I looked outside, but I couldn’t see anything; it was all dark. I couldn’t sleep anymore. While lying in my bed struggling with jet lag, I was thinking about a series of events and I smiled, realizing where I was. I was home!
After two years of classes in a new country, experiencing a new culture, new weather, new food, a new academic system, new everything—I finally made it! I had succeeded in acquiring my Master’s degree from Michigan State University (MSU) and now I was back in my home country of Tanzania. But this was just the beginning of a new journey, the journey that I had dreamt of for more than ten years, the journey towards my Ph.D. I remember sharing this dream with a friend in secondary school and he brought to my attention the many difficulties and barriers that I would encounter, such as the financial struggles, the competitive nature of American graduate schools, making professional connections, time commitments, and many others. The take home message was, “Rose – what makes you think that a girl from Dar es Salaam could ever get a Ph.D. from an American university?” I knew that these challenges wouldn’t hinder me. I would turn the challenges into opportunities. But there was one very pragmatic concern that could seriously ground me. How could I possibly cover the costs of a Ph.D.?
You see, I do not come from money. When I was 12 years old I lost my older brother. Five years after, both of my parents passed as well. These harsh realities left me as the primary care-giver of my younger sister when I was just 17 years old. With a renewed determination, I recognized that I couldn’t lose my parents, a brother, and my DREAM as well. So, I set off with the support of my uncle, other family members, and my friends, to undertake the biggest challenge of my life. In 2015, I won a prestigious MasterCard Fellowship to study for a Masters degree in social work at MSU. That opportunity opened many doors for me. And before I graduated from my Masters, I received acceptance and funding to pursue a Ph.D. in the School of Social Work at MSU.
Beginning of summer
Lying in my familiar bed I felt proud of what I had achieved and happy to be home. But mostly I felt ready to take on the next challenge. Now too excited to sleep, I got out of bed and started getting ready for the day. Today I would be meeting two of my colleagues from the Research on the Ecology of Carnivores and their Prey (RECaP) Laboratory who would be joining me in research efforts here in Tanzania. Although I am a social worker, my research interests involve understanding the social dimension of human-wildlife conflict. That is the reason I decided to collaborate with a student laboratory that conducts cutting-edge research on ecological aspects of wildlife conservation. When I found RECaP I knew that it was the right place for me to pursue my doctoral work. My preparations were simple. I grabbed my MSU t-shirt and I was ready. Spartans Will!
Just a few hours later Susanna, Jackie, and I were on our way to Monduli district in the northern part of Tanzania where we would be staying for three months studying the community-level consequences of human-carnivore conflict. We were all quiet, lost in our own thoughts. Personally, I was trying to figure out how my summer would be; I was ready for the adventure, for challenges, and for supportive colleagues and friends.
I spent most of this past summer conducting interviews among the Maasai community living along the Maasai Steppe of Northern Tanzania, a 22,000 km2 landscape occurring in and around Tarangire National Park, in collaboration with MSU’s Tanzania Partnership Program. The interviews aimed to understand the lived experiences of the Maasai people as they share their landscapes with lions, leopards, and spotted hyenas. These three carnivore species will hunt and kill people’s cattle, goats, sheep, and donkeys with some regularity. Affected people, in an interest to protect their families and livestock, will lash out and injure or kill these carnivores. Consequently, this is a region of the world that experiences some of the highest levels of human-carnivore conflict anywhere on earth. Via these interviews, I heard about success stories, where people effectively coexisted with carnivores, but I also heard about the challenges that are being faced by the Maasai communities. More specifically, I understood that certain villages had much higher rates of carnivore attack then similar villages just a few kilometers away. The reasons behind this variation remain elusive, but seemed to be attributable to distance from the village to national parks or number of interventions that have been placed in the area to minimize the conflicts. These dynamics will form the subject of my dissertation research. My interests are to work with communities to find better ways of engaging and solving human-carnivore conflict. I am also interested in the social aspects of environmental justice. In other words, I am planning to devote my career to finding ways to help communities conserve their environment and at the same time ensure access to basic human rights.
I had a variety of opportunities to learn about the local people and their customs while in the Maasai Steppe and I gained more experience than I ever expected. Those memories keep me focused on how to increase and invest my research efforts in the region and across Africa. As a social worker I want to bring my expertise into the RECaP Laboratory and find answers to those tough questions that involve people and their environment.
Within our daily lives over the summer, Susanna and I were hitting the road, moving from one boma (a fenced enclosure where the local people protect their livestock from carnivore attack) to another, learning from the communities about human-wildlife conflict, and documenting what is working and what could be improved to ensure that both people and animals are benefiting from natural resources. While Susanna was doing those interviews as part of her Masters degree, I was taking copious notes that would inform Ph.D.
“Hey, Rose! We have ten minutes for lunch,” Jackie said. “Only ten?” I asked. “Yes! Probably less,” she replied. We had lunch while talking and laughing. Ten minutes later, the walking continued. We walked and noted measurements and made observations. As the sun went down we, along with the cows, reached the same place where we had started our journey. When I got home, I went straight to bed as I was tired but also tremendously gratified at the experience that I shared with Jackie.
Another scenario that I still remember was the day we went to the field and I saw kids walking in a small group of three, with white shirts and blue shorts and realized that they were primary school students. I tried to remember if I had seen a school. Yes, there had been a school, but we passed it a long time ago. I felt sad realizing that these kids were walking all the way to that school! By the time they’d get to school they would be very tired, and I was not sure if they would be able to focus and learn. I thought back to one of the projects that I had been involved in during my time as a Masters student. My role was to encourage communities to build pre- and primary schools near their homes, especially in those hard to reach communities. Maybe that could help here, I said to myself. I kept thinking about the lives of Maasai boys herding cows everyday with no obvious options for education. Given the way I value education, sometimes it is difficult for me to see children that do not have comparable opportunities to pursue formal education. All of these memories and experiences reminded me of the importance of appreciation. Since I have started my social work career, I have been thinking about how to create more opportunities in order to change the lives of individuals, families and whole communities for the better. I know it is time for me to be part of these changes and to help figure out the solutions to problems like these. As I watched the three children disappear into the dust behind me, I silently made a promise!
When I was there in the summer, the kindness of the people in these communities warmed my heart. I did not leave a home without having a snack, milk or tea. In Maasai culture, having guests in your home is a blessing. Despite the struggles and challenges of everyday life in this agro-pastoral families, I could still see their hope. As a social worker, I spent most of my time figuring out what was working and what was not. I learned new things every day from the community and how they interacted with the government. I still need more time to learn about human-carnivore conflict and that is one of the reasons I am planning to spend five years in the area so I can work towards a solution.
I had a good and productive summer. Working with Susanna and Jackie was a tremendous experience. We learned so much from each other and supported one another in so many different ways. I believe that our collaborations will not end here as students, but that we will continue working together throughout our lives to continue to bring positive changes to our communities.
End of summer
I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, my uncle, who is like a father to me, entered my room. “Hey, ‘Dr. Kaihula,’ are you ready?” We both laughed, the smile stuck on my face and I replied, “Yes, Dad, I am.” He prayed for me and looked into my eyes and said, “Go and do what you have to do, Rose.” He gave me a hug and helped me with my suitcase. Time for the airport, back to Michigan State University!
To be continued……!