UC Davis Magazine Online
Volume 23
Number 3
Spring 2006
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Features: Poverty in the Land of Plenty | Something in the Air | Camp Davis, Tanzania

Camp Davis, Tanzania

Husband-and-wife research team Tim Caro and Monique Borgerhoff Mulder have made a remote area of Tanzania their second home and the betterment of this impoverished region their mission.

By Susanne Rockwell


Charlie Rominger photo
Tim Caro, professor of wildlife, fish and conservation biology, and Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, professor of anthropology. Click here for more about their studies: the questions they're asking and the conclusions they've reached.

Mpimbwe, Tanzania—One baking-hot August day in the summer of 2003, several dozen women from the Pimbwe and Sukuma tribes gathered in a village, debating how best to invest the precious sum of $300. In their midst was Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, who had organized the outdoor meeting. The UC Davis anthropologist was helping her friends and neighbors take a promising, if tentative, step down the dusty road toward prosperity in rural Africa.

“I wouldn’t say it was a consortium—the women were all debating, often talking past each other—but I heard a lot of shared concepts with different names,” says Borgerhoff Mulder, who had helped the women obtain a seed grant from a Cambridge-based nonprofit, Cultural Survival. The organization specifically targets foreign aid to women so that they can be in control of resources to feed their families.

The 80 women from this village of 2,500 were weighing a number of proposals from competing teams: Some wanted a kindergarten to educate their children, others wanted to buy an expensive tractor like the one owned in a nearby village, and still others were advocating for the lucrative potential of a brewing cooperative, beer being quite a popular commodity in the village. Yet another group wanted to start a pharmacy to sell malaria medicine in a country devastated by the infection.

It was clear to Borgerhoff Mulder that the women had spent time investigating how male entrepreneurs were making money in their region. The teams had also already lined up backers in the village to help their proposals win the vote. So here she was, witnessing capitalism, power-brokering and social networking in person.

Ultimately, the majority agreed on a milling machine proposed by a team of eight women who represented both tribes and a mix of families. Their idea was to buy a mill that could grind and husk both rice and maize, community staples in this place of scarcity. In Tanzania only 4 percent of the land is suitable for farming, but it provides employment for 90 percent of the workforce.

Today, that mill is up and running in a new brick building, husking rice for the Sukuma families and milling maize for the Pimbwe families. The mill owners, winnowed to five from the original eight through village political machinations and witchcraft accusations, have made enough profit to pay back their grant into the microgrant fund. Yet another round of village debate and negotiation has begun for a second business, and Borgerhoff Mulder, back in Davis, is keeping her ear to the ground for village vibes.

The newest project, representing one more step down that prosperity road, will fold into “The Peoples of Mpimbwe Fund,” a community conservation program that Borgerhoff Mulder and her husband, UC Davis wildlife, fisheries and conservation biology professor Tim Caro, helped organize. The fund is for those living along the edges of Katavi National Park in western Tanzania, including the Kibaoni village where they have their research base, located just south of the park.

The projects include:

* an office building, funded through Cultural Survival support, that acts as the headquarters for the community development organization, which is called MIMAMPI;

* a kindergarten, which was started through donations from the Davis Waldorf School, thanks to the effort of alumnus Barnabas Caro, the UC Davis couple’s 15-year-old son; a well project for 15 villages, with seed money from Winters Rotary Club and funding through the World Bank;

* a honey producers’ program, with plans for exports, and a honey museum for tourists, all located in a new buffer strip of forest land next to the national park; and

* a project bringing donated American medical equipment to the district hospitals, thanks to the Bush Hospital Foundation and Direct Relief International.

For the past 10 years, Borgerhoff Mulder, originally Dutch, and Caro, originally British, have gradually found themselves emotionally invested in their village, Kibaoni, and the wider Mpimbwe region. That region is located in the Rukwa Valley near Lake Tanganyika and the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s one of the remotest and poorest areas of Tanzania, which is one of Africa’s—and, thereby, one of the world’s—most poverty-stricken nations. Here a child under the age of 5 dies every three seconds because of a lack of vaccinations and medicine, adequate food and clean water.

It is a land where occasionally the rivers overflow and change course to flood rice, bean and maize fields, leaving its people starving. More often this region is parched and bare. Even when the rivers and rainfall behave and harvests occur, nutritious food, especially meat, is in short supply.

Although Borgerhoff Mulder and Caro have learned to adjust to the changes in nutrition, many of the non-African students coming to work with them have had a hard time with the food in Mpimbwe, losing energy quickly as they adapt to the Tanzanian diet.

Just how Caro and Borgerhoff Mulder became so enmeshed in community public service is the story of two academics who vowed never to give up their research after landing tenured jobs at UC Davis in 1990 and starting a family. Since then, they have spent their careers with their academic year at UC Davis and their summers (and any other time they can find) in Africa. The two started research in Mpimbwe in 1995 so that Borgerhoff Mulder, who had been in Kenya, and Caro, working in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, and their young son, Barnabas, could avoid crisscrossing hundreds of miles each summer for family visits.

Since Borgerhoff Mulder settled in the area, she has been gathering detailed economic, health and social information on the families in Kibaoni and nearby villages, testing ideas from evolutionary biology about marriage, divorce and the investment in children. Caro took the opportunity to switch from his cheetah study in the Serengeti to a broader analysis of conservation issues in several areas: the Katavi National Park, a game reserve where big-game hunting still occurs, a forest where hardwoods are felled and the village. Here he can look at biodiversity and ecosystem processes.

In 1998, after two summers of camping inside Katavi National Park, Borgerhoff Mulder and Caro thought that the Kibaoni village would make a fine UC Davis research center. With the help of the villagers, they established “Camp Davis,” a 700-square-foot brick house that a number of British, American and Tanzanian researchers have been able to use. Each summer the Caro-Borgerhoff Mulder family, all of whom speak the local language of Kiswahili, bring along undergraduate and graduate students, and colleagues from UC Davis, California State University, Chico, and other universities worldwide. More than 15 of these researchers have lived as their Kibaoni neighbors do: without electricity, running water or cell phones. (They do retain all the paraphernalia of modern research—live traps, battery-powered digital weighing machines and computers operated off a car battery.)

The Mpimbwe region also suffers from water supply problems—villagers must haul their water from a nearby river. Borgerhoff Mulder and Caro gave an inspirational talk on the situation last summer to the local Rotary International chapter in their other community, Winters.

As a result, the rural Yolo County service club is raising $6,000 for Mpimbwe wells. A local member of the Tanzanian parliament was able to parlay the gift into a World Bank project, obtaining the bank’s promise to pay the bulk of the cost of digging village wells for each community that can provide an initial $400. The Winters Rotarian contribution will pay half, leaving the remaining $200 for the Tanzanians to raise. Borgerhoff Mulder says village participation is key to avoiding paternalism and dependence.

Living in Mpimbwe over the years triggered Borgerhoff Mulder’s involvement.

“I’ve found that living in rural areas in the developing world inevitably sparks a sense of injustice in me and my students,” said Borgerhoff Mulder, who as the daughter of a Dutch KLM Airlines executive, spent her early childhood in Lebanon before moving to Great Britain. “It seemed natural to get involved in efforts to improve local peoples’ livelihoods and to protect their environment.”

She believes that economic life in Africa’s villages is worse in some regions than it was soon after African independence began 40 years ago; her opinion is backed up by statistics on child survival and education rates in the area.

A major economic goal for Borgerhoff Mulder and Caro is an increase in local income from tourists who visit the 1,660-square-mile national park. Unlike Serengeti National Park in northern Tanzania, which sees 100,000 tourists a year, Katavi drew only 250 visitors last year. The reason for this, according to Caro, is that the park is full of disease-carrying tsetse flies and it is very remote—four days of travel away from the country’s major airports. Any tourists who do come fly directly into the park on chartered planes.

A tourist camp in Katavi committed to improving community welfare is helping the villagers build the honey museum for tourists. In this buffer zone—created to preserve both forests and wildlife—the local residents can sell crafts and food. The museum will feature a high-quality organic honey harvested by local producers, who took seminars in modern apiculture.

“Villagers are also trying to monitor the ecological health resulting from this protection of trees and wildlife, using monitoring methods that Tim and his students have taught them,” Borgerhoff Mulder says.

Unfortunately, even when a country is improving its economical well-being, there are unintended, negative consequences. Because the villagers live next to a national park rich in antelope, giraffes, elephants and hippopotamuses, conflicts arise between park conservation and human survival.

A slowly improving economy in urban Tanzania has stimulated a market for poached meat. Caro estimates some 10,000 wild animals were illegally hunted by the villagers around the park, with much of the poached meat transported to nearby cities, where it goes for a quarter of the cost of legal beef.

“As things get better for Tanzanian people, things are getting worse for the wildlife,” Caro says. “This is not what I expected. It raises, of course, big questions about the relationship between conservation and development.”

Such realizations have changed Caro’s outlook. He no longer considers himself just a “behavioral ecologist,” says his wife; his focus is now on comparative projects that look at biodiversity, conservation science and, crucially, how people affect ecology.

“I came to realize that people are the real key to conservation,” Caro says. “From a zoological standpoint, it is absurd to study a place in isolation from any larger sphere. Humans are having a critical impact on the ecology.”

It has been a challenge to encourage the people of Kibaoni, where two tribes share common space, to work together for the common good while preserving their environment.

“The road is not easy,” Borgerhoff Mulder admits. “In fact, the easiest side is raising the money; much harder is helping ensure it gets spent wisely.”

Adds her husband, “If you are laying the groundwork for long-term change, you don’t do it yourself. You do everything you can to help others so they don’t automatically look to you to solve the problem.”

That is why Caro and Borgerhoff Mulder have consciously stepped back, leaving project organization and guidance to the Kibaoni residents and neighboring villagers.

Having worked as an anthropologist for the past two decades, Borgerhoff Mulder was quite aware that these projects would provoke a gauntlet of tribal and family tensions, nepotism and competition for resources. She has become philosophical about the prevailing belief in witchcraft, which has proven a debilitating dynamic as the village women work out their differences in the microgrant project.

But living with a biologist for 30-odd years has imbued Borgerhoff Mulder with a passion for conservation—the conservation of both people and their environment. It is a responsibility that she and Caro take seriously.

“You do research in the developing world and have incredible opportunities,” Borgerhoff Mulder says. “It is an honor and a privilege to be given rights to work with these villagers. And the intriguing thing is that your basic research becomes deeply enriched by trying to effect change in the real world.”


Susanne Rockwell writes about the social sciences and humanities for UC Davis.

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