Professor, alumnus teach course in Tanzania

Tanzania trip
Ellie Burshtyn ’18 plays with children at a school in the Tanzanian village of Mtinko. She traveled there with a Cornell economics class. Photo by A/amer Farooqi

It’s approximately 8,500 miles from Cornell to Tanzania, but the cultural distance is much greater, as 10 Cornell students learned in January. The course that took them there, Economic Development in Rural Tanzania, was led by Dean Riesen ’79 and economics professor A’amer Farooqi. It focused on water issues, including access to, storage, and delivery of clean water to local villages.

“We were in Singida, the poorest region of one of the poorest countries on earth,” says Riesen, a former Cornell trustee who taught an economics course at Cornell in 2012 and started working with Farooqi five years ago to develop the Tanzania course.

Riesen, a businessman in Arizona, visited Tanzania for the first time 17 years ago as part of a mission trip with other business people. During the years since, he’s developed a strong network of connections in Tanzania and in Washington, D.C. Riesen’s connections were key to creating the course.

One of those connections, a former Tanzanian minister of tourism and member of parliament named Lazaro Nyalandu, was on hand to meet with the class.
“Lazaro graduated from Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, which gave us something in common. He helped open many doors for us,” says Riesen. “During that first trip, he took me to a village in his district that couldn’t afford to install a pipe to bring water to the center of town. I immediately said I’d help, and that was the beginning of my involvement in water projects.”

“Courses like this stimulate critical thinking, help [students] reach a deeper understanding of the issues, and build empathy.  Those are important qualities as they go through life.”  -A’amer Farooqi, professor of economics and business

The project Riesen developed consists of digging a well and installing a pump and solar panels to provide electricity to the pump, and building a water storage tank. Villagers come to the tank to fill their water jugs. Each well costs about $45,000, and the villages are responsible for upkeep. His team has completed 15 so far, with plans to double that number.

Why water? “Access to clean water is a huge issue,” says Farooqi, who has expertise in the economics of developing countries. “It’s really foundational to any economic development efforts in the region. Also, access to safe drinking water is critical in reducing waterborne diseases.”

The course started with a three-day trip to Washington, D.C., where the students learned about economic development at the global level. They met leaders of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), World Vision (a nongovernmental relief, development, and advocacy organization dedicated to working with children, families, and communities to overcome poverty and injustice), and staff of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa.

After flying to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city and commercial capital, the group met with American and Tanzanian employees of USAID housed at the American embassy. They also met with Tanzanian government officials and people from the local office of World Vision.

“The students got the national perspective on economic development efforts in rural areas, including how the country interacts with outside groups who come to Tanzania, the effects of corruption on economic development efforts, and many other topics,” says Farooqi. Twice during their time in Tanzania, the students had social hours with Tanzanian students.

Water tower in Tanzania
Solar-powered water tower in Tanzania. Photo by Theresa Scheet ’17

“We had asked the students to read four books by global thinkers on topics ranging from microloans to the ineffectiveness of many western efforts to provide foreign aid. There was a lot of reading and discussion while we traveled,” says Farooqi. “We interspersed class meetings throughout the course, and many of the discussions centered on what the students had observed.”

After their briefings, the Cornell contingent headed deep into rural Tanzania to see firsthand what the economic development projects looked like on the ground.

The group spent five days in the village of Mtinko, sleeping at a guesthouse founded by a group of German nuns who also operate a hospital there.

Using the village as their base, the Cornell group took day trips into the country, where they visited villages with completed water projects and others that didn’t yet have access to safe water. They also visited three schools, two health clinics in the area, and an economic development project promoting honey production.

Inevitably, the students encountered situations that underscored cultural differences.

Ellen Larson ’16, of Kansas City, says she had tried to prepare for those differences prior to the trip.

“I prepared for it because I didn’t want the culture shock to detract from the experience,” she says. “Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the chaos of the Dar es Salaam traffic. I’m from a city, but I’d never seen anything like that.”

In one instance, children at a preschool the group visited were enthralled by a student’s blonde hair, and wanted to touch it.

“That’s not something you can anticipate and prepare the students for,” Farooqi says.

After completing their time in Mtinko, the contingent headed to Tarangire National Park on safari, where they saw elephants, giraffes, lions, baboons and smaller monkeys, antelopes, ostriches, warthogs, birds, and “a glimpse of a cheetah,” according to Farooqi.

Students on safari in Tanzania. Photo by Ellen Larson ’16

“It was amazing,” Larson says. “An elephant was so close to our vehicle, we could see its eyelashes and every chip in its tusk.”

For Farooqi, who has participated in Cornell courses in South America and China, the Africa trip was a “resounding success” for several reasons.

“A trip like this underscores the value of study abroad and experiential learning,” Farooqi says. “The academic objective was to understand the forces that shape poverty and economic development, and what it takes to move a developing country to middle-income status. We also wanted the students to consider how wealthier societies can contribute to those efforts without creating a culture of dependency. Courses like this stimulate critical thinking, help them reach a deeper understanding of the issues, and build empathy. Those are important qualities as they go through life.”

See a video and more photos from the course.