Penn State student studies climate change adaptation in Tanzania

December 09, 2010

University Park, Pa. — Some people in the village of Rau, Tanzania, can’t farm their land anymore and have turned to working other jobs to earn a living. Others have been forced to buy elsewhere food they can’t grow on their own farms. And for some who still have farms, they’ve had to install irrigation systems to water their crops.

The root of the problem that’s affected this village of a couple hundred people near the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro is a 12-year drought, a weather phenomenon the locals see as a consequence of climate change.

Geography major Jen Spinelli was on a team of researchers that went to Rau and three other Tanzanian villages over the summer to study what the residents know about climate change. The visit was part of a larger project, Anticipatory Learning for Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience, or ALCCAR, led by geography assistant professor Petra Tschakert in Tanzania and Ghana. Its goal is to learn how the communities can avoid future effects of climate change by using the residents’ skills and knowledge.

Spinelli, a senior from Erie, Pa., said she learned that the people she met in Tanzania are aware of climate change. They’re frustrated that they’re being affected by something they’re not causing, she says, but they are taking steps to try to offset future effects of climate change.

“The people we spoke with know exactly how to adapt and survive and make the best use of what they have,” she says. “At least in Tanzania, they have a basic understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change, and they seem to have a better grip on dealing with climate change than a lot of Americans do.”

Spinelli was in Tanzania with Jen Shaffer, a post-doctoral scholar working with Tschakert in the geography department here. They did fieldwork from the end of June to mid-August in four villages in two areas: Mlingotini and Makurunge, communities near Bagamoyo on the northeastern coast of Tanzania; and Chekereni and Rau, which are in the Kilimanjaro region near Moshi.

For Spinelli, it was her first foray into fieldwork, and she learned that the pace of life and work in the United States is far different from what she found in Tanzania.

“We would make appointments with groups and individuals and then usually wait an hour or two for people to show up because they got distracted talking to a neighbor, or our translator got stuck in traffic,” she says. “Even though it was very frustrating sometimes, it was a good lesson on how to slow down and appreciate the experience.”

Shaffer was impressed with Spinelli’s abilities to handle herself in a foreign culture. For instance, Spinelli taught some of their community people to use a camera without using any Kiswahili, the local language. She used hand and body motions to communicate effectively, she says.

“Prior to going, my expectation was that whoever we go with would be open to an experience that’s completely different, ” said Shaffer, who did her dissertation research in Mozambique. “I think Jen did a great job – she definitely has what it takes to do work in non-U.S. field conditions, be it the culture or temperature or really different from home.”

The fieldwork began with asking community members to remember odd or unusual weather events. The answers would be rated on how extreme they were compared to one another to get an idea about the community’s climate variability.

The most common recollections were floods, droughts and really hot or cold days, Spinelli says. And that’s when the residents in Rau told of the 12-year drought and how they’d adapted to it.

“It’s amazing how flexible they can be with their livelihoods,” she says. “It really made me wonder how my life would change if my home had suffered from a 12-year drought. It was very humbling to realize that while the people had to change a lot of things to adapt, I probably wouldn’t have to make any changes at all in the same situation.”

The second step, the mental model, asked the community people to define climate change and its causes. The people defined climate change and said it came from things like smoke from car exhaust and factories across the globe.

“Studying climate change from a science perspective makes it easy to separate yourself from the issue, but the people we spoke with are affected by it on such a basic level that we really learned a lot from just listening to them,” she says.

During that step, Spinelli and Shaffer asked the people if they saw positive and negative consequences of climate change.
“They understood what causes climate change better than Americans do,” she says. “They also recognize it’s not them that is causing it – they realize it’s western culture with industrialization.”

The third step, environmental monitoring, taught the residents how to use tools to track changes to their environment, such as measuring tree growth or using a rain gauge thermometer. They were also taught how to keep scientific records.

In the fishing village of Mlingotini, Spinelli says, the people even wanted to measure the size of the fish they’d catch to see how the sizes were changing.

The last part, the walking journey, consisted of six individual interviews with people from the villages who showed Spinelli and Shaffer places that had experienced an environmental change, such as land degradation or loss of biodiversity.

Now, researchers at the University of Dar es Salaam are translating from Swahili to English the interviews and other data that Spinelli and Shaffer collected. Here at Penn State, Spinelli is doing data-entry work for the project during the fall 2010 semester, which is what she was doing during the spring 2010 semester and how she ended up going on the research trip.

Spinelli will graduate in May with a Bachelor of Science in geography and the human geography option. She’s trying to decide between enrolling in a service program like Teach for America and the Peace Corps or going to graduate school for a hands-on master’s program in a field like community development or recreation/parks and tourism management.

The Tanzania experience may have helped equip her for whichever path she chooses: “I’ve always wanted to go to Africa. I’ve thought about teaching English abroad and now I know I can survive in a foreign country on limited resources,” she says. Also, “I would kind of like to do something with natural resources and make better use of what people have to help solve some of the issues they face.”

  • Jen Spinelli

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 21, 2011