Rant! The Generalization of Africa

I would like to start out by saying that I have been found guilty of it in the past, and that this isn’t directed to anyone in particular, but is directed to almost every person I meet and talk to, and often in most of the things I read…so take that for what it is worth!

I have noticed, since going to “Africa” that this is the most common way to refer to the 62 different countries and territories of the African continent. Why do people refer to every African country as “Africa?” Why if someone is going to Mozambique are they going to “Africa?” Why do people say “I want to go to Africa” instead of “I would love to go to Kenya?” I am not actually sure if there is an answer. It could be inherently racist, or ignorance, or just plain laziness.

Africa is a vast place. It covers (according to Wikipedia) 6% of the Earth’s total surface, and 20.4% of it’s total land area. To put things into perspective, the areas of India, China, the United States, Argentina, and Western Europe would all fit inside, with room to spare (http://bigthink.com/ideas/21084). Big right? Being a large collective area, many countries on the African continent obviously share a similar collection of traits. Some may share a history of imperialism and injustice, or others may share diseases that know no border, but have devastated them all the same.

Anyway, the point here is that, grouping together African countries, based on their similarities, into one large “Africa,” takes away from all the differences that make them distinct and wonderful countries on their own. There are 62 different territories and countries, countless languages (over 1000), from Arabic to Igbo, and some of the most interesting and oldest cultural traditions, religions, and beliefs. Not to mention each has a unique history, present, and future. Their governments are different, their landscapes are different, and although many African countries share similar issues, each has its own set of individual problems.

Now, as we see a shift away from large-scale government aid to a more individual and humanistic approach to development, I think it is extremely important to value each culture and person for the differences that make them beautiful. After spending time in Tanzania, I wouldn’t dare call it anything else. How could I? I didn’t get to see Egypt, or Ghana, or Mauritania. I saw Tanzania. I met Tanzanians. I ate Tanzanian food and laughed (or not laughed) at Tanzanian jokes. I heard Swahili and Hehe, I saw churches and mosques, and witnessed an exciting Tanzanian presidential election. Now, imagine this happening in the 61 other distinct countries and territories of Africa.

To relate it to my own life, I know most Canadians (sorry to my American friends) dislike or even hate being grouped together in the “America” category. I mean, we are Canadians right? In order to foster a global world where cultures are respected and recognized, I think that it is worth the time and effort to familiarize yourself with different African states, cultures, and histories. Or for that matter, add the countries of South America, the countries of Asia, and even the countries of Europe to that list. Instead of treating “Africa” as a faraway tourist destination where you can volunteer and plant trees, treat it as a real place with real people, that aren’t forgotten when you leave. Those animals you are paying big bucks to see today might not be there tomorrow. Those kids you played with at the orphanage might not be there tomorrow either. Give them the attention they deserve. All it is..a simple mindset change.

Maybe I was inspired by the world’s newest country becoming it’s own after years of civil war and a fight for autonomy. I am sure if you were to ask someone from South Sudan where they come from, they wouldn’t say “Africa.”

Tunis, Tunisia

Togolese Women, Togo

Okavango Delta, Botswana


How many times can I learn the same lesson?

Let me begin this by saying before this particular year-long adventure, I had never had anything stolen, lost, misplaced, or vanished from my possession (at home, or in my travels).

Our trip just beginning, Aman and I were admittedly not in the right frame of mind. Having spent three months apart things were a bit exciting, strange, and at times a bit tense. I had been in Tanzania for those three months and Aman having just arrived …well if anyone knows the two of us, we aren’t the portrait of agreeable couple. In any case, our passports were left in a taxi one evening (it was dark, it had been a long day, blah blah) but no matter how you slice it, it was human error on my part. The worst part about the entire debacle was that the taxi driver did a car check when we got out – light on and everything – and decided that we hadn’t forgot anything in the backseat. Yeah right. Anyway, what followed suit was an awful five days of tracking said taxi driver down and confronting him, missing flights, expired visas, bribing police officers, two-day Canadian consulate visits, phoning home and waking mom up at 3 AM, and the beginnings of the worst bacterial infection this girl has ever had the pleasure of having. Just trust me when I say, it was terrible. I am however so thankful and lucky that we managed to get things sorted out, eventually, and finish our amazing East Africa trip without many more problems.

Fast forward to our first month in Paris. Things are going great. Until, of course, I am pick-pocketed on the metro and two BlackBerrys are stolen. Really, the only important part of this story you need to know is a few weeks prior, my lovely and forgiving boyfriend told me (with much enthusiasm) that if he EVER lost his phone, he would be “f*cked.”

So at this point you think I would have learned all there is to know about watching one’s belongings. You think wrong. I had to leave Aman’s notebook in the airplane seat pocket before I finally learned.

I must say, quite honestly, that I was so incredibly careful after these three incidents. I locked all my stuff up when sharing hostel rooms, I never went out with more cash than I needed, I left my passport at home in a safe place, I carried a different bag that nobody could steal from, and I kept it close on the metro and in public places. However, even when someone is as careful as can be, shit happens. On our most recent trip to Italy I had the fabulous privilege of having my wallet stolen! I was trying a dress on, and in 10 seconds it took for me to show Aman, someone managed to go into my fitting room and steal my wallet right out of my purse. They even zipped my purse back up so I had no idea until I left (and they too). So bye-bye brand new wallet from Florence and my credit card, debit card, SIN card, etc. you get the point.

This was pretty much the straw that broke the camels back. Or maybe it was when the store employee said “well, look at it this way, now you know.”…

It is the principle people. I have never stolen anything in my entire life! Why do people do this? Do you think after they took my wallet and looked at its contents that they felt bad they had stole from  a traveler? A visitor? That now she might be really effed? I’d like to think they would, but, probably not.

Oh well, I guess it’s time to rock the money belt my parents always push on me.


WWOOF – an interactive travel experience

I had gone my whole life without ever hearing about “WWOOFing” until I met one girl who had – after her, every person I met seemed to have tried it. It made me very curious. As a self-proclaimed go-green gal it seemed like a natural thing to try. For those of you who don’t know, WWOOF stands for “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms,” and is a network of organic farms (in a simple sense) and people interested in helping out. With an expanded definition it can include everything from organic vineyards and olive groves, to boutique hotels and goat farms that make their own cheese. Basically, you help out in whatever way is needed in exchange from room and board. Sounds great, no? It is. And let me say, there are farms almost everywhere you’d like to travel.

Awhile ago I planned on going to Morocco to help out with a small hotel but with the recent problems in north Africa I decided on a much more laid-back and relaxed place, Ireland. I had always wanted to see Ireland, I had some free time (a girl can only do so much shopping and eating pastries in Paris), and I have been very interested and curious about sustainable living in the truest sense of the term. I found two great hosts through a very easy-to-use and simple website (small fee required) and was off to the Emerald Isle.

First impressions of Dublin were: grey, a bit hokey, and expensive. Maybe it’s because I was tired and sad I had left France, but all I was thinking was “Oh Steph, you really need to stop doing things on a whim.” However, my pessimism was quickly erased when I boarded a bus and traveled eight hours across the country to (what must be) one of the most beautiful places in the world – West Cork. I was tired and I was grumpy, but, a wonderful lady Julia was there to pick me up when I stepped off the bus and was extremely welcoming and friendly. I spent three weeks with Mike and Julia at their beautiful bed and breakfast on the Sheepshead Peninsula in West Cork and couldn’t have had a better time. I got to hang out in Irish pubs, hone my Guinness drinking skills, and get my butt bit my a crazy goose on the daily.  I met great people who made me feel like I had been a long time friend and were very quick to show me around, take me out, and include me in their lives.

Fast forward past another eight hour bus ride to Dublin, and back again to West Cork (poor planning on my part), and I was arriving at my second host’s place. But, not before getting on the wrong ferry and having to run off 10 seconds before the one I was supposed to be on took off. Welcome to Sherkin Island. The quietest and quaintest place in the world. I am talking Lord of the Rings style. Picture this: 25 degrees, Stephanie dressed in four layers, wearing boots, wheeling a suitcase, a duffel-bag, and a purse, walking up a dirt-road hill. Half of these people only ever leave the Island to buy groceries (but you can also get them delivered on the ferry), so you can imagine how out of place I looked. Why did I think dressing like a Parisian would be a good thing when you are going to be working in a garden? Don’t worry, I redeemed myself by wearing the same blue fleece and grey sweatpants for three weeks straight. Joe and Fiona had a lovely place, right on the bay, a sailboat, and a very eclectic and interesting life story. I learned about Homeopathy, how to grow zucchinis, how to shovel manure for growing zucchinis, and how to run from bulls (practice for Pamplona?).  Combine this with some very unexpectedly enjoyable evenings at the pub, 34 shades of green everywhere you look, and beautiful walks with the dog to the beach, and we have what is called a great experience.

At the end of the day, the greatest thing about wwoofing is the chance you have to meet some very affecting and enthusiastic people. It is not easy to be an organic farmer, not easy to live in a truly sustainable way, but it is nice to see honest people giving it an honest shot. Inspiring. I can’t wait until I can WOOF again!

Sherkin Island

Elephants Part III: Tanzanian Life Lessons

When all was said and done, I learned a lot in Tanzania. I learned about the history of Ruaha (probably 15 times total), I learned some tips and hints – tricks of the trade – when it comes to searching for animals in the wild, and I learned how to do my laundry in a brown river.

Really though, I never thought that I would learn as much as I did, and if I have to be honest, I didn’t realize how much I had learned until I left and saw things from the outside. When I was there it was very easy to push things aside, but let me tell you, I had reverse culture shock when I finally landed in London. It really put things into perspective.

Some lessons I learned include:

– things on the clothesline better be secure or the dogs will think your panties are their chew toys
– always make sure you close the tent so rats don’t run over your body at night
– chili sauce is a necessity for every meal
– for that matter, so is 3 tablespoons of salt
– no matter how hard you try, diarrhea is inevitable
– solar panels can be used to charge your computer, phone, cameras, and ipods
– bread can be baked using charcoal
– that I will never eat a mango outside of East Africa again

I learned countless facts about animals, and I could now describe the meaning of many animal behaviours that I would never have known before. I also know now that Ruaha must be one of the most beautiful places on Earth. It is what one dreams about when they imagine the African wilderness. It was dry, everything was golden. Animals were hungry and thirsty. It was harsh – I wouldn’t last more than 2 hours. I preferred the safety of the vehicle. The sun was huge, the wind was hot, and when the rain finally came, we all took our clothes off and danced in it.

Middle of the day, on Safari, Ruaha National Park


Above all though, I learned about appreciation. The things I learned in India were just reinforced by the experiences I had in East Africa. That those with the least amount, are always the most generous. That those with nothing to share, share everything they can with their community. These community bonds are so strong and family support cannot be compared to anything you have ever known (unless of course, you are from rural Tanzania). Honesty is something to be rewarded, and everyday citizens won’t hesitate to take the law into their own hands when their own government has failed to provide this security.

The problems in East Africa are obviously very complicated, and I wouldn’t even attempt to explain them here. But what I do know is that despite these problems, Tanzania (Uganda and Kenya I didn’t have the privilege of staying as long) is one of the most peaceful places I have ever been. The slow pace of life, the easy going nature of the people and the fact that much of their material wealth and opportunities are out of their control (weather, drought, disease) I’m sure all play a role (but again, I am just making observations). It seems that the less you have, the less you have to worry about.

Hanging out in the local bar!


Elephants Part II: Camp Life, Rural Adventures

Although I can and do appreciate nature (the birds, fresh air, you get the picture), I definitely wouldn’t describe myself as outdoorsy by any stretch of the imagination. Anyone that knows me would say that I am all talk.

When I found out there was a potential for poisonous snakes (MAMBAS), creepy crawly spiders and millipedes, I completely forgot about the likelihood of something more deadly catching up with me, malaria! Lucky I never got malaria, but one of us did (shes okay now!). I am telling you, for someone who actually spent much of her university career studying insects, I am terrified of them. All that being said, when you are thrown into a situation where no matter where you are and what you are doing, there are going to be insects in your food, clothes, bed, tent, toilet, blah blah, you get used to it very quickly. The beasts we encountered cover everything from the infamous camp critter “cup bug” (see picture below) whose body took up an entire cup, to the wasps nest that hung outside the bathroom (one of Emily’s eyes went missing for a few days). Nightly tick check was a must, as was the scorpion shoe test. I endured more than enough tse-tse fly bites (not fun!) and I think I can speak for all of the girls I was hanging out with that, although they were the least of our worries, mosquito bites were incredibly annoying. The mosquito that resides in Tanzania is tiny and cunning!

Insects aside, life at camp was very fun, if at times hot and uncomfortable.

Pawaga was a camp in the middle of butt-f***. We lived on a farmer’s land, right beside his corn field, and on the river. He was an incredibly generous man, who showed us the farm, gave us lots of fruit and vegetables, and got a big kick out of us when we wanted to help with the corn harvest. The night sky at Pawaga was amazing, and although I often cursed my M&M sized bladder for getting me up in the middle of the night, seeing 46 billion stars (at least…) was incredible. Not to mention, one of our camp dogs, Cheetah, would follow me to my squatting position as my guard. The sunset was something we set our chairs up for every night, and I had a perfect view of the sunrise from my sleeping position in the tent. These are the things I want to remember about Pawaga. Not the snake I found under my bed, or the night our camp helper Oscar killed a skink – also found under my bed –  with my malaria medication box, or the dogs tick-removal, or the gunshot I heard from the neighbouring farm to scare away animals (at 3am, not cool), or the rat that was in our tent one night, or the fact that it was 45 degrees everyday and our water was hot and tasted like charcoal, or not even the fact that I was suffering from Giardiasis for almost 6 weeks and our toilet was a hole in the ground. All being said, I loved camp. Where else would I get to tie beer bottles up with fishing line and dangle them in the tepid river water to cool them down to room temperature?

Chogela was our other camp, and usually proved to be a nice retreat from the harsh realities of Pawaga. We had a nice banda (thatched-roof hut) over our tent, we had a big dining banda to eat and hang out in, as well as a kitchen. But above all, we had HOT showers! The amazing guys that owned the camp (family-owned) and the local guys they employ were so great. They would heat water up for us, help us cook rice, kill any bugs we had in our tent. One night, a beetle flew into Ali’s chest, and three of them came running with sticks and machetes. It was amazing. If you are ever make a visit to Ruaha, please, please stay at Chogela!

In between our life at camp and the project we had our fair share of hilarious experiences. I met some very entertaining characters!

For example: (The following are text messages I received from someone I met in Iringa)

– Hello Mamy i thnk ya fyn! Av a golden day. Back to me am fyn. Hallaa @ ya sisters. Tchaoo
– Yap its true dat we never mean to met but its just happened so by dat I take u as a biggest fancy of mine
– Yap I was fillin lyk i was controllin da world

All in all my camp experience cannot be summed up by stories of flat tires, lost dogs, cows pooping in my drinking water, being in Tanzania for the Presidential election, or even the elephants that came through camp and woke me up with their big sounds! They are just part of a much bigger picture of the beautiful people I met and the incredibly valuable lessons I learned about generosity, family and community, and happiness.

This is our shower. Night showers only!

Pawaga - beautiful setting!

Cup bug!! Dead.

R&R at Chogela

Elephants Part I: Background

Last September I did something I had been dreaming of doing forever…go on a safari! My experience in Tanzania was definitely a safari, in the true sense of the word. Safari is a Swahili word for trip (or in many cases, adventure), and it was truly the trip of a lifetime.

My adventure started last February, when I contacted a woman named Sarah about a possible research assistant position in Tanzania and it took off from there. I didn’t think I would ever make it there, but after much struggle, saving, arguments, begging and pleading in the months leading up to September, I finally boarded a plane and traveled halfway across the world. (Shoutout!!! I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the help of my family (Mom+Alan, Dad+Kelly, and Chelsea) or my amazing and supportive boyfriend Aman)

It would be impossible to summarize my experience into one blog post, or even ten, but I will do my best to give a good introduction. It is also impossible to describe the biology and issues in full detail, but important points are here!

Sarah has been a presence in Tanzania for a few years doing work in animal conservation, but has since started her own PhD. project on Human-Elephant Conflict near Ruaha National Park. The problem in this area of Tanzania is not that the elephant numbers are dwindling (Ruaha has one of the highest elephant populations in East Africa) but that the elephants and the humans that live around the park are at odds with one another. The park is surrounded by very rural, subsistence farming. This means that any damage to crops, whether how big or how small, is potentially detrimental to the farmers livelihood. If you know anything about elephants, it is probably that they are big, and they eat a lot! Therefore, a family of elephants that leaves the park to find food or water, and raids a farm, could very well eat the entire crop in one night. This doesn’t bode well for the farmer, or the farmers family, and therefore, doesn’t bode well for the elephants when the farmer catches them red-handed. Not to mention, running into a wild elephant can be insanely dangerous. Mitigating (or lessening) this conflict is a very important step in protecting not only the strong elephant population of Ruaha, but all the animals that live there.

Many of these farmers and villagers that live near Ruaha have never been into the park, have never learned or experienced the true value of the biological systems that are sitting there in their backyard. Parks have been set up to protect wildlife, but as a result, have restricted access to those most important in protecting it. Nobody has vehicles to go into the park. Therefore, to most of the locals, elephants and other animals are simply that – animals, sometimes pests, sometimes food. What Sarah is doing in Ruaha is taking these farmers and villagers into Ruaha National Park and showing them what thousands of travelers from all over the world come to see, and shes hoping that these experiences change how they feel about wildlife. She believes that educating the local people about wildlife and conservation biology will make them passionate about protecting these very valuable assets

I finally got to fulfill my dream of being a safari guide (even if it was only for a little while, and I wasn’t actually guiding, just coming along for the ride). For three months I went with Rowland (our amazing local guide) into the park, in a 20-year-old Land Rover packed with people (12 to be exact, or 14 when Mama’s brought their babies), and saw the most incredible and amazing animals, landscapes, sunsets, and sunrises I have ever seen.

Me on a village trip in the park

A picture I took in Ruaha

Driving at sunset.

Parts II and III to follow!



Do you speak English?

Don’t let the title of this post fool you – this isn’t a complaint on language barriers – just some observations and thoughts I have had over the last five months.

Language barriers are something I am actually quite used to, and I like going way outside of my comfort zone when it comes to them. From Italian, to Hindi, to Swahili, and even being around my boyfriend’s family when they are speaking Kutchi (a language I didn’t even know existed before meeting him!), I have never minded being an outsider, in fact, I really enjoy being immersed in a situation where I watch people interact in their own languages and trying to imagine what they are talking about. What I find interesting is that, in each situation, I was treated differently for my own ability (or should I say inability) to speak the common language at the time.

In Italy, people were very enthusiastic about teaching me Italian. Everywhere I went, everything I ate, everything I touched or held was translated to me in Italian and I had to repeat it, sometimes for dozens of people at a time. And every subsequent time I went there, ate that one thing , touched it or held it, I had to repeat it. And no one ever laughed at me, they genuinely wanted me to learn.

Contrast this with Tanzania. People were very enthusiastic about teaching me Swahili, but not for my enrichment, rather for their comedic enjoyment. Every single word you say in Swahili is an invitation for an entire group of people to laugh at you (including finger pointing). Talk about nerve wracking right? Wrong. It was actually so much fun to speak Swahili knowing how much fun Tanzanians were having with you, and as much as it seemed like they were laughing AT me, it really was a situation in which they were laughing with me. And without experiencing it, it is impossible to describe a Tanzanian sense of humour, it is in a realm all on it’s own, but worth exploring yourself, and also something often worth pondering.

France. I know people have heard, without me telling you, that Parisians hate when tourists can’t speak French. What I am not going to do is say that this is false, because it isn’t. It is just very oversimplified. Aman and I have encountered the Parisian we all hear about:

Us: Parlez-vous anglais?
Parisian: No
Us: Uhhh avez-vous…DISH..rack? *cue sign language*
Parisian: ??
Us: Merci
Parisian: Have a good day!

I will admit that at times it is frustrating, but imagine being the top tourist destination in the world (France receives the most tourists visits per year out of any country in the world), with most tourists strolling in like they are doing France a favour by being there, and assuming everyone here speaks English because of it. I guess brushing up on the French basics is a necessity. And I don’t blame them, I think showing you have tried to learn the language is a huge sign of respect.

More than anything, all of these situations, and in particular the last five months, have put things into perspective for me. Do you know how many people immigrate to Canada and don’t know a lick of English? Let me tell you, tonnes. Something I would have said a few years ago is,  “of course, it is frustrating for them, not speaking English, but this is an English speaking country so they should learn.” Well, now being thrown into very similar situations, I know that it is not so easy. One thing I have learned while traveling is that, showing you know a little bit of the language, are aware of how locals interact (taboos, courtesies, etc.), and respecting the local culture – through dress or the like – is an amazing way to experience the country you are in. It leads to an extremely different adventure than what you were planning!


Cooking dinner in Tanzania