By Heather Morton
A trip to Tanzania taught Aliza Furneaux ’17 that “you can have great technology, but it will crash and burn without knowledge of the culture,” she says.
The January interim course, “Modern Sub-Saharan Africa,” focuses on the sustainable management of natural resources in Tanzania. Furneaux was able to take it thanks to the Marina C. Peterson ’10 Study Abroad Fund.
“I feel incredibly grateful for the scholarship that allowed me to study abroad,” says Furneaux, a field hockey standout who last month graduated magna cum laude with honors in civil and environmental engineering. “Studying abroad was always something I wanted to do, but it wasn’t going to happen without a scholarship. I got the chance to experience the beauty of Tanzania’s wildlife while learning about a whole new culture and approach to environmental sustainability.”
A focus on sustainable development
The class was a capstone experience in Furneaux’s pursuit of environmental sustainability at Lafayette. Her first semester, she took “Introduction to Environmental Studies,” which provided a foundation in the concepts of community-based resource management. Her interest in sustainability led to a summer internship at the American Biogas Council in Washington, D.C., where she learned about the technologies, policies, and industry of biogas. A later internship at the Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago funded by an EPA undergraduate fellowship gave her a more nuanced understanding of biogas policy.
Before taking the January course, Furneaux was attuned to technology and policy in sustainable development, but less aware of the role of culture. Not now: “It’s so important to understand the culture. Until you understand the culture, you won’t be able to develop an effective technology,” she says.
She credits the experience with narrowing her research focus in sustainable development in the environmental engineering graduate program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
“This was the first developing country I’ve ever visited,” says Furneaux. “I’ve always been interested in engineering, policy, and economics. This brought in the cultural aspect. You can’t have a blanket approach. Each community is different.”
Furneaux will work on sustainable wastewater treatment for phosphorus recovery in a project directed by Professor Roland Cusick at Urbana-Champaign.
“Seventy percent of Tanzanian citizens depend on farming for a livelihood,” she says. “Sustainable development can drive economic growth. Technology is important in developing countries because it can allow other jobs. I’m excited to help recover a resource from waste that will make money. Visiting Tanzania brought it all together for me.”
Firsthand encounters with different viewpoints
Before boarding the plane, students met several times in fall 2016 with Rexford Ahene, professor of economics, and Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger, professor of foreign languages and literatures, who prepared them for the experience through lectures and assigned readings. Students wrote a pre-trip paper and a literature review on the history of natural resource management in Tanzania.
Since developing the course in 1995, Ahene has focused on different aspects of economic policy in different years. A year ago, the course considered development, government policies, and entrepreneurship. The previous trip focused on how local communities function within Tanzania’s wildlife management system.
The course draws on Tanzanians to inform students about how their country manages its natural resources.
“We leave a lot of the lecturing to local experts, government officials or Tanzanian university professors with expertise in different areas,” says Ahene. “Lafayette faculty contextualize the experience.”
Students gathered every evening at the hotel for a faculty-led discussion on what they had heard during the day, which came from a wide range of viewpoints.
“We met everyone from government ministers to local people on the wildlife management area councils,” says Furneaux. “We got to hear everyone’s perspective from the national government’s to local councils’, top to bottom.”
The course encompassed a sweeping range of geography from the Serengeti to the Zanzibar marine conservation project and included both urban and rural populations to help students appreciate the regional diversity within Tanzania.
The nation offers students from the United States a unique perspective on the global problem of sustainable resource management.
“Tanzania has some of the best natural resources and World Heritage Sites in the world,” says Ahene. “One of the most famous wildlife events is the migration of the wildebeest, and that takes place almost entirely in Tanzania. This places an additional burden on the government to manage these resources to keep the whole system intact.”
Wildlife management areas are set up with community-managed corridor lands that connect national parks and conservation areas to one another. Members from several villages form a local council that manages these corridor lands in order to protect wildlife. The councils also distribute government funds devoted to protecting the wildlife and tackling adverse wildlife/human interactions.
Ahene developed the course to expose students to a different cultural perspective on resource management. “Indigenous African communities naturally live sustainably,” he says.
“Tanzanians don’t need to be convinced of the importance of developing sustainable practices,” adds Furneaux. “In the U.S. we always have reasons for sustainability, monetization or other incentives. We have to get buy in. In the Tanzanian culture there’s already buy in. Nature is considered fundamental to their culture.”
Insights such as this come from experiencing the country firsthand.
“My reward,” says Ahene, “is to see the students grow up very quickly. [Tanzania provides] a totally different cultural context from what students are used to and what they take for granted. Given the level of poverty, students are surprised at how happy people are.”