May 8, 2014

Lions, elephants, black rhinos, water buffaloes and leopards - oh my!

Zebras, hyenas, ostriches and gazelles were also on the list of safari animals 2011 Audubon graduate Whitney Hoffman saw during a week-and-a-half-long spring-break trip to Tanzania in March.

The University of Northern Iowa junior joined eight fellow students and three university employees under the guidance of education professor Vicki Robinson this spring, teaching English to fifth-grade students and math to seventh-grade students in Bashay village in Tanzania.

The trip included stops in Tanzanian cities Arusha and Karatu, and conservation areas in the Serengeti National Park and its companion Ngorongoro - with its own entirely contained ecosystem - where Hoffman saw the typical safari animals and met members of the traditional Maasai tribal people of Tanzania and Kenya.

She described the Serengeti as straight out of "Lion King," adding that it was rare to see the "Big Five" because there are so few black rhinos left - the animals have long been hunted for their horns, thought by some cultures to possess magical or medicinal properties, according to National Geographic.

Hoffman's group toured with a travel company called Viewpoint Adventures - owned in part by Diane Baumgartner, a former special-education teacher in Cedar Falls who fell in love with Tanzania on her first safari trip. She founded the tour company with Idrissah Malick Mshana - Idi for short, one of Hoffman's guides - a native Tanzanian with more than 20 years experience guiding safari tours, according to the company website.

Baumgartner also runs a nonprofit called the Positive Outlook Association - named for the Tanzanian people's characteristic attitude, said Hoffman - that supports the Bashay village school and a Karatu orphanage.

This unique blend of goals makes the trip ideal for education students like Hoffman, working to complete an elementary and middle school education degree with a special-education minor. This year was the second that the Tanzania trip was offered through the department's human relations class, a pre-requisite for student-teaching.

The first challenge in the school was the "language barrier," Hoffman said. The first-grade students enter school speaking nearly 25 different languages - more than 100 distinct languages are spoken across the country. The most prevalent language is Kiswahili.

But while students begin learning English once they arrive at school, they are not fluent at a young age, requiring the visitors to find other ways to communicate, or using different descriptions to find a word that a student recognized - an experience Hoffman believes will benefit her, even in the fairly homogenous classrooms of Iowa.

Another significant difference is the number of students in each class, Hoffman observed. In the first and second grades, one teacher taught 102 students. Third through seventh grades each had two teachers who taught about 54 students each.

The teachers also made lunch each day, leaving the students alone in the classrooms quietly talking and laughing - something that would be both illegal and not nearly so calm if the same procedure was followed in the U.S., Hoffman said.

The school buildings also had no electricity.

"It really puts thing in perspective," she said, reflecting on the increasing role technology plays in U.S. schools.

Though the Tanzanian students worked with the bare minimum of supplies, they were eager to attend school each day.

"When we were teaching, they were so excited to be learning," Hoffman said. "It's an addicting experience."

Traveling through the country, Hoffman was struck repeatedly by the happy outlook of a people who had so little. Houses were made of mud, sticks and manure - some appeared abandoned, but were in reality just unfinished - families purchase bricks as they are able, sometimes taking 20 years to complete a home, living in it all the while.

A sense of community also prevails, Hoffman said. Children run around, with all members of the village keeping an eye out, even if not their own, and any adult in the village is welcome to discipline a child if necessary - another action that would never be accepted in the U.S., she added.

The rice grown in the region was "more flavorful" than that found in U.S. grocery stores, and the bananas - fat, red, yellow and of the plantain variety - were sweeter, having been picked ripe, rather than early and shipped, Hoffman said.

The Maasai women taught the visitors how to dance, and welcomed them to try their hand at building a mud home, all while wearing brightly colored traditional dress. Formerly a nomadic tribe, the women traditionally do the work in the village - each has her own hut and an unquestioned right and responsibility to her children - leading them to question the American contingent about the battles inherent in U.S. divorce proceedings, Hoffman said.

Though the native village did not have electricity or running water, the first wife of the chief called the group on a cellphone to thank them for coming.

When the university group's safari vehicle broke down, every passing vehicle stopped to help - one offering water, another a tea bag, with which guides Idi and Nole plugged a hole beneath the vehicle's hood, Hoffman recalled.

Hoffman turned 21 on the flight back to the U.S. - making for a 32-hour-long birthday.

She is the daughter of Rob and Gwen Hoffman - a Kuemper grad and native of the Roselle area, Rob is now director of the Audubon band, and Gwen works in Carroll and Guthrie Center for an area education agency. The family attends First United Methodist Church in Carroll.

Tanzania was not Hoffman's first trip abroad - she has also taught swim lessons in Okinawa, Japan - nor will it be her last.

"I already have the travel bug," she said.