Plunging into Daily Life and Learning the Language Are Keys to Opening Doors
Published: January 5, 2012
"Focus on daily life. You're not just there to observe daily life, but to participate in it, too."
"There" is Tanzania. The speaker was Ripon College anthropology professor Emily (Molly) Margaretten, relating the advice she will give to students when they arrive in Dar es Salaam to begin the ACM Tanzania: Ecology & Human Origins program this fall.
"Do the variety of daily activities that you would do even if you were back home," Margaretten continued. "Go out to buy groceries, take public transportation, interact with Tanzanians every day."
Ripon College anthropology professor Molly Margaretten
Whether she's talking about field research, language study, or just going out for a stroll, Margaretten's enthusiasm for plunging into a new place and culture is obvious. Her approach served her well during nearly five years she spent studying and working in South Africa, and she hopes to pass it along to her students when she is the Director of the 2012 Tanzania Program.
An important first step, she emphasized, is to start learning the language. "I was able to take Zulu language studies as a graduate student in South Africa, and I got involved in a home stay program," said Margaretten. "It helped with my research and it really did make a difference in meeting people. Even if you just say a greeting, people are so excited that you actually know their language. It really opened up doors for me."
For the students on the program, intensive classes in Kiswahili, Tanzania’s national language, will begin right away when they arrive on site. Along with other courses taught by faculty at the University of Dar es Salaam and the Program Director, the language course supports the program’s centerpiece, the field practicum project.
The practicum gives students the opportunity to design a project and engage in independent and collaborative field work for six weeks in the country’s northern region. The students' topics can range across the disciplines to include areas such as biology, anthropology, geology, human ecology, archaeology, and zoology.
Students taking measurements for the field practicum project.
Photo credit: Karin Linnea Karlen
"That's one of the big attractions [of the program] for me, just being able to do field work and show students how much fun it can be," said Margaretten. "It's just as rigorous as being in the classroom, but it's more experiential. The students will get to know each other better because they're relying on each other. I'm definitely looking forward to that part."
As the Program Director, Margaretten will work closely with the students on their projects and will teach a research methods course during the first half of the semester to prepare them for the field work.
"I've taught [research methods] here at Ripon," Margaretten noted, "and when I was in South Africa, I taught it as an upper level course for honor's and master's students." Given the wide variety of backgrounds and interests the students will bring to the program, she plans to broaden the course to encompass both the social sciences and natural sciences.
"Looking toward the scientific method might be a way to bring everyone together by showing them how to formulate a research question, what methods they can use to answer the question, and then ways to present a finished product in the end," she explained.
Margaretten's focus on Africa, and even her study of anthropology, grew out of her interest in trying something new.
On the University of Dar es Salaam campus, where the Tanzania Program is based.
Photo credit: Karin Linnea Karlen
A native of California, Margaretten headed across the country to upstate New York for college. Anthropology was not on her radar when she arrived on the Colgate University campus. "Actually, I didn't know what it was and I took a course in it," she recalled. "I really enjoyed learning about places that were both different and similar to my own background. It was a chance to explore different parts of the world and I enjoyed the professors in that department, as well."
Field work was emphasized in the curriculum, according to Margaretten, so she got hands-on archaeological experience working on excavations of Native American sites in the area. She also studied in Italy for a year – her first chance to travel internationally and immerse herself in another language. "It was a wonderful experience," she said, "because the [Italian language] professor was great and you learn so much more than just the language as part of that class."
As college graduation approached, Margaretten wasn't sure whether she wanted to pursue archaeology or cultural anthropology, but she was absolutely certain about one thing. "I wanted to travel," she said. "I knew I also wanted to go to a different part of the world besides Europe or the Americas."
Molly Margaretten (at right) with her assistant when she was conducting field research in South Africa.
Searching through job advertisements for field assistants, she found two positions that intrigued her and both just happened to be in Africa. One was working with a museum in South Africa and the other was in Tanzania assisting a graduate student doing his dissertation research on a Fulbright grant. Margaretten applied and was hired for both, so she went to South Africa for a month-long stint of field work and followed that up with field work on Pemba Island near Zanzibar.
That summer in Africa set Margaretten on the path to graduate school at Yale University and field research for her dissertation on homeless youth in urban South Africa. After receiving her PhD, she expanded her research during a Mellon postdoctoral fellowship to examine the youths' family connections in rural areas.
"Most of my postdoctoral research was more focused on the 'home' aspect of it, meeting [the young people's] parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles who were on the rural homesteads," Margaretten said. "There's a nostalgia attached to it, so [the youths] spoke in a romanticized way about the rural homeland and their connection to it, and then of course they wanted to live in the city…. They couldn't stay [in the rural areas] for too long because it's a difficult life – no water, no electricity, and they found it kind of boring."
Margaretten is currently at work on a book about these young people and their views of the rural homeland, which grows out of her earlier research and an article she wrote that was published in the journal Anthropology and Humanism. If there is time, she said, she hopes to join her students in conducting field research by taking a comparative look at street youth in Tanzania.
First, though, she's planning to pick up some Kiswahili language tapes to study during the summer before the program begins.
Students at the tent camp where they live for six weeks during the field work phase of the program.
Photo credit: Karin Linnea Karlen
« Return to Feature stories