Nathaniel Haviland-Markowitz ‘18 has always had a passion for nature, enhanced by growing up in the concrete jungle that is New York City. He studies environmental science and sustainability at Cornell, and during the spring semester of 2017, his love for the environment sent him on a 7,000-mile journey across the globe to Tanzania.
Haviland-Markowitz’s interest in nature began early with canoeing and hiking in the Adirondack State Park with his family during the summers. As a child, he refused to eat animals because he didn’t like the concept of a dead animal in general, let alone eating one. He chose to take electives in high school, such as nuclear physics, astronomy, and geophysics instead of the more common classes in order to learn more about the environment.
“Science became my passion. I enjoyed learning about the way natural systems work, all the way down to the molecular scale. As I learned more, it became starkly clear to me that our natural systems were in grave jeopardy. My fondness for the outdoors made me want to take on the challenge of climate change—no matter what it took,” declares Haviland-Markowitz.
Environmental Science at Cornell and a Growth Experience in Tanzania
Haviland-Markowitz chose Cornell because it has one of the premier environmental science programs in the country. “It easily won my heart when I toured. Cornell allows students to apply into a major and immediately jump into the course load, and being just a couple hours away from the Adirondacks didn’t hurt either,” Haviland-Markowitz says.
Deciding where to study abroad was a uniquely easy decision, “I have been very privileged to have a family that loves to travel and has the means to do it. On a family trip to Botswana, we spent a week on safari. Being able to witness mega-fauna firsthand was an incredible experience, and I fell in love,” says Haviland-Markowitz. He left Africa with the goal of returning to study the animals, their conservation, and its ecosystems in more depth. The prospect of studying lions, elephants, and leopards was the ultimate thrill.
While sure of his decision, heading into the program brought about a strange combination of nerves and excitement, as nothing in America could have prepared him for the experience.
“I was scared that I would be an abrasive American tourist who never was able to effectively merge into the Tanzanian lifestyle. However, I was excited for the opportunity to grow and become more adaptable,” says Haviland-Markowitz, who considers placing himself in socially difficult situations to be nothing but beneficial for personal growth in the long-term.
Bomas, Day-to-Day Chats on the Streets, and the Nearness of the Animals
Working with the Cornell Abroad office, Haviland-Markowitz selected the Wildlife Conservation and Political Ecology program, offered through the School of International Training. There was no set classroom; it involved two different homestays and three weeks of an independent research project. His day-to-day schedule was never the same.
During his first homestay in Ngaramtoni, Haviland-Markowitz took Swahili classes for three weeks. This was an immersive process at the beginning of the program in order to help him learn how to speak the most common language spoken in Tanzania.
“When we were in Arusha where the school office is located, we were given a per-diem that we used to find lodging and food. When we traveled to different national parks, we were broken into groups and were all responsible for presenting one section out of a textbook-sized compilation of readings that varied from ecology papers to topics like global aid,” explains Haviland-Markowitz.
One rare opportunity Haviland-Markowitz had while abroad occurred during his homestay in Loborsoit—an area almost strictly inhabited by the Masaai people. The Masaai, an indigenous tribe to eastern Africa, still retain much of their cultures and traditions from the past. “We are left with families who live in bomas and have no responsibilities for four days,” says Haviland-Markowitz.
The final portion of Haviland-Markowitz’s abroad experience focused on the independent research project, “As long as it isn’t illegal or dangerous, we were told to research any topic we wanted. It’s specified this way because homosexuality is nationally illegal in Tanzania, and often students are interested in studying this as well as poaching in protected areas, which can be ruthlessly violent at times,” clarifies Haviland-Markowitz, who chose to focus on the wildlife and ecology aspects of the program.
Along with three other students, Haviland-Markowitz traveled to the Enashiva Nature Refuge, close to the Serengeti and Masai Mara. There he was able to conduct research on foot, which was very unique from other protected areas in Tanzania. Usually there is enough dangerous wildlife that the risk is too high to be without a vehicle.
He focused on the predator-fear that is exhibited by prey species at Enashiva in order to understand the impact that walking safaris, cattle herding, and overall increased human disturbance can have on the local populations. “Overall, this was absolutely amazing, being able to walk within 15 meters of a tower of giraffes is something I will remember forever,” says Haviland-Markowitz.
According to Haviland-Markowitz, the most enjoyable learning experience in Tanzania has been spending time in market areas and on the street with random individuals, speaking about their lives and their impressions of the United States. “I feel as if I have learned more outside of the classroom in Tanzania than I have in it,” he notes.
Experiencing the Culture, Realizing a Career Path
“In Tanzania, I’ve witnessed this breakdown firsthand, as people with no access to electricity would consider any form of provision to be an improvement, no matter the energy resource.”
Haviland-Markowitz’s greatest fear concerning his study abroad—not being able to adapt to Tanzanian culture—turned into the most rewarding aspect of his semester. Tourism is roughly 20 percent of the gross domestic product for Tanzania, which means most areas have experienced limited interactions with white people. This casts a certain stigma around them as wealthy, sometimes condescending, and uninterested in assimilating. This is not to say that people always act in a way that would warrant such a reputation, but rather the nature of the tourism industry tends to create a strict dichotomy between white and black people, Haviland-Markowitz explains.
“The thing that I am most proud of has been my ability to break down this barrier to some degree during rare moments and to genuinely connect with Tanzanian people, using my broken Swahili and their broken English,” says Haviland-Markowitz.
Haviland-Markowitz was surprised by the limited access to electricity of the rural populations of Tanzania, combined with the attraction to cell phones. About 90 percent of the population uses biofuel as their primary form of energy production, and most lack access to affordable electricity.
“Even during my homestay in Loborsoit, a remote area, almost everyone was equipped with a cell phone and would charge them using small solar panels that are sold individually,” says Haviland-Markowitz, who described panels as a more affordable way to obtain momentary electricity.
“Energy burden for low-income residents in Tanzania is very high, similar to the way it is in America, which means that less wealthy households have to pay a higher percentage of their income to afford electricity,” says Haviland-Markowitz.
According to Haviland-Markowitz, being able to worry about the future of our planet and climate change requires a certain amount of privilege; therefore environmental movements often run into issues when trying to garner support from all walks of life.
“In Tanzania, I’ve witnessed this breakdown firsthand, as people with no access to electricity would consider any form of provision to be an improvement, no matter the energy resource and would find it highly hypocritical of people in America to try and involve themselves in the distribution of electricity in a nation outside of their own,” he says.
Haviland-Markowitz’s research and experience living abroad aligned perfectly with his studies at Cornell. Perhaps most importantly, it helped him realize a future career path in environmentalism that he had not heavily considered previously—social justice.