Disciplines and cultures collide in Tanzania!

In June 2013, NIReS part-funded medical student Kym Wakefield to undertake research into an entirely different discipline during a field trip to Tanzania. In this thought-provoking account of her stay, Kym gives us an insight into what it is like working in the field collecting data, and how she got on.

Kym’s data will help to inform a research project being undertaken in the School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences on Portable Air Quality Monitoring, led by Dr Anil Namdeo. For more information on the project, Kym’s results or the Health and Environment Theme of NIReS, please contact sustainability@ncl.ac.uk.


I am writing this in the last week of my month-long trip to the town of Moshi, in Northern Tanzania.  My primary reason for being here is to follow up a group of patients who suffered strokes around ten years ago in Hai District, a rural area on the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro. While here, I have also been looking at air quality in a variety of settings, taking measurements using the Sidepak Aerosol Monitor – more on this later.

I have been to Tanzania before, but then to the popular tourist destinations of Zanzibar, Pangani and the less well-travelled south. Most people heading to Moshi are here for the big five in the Serengeti, or to climb the highest mountain in Africa. I feel privileged to have been able to experience a side to rural Tanzania that few tourists get to see.

The villages in Hai are beautiful, varied and alive. But I imagine life here can also be hard, with few of the modern conveniences we use without thinking every day. The higher up the slopes you go, the wetter – and therefore muddier – the roads become. My driving has improved immeasurably in the last three weeks – who needs to pay for a 4×4 experience day when you could just drive around Nshara or Foo? In contrast, the villages on the flat plain are dusty and dry.

Moshi is a bustling, clean and friendly town with the usual market, bus station, and small businesses, along with restaurants and souvenir shops for visitors. The centre itself is based around a busy roundabout and  the hectic two-laned ‘double road’ (only recently have I had the confidence to drive down that myself!). Local buses, or dala-dalas, can be seen everywhere, usually with more people in than you would think possible. Vehicles here are often old and in bad-repair; consequently emissions are high, and it is not uncommon to get a lungful of smog when walking near the main road. Other areas are fresher, with less pollution. I hope to compare readings I have taken in Moshi with the busier and more congested Dar es Salaam, which I will be visiting on my way home this weekend.

We were particularly interested in looking at how air quality is affected by cooking in the home. As with the villages themselves, the standard and ease of living also varies considerably. Houses range from large gated concrete buildings, to small wooden constructions. People cook using either firewood or gas stoves, and occasionally electric hobs. I have taken readings in a variety of settings with different fuels used: not being any kind of expert (or even novice) with regards to interpreting the results of the Sidepak monitor, I will leave that to someone else. However, I would suggest that several readings have been much higher than the ones I took for practice in my own kitchen in Newcastle, particularly when firewood is used in a confined space. The obvious question then is what kind of impact does this have on a person’s health?

Does cooking every evening over a fire in a small room affect respiratory function, and if so is that effect measurable and significant? And finally, what are the alternatives?

I have really enjoyed my experiences in Tanzania, and hope that both aspects of my research out here will in some way impact positively on the people they most involve; the wonderful and hospitable people who have invited me into their homes and made me feel so welcome.  Asante sana!

1 thought on “Disciplines and cultures collide in Tanzania!

  1. I enjoyed your report, Kym, I look forward to further installments.

    Re: Cooking and respiratory problems. You might find the following World Health Organization fact sheet interesting (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs292/en/). In it, they say around 3 billion people cook with fuels like wood and dung, and 2 million a year have an early death as a result.

    Black carbon, as it’s called, is also a significant contributor to climate change, and all that wood collecting people have to do is probably not doing the local environment any good either (e.g. deforestation, loss of habitat, soil erosion).

    Luckily, cutting black carbon emissions is already on the UN agenda. Possibly because it would save many lives and is seen as a ‘quick fix’ for buying us time where climate change is concerned.

    The real trick will be to find a cheap, reliable, and suitable cooker as a replacement for open fires. Here’s one possibility I found but I’ve heard there are others: http://www.businessinsider.com/biolite-homestove-alexander-drummond-jonathan-cedar-2012-8

    Let’s hope these cookers are the real deal and are made available to the millions who need them soon.

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