During the summer between my sophomore and junior year at Wheaton I took part in the History Department’s Wheaton in East Africa program. After travelling over 36 hours we arrived in Stone Town on the island of Zanzibar just off the coast of mainland Tanzania. It was there, at St. Monica’s Hostel, where we spent the majority of our trip. Though the trip was organized by Dr. Weber, we had a former Wheaton undergrad, Ethan Sanders, as our primary lecturer and guide.
In the beginning we were all woken up at 5:00 a.m. by the Call to Prayer that reverberated around the city on loudspeakers, then again at 6:00 a.m. by the Morning Prayer bells in the Anglican Cathedral attached to our hostel, before we finally got up around 7:00 so we could allow enough time for breakfast and make it to our lecture by 9:00. Toward the end of the trip we had heard different Imams giving the Call to Prayer so many times, there were some on the trip who could recite the first section and we all could knowledgably compare their vocal styles. Lectures were in a (thankfully!) air conditioned room, and generally lasted three hours. We studied the history of the East African coast and the effects on it by the Arabic, Indian and European world in the mornings, and then in the afternoons we went on “field trips.” One of my favorite field trips was to a spice plantation where we got to see Zanzibar’s exports, like pepper and vanilla, being grown. We were also able to go to the largest Indian temple on the island, and visit the home of one Zanzibar’s more prominent Muslim clerics. Zanzibar was an intriguing conglomerate of Indian, Arabic, and African cultures; each of one could see the influences of distinctly.
During our free time out and about, and during our field trips we were encouraged to talk to locals and get their perspective on our class, or their daily lives on Zanzibar. We had a journal where we recorded our findings, and when I think back to my time there, the people I met stand out. One such person was Farruk, who had lived through the revolution we learned about in class. He was a jeweler who, when a group of us stopped in to look at his wares, asked what we were doing during our time on Zanzibar. He was surprised when we mentioned we were learning the history of the region, and enjoyed our curiosity and eagerness to listen to his family’s experiences. He was Indian, and in the revolution the class tensions of the blended culture overflowed, and his family lost everything they had. Farruk directly attributed the stress it caused his father to his father’s fatal heart attack.
After our time on Zanzibar the lecture part of our course was finished and we headed over to a brief stay in the capital, Dar Es Salaam—where we could see the still clear mark of colonialism in the structure and plan of the city—and then up to Arusha for a three day safari. The safari was the highlight of the trip for me. While I’m sure the fact that the majority of our rigorous academic schedule was finished had something to do with my enjoyment of this time, the breathtaking scenery and animals were amazing! We went to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater and jammed about five days worth of jeep time into three days. Because we were there during the migration, we saw tens of thousands of zebras and wildebeest; we also saw a lot of elephants, giraffes, hippos, and lions, including adorable lion cubs and a lioness taking down a wildebeest. We were also able to visit a Maasai village and participate in their jumping dance.
One of the things I was constantly struck by was the fact that we got to see the texts we had been studying in their contexts, and talked to people who had direct knowledge of some of the events we’d learned about. We could see the history in the architecture and the style of the society. While there were some cultural differences that made my time in Africa a bit difficult and our body’s systems weren’t quite used to the food and climate, looking back it was one of the best experiences of my life. My advice to history students or even students in general, is to take any opportunity they have to study abroad, whether it’s a summer program or a semester program and throw yourself into it. We did, at the beginning of our time on Zanzibar we were mzungu—a slightly deragatory term for white foreigners—but towards the end of our time there, the locals recognized us, and knew we weren’t the just the average mzungu.
Written by Hannah Dayton (Class of 2012), Fall 2011