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Profound and intense

Unique cultural excursions give CU Denver students a deeper understanding of Africa

CU Denver students Quinn Williams and Thornton Giese meet with Simon Mataro, a Masai, in Tanzania

By Chris Casey | University Communications

NGORONGORO CRATER -- The Landcruiser trundles under a canopy of clouds gathered on the cool and lush rim. As the vehicle descends a wooded hillside, sunlight breaks through to reveal the flaxen crater floor. It's interrupted only by a wash of pale blue, the life source for hordes of black specks now growing larger.

Animals. Thousands of animals. In all directions.

Two students in the bouncy back of the Landcruiser -- one from CU Denver, the other from Texas A&M -- stare out in disbelief.

"This is not real life," Elicia Abella says as she looks across the arid plain. "I must be dreaming."

Elanor Sonderman already ranks this as one of the best days of her life -- affirming her decision to enroll in CU Denver's field school in Tanzania. "This is nuts," she says, looking into the crater. "This is crazy."

(Photo: CU Denver anthropology students Brian Miller and Tracey Lancaster take photos of a massive herd of wildebeests while on a safari in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania.)

It's the Fourth of July and their fellow Americans halfway around the world will watch fireworks. But any pyrotechnic display back home pales in comparison to this mind-blowing safari into the Ngorongoro Crater, one of the seven natural wonders of Africa.

"It was such an amazing experience. So spectacular," says CU Denver anthropology student Corina Marin. "The history of the crater itself combined with everything we saw today just made for an amazing day."

Most of the animals are wild, but some are domestic livestock being herded by Masai in blood red and bright blue shukas.


"It was probably the most beautiful, most scenic thing I've seen on the planet earth," adds student Brian Miller. "It had kind of a Jurassic Park feel. I just felt like I was on another planet."

'One of my favorite days'

Jurassic Park is an apt description of this otherworldly place, formed 2.5 million years ago when a volcano erupted, its massive cone collapsing inward to leave the world's largest unbroken caldera. First to the 11-mile-wide bowl came water and plants, then came the wildlife -- virtually every variety of African animal. In 1959, the Tanzanian government set this remarkable habitat aside as the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, now home to more than 25,000 animals. Safari vehicles rumble down the one-way descent, take a circuitous route across the crater floor, and then bump their way upward along another side of the rugged escarpment.

The students' safari takes them past zebras, gazelles, hippos, baboons, elephants, wildebeests and buffaloes. The convoy pauses when students spot a rare black rhino -- a critically endangered species due to poaching -- and, farther down the road, jaws drop as what initially looks like a sun-baked rock begins to move. A lioness  stretches paws skyward as she rolls on her back under the African sun.

"Incredible," says Corina, focusing her binoculars on the king of beasts. Ellie spots a male lion lounging in the grass next to the female. "Yeah, that's an old man," she says. "Beautiful, beautiful animal."

Khashayar Asgari will remember this Fourth of July as "one of my favorite days of my entire life." He especially loves seeing the hyenas and a small lynx-like cat, called a serval. "It was so bizarre and so foreign to me," Asgari says. "You can see these animals in a zoo, but that's not the real thing, it's not their real habitat. It was awesome."

Cultural immersion

While the team is here to perform research as part of CU Denver's anthropological field school in Tanzania, Associate Professor Charles Musiba, Ph.D., immerses students in the abundant natural and cultural surroundings of his native country. Besides the wildlife excursion, they witness rite-of-passage and wedding ceremonies in Masai villages, called bomas.

"One of the ideas of having a field school here is that not only do the students learn about paleoanthropology and human origins in Africa, but also they get immersed in the various cultures of Tanzania," Musiba says.

The students get to know members of the Masai and Iraqw tribes, working alongside them at the Olduvai and Laetoli excavation sites. They learn Swahili words and phrases that become part of their daily conversations. They take daily strolls to the nearby duka (store) to pick up camp provisions.

"This kind of interaction is really great. It opens up a lot of other ways of thinking," Musiba says. "Particularly for anthropologists, when you go into other cultures you have to actually get involved and work with the people. So, students out here get a two-for-one: They are learning about paleoanthropology but also they're learning about the culture of the people."

Sonderman and Tracey Lancaster, a CU Denver anthropology graduate student, won't soon forget being surrounded by curious Masai girls. Thanks to Musiba's close ties to the tribe in the Laetoli excavation area, students were invited to a rite-of-passage ceremony. Seven male tribe members were celebrated as they reached a new stage of adulthood.

Students Tracey Lancaster and Elanor Sonderman laught as girls from a Masai tribe get them to participate in a dancing ritual.
(Photo: Students Tracey Lancaster and Elanor Sonderman laugh as girls from a Masai tribe get them to participate in a dancing ritual.)

While the male students were welcomed into a warrior jumping circle, where younger tribesmen displayed their strength by trying to out jump each other, the female students were surrounded by Masai girls.

"The girls thought we were kind of crazy looking because the Masai girls all keep their heads shaved, and I have very long hair," Lancaster says. "They do piercings in their ears and they do gages, but they had never seen facial piercings, and they really liked my lip piercing."

Everywhere CU Denver film student Quinn Williams turns there is spectacle on which to aim his lens. The Masai girls ornamented in silver earrings and flaring, flat white neckpieces. The men in scarlet shukas, ablaze in color in the late-afernoon sun. Both groups, the women and men, chanting and jumping in unison.

Williams puts his camera down long enough to be engulfed by the warrior jumping circle. "You just saw everyone else jumping, so then you'd jump as well," he says. "You'd be jumping next to someone and it's a competition of whoever could jump higher to establish your warrior strength and dominance."

Only in Africa

The students experience countless other only-in-Africa moments. Some highlights:

  • A leopard darts in front of their vehicle on the way back to camp;
  • Bush-babies jump through the campsite acacias at dusk;
  • An eagle carries off a green mamba in its talons;
  • A blaze-orange sun sinks into the Serengeti horizon;
  • Head-butting wild boars emerge from the brush as students enjoy an outdoor cantina on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater;
  • African delicacies cooked up daily by the field school chef;
  • Troops of baboons scurry through camp;
  • Hyenas cackle in the bush in the pre-dawn hours; and
  • The solitary majesty of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's tallest mountain (19,340 feet) rises up above the clouds.

Not one student complains about being off the grid. This, after all, is Africa. They aren't about to divert their attention from the fasinating animals, culture and research with something so banal as Facebook, YouTube or Hulu.

Most fascinating are the people of Tanzania, and the students revel in working alongside villagers in the field, chatting with them over meals and hearing their stories around the campfire.

"The biggest impression I'm going to leave with is mingling with the local people," says CU Denver student Thornton Giese. "They are the nicest, kindest, friendliest people I've ever met anywhere that I've traveled. It's going to leave an impression on me and it's something I'll bring back to Denver."

For more information about the CU Denver Department of Anthropology click here

(Photo at top: CU Denver students Quinn Williams and Thornton Giese chat with Simon Mataro, a Masai elder, at a tribal rite-of-passage ceremony in north Tanzania.)