From Taco Bell to Tanzania
I lived until the age of 18 in Lacey, Washington, a small town made up mostly of the strip malls and Taco Bell fast food restaurants that line Interstate 5 from Portland to Seattle. Very few of my high school classmates left this town, and instead moved back into the service industries and lower rungs of state bureaucracy where their parents had worked before them. For those of us who wanted to leave, the only routes, at the time, seemed to be the military or higher education. Since, by middle school, I had been tracked into college prep courses, I assumed that I would go to college but did not know where or what to study.
In our garage, my grandfather kept back issues of National Geographic dating to the 1920's. The summer before starting high school, he paid me to dust them and it was then that I discovered something called "Anthropology" which, when studied, appeared to lead to a more interesting life in a more interesting place. For my Freshman Physical Science course's "SCIENCE CAREERS DAY," I wrote "Anthropology" down as my career goal, though I knew nothing at the time about the discipline besides the name.
I likewise chose a college which I knew nothing about - Lewis and Clark in Oregon - because the brochure mentioned that there were several dozen overseas programs available through the school. Though I could have gone to India, Indonesia, Ecuador, Australia, Korea or many other countries, I decided to apply for Kenya because the year before I had read a book about nomads and the program included a unit on nomadic pastoralism and ecology.
After rereading this book much later, I discovered it to be an incredibly sappy, melodramatic and condescending account of the lives of indigenous Australians and other nomadic peoples. When I was seventeen, though, the plot of the book - mainly, that humans have an innate desire to wander the earth, in the same manner the Aborigines retrace the paths which their ancestors sung into existence at the beginning of time - seemed quite compelling and true. I was fixated on nomads for the rest of my undergraduate career; however after my stay in Kenya for 7 months in 1990, the nature of my interest changed.
The event that both altered my perspective on nomads, and also led to an eventual decision to pursue a graduate degree in Anthropology occurred while driving north past Mt. Kenya with an American instructor who had lived in Africa for 25 years. After descending from the rich, green highlands into a hot arid plain of acacia trees, scrub, and dry river beds, from the car window there appeared cattle kraals made of thin branches and thorn bush, small boys herding goats, sheep and cattle, and the squat, dung-walled, oval houses belonging to the Samburu...