Editor’s Note: This starts a new category of blog entries from Samantha Russak, who will be in the field in Tanzania writing for us over the course of the next year. I am very excited to offer readers a peek into what longer term field research life is like. She will be sending in her posts whenever she is able to visit the Internet cafe in the closest town—five to six hours from where her camp is! I am posting her first two entries today: first about preparing for a year away and second about the challenges of getting there!
When people ask what I do, I tell them that I am a graduate student. This response is inevitably followed by questions about what I study and where I do my research. It is when I answer this last question that many people begin to look at me like I am a bit crazy; after all, spending a year living in a tent in a remote area of a foreign country with no running water or electricity is not for everyone! I, however, have been steadily working towards being able to have this experience from the time I decided to be a primatologist. I hope that my contributions to this blog will answer at least some of the questions people have about this “lifestyle choice” and make what I (and many others) do seem a little less crazy!
First, let me answer the questions about what I study and where I do my research. In three words, my topic of study is: “chimpanzee community ecology.” I’ll forgo the full “two-minute elevator speech” our advisors make us practice and just say that I am interested in the resources that chimpanzees are using and how their usage compares and contrasts with resource use by other animals in the same area.
I will be doing my research at the site of Issa, which is in the Ugalla region of western Tanzania. This site is very open and dry, with only a small strip of riverine forest, making it similar to the environments in which some of our early ancestors lived. Because chimpanzees are often used as models for early hominins, observing how chimpanzees live in this type of environment can inform hypotheses about how our ancestors lived in similar environments. It is this connection between chimpanzee ecology and human evolution that makes my project a good fit for the anthropology department and the Institute of Human Origins at ASU.
While the research camp at Issa has been established for a few years now, it is in quite a remote area, so there is no running water and only occasional electricity provided by solar power. I will be living in a tent for the year and using buckets of water from the river for bathing and laundry. In camp, my only form of communication with the “outside world” will be via a satellite phone; mobile phones sometimes work at a spot about 4 km from camp. Once a month at least, one of the field assistants and myself will travel for a few hours by car/bus/truck (really whatever vehicle happens to give us a lift) to the nearest town of Kigoma to renew our food supplies and buy anything else we might need. This will definitely be a great change from how I am used to living in Arizona!!
So, how does one prepare for such an experience? Well, most importantly, you need to be mentally prepared to be surrounded by new and different people, cultures, and experiences. You have to be content with the possibility of not seeing friends or family for a full year, or for at least a few months at a time, if you can manage to have visitors. It certainly helps to be independent and have the ability to deal with issues as they arise—flexibility is a necessity for fieldwork because things hardly ever go according to your plans. Then, of course, there is the physical preparation; most fieldwork consists of A LOT of walking to get to a particular area and/or to find and then follow your study subjects. Finally, there is all of the logistical/technical planning—what kind of and how much equipment to take, arranging transportation to and from the site (with all of your equipment and baggage), obtaining research permits, arranging for field assistant salaries and food costs, figuring out what to do with the belongings you are leaving behind, and many more things. For these types of preparations, it greatly helps to get guidance from those who have already done all of these things.
Although it is a lot of work, and stressful at times, to prepare for a year of fieldwork, it is also very exciting. Fieldwork in a foreign country provides a great opportunity to meet new people and experience new cultures. It is also a humbling experience, by reminding me that not everyone has the same luxuries I normally do at home.