Fish out of water

Driving from the airport into town last Saturday night, the taxi driver pointed out some of the changes that have occurred in Mwanza since I left last year. The airport road itself is being widened into two lanes, though the dala-dalas still swerve unpredictably onto the hard shoulder. The enormous Chinese-built ‘Rock City Mall’ is fully open, accompanied by a shiny new footbridge adorned with blue and green LEDs – “ni samaki” (it’s a fish) my driver told me (apparently the resemblance is more obvious from above). Then in my old neighbourhood, the enormous crater where the road collapsed into the stream has been filled and freshly tarmacked. And there’s now pedestrian lights on the traffic lights in the centre of town (one of Mwanza’s top tourist sights), though the logic of the light system continues to evade me.

The ‘samaki’ roundabout with the German Boma in the background
Mwanza from Capri Point

Otherwise Mwanza is much as I remember it. Ramshackle houses clinging to the rocky hills tumbling down towards the serene surface of the lake, tiny maduka with handpainted signs lining the streets in front of gleaming new office buildings, chaotic dusty roads leading up to peaceful tree-lined slopes. Over the past few days I have been almost overwhelmed by memories. I have followed familiar paths, caught up with old friends, and remembered many of the things I loved most about Mwanza. The colourful bustle of the Sunday market, piles of produce gleaming in the sunshine – fat purple aubergines; small, perfumed mangoes; tomatoes, green peppers and oranges stacked in neat pyramids; bunches of tiny yellow bananas like the chubby hands of some cartoon monster; enormous mounds of striped watermelons; dried fish in desiccated piles; the juju stalls with their mysterious bundles of dried leaves and bottles of glutinous brown liquid. The welcome warmth of sunshine and clear blue skies after weeks of flat grey October London. And meeting members of my fieldwork team and exchanging complicated handshakes and greetings reminded me of the fun of successful days in the field. One of my fieldworkers reminded me of the nicknames we had for each other, conjuring memories of giggling in the back of the car with the radio blaring bongo flava tunes, modelling for Pascazia’s impromptu photoshoots, drinking cold soda on scorching days, and sheltering in goat sheds after being soaked through by sudden rainstorms.

Picha pose
Sheltering with the goats from the rain


These moments were all the more poignant for me because they contrast so starkly with how adrift I felt when I first started working in Mwanza. I was a fish out of water, a gobsmacked samaki floundering outside my natural habitat. I felt constantly on the back-foot, always fearing I had made some terrible faux pas, or caused major offence, or even just that the schoolchildren’s giggles were directed at me (this last one was probably true). In the office, at lunchtime, in the car, and in the field, I desperately tried to follow the thread of the rapid-fire Swahili swirling around me, constantly confused about the details of plans, and trying to gauge the tone of conversations in which sideways glances and muttered mzungu made me increasingly paranoid.

I also found it difficult to adjust to the Tanzanian work culture. While I have no illusions about the exhausting competition of life in London, with the constant pressure to be working or doing something productive, the change of pace was frustrating. At one of our first visits to the ward office where we were waiting for the village leaders to arrive, my fieldworker rolled her eyes at me; “No hurry in Africa”, she said, a slogan people would often to me over the coming months. We spent many frustrating days waiting outside offices for the right person to arrive, who inevitably would send us on to someone else, or demand that we produced a different letter of permission, or claim that the stamp we had wasn’t good enough, or simply patronise me for a while. I became painfully aware of my own impatience and rudeness escalating, while the Tanzanians brushed it off, “haya” they would sigh, “tuende” (“OK whatever, let’s go”). On particularly bad days, on which we would pick up and drop off several mysterious passengers, stop for chai and chapattis, find that our facilitator had gone AWOL, visit several households to discover everyone had gone to a funeral, and do a tour of the market in search of the best-priced rice or charcoal, only for my fieldworkers to declare that it must be lunchtime and we should probably just eat and go back to town, my internal monologue would reach peak Protestant work ethic. Inefficiency! Time wasting! Deadlines!

In time I began to recognise the value in having more patience and understanding, the reciprocal give-and-take that exists beyond contracts and payslips. I hope that I learned to be a little more patient, not to take things so personally, and not to jump to conclusions. I certainly began to appreciate Tanzanian pragmatism and humour in the face of challenges, from Pascazia helping to extract thorny branches from our tyres, to the focus group facilitators reacting to the filthy interview room (I had been assured it had been cleaned beforehand) by rolling up their sleeves and going to find a mop and bucket.

Muhidini and Pascazia fixing the car

One thing I never really adjusted to was the awkwardness of being a conspicuously privileged person working in a conspicuously underprivileged setting. Many aspects of life reinforced the privilege of my life in London. Remembering not to drink the tap water and to charge all your power banks before the weekly Sunday power cut wasn’t too difficult to adjust to, and in fact I got to enjoy the novelty of showering by candlelight. But being sick and not feeling able to trust the medical advice I was given, together with the somewhat dismissive treatment I received, was probably one of my lowest points, and made me more grateful than ever for the NHS. Here, private clinics both prescribe and dispense medication, meaning it’s in the doctor’s interest to prescribe you the most expensive treatment (in my case, quinine injections into my bum for a week – not much fun).

But perhaps the biggest privilege I missed was the anonymity of London, the ability to go where I liked and when I liked. Not being able to walk even just round the corner after dark, nor wander into town without attracting comments, from the old lady scolding me that my skirt was too short, to the men asking for my number, to the children chanting “Mzungu! Mzungu! Give me my money!”. While I acknowledge the very privilege of complaining of this, that didn’t necessarily make it easier to cope on a day-to-day basis. The line between naivety and cynicism is difficult to tread and I failed on many occasions. A few misjudged interactions when I first arrived left me taking elaborate detours to avoid a guy who used to lie in wait for me at work, at home, and outside shops I had gone into. I worry that I then went too far the other way, beginning to ignore even polite greetings and questions out of fear that a response would be misconstrued.

During my research, I also had to balance annoyance at requests for money with the awareness that people were generously giving up their time for no tangible benefit to themselves. On this most recent visit, I had to bite my tongue as the village leaders told me that I should give them more money for attending the meeting, and that I should build new classrooms for the schools – they were sure I had the money. Part of me does feel that they are justified – my PhD funding could easily have built several classrooms which would arguably have benefited this particular community much more than answering all my questions. This was probably the part I found hardest about fieldwork – justifying the intrusion into people’s lives and the money spent, for the sake of research that may or may not have an impact in the long-term. Luckily the meeting in the more rural village was much more amicable, and the leaders seemed genuinely interested in what we had found.

After the meeting with the village leaders in Welamasonga
Onlooking kids in Welamasonga

Imperceptibly, over time my fish-out-of-water faded and I began to feel at home in Mwanza. Living in a different country, the smallest victories in everyday life can make you feel great – successfully negotiating a fair price with the piki drivers, identifying the best avocado for eating today and which should be left for tomorrow, finally working out which duka will have Vodacom vocha in units greater than 1000 shillings (around 30p). In London I miss Mwanza, and in Mwanza I miss London. For now, I am returning to my own pond, but if the chance to leap out of my comfort zone arises again, I would have no hesitation. Tutaonana baadaye, Mwanza.



  • bongo flava = Tanzanian hip-hop. While I was there, this was alternated on the radio with Justin Bieber and Shaggy’s ‘It wasn’t me’.
  • chai = tea
  • chapatti = chapatti – East African chapattis are rolled and brushed with oil so are flakier and greasier than an Indian chapatti. Delicious for breakfast with a cup of tooth-achingly sweet ginger tea.
  • dala-dala = minibus taxi
  • duka / maduka = shop / shops
  • juju  = magic, witchcraft
  • mzungu  = white person, foreigner
  • piki = motorbike taxi
  • samaki = fish
  • tutaonana baadaye = see you later
  • vocha = mobile phone credit – remember the days when you had to scratch off the silver strip and punch in the long number to top up? Yep, that.

Coming of Age in Santa Barbara

A couple of weeks ago I returned to my academic roots, visiting my supervisor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California in Santa Barbara. In between wine tasting, excellent seafood and running along palm-fringed beaches I did manage to fit in some work, part of which was attending the department’s journal club. This term they’re reading classic ethnographies, and the week I was there we were discussing Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, an ethnography which I have read extracts from but never properly discussed. However, she is one of the few anthropologists to have focused specifically on children and young adults, and Coming of Age in Samoa raised some interesting questions for me.

Mead was 23 when she went to Samoa to investigate adolescence in a society very different to that of America. She wanted to establish whether some of the features associated with being an American teenager – emotional turmoil, mood swings, general angst and anxiety – are a product of biology or of culture. We have a tendency to view life stages as universal and underpinned by biological processes, from cutting our first teeth, to the physical changes of puberty such as menstruation, to male pattern baldness and the hot flushes of menopause. We may try to fight the inexorable process of ageing but there is no doubt that these changes are inevitable. Or are they? Anthropologist Margaret Lock’s work on menopause in Japan and North America showed that the notion of a ‘universal menopause’ is false, with Japanese women not experiencing hot flushes and other symptoms experienced by American women. Local cultural perceptions of life stages can shape people’s experience, even of supposedly biological phenomena.

Mead’s study provides another example of these ‘local biologies’, portraying Samoan adolescence as a carefree time, free from the hormonal angst and emotional trauma often associated with being a teenager in Western societies; “…adolescence represented no period of crisis or stress… The girls’ minds were perplexed by no conflicts, troubled by no philosophical queries, beset by no remote ambitions.”  Mead attributes this to “the general casualness of the whole society” at that time, which supported a carefree outlook on life and general emotional stability. Part of this was the relative lack of choice available to Samoan teenagers compared to American teens, both in terms of self-expression, and more generally in occupations and beliefs. In Western societies the emphasis on individuality forces us to make choices continually about our own identity and how to communicate it to others. While in many ways this ability to choose how we live our lives is a positive thing, the fear of making the wrong choice can lead to ‘choice paralysis’, and the feeling of being judged by the choices you make may foster the feeling of not quite ‘fitting in’ – a common experience for many Western adolescents and one which can lead to negative mental health outcomes. And choice itself can be limiting, as people are forced to choose between discrete categories which may not reflect their own preferences. For example, people in Western societies are still categorised as homosexual or heterosexual, and while the moral connotations of these categories are thankfully waning, being forced to ‘fit into’ one of these boxes can be confusing. Mead observes that Samoans neither celebrated nor condemned difference. A wide range of behaviour was accepted as normal, with most adolescents having at least some homosexual experiences.

For Samoan children, as in most traditional societies, a childhood spent in large family groups with little privacy meant they were exposed from a young age to birth, illness, death, and sex, as a normal and natural part of life. Mead contrasts this with Western children who are shielded from the negative or challenging aspects of adult life. While it is undoubtedly good that we experience fewer deaths of loved ones, and less illness, the extension of this protection into other areas of life, such as sex and relationships, means that children are not equipped to navigate these areas when they encounter them. For example,  sex education at young ages is often deemed ‘unnatural’ or ‘harmful‘ despite the evidence that it is beneficial in helping children develop healthy relationships later in life.

This dichotomy between adults and children extends into work and play. Mead describes the various tasks which Samoan children carried out from a young age, all very obviously useful and related to adult activities. By contrast, children in Western societies are not involved in the world of adult work at all. School is a contradiction in that it is deemed to be the most important aspect of children’s lives, yet what it teaches has little functional relevance to adult work. Even at home children generally have few responsibilities and spend little time in the same activities as their parents. In Samoa however, “the distinctions between work as something one has to do but dislikes, and play as something one wants to do; of work as the main business of adults, play as the main concern of children, are conspicuously absent”. Mead draws the conclusion that this helps children’s self-esteem, because their activities are not seen as inherently less valuable than adults’, while for adults, there is no assumption that leisure time must be earned, and so no guilt associated with time spent not working.

In the UK we are facing a crisis of childhood and adolescent mental illness. Can we therefore learn something from Mead’s writings on Samoa about how to make this period of life easier and more emotionally stable? Mead herself comments that taking lessons from Samoan society is difficult because “the conditions which vex our adolescents are the flesh and bone of our society”. Many of the differences are those that have arisen in the transition from small-scale village-based societies to large-scale industrial ones. Economic development has brought many benefits in terms of healthier, longer lives, better infrastructure and more material wealth. The majority of people would be reluctant to return to more traditional ways of life. However, the comparison is useful in highlighting some of the areas in which economic development has not necessarily been all forward progress. The experience of children in Samoa and other small-scale societies demonstrates that showing children the realities of adult life, both positive and negative, prepares them for the challenges they might later encounter. Fostering a strong sense of community and acceptance could be key to building an identity that can guide children through the turbulence of adolescence. Finally, having meaningful tasks and responsibilities outside of formal education may be an important way of bolstering children’s self-esteem and forging emotional security.

See also:

Department of Anthropology, UCSB

The Lawson Lab

Coming of Age in Samoa

Margaret Lock and ‘local biologies’

UNFPA website on comprehensive sex education

Key statistics about children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing from charity Young Minds


Obligatory sunset blog photo




Making sense of childhood work and education

This is my entry for the ESRC writing competition “Making sense of society” : 800 words on how your research is making sense of society, and why it matters

In a Tanzanian rice field, families take a break from the harvest to chat and share a joke. The joke today is the mzungu researcher who stands awkwardly, gently sweating under the midday sun, asking if she can interview their children. Their father is bemused but welcoming. He’s curious about the tablet we’re using for the interviews. They don’t teach us about that here, he says, computers are for rich people. Life here is hard, a lot of hard work in the fields or herding cattle. What’s farming like in the UK? I bet a lot of people have tractors or horses, but here we plough by hand. We have horses, I tell him, but people mainly ride them for fun rather than using them for farming. This tickles him. Why on earth would you ride a horse when you could drive in a car?

Family during the rice harvest

There were countless moments like this during my fieldwork, me trying to make sense of Tanzanian society, and people trying to make sense of me and my research. My project collected data on how children and young people aged 7 to 19 divide their time between school, work, and leisure. International policies aim to promote schooling and abolish formal work for children, and generally assume a trade-off between the two activities. However, this dichotomous approach has been criticised on two grounds and my research aims to address some of these problems.

Firstly, policies are based on an ethnocentric understanding of childhood, in which children’s place is assumed to be in school, and their work has little importance. This makes sense in contemporary Western societies, where formal education is necessary for economic and social success, and children’s work is of limited value. However, it ignores the realities of life in developing societies such as Tanzania, where school is risky. Long journeys between home and school, harsh discipline, and a lack of secure jobs make education a high stakes game, with many families unable or unwilling to play. For families still reliant on subsistence agriculture, children’s work is valuable and even vital to household economic security. Additionally, children themselves value working as a way to help their families and gain important skills, as demonstrated by the African Movement of Working Children and Youth’s request that the ‘right to work’ be recognised by UNICEF in their Convention on the Rights of the Child. This more positive view of children’s work receives little attention in policy or the media however.

The second criticism is that a discourse focusing on the negatives of children’s work leads to unhelpful definitions and data. The majority of working children do household chores and work on family farms, yet there is little data on how these activities interact with school attendance. According to International Labour Organisation definitions, over a quarter of the children I interviewed are child labourers. However, this statistic would make little sense to those who participated in my study. Most of these children are also attending school, and it is seen as children’s responsibility to help their families. Working on the farm or doing chores is an important part of growing up and gaining respect within the community, and gives children complementary skills to those they gain in school.

My research derives from studies within evolutionary anthropology and demography, which have highlighted the benefits of children’s work. By collecting data on children’s time allocation to all activities, I aim to present a more nuanced consideration of the relationship between work, school and leisure. This more critical approach matters because making sense of developing societies according to our own standards is unfair, and stigmatises families who must make difficult decisions. It is also important to challenge assumptions, which can prove to be incorrect. I found that girls actually spend more time in school than boys, yet also contribute more productive work to their households. Girls seem to manage this by sacrificing leisure time. This echoes the ‘double shift’ faced by many women in Western societies, who face expectations that they will both work and shoulder the burden of household chores. Achieving equality in education and the workplace is important, but a shift in focus towards challenging gender stereotypes may be needed to achieve gender equality at home as well.

Re-evaluating what constitutes a ‘good’ childhood could also be useful in making sense of issues in our own societies. We are facing a crisis of childhood obesity and children’s mental health, yet continue to require developing countries to aim for Western-style childhoods. A childhood with more responsibility and worth beyond academic achievement, as well as more physical activity, could help to bolster children’s self-esteem and health. Recognising that we can learn from other societies, rather than seeking to impose our own ideals of childhood, could be beneficial for everyone.

Collecting time use data

Spending time with people as they go about their daily activities –  participant observation – has been a defining characteristic of anthropology since its origin in the early twentieth century, and classic ethnographies often include a description of the ‘daily round’. The experience of time may vary substantially between cultures, a case in point being the phrase ‘No hurry in Africa’, a philosophy that contrasts strongly with the ‘time is money’ outlook of London, where a few seconds delay in getting on the Tube can earn you the hatred of complete strangers. Nevertheless, in all societies time is a limited resource, and people must choose how to spend it, according to what activities they perceive to be necessary or important. Measuring time allocation can therefore be a more objective way of studying the relative importance of different activities, and for comparing individuals. For example, two people may both have gym membership, but looking at how much time they spend at the gym will probably tell us much more about their fitness.

No hurry in Africa

The collection of time use data has also recently been emphasised as a way to highlight the importance of unpaid work, such as childcare and domestic work, done disproportionately by women and children. Such work is often ‘invisible’ and undervalued in economic policy, yet it may have a big impact on the lives of those who carry it out. Both Unicef and the ILO (International Labour Organisation) use time (and age) cut-offs in their definitions of child labour, recognising that a lot of children’s work is informal and unpaid. For example, a 13-year-old is considered to be a child labourer if they spend more than 2 hours a day in economic activity.

Measuring children’s time allocation was therefore always going to be an integral part of my project, it was just a matter of how to collect it, and who to ask. The ILO recommends asking children themselves as long as they are aged 10 and over, but in practice studies often rely on proxy respondents, such as parents, to report time allocation. During the pilot phase of my fieldwork, I spoke with researchers involved in the WEKEZA project, an International Rescue Committee programme aiming to reduce child labour. They recommended interviewing children as the most accurate method. During their baseline survey, both proxies and children themselves were interviewed, allowing for a comparison between different respondents. They found that parents consistently underestimated the time spent by their children working. The difference between parents and children shrank with age of the child, suggesting that younger children may be exaggerating their time spent working (this was also found in a study of American children’s time spent on chores). I also found this to be a problem during my pilot fieldwork, when we asked parents to estimate the number of hours their children spent in different activities on the previous day. We ended up with only a couple of hours’ activity per day, and there was often disagreement during the interviews (Interviewer: How long did [x] spend fetching water yesterday? Parent: Ooh, about 5 minutes. Child: [indignant] The tap’s all the way over there! It takes 10 minutes just to walk there!). For the main project, we therefore decided to interview children, and to use a diagram to make it easier for them to estimate the timings of different activities:


Each column corresponds to a different hour of the day. In Swahili, the first hour (saa) of the day is at sunrise, so saa 1 is 7am. The diagram above begins at saa 12, or 6am. (Confusingly, most clocks remain set to ‘Western’ time – so the clock will say 3pm, but people still read it as saa 9. I never quite got the hang of it and had to constantly double check meeting times.) Then each row is for a different activity, and the interviewer shaded in the box corresponding to the time of day that activity was done. So above, you can see that the first thing this child did was to wash (kuoga), and that they did this for 30 minutes at 7am. Then they went to school (kwenda shule) from 7:30am to 1pm, when they returned home to eat (kula). After the diagram has been shaded in, the interviewer took a photo and then wiped the laminated sheet. (It turns out that the best way to clean whiteboard markers properly is using nail polish remover, which didn’t make me very popular with the other people in my office, who for a while thought I was just giving myself a manicure every evening.)

A very busy day reported by a teenage girl who did not attend school

The child interviews were definitely the most logistically challenging part of data collection. During the day, most children were away from the household at school, or were out in the fields working. We tried a variety of ways to track them down – working on Saturdays, running round households at lunchtime when children return home to eat, interviewing kids en masse at school, driving round rice fields and the market. Our driver drove like a madman to catch up with one boy, Baraka, who was riding his bike down to the village centre, but he didn’t want to be interviewed. (This gave me the opportunity for my one and only Swahili joke – there’s a common phrase “Haraka haraka, haina baraka” – “Hurry hurry has no blessing” – so I commented that we had hurried and still hadn’t got Baraka. I think I was the only one who found it funny.)


Primary school students waiting to be interviewed

Filling in the time allocation diagram
Once the diagram is filled in, the interviewer takes a picture on the tablet and then wipes the sheet clean

Children also varied in their ability and willingness to participate. Some of the younger children were very shy, or couldn’t remember the exact times of what they had done the previous day. Generally, doing the interview in the local language, Sukuma, helped, and sometimes an older sibling could be enlisted to give mealtimes or the time they woke up, in order to prompt the younger child’s memory. We also realised that many children associated the Tazama car with getting immunisations, and so were scared we were going to give them an injection. Once we reassured them there were no needles involved, most were willing to talk to us. Inevitably, a few didn’t want to take part (like Baraka above), particularly boys in the rural village – on a couple of occasions we arrived at a house just in time to see a small boy kicking up a cloud of dust as he raced away across the fields.

Generally though the child interviews were a lot of fun, and gave a good sense of the routine of daily life in the villages. I picked up a lot of new Swahili vocab during the interviews, my favourite word being kupukuchua, which I don’t think has a direct translation but is the process of removing the kernels from corncobs. Another favourite word was kupumzika, to rest, a very common activity for the children and our field team too!

Kupukuchua-ing corn
Kupumzika-ing in the car after a hard day’s work

Now I’m back in the UK I’ve started analysing the time allocation data and it’s exciting to see patterns and results starting to emerge. Watch this space!

See also:

Janzen, S. A. (under review) Child labor measurement: Who should we ask?

Nane Nane

Last Monday was Nane Nane, the Tanzanian public holiday dedicated to farmers. Nane Nane means “Eight Eight” in Swahili, and is so named because it falls on August 8th (There’s also a Saba Saba Day (“Seven Seven”) held on July 7th). Across Tanzania, big agricultural fairs are held to allow for the exchange of knowledge, and the display of agricultural produce, techniques, and supplies. We passed the fairground on the way to the villages, and saw more and more tents go up as the week went on. On the Saturday, a few friends and I decided we would head over and see what all the fuss was about.

Nane Nane 2016 slogan: “Farming, herding and fishing are the pillars of development. Young people participate actively.”

We got on a daladala (minibus taxi) in town, squeezing in at the front on top of the engine, which made for a very warm journey. After rattling around town and some outlying suburbs, we finally made it to the fair. At the roadside were hundreds of people with their stalls laid out, selling everything from plastic flip flops, brightly-coloured vitenge fabric, and second-hand clothes, to kitchen-ware (including fancy gadgets to slice your vegetables into pretty shapes), footballs, and cuddly toys. Heading further into the fairground, the path was lined with people selling all kinds of snacks, including mishkaki (meat kebabs), ubuyu (baobab seeds), karanga (peanuts), keki (cake), barafu (ice lollies), samosas, maandazi (doughnuts), and bagia (chickpea fritters). We opted for ice creams from one of the guys with a bicycle ice cream van, who had obviously seen us coming a mile off, quickly switching his sales chat into English as we approached.

View of the fair from the road

There were also lots of games and competitions going on. Coca-Cola and all the major phone networks had big areas bordered with banners and railings, with loud music blaring over the speakers, dancing, and football competitions. Then there was a local version of roulette, tilted at a rakish angle on the uneven ground, and hoopla, with bottles of soda and beer spread out across a tarpaulin. In the distance we spied a large crowd gathering, and headed over to check out what it could be. The excitement turned out to be caused by a herd of camels, two of whom were saddled and giving rides. There were a lot of camel-selfies being taken, though any time the camels began to advance, everyone immediately ran away as fast as they could.

Hilary has a go at hoopla
Camels on the loose
Camel rides

On the agricultural side, there were large fields of different crops planted, and stalls with glossy vegetables on show, so people could assess which seeds they wanted to invest in, as well as chicken coops, fish ponds, and grain storage solutions. There was also a lot of machinery being exhibited, from shiny green John Deere tractors, to an alarming machine that looked like a horizontal washing machine with spikes, apparently used to pluck chickens. VETA (Vocational Education Training Authority) also had a stand, which I was very interested in, as it had been mentioned quite a bit during the course of my research, as an alternative to secondary education or university. They run a number of different courses, training tailors, plumbers, mechanical engineers, drivers, and electricians. We pass the driving school on our way out to the field – driving lessons here involve 6 or 7 students piling into a car to watch as one of them drives. At the stand I was shown an electric winch, a vegetable desiccator (apparently it increases the vitamin content, though I wasn’t convinced of the nutritional value of the dried spinach I was shown), as well as examples of dresses and shirts made by the tailoring students.

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A stall selling seeds
Examining the crops on offer
Prize-winning pumpkins
Grain storage solutions
The VETA stand

We then headed into what Hilary referred to as the ‘value added product’ section – local honey, spice blends, jam, soap, kitenge clothing, and beaded jewellery. During the week a friend had told us about a group of women she was working with, who run a wine-making business, and we’d sampled some of their excellent hibiscus (rosella) wine. We managed to track down one of the ladies and got to try out the pineapple and mango wine as well, all leaving the stall with considerably heavier bags! It’s certainly one of the most innovative business ventures I’ve seen here – most small businesses and shops sell very similar items.

One of the mamas involved in the wine business

As it got later in the day both the volume of the crowds and the music intensified, and we decided it was time to leave. It was everyone for themselves as we piled onto a dala that a hundred other people were also trying to board. However, we all made it on, and even all managed to get seats – a minor victory to end the day with.

Ended our day with a cold beer and an excellent sunset

Travels in Tanzania: Safari


Tanzania has an incredible diversity of habitats, from snow-capped mountains to tropical jungle to grassy savannah, and contains both the highest (Mount Kilimanjaro) and lowest (Lake Tanganyika) points in Africa. 38% of the country is set aside in protected areas, including 16 national parks. I got to experience some of this amazing variety during a three-day safari with my parents through the Serengeti, Ngorongoro and Lake Manyara National Parks.

We started in the Serengeti, the oldest park in Tanzania. The park is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is most famous for the annual migration,  when huge herds of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle stampede over the plains in search of fresh grazing. (Remember that traumatic scene from the Lion King where Mufasa dies? That’s the Serengeti migration.) The name ‘Serengeti’ is derived from the Maasai word siringet, meaning ‘endless plains’. Driving through the park, we could see how this area earned its name. The seemingly deserted grasslands stretched out as far as the eye can see, punctuated only by granite kopjes and silvery acacia trees. As we looked closer however, life started to emerge from the sea of golden grass; stately giraffes delicately nibbling at the branches of an acacia, nervous impala hiding in the brush, vast herds of zebra, their stripes rippling like an optical illusion, and a family of warthogs hurrying across the road ahead. As the sun set, its rays refracting through the dusty haze, a herd of elephants paraded past in the twilight.

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Tiny Thomson’s gazelle
Elephants at sunset

Then there were the predators, patiently waiting in the shade. At the top of the food chain, a pair of lions lazed in the shade, ostentatiously yawning to show off their teeth to full effect. Under a nearby tree little sharp-eared jackals sat on the alert, and down by the river, a trio of grinning crocodiles were sunning themselves on the rocks. Later on we saw two hyenas, one spotted and one striped, silhouetted against the setting sun.

Two male lions (one with an injured leg) hanging out in the shade
Nile crocodile
Spotted hyena
Pride Rock: Lions in the distance

While the big animals are undoubtedly exciting to spot, we also had fun watching the antics of the smaller park residents at the visitor centre, from the hyraxes and gaudy agama lizards scampering over the kopjes, to the beautiful bright turquoise superb and Hildebrandt’s starlings and red-and-yellow barbets hopping among the picnic tables, as well as a leopard tortoise lurking at the side of the road.

Rock hyraxes
Agama lizard
Hildebrandt’s starling
Red-and-yellow barbet
Leopard tortoise

From the Serengeti, we continued on to the neighbouring Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Sometimes touted as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’, this national park centres around the Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest inactive and intact caldera, formed after an enormous volcanic eruption two to three million years ago. The park is unusual in that it is also home to Maasai pastoralists and their herds of cattle, goats, and camels, a surprising contrast with the vast emptiness of the Serengeti plains. My Masters dissertation investigated educational disadvantage among the Maasai, using data collected by the Tanzanian NGO Savannas Forever, and it was hard not to feel uncomfortable seeing children with painted faces waiting by the side of the road for a photo opportunity. The image of the Maasai is heavily commoditised, yet the Maasai themselves reap little benefit from the carloads of foreign tourists rattling past in their 4 by 4’s.

On our way up to the crater we took a detour in order to see Oldupai Gorge, a deep fissure in the Great Rift Valley which has provided several important hominin fossil finds, and which lent its name to the earliest stone tools (Oldowan tools) used by our ancestors. (It used to be called Olduvai Gorge (hence Oldowan rather than Oldopan) but apparently this is a misspelling of the original Maasai word, which is the name of the sisal plants so common around the area.) During my undergrad, I learned a lot about the discoveries made at Oldupai so it was very exciting to see the site itself.

The site was founded by Louis Leakey and his wife Mary, and research was later continued by their son Richard and his wife Meave (my undergraduate archaeology supervisions often got sidetracked into anecdotes of our professor’s younger days spent boozing with Richard Leakey). The discoveries made at Oldupai, together with other finds at sites in Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia, helped to prove that the human story began in Africa, specifically in East Africa, and made it clear that human evolution took place over a much longer time span than previously thought. The most famous specimen discovered at Oldupai is probably ‘Nutcracker Man’, so named because of its massive jaws and robust skull, and generally considered to be a specimen of Paranthropus boisei dating to 1.75 million years ago. Specimens of Homo habilis and Homo erectus, closer relatives of modern humans, have also been found at Oldupai.

Museum sign
The gorge – the different layers of sediment help to date specimens


After Oldupai we ascended still further to the very rim of the crater. Getting out of the car, the air was noticeably colder. The crater appeared deserted from above, the lake icy blue in its centre, grassy plains stretching out towards the crater’s steeply wooded edges. As we descended however, the white specks on the lake’s surface resolved into flocks of pale pink flamingo, and herds of wildebeest and buffalo became visible, together with groups of crested cranes. There were groups of zebra grazing near the lake, seemingly unphased by the family of hyenas play-fighting in the shallows. We also saw several groups of lions, perfectly camouflaged among the dusty grass and snoozing gently in the late afternoon sun. Following the narrow green strip of river, we made our way to the Hippo Pool, a lush green oasis where we found three hippos happily splashing around.

After the game drive in the crater we headed back up to our campsite, where the night was cold but rewarded with incredible views of the stars, and a foggy dawn that broke to reveal a group of zebra grazing beside our tents!

On the edge of the crater
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Crested cranes, the national bird of Uganda


Zebra, and the tiny specks in the distance are hyenas by the edge of the lake

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Sleeping lions
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More sleepy lions
The Hippo Pool…
…complete with hippos!
Zebras at our campsite

After Ngorongoro, we headed to our final destination, Lake Manyara National Park. Some of the park felt quite familiar after the Serengeti and the crater, with big open plains dotted with wildebeest and the occasional warthog. However, the plains quickly give way to scrubby slopes studded with ancient baobab trees. Due to their large hollow trunks, which help them to store water, baobabs have a strange appearance, and many people say they are actually upside-down, with their leaves buried in the ground. The story goes that the baobab was jealous of the other trees’ bright flowers and fruit, and was miserable about its own appearance. The baobab complained so loudly that God grew tired of its moaning, tore it out of the ground and replanted it upside-down to silence it forever. I actually quite like their appearance, with their silvery-grey trunks and delicate branches, and also enjoy eating the seeds (ubuyu), which are coated in bright-pink sherbet and sold by the roadside around Tanzania.

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Baobab trees on a hillside
Elephants among acacia trees
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Baby elephant
Giraffes on the shore of the lake

Further into the park, the grassy plains give way to marshy areas ringed with bulrushes, where we saw hippos wallowing in the mud, accompanied by little white egrets, sacred ibis, Egyptian ducks, yellow-billed storks, spoonbills, and huge flocks of pelicans.

Wallowing hippos
Yellow-billed storks and spoonbills feeding
Yellow-billed stork
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Finally, the scrubby acacia woodland became denser and more jungle-like. As we drove along, there was a rustling amongst the trees, and several elephants nonchalantly emerged from the shrubbery and wandered across the road right in front of our vehicle. For such enormous creatures, it was impressive how little noise they made!

Elephant ahead!


Our day in Lake Manyara was actually my birthday, and it was a pretty incredible way to spend it. I’m hoping to be somewhere equally as exciting next year!

Birthday dinner


Mama Sleepy, or goodbye Welamasonga

On our last day of fieldwork in Welamasonga last week, Vicky’s phone rang in the car for the umpteenth time that day. Paschazia rolled her eyes at me – “Mama ma Telephone! Every day, chat chat chat!” I laughed because it’s very true, our days are punctuated by Vicky’s conversations about market shopping, church services, and picking up kids from school. “If Vicky is Mama ma Telephone, you’re Mama ma Picha”, I said in reply. Paschazia often initiates field photoshoots, demanding that we strike different poses and snapping away with her phone. “What’s your nickname then?” Paschazia asked. There was the briefest of pauses, then our driver said “Mama Usingizi! [Sleepy]” and everyone burst out laughing. It has become a bit of a running joke that I fall asleep in the car home pretty much every day, waking up in confusion as we arrive in town and trying to pretend that I know what’s going on.

While it’s a bit embarrassing to be nicknamed Mama Sleepy, days in Welamasonga can be quite exhausting. Welamasonga is much more rural than Kisesa; in the words of my field assistants, “You can’t even buy soda there!”. While this is not strictly true – there are a couple of little dukas (shops) selling drinks and sweets in the village centre – Welamasonga does feel like a different world. Households are scattered far and wide along dusty tracks lined with sisal plants and spiky shrubs. With one driver, we would cling on for dear life as we hurtled along with scant regard for potholes and ditches, and narrowly avoiding stray goats and low-hanging branches. On the other hand, our main driver, Mwidini, takes a lot of pride in the appearance of his car, and would occasionally make us get out and walk so he didn’t have to risk scratching the paintwork! Indeed, some households can only be reached on foot, and so we spent a lot of time traipsing through fields, leaping ditches and navigating herds of cattle.

Removing bits of Welamasonga from the car axle
Mwidini changing the tyre on his ‘Mrembo’ (beautiful or vain) car
En route to a remote household: “Sophia, pose by the rice field!”
Walking between households

The distances between households made following children up quite time-consuming, and we had to get creative in our solutions to tracking them down. This involved visiting the local schools and setting up desks outside to find students en masse, as well as interviewing kids in the back of the car, in paddy fields, at their grandparents’ house, and at the rice hulling machine in the village centre. We found one boy while he was out herding, and our driver offered to take charge of his cattle so we could interview him.

Children waiting to be interviewed at school
Interviews at a local primary school
Madinda takes care of a young participant’s cattle
Interview during the rice harvest

The logistics may have been challenging, but I fell a little bit in love with Welamasonga. Pausing during walks across the fields, there was frequently no sign of life aside from a distant thatched roof, with maybe a curl of smoke or a few roaming cattle. The open landscape provides panoramas over rolling fields to distant hillsides punctuated by granite boulders, the sky varying from deep indigo to palest cornflower blue at the horizon, neat rows of cassava and maize gently rustling in the cool breeze.

Welamasonga has retained a more traditional way of life than Kisesa, with the majority of households relying on subsistence farming and cattle herding. Farming is such an integral part of everyday life here that people find it very strange that I don’t farm in the UK, and often ask very detailed questions about UK agriculture. I was quizzed last week by one father while we were interviewing his children. What crops do we grow in the UK, how are they different to Tanzanian crops, do we use special seeds? Which animals do we keep? I tried to explain that sheep farming is quite common, and that we keep sheep for their wool, as here in Tanzania sheep are kept alongside goats just for eating. I also said we have a lot of horses in the UK, but this caused quite a lot of confusion – do we eat them? Why not? Do we use them for ploughing or carrying loads? Yes, a little, but mostly people just ride them for fun. This was met with complete bafflement – why on earth would you ride a horse when you can drive a car? Finally he wanted to know how much an average UK sheep weighs, and I had to admit that I have never weighed a sheep in my life. Other people feel the need to pass on advice about good farming practice. According to the chairman of one of the subvillages, if I want to plant a mango tree, I have to plant it at night while naked, and I must not sleep with my husband for a week beforehand. My field assistant thought this was very funny, and asked if I would be able to do that – I replied that as I like mangos a lot, it wouldn’t be too difficult.

I’m quite sad to be saying goodbye to Welamasonga. However, some land has just come up for sale near the village centre, and in light of last week’s referendum result, I am quite tempted to put my new-found farming knowledge into action. If I don’t come back in August, you’ll know where to find me!

One of the families we interviewed – on the right you can see the little ‘ancestor houses’ associated with traditional beliefs
Taking a break during the rice harvest
Another work group (kikundi) involved in the rice harvest