There is no better way to learn about a new context than being immersed in it. While proxy research can be very beneficial in having working knowledge of a topic/place/culture, many valuable lessons and intangible information are harvested from time spent living and learning in the new context. Studying in Arusha, Tanzania for three weeks, provided a valuable trove of findings: from quantitative data to qualitative observations. Being my first time spent in a developing country, my experience in Tanzania has parted upon me a greater understanding of the dynamics involved with working in a new context, and how to better navigate the context as a foreigner from a developed context. While my team and I came away with a lot of technical findings regarding the production and use of sustainable building materials, I found the less tangible data to be just as, if not more so, informative and powerful.
In a world where data is becoming more sought-after than ever, I think it is important not only to collect useful data, but to learn how to collect that data in a sustainable and mutually beneficial way for both the collector and source of the data, in such a way that does not push an outsider’s agenda that could negatively disturb the local ecosystem. Being very much the outsider in a world that sometimes saw me as a token “mzungu” –or white foreigner, I learned to embrace the sometimes-uncomfortable feelings of being the center of attention –even though I did nothing to earn the attention of others, other than having white skin. As an outsider, I learned to listen more than I talk, as there is a vast array of knowledge to be gained from the perspectives of the local people, as they are the ones who truly understand the systems and relationships that drive their communities. As an outsider, I gained a greater understanding and capacity of empathy for the millions of Americans and global citizens that feel and are treated as outsiders in their own homes, although in no way was I discriminated against, merely stereotyped for my fair skin and clean clothes. While I was an outsider in a foreign land, I rarely felt that being an outsider inherently disenfranchised me. Although the color of my skin is not the only factor that contributed to this lack of exclusion, I really do believe (from my mere weeks of international experience) that white privilege has no geographical boundaries. Living and learning in a country where the average yearly salary is $900, it was impossible not to recognize the luxurious and privileged life I live compared to that of an average Tanzanian, a for many that I observed to be full of hard, seemingly endless work, and lacking leisure – something that many people in the US take for granted.
As a team of five (four for the first two weeks, Julio later joined us), we were able to accomplish our field work and research goals. Even with some unforeseen delays, we were able to finish both our earthen oven and stove projects, as well as meet our goal of interviewing five different brick makers in the region. Working in the field gave me a first-hand experience of user-centered design, when we interviewed the cooks at the Star Primary School to assess their concerns with the current process, as well as collect information on their preferences. Next semester, our team will formally disseminate our findings collected from brick makers and local stakeholders.
In general, this experience has only temporary satisfied my thirst for international experience, field work and research. Observing the sheer amount of complex issues found throughout the Tanzanian society, I feel that there is so much more work and collaboration to be done. I would like to thank Dr. Esther Obonyo and Dr. Eugene Park for their formative and crucial roles in making this Tanzanian experience such a memorable and valuable one; and to the PLA for its financial and motivational support for encouraging such trips like these to take place!