The Colgate Scene
September 2001

Journeys of discover

After spending Memorial Day Weekend on Cape Cod with my in-laws, I packed up my car, said my good-byes to my husband, Matt Brown '94, and our dog, Maggie, and headed south for Washington, DC. It was not the first time I had temporarily abandoned my husband, although I did promise him it would be the last.

Our first separation came during our courtship. Introduced by a mutual Colgate friend (Matt and I didn't know each other during our undergraduate years), we simply clicked and were engaged nine months after our first date -- but not before I stumbled into a lifetime opportunity to work on a BBC/PBS film series that would take me to Africa for a year with author Henry Louis Gates Jr., who was awarded an honorary degree at commencement this past May. Good thing I am a true believer that distance makes the heart grow fonder.

I had worked as a research assistant for Professor "Skip" Gates for about a year and jokingly mentioned that he would be much better off having an assistant on his trips. Surely, he would need someone to help out with background research and journaling of events for the companion book to his series. He laughed and ultimately agreed, yes, that would be a great idea. My assignment was straightforward -- I was to be his eyes and ears recording events, researching stories and photographing everyone and everything along the way.

We set out for Kenya, the Lamu archipelago, Tanzania and Zanzibar in September for a four-week shoot. Additionally, the year of travel included trips to Egypt, Sudan, Mali, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. There were six trips in all, the majority in the fall of 1998 and two spread out over the spring and summer of the following year. It was truly an opportunity of a lifetime and one that dramatically altered my life and my career path. It was serendipity at its finest.

While the trips were all unique and extraordinary, a few key events stay clear in my mind. The first was our travel to Timbuktu, Mali. It is an amusing experience to step foot on a place that you thought existed in some untouchable distance. While poverty-stricken and eerily still in its distant oasis, Timbuktu has a magic about it. Still, the Tuareg tribe roams the cities on their camels -- which Skip eventually saddled while dressed in Tuareg garb of an indigo turban and dress -- and sell handmade jewelry and indigo cloth.

During our time there, we had the good fortune of getting a firsthand tour from a local who took us to the house of an elder who possessed the majority of books left from the ancient University of Timbuktu -- one of the first universities in Africa. What an amazing experience to hold in your hands books from the 14th century, beautifully preserved in the dry climate. Skip was in a candy store, lining up an agreement to properly house and translate the books from Arabic to English. Slave trade agreements were also found among the stacks of books and documents -- a wealth of knowledge unbeknownst to anyone outside that place and time was sitting in our hands. It was an incredible, humbling experience to stand in the library of Timbuktu.

While our time in Mali was momentous, our travel in the Sudan was the most beautiful of all. Due to strained ties in 1998 between Egypt and Sudan in addition to the United States, we could not cross the Egyptian border and had to fly outside of the country before reentering the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. We flew in late, probably around 11 p.m., and as we drove through a series of high barbed-wire fences, with guard towers throughout the city, our British companion told us stories of public floggings for drinking alcohol in the "dry" country. I was terrified.

Yet, once we left the city and met our Italian travel guide -- many Italians frequent Sudan during the Christmas season -- everything changed. The landscape was gorgeous, with hills of soft gold sand, one running into the next. After getting stuck on many occasions, often filming Skip using grated metal plates under the back wheels of the Land Rovers to pull us out of the sand, we moved closer and closer to the ruins of the Nubian civilization. In the evening of our third week, we tented outside the city of pyramids, Meroe. I got up in the middle of our last night to find a bathroom next to a palm tree and a wondering camel, and stared up at the night sky where Jupiter's red moon was spinning.

In retrospect, I truly believe that the people of Sudan were among the kindest, most generous I have ever met. Always offering us food, tea and of course, plenty of date liquor, the Sudanese were never shy about sharing their experiences, their feelings about their government, their frustration with war and their joy with life. The greatest revelation in Sudan was how this culture formed its identity, its pride and value in life around personal relationships and family. With few material possessions to obsess over, the Sudanese we encountered exemplified the realization of the true joy in life -- people.

The third experience throughout all of Africa, external to its wonders yet implicit in its identity, was the disease and illness confounded by poverty and hunger. No matter what country we traveled in, we found tuberculosis, malaria, HIV and AIDS and leprosy. The most basic needs -- vaccination, education, proper sanitation and other public health systems -- were nonexistent in many exterior villages and some cities. I remember clearly that one of our guides, Abbas, from Lamu, an island off the Kenyan coast, developed cerebral malaria on our trip to the mainland. If our group had not pressured him to see a doctor, he would have died within 48 hours. While progress has been made for many third world nations with the help of external aid organizations and governments, my actually meeting people affected by the public health crisis has propelled me in my mission of contributing to America's health policy agenda.

I am interning yet again, this time as part of my doctoral studies in social policy. As I sit in a small office at the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality (AHRQ), I am amazed how my travels have brought me to this place. My father reminds me that serendipity best serves the prepared mind. Certainly my Colgate experience abroad in Spain was the first step in opening my mind to the interconnectedness of the world's public policy challenges. However, I feel that I am constantly trying to refine and prepare myself so that I may absorb and gain even more from my experiences abroad. I am thankful for the opportunity to see other parts of the world so that I may contribute to policies that positively impact health -- the most basic need of all -- for people everywhere. And since I promised not to leave my husband behind, Matt is going to have to come with me for my journeys of discovery.

Eva Marie Stahl is a Ph.D. student and an Agency for Health Care Research and Quality (AHRQ) fellow at the Heller School at Brandeis University.
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