Mwanza: Back to School in Hyena Country

Thursday, July 6, 2006 | Mwanza, Tanzania (map)

The shore of Lake Victoria, just a few minutes' bike ride from the university.
Though not the smallest puddlejumper in Africa, the plane we took from Dar es Salaam to Mwanza last Saturday still looked to me like a small-scale model of a real airplane. Nonetheless, it shuttled us from the metropolis of Dar on the Indian Ocean coast to the bolder-strewn shores of Lake Victoria without incident. We passed above the plains of central Tanzania and descended toward Mwanza in late afternoon as the sun illuminated the region's corn fields and unusual, gravity-defying rock formations (called kopjis, a Dutch word pronounced like "copies"). The lake sparkled, dotted with islands and the day's last fishing boats.

The one-room airport, wholly devoid of any security apparatus, proved an apt introduction to the laid-back, small-town atmosphere of Mwanza, Tanzania's second-largest city after Dar es Salaam—and a distant second to be sure.

Another sign that we had left the hustle and bustle of Dar far behind us was the plodding speed at which our driver, hired by our host university, puttered his van across the hilly roads. We jokingly threw our bodies forward in encouragement, not yet used to the slow pace of local life.

Eventually we did arrive at the St. Augustine University of Tanzania (known locally as SAUT), the local Catholic-operated university hosting our group for this month. Located ten kilometers outside of the town center, it is composed of a few sprawling one-story buildings nestled among the brush and the neighboring farmers' modest crops, a short walk from the shores of Lake Victoria. Each student in our group has his/her own double room, meals are provided at every hour of the day (Really—I had five yesterday.) and classes are in nearby buildings.

Here in Mwanza, while choosing between the two available classes, I passed up the "Tanzanian Politics and Civil Society" course in favor of "Ecosystems of East Africa and the Great Lakes Region." This proved a good choice, I have since decided, despite my early qualms about abandoning my normal academic course of study in favor of my personal fascination with the local environment. Our professor, Dino Martins, is a half-Portuguese, half-Kenyan biologist from outside of Nairobi. He has taken off from his doctoral studies at Harvard and frequent projects for the UN and various environmental groups to teach our class this month.

In the few days since we arrived at the University, one particular America-Tanzania distinction has made itself clearer than ever. Those familiar with Georgetown's campus in Washington, DC will remember the friendly grey and black squirrels which populate the trees of the front lawn and are frequently seen harvesting acorns, chasing each other, and doing whatever else squirrels do, attracting little attention from students. Last month, while at the University of Dar es Salaam, we eventually did manage to get almost as comfortable with the local version of Georgetown's squirrels: vervet monkeys. According to campus lore, the monkeys, which are found throughout Tanzania, were introduced to the campus unintentionally after they escaped from a science lab. However they got there, the monkeys can easily be spotted sitting in trees at the university, or even clambering around the abandoned outdoor cafeteria late in the day, foraging for scraps.

The campus of SAUT here in Mwanza, however, is most distinguished not by the presence of the friendly squirrel, nor the vervet monkey (though they are found here) but rather by the hyena. The vicious hunters and scavengers of the African savannah emerge from the brush at night to search for prey. We were warned early on of their presence, and to avoid walking alone at night or around dusk and dawn, as they are capable of bringing down humans, Professor Dino assures us. After five nights here, I have yet to see one.

Several nights ago, however, around midnight, just as Charlie, another student, and I locked the door to the computer lab and turned to walk the short distance back to our dorms, a large bush rustled loudly in the darkness. When we reached the door to the dorm, flashlights darting around nervously, our breathing heavy from our quick jog home, we fastened the door securely behind us with relief. As I fumbled with the lock to my room and Charlie his, we heard a demonic cackling echo from the fields beside our building—as I said later, it was the sound I imagine one hears echoing up from the depths below while riding the elevator down to hell. The hyena's sinister call set the neighborhood dogs barking, and I hoped to dream of something other than the satanic elevator music as I tucked my mosquito night around the edges of my bed and went to sleep.

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