Monday, October 1, 2012

Arusha to St. Paul: Shifting Perspectives

Everyone’s study abroad experience gives them something different or allows them to give something different of themselves. People translate those experiences back into the Macalester community in diverse ways, and previous perspectives are modified or complicated by their time abroad. Last year my housemate Hannah did an SIT program in Tanzania. She lived with a local family and spent most of her time experiencing the realities of Tanzanian culture in an urban and rural context.

As someone who was already interested in feminism and gender studies, she had an interesting reaction to her conversations with local women. “I always had the impression that women in Africa were oppressed,” she said, “but when you start talking to local women, it’s so much more complicated than that.” For example, from an outside perspective it looks like women are oppressed by their husbands because many men do not permit their wives to work outside the home. But when Hannah started asking questions, many of these women shared that their husbands were just trying to protect them employers’ sexual advances, a common problem for employed women. “I had read a lot of theory, but it’s just so much more complicated than that on the ground,” she said. “My understanding of feminism had to change in the Tanzanian context.”

Now starting her senior year at Mac, Hannah is working on a capstone project that looks at the cultural conflicts surrounding the interaction between the Maasai people and Tanzanian national parks. Her project was largely inspired by a weeklong stay in a Maasai village.

Reflecting on the kind of learning she did in Tanzania versus the sort she does at Macalester, Hannah laughed, saying, “I think about my readings in terms of how long it could keep my host family’s fire going.” Although she’s now back in the structured and demanding world of American academics, that shift in her thinking remains. “A day in Tanzania taught me more than I could ever learn from reading a book. You can sit and listen to a professor lecture or discuss questions with your peers but until you put all of that in the context of real lives and real landscapes you don’t know how small your view of the world really is.”