Udzungwa Mountains National Park, Tanzania: Alison Muscato - Community, Environment and Development


Posted: December 18, 2012

1 country. 40 days. 14 Penn Staters. Millions of chickens. I lived in rural Tanzania for a month and am grateful for every minute I spent there.

My study abroad experience in Tanzania was through the Parks and People organization and the Landscape Architecture Department at Penn State. We landed in Dar es Salaam, the capital, and the jetlag and cultural differences overwhelmed us at first. Dar es Salaam is a very large and busy city. We got around the city in a small bus, but once or twice we walked around the city on foot which allowed us to have more personal interactions with the city. For the first few days, we attended lectures at the University of Dar es Salaam about biodiversity and human-elephant conflict.

Next we traveled to Morogoro, a smaller urban area. The drive there showed us more of the beautiful Tanzanian landscape; most of us had our noses pressed up against the bus window the whole time, taking pictures. We spent several days in Morogoro, exploring the downtown area and gathering pictures and observations about various topics such as transportation, technology and food systems. Our next location would be a small rural village, Mangula, where we stayed for the remaining four weeks.

MuscatoTanzania2.pngThe village of Mangula lies next to the Udzungwa Mountains National Park, a biodiversity hotspot in Tanzania. We were so fortunate to stay at the Udzungwa Mountains National Park Ecological Monitoring Center. The staff at the center were so amazing. They helped translate interactions with local villagers, answered all of our questions and made us feel so welcome in their home. Our time at the monitoring center passed way too quickly.

One of my favorite things about living in the village was interactions with the community members. On several occasions I ran into people I knew and stopped to have a conversation or greet each other. I enjoyed speaking Swahili with the people in the villages and markets because it felt like I was having a truly personal and authentic experience. Most people were eager to share their culture and wanted us to answer their greetings, even if it meant they had to teach us what to say. Their pride of culture was remarkable and encouraged me to participate.

The trip exposed me to a wide array of development issues, mostly regarding land-use and conservation. It was amazing to see how close the people are to their land. They live under the trees, eat produce from their yards, use firewood for power and cooking, and the list goes on and on. The extent to which people value their property complicates land-use disputes, especially regarding traditional resource use that is no longer deemed sustainable, such as fuel-wood collection. We went on many field trips to places such as tree-planting farms, bee-keeping operations and fisheries.

MuscatoTanzania3.pngIt was incredible to live in the same place where we were doing research and working on projects. We could talk to local people about ideas and strategies, what would work and what would not. Working in conjunction with the local community, we were much more informed and had greater potential to design effective solutions that address issues in the village and park. We had to read many papers about issues in the area, allowing us to process what we saw in a larger, historical context. We even got to experience more typical tourist activities such as a safari and two different hikes in order to experience Tanzania as most Americans would.

Beginning in Dar es Salaam and transitioning to the Udzungwa Ecological Monitoring Center was the perfect progression from large city, to smaller city to rural village. By the end of 6 weeks, I stayed in Dar es Salaam, Morogoro, Mang’ula, Mikumi, Sanje and Stone Town. This variety of places provided me with such culturally rich and memorable experiences. I also gained a lot of skills from this experience. It was challenging to work with students from a different academic area, but I was fortunate to learn a lot of the techniques they use and got to expand my interests and talents into the field of Landscape Architecture. With the courses we took and the projects we created, I gained the opportunities to apply practical knowledge and experiences to my international development classes and future career.