Over the summer, 10 environmental studies students conducted “situated research” on household water, energy, and waste practices in southern Africa.
By Dan Sadowsky
Photos courtesy of Jhana Taylor Valentine CAS ’16, Alix Finnegan CAS ’14, Samantha Shafer CAS ’16, and Professor Jim Proctor
On weekday mornings last summer, Samantha Shafer CAS ’16 taught the English alphabet to a classroom full of preschoolers, many of whom had lost one or both parents to AIDS. In the afternoon, she and two classmates, bathed in ochre grit from the area’s dusty roads, visited families in zinc-roofed homes made of mud or cement and bordered by cornfields. They’d query residents about their drinking water (Where do you get it? Is it clean? Do you have an adequate supply?) as well as about their home energy needs and waste disposal practices. They recorded the answers on an iPad Mini.
Shafer also zip-lined across a mountain wilderness one weekend, fetched wood for the family cookstove during an overnight homestay, and crunched data from hundreds of household surveys, the backbone of an ambitious environmental health assessment. “I get more excited every time I talk about the program,” says Shafer, a sophomore from Highland Park, Illinois.
“I learned a lot about research, like designing surveys and analyzing data, but I also loved just learning about the people and understanding how they live and what problems are really affecting them.” Shafer and nine other students inaugurated the college’s first-ever overseas study program in Swaziland, a landlocked kingdom in southern Africa with a population of about 1.4 million. The country is perhaps best known for its high rate of HIV infection, spectacular wildlife, and relatively comfortable standard of living.
Most importantly for Jim Proctor, the environmental studies professor who led the trip, Swaziland is “homogenous, small, and fairly navigable.” Those qualities make it an ideal place to conduct what’s known as situated research, a key component of the college’s Situating the Global Environment initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Situated research examines environmental issues in the context of a particular place and its social, economic, and ecological landscape. “Environmental problems can be so overwhelming that the typical response is to go in a corner and hide,” says Proctor. “As a scholar, you want to make sense of these issues and give your students the tools to understand and study them.
I was looking for a place where students could essentially zoom in for a focused perspective on global environmental problems and come away with some expertise and confidence in how to solve them.” Proctor is no stranger to Swaziland. It’s where he spent four years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1980s, teaching high school math and science and helping water engineers improve water quality. He’s returned twice in recent years to lay the groundwork for a seven-week academic program that would cover some of the same thematic and geographic territory.
The 10 students arrived in late May and settled into a cozy backpacker’s lodge in the Ezulwini Valley, a rapidly developing area between the country’s two major cities. From there, they would fan out to four economically diverse communities to conduct a wide-ranging environmental health assessment. Upper-level students would also pursue their own independent research projects, and everyone would volunteer their weekday mornings at Neighborhood Care Points, centers established by the Swazi government to feed and educate children orphaned by the country’s AIDS epidemic.
Before beginning those activities, the students spent the first week in cultural orientation (trips to the country’s largest dam and a wildlife refuge), local exploration (including a treasure hunt to familiarize themselves with the study area), and classes in the local Siswati language, which they began learning at Lewis & Clark during spring semester.
For the environmental health assessment, Proctor split the students into four teams to survey at least 200 households across the valley. They customized a survey app that was downloaded onto their iPad Minis, which enabled them to capture responses during the day and upload them each night. Each survey took about 15 minutes to complete, as household members answered a series of questions about their water access, energy and cooking fuel use, and their sanitation and solid-waste practices.
In conducting the survey, the students were aided by some of Lewis & Clark’s own international students. Proctor employed four Davis United World College Scholars from Swaziland—one per team—to translate both the language and the culture.
After a year of relying on her American classmates to acclimate to life in the United States, Thandwa Maphalala CAS ’16 enjoyed the reversal in roles. She also appreciated the chance to venture into a part of the country she hadn’t explored. “The communities were new to me as well,” says Maphalala, whose parents are white-collar professionals who live in the suburbs of one of Swaziland’s largest cities, Manzini. “So we were all kind of foreigners.” Yet Maphalala was well qualified to advise the American students on Swaziland’s cultural norms, such as how to respectfully address elders. She relished watching them embrace peculiar local customs—like drinking a traditional brew of fermented porridge, emahewu, from a calabash at a family’s home, or ordering a popular dish called “chicken dust” at a roadside food stall.
She’s especially pleased that some of her peers now hold less stereotypical views of her country and, by extension, of Africa. “There is poverty, there is a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS, but there are also some good roads, shopping malls, culture, and development,” she says. “It’s nice to know there are now a few more people who appreciate that.”
Seven students pursued independent research topics ranging from the impacts of commercial farm runoff to the difficulties of finding alternatives to fuelwood to what high school students think about conservation.
Katy Yeh CAS ’14 decided to compare the perceptions residents have about the safety of their drinking water—a sentiment measured in the assessment—with some hard data. The Orinda, California, native spent three days traveling around the valley collecting samples at more than a dozen drinking-water points, such as open streams, protected springs, water tanks, and home faucets.
Yeh, a double major in biology and environmental studies and a member of the varsity swim team, says water fascinates her. “Water is so omnipresent. You turn on a faucet and expect it to come out.” Most of her samples contained unsafe levels of bacteria, which didn’t surprise her. But the attitudes revealed in the environmental health assessment did: “It turns out a lot of people knew their water wasn’t clean, and they weren’t doing anything to treat it.” Residents, she learned, had always been told to purify their water by boiling it over their wood-fired stove. But forests in the rapidly developing Ezulwini Valley are receding, and finding fuelwood requires an increasing amount of either time or money.
“It’s not like their days revolve around boiling water,” she says. “They have a million other things to do, and treating water falls by the wayside.” Robin Zeller CAS ’15 of Denver landed two big interviews to help answer his research question: What leads people to poach game in national parks, even at the risk of being shot on sight? The first was with Wisdom Dlamini, the parks director of the Swaziland National Trust Commission, the government body charged with protecting the country’s wildlife. He met with Dlamini twice in the traditional capital of Lobamba, home to government offices as well as a community of beehive-shaped grass huts that, by tradition, is razed to the ground whenever a new king is installed.
Zeller’s second interview catch was a man who’d recently been fined for butchering two wildebeests. Zeller took a two-hour bus ride to meet with the poacher, who, after some initial reluctance, opened up and explained his motives. “It’s a big part of the Swazi male culture to be a hunter, and it’s respectable to sell bushmeat,” Zeller learned, partly because many believe eating bushmeat keeps you healthy.
“Doing interviews really allowed me to connect with Swazis that I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have been able to meet otherwise,” says Zeller, who hopes to use his sharpened interlocutor skills to study the effect of adventure travel on Tibetan Buddhism. “I learned how to get the information I needed by coaxing someone who isn’t talkative, or by focusing someone who is a chatterbox.”
Teaching AIDS Orphans
Swaziland has what is thought to be the world’s highest rate of HIV: about a quarter of all adults are infected. Most of the children who attend one of Swaziland’s 1,500 Neighborhood Care Points have lost one or both parents to the disease; others have been otherwise affected by it or are considered “vulnerable” in some way.
Shafer has long considered becoming a preschool teacher, and the Neighborhood Care Point in her community, Mahlanya, served that role for about two dozen children each weekday.
She and two classmates, Erin Scheibe CAS ’15 and Miriam Coe CAS ’14, rode two tightly packed vans to arrive at the center by 9:30 a.m.—right around the time the kids were finishing up their breakfast of sour-milk porridge. Their job was to support a young teacher who’d started only the week before and whose style was heavy on rote recitation: numbers, shapes, colors, animals, and the alphabet.
Shafer developed lesson plans that borrowed from Sesame Street (“Today is brought to you by the letter A …”), mixing in coloring assignments, storybooks, and some dancing. “I got a lot out of it personally,” Shafer says, “and also came to understand Swazi culture in a way that you can’t get from the outside.” But the volunteer experience wasn’t arranged solely for altruism or self-enrichment. Proctor says it also was meant to enhance the students’ “understanding of place” and build trust with local residents, both of which are vital to successful community-based research. What’s more, the experience reinforced a key principle of situated research: that taking a microscope to a single community can illuminate a broader issue—in this case, the environmental health challenges facing peri-urban communities in developing countries.
As their time in Swaziland wound down, the students tallied and mapped data and identified key findings from the environmental health assessment. They found that residents in the Ezulwini Valley considered clean water a high priority, yet only 37 percent drank from safe sources. Most households burned wood to meet their energy needs despite the danger to the environment and human health. And finding safe places to dispose of waste is a challenge, especially in areas growing in population.
Before returning to the United States, they shared their findings at two forums: a community meeting attended by roughly 150 people and a smaller symposium sponsored by the Swaziland Environmental Authority, which drew officials from several government ministries and a member of Parliament.
“It was important for us to not take data and leave,” Proctor says. “We really wanted to discuss it with Swazis.” He says symposium attendees asked “all sorts of questions” of the students and seemed to appreciate the contributions to the country’s knowledge base.
Back home, the work continues. The three seniors, including Yeh, are writing theses that expand on their research in Swaziland. And three of the students, including Shafer, are helping Proctor publish findings from the environmental health assessment in a forthcoming issue of the peer-reviewed African Journal of Environmental Science and Technology.
“There are endless ways I can take this experience into my everyday life, because there were so many facets,” says Shafer, who’s now majoring in environmental studies. “Now I start every conversation with my friends, ‘Oh, when I was in Swaziland, … ’ which I’m sure they’re getting a bit annoyed with.” She laughs. “But it applies to everything.”
Dan Sadowsky spent eight years as an online storyteller with Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian organization Today he is an independent content producer and strategist based in Portland.