of the men spoke up.

“This man would like to know, what are womens’ roles in America.” Every Tanzanian in the room was listening intently, not a hint of mockery on their faces.

“Well…” Christine began slowly, “There is greater equality in America, women have achieved more rights, but it is still not completely equal.”

Mwamhanga translated and they stared at her, waiting for more.

“It is more likely in America that both parents work and that both parents do house chores,” I offered. During the translation all of the men laughed and shook their heads in disbelief.

“But how strong are marriages in America?” One of them asked.

We all shifted uncomfortably in our seats. Christine sighed, “Well… there is a much higher divorce rate in America than here I suppose…”

“Divorce is extremely difficult in Tanzania,” Mwamhanga explained, “How difficult is it in America?”

“Well, it’s not exactly easy…” Lauren piped up.

Another one of the men cut her off, “What about conservation in America? How is that done?”

“It is regulated more by government bodies, with stricter rules and enforcement,” I explained.

Jill added, “Americans don’t rely on natural resources as much as Tanzanians so it isn’t as necessary.”

“How did America transition to not needing firewood?” He pressed. The students all laughed.

“Well… we use a lot of coal, oil and natural gas for electricity,” Dylan replied.

“Which is one of the reasons the climate here is changing,” I replied instinctively. Then I turned to Christine and said jokingly, “I’m not sure if I would recommend it.”

But I really wasn’t. Yet, who am I to recommend whether someone should or should not have what I have?

tribal experiences.

Tanzania is home to 120 different tribes of people. I have encountered individuals from maybe 15 of them. Each group maintains very unique traditions and values and I have noticed that somehow a persons personality always seems to fit their tribe. Tribal identity is something celebrated, something to be proud of. Talking to people about their tribes makes me feel weird that I don’t have one, like I am lacking some form of identity. I already described the Iraqw community that populates the village we live in in this post. Last week we toured the homes of members from two other tribes – the Hadzabe and the Masai.


The Masai drip with pride from their shaved heads to their ear jewelry, their shukas to their anklets and tire shoes. The tribe’s homeland spans much of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. The Masai live in “bomas” which are circles of small stick and mud huts with a corral in the middle for livestock at night. Each boma holds the family of one man, with his many wives each in a different house. They are known for eating only meat, milk and blood and will often walk over 25 miles a day with no water. They also have intensive coming-of-age traditions involving ceremonies, exile, circumcision and age classes. I am not even going to pretend to understand them.

While many have been educated in English and Swahili they have resisted abandoning their traditions and dress and still practice pastoralism throughout their homeland. It is not unusual to see fully dressed Masai chatting with businessman in town. In addition, they have capitalized on the international attention they receive by setting up cultural bomas (or homes) to share their life style with tourists for money. The history of the tribe is less beautiful then their clothing. In the late 1800s many Tanzanian Masai were forcibly removed from a section of their original homeland, the Serengeti, by colonial governments. They were resettled in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area as an experiment of combining human settlement and conservation and they maintain rights to live and graze there. The history of the NCA is also riddled with horror, but today the Tanzanian Masai now call it home.


The Hadzabe are easily the coolest people in the world (fact, not opinion). Shaking hands with them was like traveling back in time to a place I never dreamed still existed. Less than 1,000 Hadzabe remain in Africa and 300-400 of them live as hunter-gatherers outside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area around Lake Eyasi. Smaller and more muscular than other people in the region they are not closely genetically related to any surrounding tribes and have inhabited this region, living as they do, for thousands or even possibly tens of thousands of years. They are the last full-time hunter-gatherers in all of Africa. The Hadzabe travel in roaming groups of 20-30 individuals, changing camp every few days. Unlike many other neighboring tribes they marry based on mutual desire, choosing partners based on work ethic and physical appearance. Partners predominantly practice monogamy and limit themselves to under 3 children per couple, another tradition distinct from their neighbors. Children are raised in a high quality communal manner with all adults taking care of all children. Generally, Hadzabe men and women gather. They hunt with only bows and arrows and are the only people in Tanzania allowed to hunt without a permit. They’re also the only people in Africa who (as I understand it) are legally allowed to smoke marijuana. The Hadzabe have managed to escape the pressures of modern social and economic development in Tanzania and they clearly expressed this indifference to modern culture through their indifference to our presence (our guides were actually Iraqw neighbors of the Hadzabe). The fact that I met them still astounds me and I will never forget what their presence stands for.



on selling dogs.

Our expeditions and field work often require long drives, drives that often result in interesting conversations. During this particular drive we were headed to Taragire National Park, the first destination of our first expedition. The car was full of excitement and energy. Our Mwalimu, Professor, Kioko was in the front passengers seat of the land rover miraculously grading papers in silence as we flew over bumpy winding roads that threatened to make me sick.

In the village of Karatu the roadsides were crowded with herd after herd of cattle, sheep and goats. “They are heading to Mtu wa Mbu,” Kioko softly answered our unspoken inquires, “People will come as far as Karatu, nearly 18 kilometers, for the weekly market.” A few moments later we passed a villager herding a group of dogs down the road. Kioko spoke up again.

“They are going to sell their dogs in Mtu wa Mbu.”

“What? Really?” We questioned.

After a short awkward moment Kioko flashed his silent smile in laughter, “I’m kidding… would that work in America?”

“What, selling dogs? Well, would it work here?” I asked.

“Maybe, they do it with donkeys. Maybe that will be my retirement plan,” he responded, chuckling softly, “Selling dogs at market.”

I thought about it for a moment. “Well, actually. We do have breeders.”

“Breeders?” He questioned.

“Well in America we have a lot of different kinds of dogs, unlike in Africa where they are all similar, and sometimes people pay a lot of money to make sure that their dogs are of ‘pure breeding’ and only one kind.”

“Don’t you have dogs the size of… like… rodents?”

Another student laughed, “Yeah, and dogs as big as donkeys.”

“Why?” He inquired.

“Um… I guess they are used for different purposes? Sometimes they even show them.”

“Show them?” He raised his eyebrows.

“Yeah, they clean them all up and teach them tricks and then -” I stopped midsentence at the look on his face.

“Why?” He burst out in soft laughter, eyes wide.

“I don’t know,” I responded, stumped.

Another student chimed in, “it’s like a hobby for rich people… like golf.”

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