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Study Abroad: If It Doesn’t Challenge You It Won’t Change you

This is a guest post written by Kennedy Walsh ’20. 

Studying abroad in Zanzibar has been one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences of my life. Zanzibar is a small island off the East coast of Tanzania in East Africa. I wanted to challenge myself and travel off the beaten path. I was looking for a program that would allow me to dig deep into the community that I was living in more meaningful ways than a traditional tourist. Zanzibar was a challenge to me first because I had never traveled to Sub Saharan Africa before. Also, the community here is overwhelmingly Muslim, over 90 percent of the population practices Islam. Studying in Zanzibar allowed me to challenge my preconceptions of what Sub Saharan Africa and Muslim communities are like.

I couldn’t tell you what my “average” day looks like because every day is different.  Some days I attend four-hour long Swahili lectures or lectures at the local University. Other days we spend traveling and doing field work in the many reefs and coastal forests around the island. For the last month of the program, I make my own schedule and conduct my own independent research.

Our home base when we aren’t traveling with the program is Stone Town, Zanzibar. The Zanzibar Archipelago was a major port for Indian Ocean trade, so it is influenced by mainland Africa, the Middle East, India and South East Asia.  This trade history is especially noticeable in the architecture and food.  Stone Town has many narrow corridors similar to what you may expect in Morocco with indirectly carved Zanzibari doors. The food here is excellent with lots of fruits, fresh seafood and curries. The Zanzibar Archipelago is diverse ecologically with coastal forests, mangrove forests, seagrass beds and coral reefs.  As an environmental science major, I appreciate this program’s focus on coastal ecology and the human environment interface. I am lucky to have spent more than half my time here outside exploring new environments that are unique and beautiful.

I’m incredibly lucky to stay with the same host family for two months while in Stone Town.  My host family is one of the best parts of the whole study abroad experience.  They have been welcoming to me and take me on excursions to the local amusement park or gardens and show me how to cook. Staying with a homestay gives you a different perspective on the community you are living in and gives you a small window into what people’s lives are like. The connections I’ve made with my host family and other members of the community here in Zanzibar will last the rest of my life. With all of the benefits of staying with a homestay come a good deal of challenges also. Here in Zanzibar, western toilets and toilet paper are rare, hot water is even rarer.  Even in the 90-degree heat, I wear long pants, a t-shirt and a head covering to be respectful. Cheese and many other American foods are not available. Internet connection is uncommon and unreliable. Sometimes the locals will shout “Mzungu!” (white person) at you and laugh. You might get woken up every day at 5 a.m. by the call to prayer or chickens. However, despite all these challenges I wouldn’t want to study abroad anywhere else. I believe that these challenges have made me appreciate the luxuries we take for granted in the States and give me a larger context in which to think about our world.

Right now our program is on an excursion in mainland Tanzania. I’m writing this while looking out at the savannah that surrounds our accommodation inside the national park. This program is so diverse. If you are looking to study abroad and want to learn more about Sub Saharan Africa and challenge yourself this might be the program for you. I’ve swum with whale sharks, seen elephants and lions, hiked with monkeys, and fallen in love with the community in Stone Town. I’m not saying that this program is easy, it comes with a lot of growing pains and is uncomfortable, like sitting in the back of a pickup truck with twenty of your homestay family members uncomfortable. However, it’s so unbelievably worthwhile, you will learn so much about the world and yourself.  If you are looking into studying abroad my advice would be to challenge yourself because it is when you are uncomfortable that you learn and grow the most.