From the editor:

"MZUNGU!"

July 15, 2015

This week's "From the Editor" comes from guest blogger Jim Peck (left above), Big Ten Network executive producer and director of University Photography and Videography at MSU. He's currently on location in Uganda filming an upcoming feature on MSU soil research.

Francis, our translator and driver is doing both his jobs right now. “They are yelling ‘mzungu’ at you because you are not from here and you are a white person.” He laughs as he steers the van through the jammed streets of Fort Portal, Uganda.

“Is it a bad term? Is it like an insult?” I have just gotten to Uganda after flying more than 22 hours over the course of 48 hours, I’m feeling pretty bleary and worn down and I was hoping for a friendly greeting.

Francis laughs hard, “No, no, no! It’s not bad! It just is what it is. You are a stranger and a white person and they don’t see many white people here.”

Chris Buller, our videographer, and I flew from Detroit to Atlanta to Dubai to Entebbe and now we’re wrapping up the five-plus hour drive from the airport to our hotel. We’re here following the story of Lisa Tiemann, an MSU soil biologist. She’s here studying the soil.

“By 2020 it’s expected that all the land that can be farmed in Uganda will be in use,” she tells me. “I’m here to get samples to take back to my lab and find out if the soil quality has declined and what we might be able to do to stop the decline or at least slow it down, if we can.”

Boy in UgandaIf you don’t have good soil you can’t grow food. The people here pretty much live off the land, eating, feeding their families and selling the things they grow.  Lisa says they’ve been growing a lot of corn which can deplete the soil of its nutrients which means it will grow less and less food if something doesn’t change. She hopes there will be some answers in what she finds in the dirt.

“I’ve been coming here for three years now. The samples I’m collecting will be studied in the lab on campus and then I’ll bring my findings back a year from now and share them with the farmers. We are trying to understand what’s happening to the soil in this country and I hope we can help them out.”

This gorgeous, mountainous area of Uganda is known as the “breadbasket” of the country because it produces much of the food people live on. The entire country, and even surrounding countries that import Ugandan food, will take a major hit if the soil is degraded to the point where it can no longer be a reliable provider. And, as we’ve seen in other places where MSU is hard at work, low food production can lead to poverty and malnutrition and many troubles that can shake the stability of a country often follow. Lisa’s work is very important.

“My job here in the field is basically trekking out to these small farms and asking for permission to take some soil samples and interview the farmer. If they agree, I mark the area on my GPS and take soil samples while Emma, my partner here in Uganda who speaks the language, interviews the farmer to find out what they’re doing, what they’re growing, if they’re using fertilizer.”

It’s rugged out here among the hills. It’s a lot of hot hiking to the tiny farms, sometimes as little as a half acre or even less. The farmers we meet are mostly women, always surrounded by a noisy tangle of kids and chickens clucking and flapping in the red dust.

Men in Uganda It’s funny, when I first started coming to Africa it seemed like the locals weren’t all that friendly. But then someone told me to wave and smile. The moment I did that, I got smiles and lots of waves in return. So, I’m doing it again now. Somber looking kids suddenly light up and wave, they yell, “How are you?!” and, yes, they shout, “MZUNGU!”

Back in my room, my computer isn’t working on the thin stream of connectivity they provide. My phone is a little better. I Google “mzungu. “Literally translated it meant ‘someone who roams around aimlessly’ or ‘aimless wanderer.’” Wikipedia helpfully goes on to explain that the term was originally used for 18th century European explorers who had a knack for getting lost in Africa. They would show up, wide eyed and dizzy looking in remote African villages.

Well, that probably describes how I look most of the time when I show up in these places! I read this and feel better. I like this word mzungu. Somehow, in following the steps of a modern explorer and researcher like Lisa Tiemann I have ended up in the steps of other somewhat befuddled travellers. It makes me kinda feel like I belong here, in a weird way. “Mzungu,” I say out loud. I don’t mind that at all.

Watch a short video clip of Lisa Tiemann talking about her work in this week's video FACULTY VOICE: Digging In.

Photos by Jim Peck