New, but not Completely Unfamiliar

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By Niisoja Torto, Duke University ’20

Niisoja recently returned from our Summer 2017 Global Health Issues in South Africa program and is serving as an OTS Alumni Ambassador for the 2017-2018 school year.

In her TEDTalk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks to the danger of a single story, asserting, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Reflecting now on my homestay experience in Sanari village, Limpopo province, South Africa, I cannot help but attest to the validitiy of Adichie’s remark. Coming to South Africa and approaching my homestay, I unknowingly believed into a single story—a single story that polarizes my life and the lives of the people with whom I was soon to live. During the three days of my homestay, I expected to live a life completely different from the one I was used to living. After all, I was coming from a different region of the world, speaking a different language, looking at the world through the lens of a perceivably different culture. In reality, however, my expectation of encountering difference could not have been more uncharacteristic of my time with my incredible homestay family in Sanari.

Day two of my homestay experience was particularly striking in this regard. At around 7:30 am, my group, our incredible translator, Glenda, and I awoke from a well-needed 10 hours of sleep after an enjoyable but tiring day of play with children from all over the community the day before. To be honest, ‘tiring’ is an understatement; in fact, I had never felt more justified wielding the phrase, “I wish I had half the energy you have.” Soon after waking up, we devoured my all-time favorite meal, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with tea. That afternoon, we did some chores, bonded with our host family, and walked around the community, talking to community members at their homes and at a local market for our research project on rural livelihoods in Sanari. Our relatively slow day was truly refreshing and worthwhile. However, when I heard that a nearby home was having a birthday party that night, I jumped at the opportunity to close the already great day with some dancing. That night, we ate delicious pap (maize meal)—a meal that reminded me of food from my own culture—and danced the night away under a clear night sky. What surprises me most reflecting now on day two is that, in reality, this day’s events were not far-removed from what I would have done (or would have liked to have done) back home.

While many experiences that I had during the homestay were new to me, such as eating from a communal bowl, these experiences were remarkably not completely unfamiliar. It is interesting to note that, despite the language barrier we experienced with many of the residents of Sanari village, it was as if we could still speak some same language—a language characterized by happiness, love, fun, and many smiles. This realization initially surprised me; but why should it have? That is the danger of a single story: a story that often predicates itself on the perceived differences between people rather than on their abundant similarities. While I was challenged both physically and mentally during the homestay, I was more comfortable than I had been in a while. This reality, I think, speaks volumes to an almost inexplicable shared human experience—an experience that transcends language, background, and borders…an experience that made my homestay the great experience it was.

Adaptability

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By Barkley Dai, Yale University ’20

If there is one word that I can use to summarize our 2017 Summer Tropical Biology course in Costa Rica, the word is adaptability.

On the first night after we arrived at Las Cruces, our first study site, our professor Scott raised the question: what is the most important thing that you will need in this course? Some of us answered curiosity, others answered analytical skills. Scott smiled and said “nope, it’s adaptability. Because we forgot to bring the mist nets from San Jose office, and we need to adapt to that and change our plan to catch bats on the next day instead.” We all laughed.

But soon we realized that it is not merely a joke. As we are thrown into the wild, our ability to adapt is constantly challenged. On the first day, mosquitoes left at least one kiss on everyone; on the second week, we went off the grid and lived in a wooden cottage in the mountain with no electricity; and at our last site, all of us stepped into the muddy water of the marsh, where there are crocodile dwells. We were constantly stepping out of our comfort zone, and then adapting to the wilderness, expanding our comfort zone.

But what’s more awesome about adaptability is that while we adapt to the nature, nature also reveals all kinds of adaptability to us, and each single one of them is a marvelous story. At the botanical garden of Las Cruces, we learned about how the super long tongue of bats is an adaptation to the structure of the flower, forming a mutually beneficial relationship; at La Selva, we saw the beautiful “strawberry dart frog”, who eats poisonous insects and gather the poison at their back, so they would not be eaten by predators; at Palo Verde, we learned how iguanas change their color between dry season and wet season, so they can better blend into their surroundings to avoid predators. All of these marvelous adaptabilities can rarely be seen outside of Costa Rica, where the diverse habitat and high biodiversity formed a paradise for nature lovers. And even after three weeks in the program, we are still stunned by nature, and its ability to shape all the beautiful creatures, giving them different niche and ability to adapt.

And that leads us to think about the question, how is human adapting to nature? What is the relationship of human to other creatures? Besides seeing all the beauty of nature, we also learnt about various threats like deforestation and habitat lost, that are causing the disappearance of the beauties in nature. While it seems that human is strong enough that all the other creatures need to adapt to us, the result of a worsening global environment is something that we cannot afford. And though conducting our group projects on bird and spider diversity and how human influence these creatures, and then designing our individual projects, we are constantly exploring the question: how shall human as a whole take actions and adapt to a changing environment? While the answer is still far to reach, we are definitely closer to a solution after adapting ourselves to nature and seeing the adaptability of all those marvelous creatures in nature.