Monday, July 4, 2011

Wright State Professor of Communication at Lake Tanganyika: Early reflections

             Hi, this is Elliot Gaines writing for Len's blog.  I am a Professor in the Department of Communication at Wright State University and part of the team at Lake Tanganyika.    After an exhausting trip through Europe and then Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I was part of the research team designated to accompany more than a dozen large crates of scuba and scientific equipment by train across Tanzania to Kigoma on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The image above of children waving was taken from our moving train.   A two day trip became four days and nights of adventure on an ancient train through a hot tropical terrain of desert and mountains, remote villages of friendly and colorful living primitively along the way.  Some living in grass huts, some in brick houses without electricity or plumbing, the people came out to greet the train with fresh fruit, honey, grilled chicken, goat meat, and a variety of beautifully hand-crafted baskets, hats, brooms, carvings, and more.  After a two-day delay in Tabora due to a wreck ahead on the tracks, we finally arrived in Kigoma to join our colleagues who flew from Dar and were already preparing the lab and research agenda at Lake Tanganyika.
            It is interesting to be where I don't speak the language or know the culture, and am so conspicuously different from the local population.  The word mzungu is an objective name used to identify white people, or people of European origin, generally without distain.  People are friendly, and little children call me bobu which means grandfather, because of my white beard. 
            Understanding the culture means understanding the language.  So I am challenged with both the local culture and the culture of the scientists I work with.   I am not a biological scientist.  My PhD specialty is in communication, media, and semiotics.  Each cultural group speaks and acts based on assumptions that they share with others already familiar with the language and behaviors that unify them as a group.  I interact with local culture and our scientists everyday in town, in the lab, and on the lake.   Observation, time and experience will hopefully provide understanding.

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