By Andrew Zipkin
The academic year here at GW is officially over; classes and exams are done, all of the undergraduate anthropology students have gone, and the graduate students are preparing for the summer. Especially for those of us in the Hominid Paleobioloy program who conduct field work, the year has a rhythm anchored by the summer and the annual pilgrimage to some (usually foreign) museum or study area. Spring semester tends to be the more hectic half of the year since the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and the Society for American Archaeology annual meetings occur within days of each other during April. Getting our research prepared for presentation at these conferences eats up a good portion of March and early April, a week or two of April is devoted to actually being at the meetings, and then suddenly the summer has crept up on us and only a few weeks remain to clear our desks of busy work, buy gear, make travel arrangements, stop by the doctor for the yearly conversation about vaccinations and malaria medicine, and at some point make our way home to see our families.
If your day begins like this, don’t panic…
Many of our graduate students, including me, conduct field work in East Africa and are part of a community of paleoanthropologists based out of Nairobi, Kenya whose ranks swell every summer with the influx of scientists working at the Nairobi National Museum or stopping over en route to a field site. The odds of finding a flat available to rent in the Norfolk Towers near Museum Hill plummet while the chances of finding 1/2 of the world’s paleoanthropological talent grocery shopping in the same Nakumatt skyrocket. This phenomenon isn’t limited to Nairobi; any central hub out of which scientists conduct field work tends to feel the same way, like an annual whirlpool that draws in rarely seen colleagues from other universities for a while before spitting them out and sending them homeward again.
…because you may have broken down in a place like this (Lake Malawi at Chintheche).
For my part, I will only be in Nairobi for about ten days this August after I finish my field work in Karonga, Malawi with the Malawi Earlier-Middle Stone Age Project (MEMSAP). There is no commercial air service out of Karonga so between the end of July and beginning of August I will travel overland by bus from Karonga to Mbeya, Tanzania, then on to the capital, Dar Es Salaam, and finally from there to Nairobi. In theory, this should all take between two and three days, but the first thing I learned about field work in Africa is to build extra time into your schedule and assume at least one vehicle break down, fuel shortage, or surprise road closure (if elephants want to take 2 hours to cross a road, best not try and hurry them along) per trip. So long as you expect your plans to go at least a little awry and know that somewhere at the end of the road there is a flat in Nairobi or Dar or Lilongwe with your colleagues waiting for you, everything will work out.
To everyone traveling this summer, safari njema.