In keeping with the African life style, everything on camp is polepole (slow and steady!).
In keeping with the African life style, everything on camp is polepole (slow and steady!).
With no electricity and sunset at half 6, the evenings on camp can sometimes seem fairly long. The unreliability of cooking on an open fire, long running camp jokes and card games from all over the world certainly help pass the time, but every now and then we like to do something a little different - human cluedo!
Nadia spent a month in Tanzania on Mafia Island doing marine conservation work – and it won’t be her last time volunteering! She enjoyed every minute of her trip, making the most of the experience and on top of that, she has a head start on her Marine Biology course. We interviewed her about all aspects of her time out there..
Why did you choose this particular project?
I have always wanted to see with my own eyes an underdeveloped country and how the attitudes of people differ from Westerners for example. I choose Tanzania, an African country, because I understand it is one of the most heavily indebted countries. It really interests me the way people make a living with what little they have and I wanted an opportunity to live self-sustainably on the camp; eating local food, showering and using a long drop toilet just like everyone else on Mafia Island would. Additionally, when browsing projects, the diving aspect of the trip particularly appealed to me because I had just applied to Marine Biology. Ever since I was a child, the underwater world has fascinated me, I have only ever been as deep as my snorkel would allow me so the thought of diving to 30m sounded not only appealing but thrilling. Learning to dive on a small African Island, interacting with the locals, participating in scientific work and leaving Europe for the first time in my life were all factors which drew me to choose Marine Conservation Project on Mafia Island.
Which kind of work and activities did you do during your project?
In terms of activities, I was genuinely amazed. I had not expected to participate and experience the things I did. For example, one Sunday we embarked on a morning boat ride to Juani Island and followed a tour guide across the island to a beautiful open but rough sea. We were quickly greeted with squeals as baby turtles started to poke their heads out of the sand and scramble, one by one, down the runway (which had been cleared by the organisation that led our tip). It amazed me how each of them instinctively knew they must make a wild dash for the sea. They had only just hatched! Apart from removing the litter from the beach to allow an easy access to the sea, we were not allowed to directly intervene with the turtles as this would interfere with nature and hence natural selection. So, we watched some turtles struggle and fall into sand craters but finally each little soft grey turtle made it to the sea. 100 per cent success rate! It was easy to be carried away by such an experience, when the last turtles arrived at the breaking waves, it was only natural to follow them into the water; still fully clothed and in possession of my digital camera! Almost everyone was in the water, and having lost sight of the last turtle we ventured to steep, foamy waves that were breaking on a coral bar further out to sea. It was immense fun being thrown around by the waves and jumping to greet each one. The entertainment continues, on another Sunday a group of us hired motorbikes and took a spectacularly beautiful journey across the island. Utende is essentially a dead end at the south east tip of the Island and as a passenger I marveled as the island unfolded beneath my eyes. We crossed the whole Island, passing through villages, each one completely unique in their infrastructure and character. Vibrant patches of colour from a distance would turn into communities joining for either prayers of form groups of children walking from school. We had to leave our paved road early on in the journey, the only tarmac road on the island was the one which linked Utende to Kilindoni (the main city of the island where our internal flight landed), and take to the dirt tracks. It was an adventure in itself, exploring different areas of our island and being thrown around at each bump and tossed upwards when hitting a ditch! I almost couldn't believe it was real when we heard monkeys calling in the trees. We parked our bikes and after frantically searching the tree tops, our gaze met a small monkey peering down at us. We concluded our outbound journey when we reached the lighthouse in the north. We were so excited by this sight, after hours of biking on sandy, rocky terrain, we had traversed our island.
How did the culture and people differ to home, and what were the locals like?
Firstly, I noticed and learnt that on the island people are extremely self sustaining, talented and resourceful. Rama, a local employed by Frontier who worked closely with us had such talent; repairing shoes with a needle made from a bike wheel, opening a coconut with a simple metal tool (I struggled immensely when I attempted such a task), cooking a wonderful Spanish omelet with basic ingredients and two small coal fires, and I even heard he could climb the never-ending trunk of a coconut tree bare foot to collect the harvest. To top it off, we were given a demonstration of his magic show one evening before he gutted 20 odd fish and pierced holes with straw skewers in preparation for our beach BBQ that night. When visiting the village, locals would always greet us with a friendly salutation and ask us how we were. Fortunately, we were able to make do with the few words of Swahili we had learnt. Often children from the nursery would run up to you and ask for a high-five or request to be picked up. Generally, the locals in the nearby village were warm and welcoming, when we told them we were part of Frontier, they nodded in approval and I felt a sense of pride. It was evident Frontier has worked hard over the years to maintain a strong relationship with the local people. This had been achieved through conservation measures, primary, secondary and adult teaching and above all respecting muslim traditions and rituals.
What was the accommodation like?
Initially I had imagined the accommodation to be a single, simple straw hut which everyone shared. When I arrived, there were almost 30 members on camp. We actually slept in several communal ‘bandas’ made from a wooden frame and stick woven walls and roof; waterproof as I learnt one morning after sleeping through a rainstorm and waking up dry! We hung our mosquito net from the wooden structure, laid a roll mat on wooden planks and voila our bed! Surprisingly, the thought of entering our protective mesh bubble at night after a busy and active day was desirable. Generally, the ‘beds’ were comfortable and only occasionally you would wake up with neck ache if your pillow had slipped away in the night. The showers were the best part of camp life. Whoever was on camp duty would fill 4 20l jerry cans to serve as shower water. The showers compartments were separated with the same material used for our sleeping area. After returning from a dive and if you were lucky, one of the four showers would have some water remaining. Simply pouring water from the can onto your head was refreshing and thrilling. The first bowl was always a shock but if you took a shower towards the end of the day, it was possible that the water would have warmed up with the sun and you would have the delights of a warm shower! There wasn’t much point washing your feet because the shower floor was sand so even with flip-flops, walking from the shower to the banda was always a challenge; your feet inevitably be covered in sand in the end! But it felt so good to be clean and other volunteers would always remark when you had had a shower because of the cleanliness scent; a smell that we were no longer accustomed to!
What were the staff and other volunteers like?
From my month in Tanzania, I genuinely felt part of a family. The staff and volunteers were all equal and we each respected one another. You could simply have a conversation with anyone about anything and over time you felt as if you knew the volunteers as if you had known them all your life. The great thing about limited exposure to electronics was we would appreciate each others company and relish our evening card games and board games; which sometimes turned into a war. They even stimulated adrenaline on several occasions. Of course our relationships were reinforced when diving with one another for example. Experiencing the amazing wonders of the sea together, notifying each other of a huge peacock grouper that was swimming past and writing little notes on our underwater slates all made our relationships something unique and special. Post-dinner activities such as quizzes in the local bar would reunite us further along with Saturday night dancing barefoot. I was lucky to have experienced the delights of Mafia Island with the people I did alongside the wonderful memories we share.
What was your most amazing moment or your best memory?
I remember an amazing moment at 27m deep. I was taken on a dive with two instructors, one who had just joined so this was an opportunity to show her around our dive sites. Having just passed my fish identification tests the day before, I was quickly able to identify various schools of fish that shot past us. We gradually descended into the abyss and I clocked 27m on my dive watch when suddenly my attention was averted by a metallic sound as my instructor was rapping his knife on his tank. He frantically pointed ahead of him as not one but THREE giant reef rays gracefully floated along the bottom of the ocean floor. They were huge, maybe 6 m long, I cannot be sure but it was incredible and I heard myself gasp through my regulator. We then swam along the contours of a cave and almost touching my mask was an enormous oriental sweetlips, my favourite fish! I had only ever seen them as juveniles on surveys and to see such a monstrous version was a thrilling moment. Therefore my fondest memories are of the aquatic life, interacting with it but never harming or coming into contact with it. Sometimes it was if you were dancing with fish, swimming over coral with just enough buoyancy so you wouldn’t be touching it, but swimming level with various spectacular schools of fish. It amazes me how many different species occupy such a small area of coral.
Do you feel the work you were doing was worthwhile?
I strongly support the work that we undertook which provided reliable data for the marine park and allows them to implement rules and measures to protect the precious marine reserve. By protecting the marine reserve this will allow future generations to economically benefit from what the aquatic world and surrounding processes can offer them. I was fortunate enough to participate in mangrove snorkels and sea grass surveys in addition to Baseline Survey Protocols (BSP), the main data collection survey which divers carry out. The sea grass surveys, for example, will aid in better management of boat storage in order to protect the valuable sea plants; vital for juvenile coral reef fish. Actively taking part in such work and knowing it was not only worthwhile but serving a purpose, in terms of sustainability, protecting the environment and supporting local communities, was most definitely satisfying and rewarding.
What sort of wildlife did you encounter?
I worked mostly with marine life so we would survey territorial and schooling fish. Beforehand, we had to pass a species identification test to ensure we could accurately distinguish between groupers, trigger fish and snappers for example. Solid ID skills were essential and the sooner we passed, the sooner we could go out and join the team. Twice, I surveyed the benthic zone which involved looking closely at different types of coral, sea grass, anemones and sponges.
What were you hoping to learn while on project, and have you achieved those goals?
The project totally exceeded my goals. My main aim was to learn to dive and understand the importance of coral reefs in the aquatic ecosystem, I achieved this and beyond. For example, I have learnt at least 60 different types of fish alongside various coral species and invertebrates. I never expected to learn so many, however, dedicating time to distinguish and study the fish we surveyed was definitely worth it in order to feel comfortable and confident when it came to data collection. In addition, completing the surveys taught me various surveying techniques and how to actually gauge a picture of the aquatic species which occupy certain areas. Alongside practical work, we often attended lectures in which I learnt about the conflicts that exist between the Marine Park and local people. In reality it is difficult for people to accept the restrictions imposed by authoritative bodies when they themselves do not appreciate the importance of the environment because unfortunately they have not been exposed to such education.
Any tips and advice you might like to pass on to future volunteers?
I believe it is important to go with an open mind and relish each new experience. Try and do as much as you can and maybe ask if you could participate in additional activities on different projects; if time and space permit of course. For example, I was fortunate enough to observe a teaching lesson delivered by fellow volunteers in the nursery. Although this was unrelated to my project, I was absolutely fascinated to sit in the small classroom and watch a class full of African children chant the alphabet and count to 100 effortlessly. I learnt to appreciate how fortunate we are to have free access to education alongside a stable education system. Also, marmite is very nice with bread, so bring a pot. Alternatively, the peanut butter sold in the village shop is just as good which tastes great with bananas which again, you can purchase in the village. :-)
What do you have planned next?
I would love to find a project with similar aspects like my month in Tanzania. Maybe another African country or island and this would be in the summer of my first year at university. I found it incredible to go on such a project by myself, it helped me build not only independence but confidence.
Anything else you would like to add?
I absolutely loved my time in Africa. The strong bond Frontier had with the local community was really quite unique. I believe over the years Frontier have made a real effort to maintain such a strong relationship. The lady who cooked our meals and the two men who operated the boat were all locals. We were delivered rice, beans and flour in huge sacks from local villagers. I felt that the camp I lived in was not at all an imposition on the local community but rather a friendly interaction. There was something strangely satisfying about sorting through beans in the morning and throwing away the ones with holes as opposed to supermarket GM products with layers of packing. Without a doubt, I recommend to anyone looking for an adventure and a break from western society to seriously consider doing a Frontier project on your own. Discover yourself and a remarkable area of the world.
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