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Mark Foster and three dancers from Simba Theater in Tanzania.

U student Mark Foster with some Simba theater artists in Tanzania. The East African country is about half the size of Alaska and is home to Mt. Kilimanjaro (Africa's highest peak) and Lake Victoria (Africa's largest lake).

Africa calling

U student helping Tanzanians as he studies and interns in their country

By Pauline Oo

Nov. 17, 2006; updated Nov. 29

A love for both theatre and anthropology has taken University of Minnesota student Mark Foster to Dar es Salaam, the largest city in the United Republic of Tanzania. Earlier this year, Foster was one of three students who received the 2006-07 Katherine E. Sullivan Scholarship, which provides University of Minnesota seniors the chance to enrich their academic experience with a fifth year of undergraduate study in another country.

"My initial interest in Tanzania, in all honesty, came from the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream of studying chimpanzees in the wild," says Foster, who recently graduated from the U's B.F.A. Actor Training Program and is now completing his second major in anthropology.

Foster, whose thesis explored connections between actor training, primatology and evolutionary theory, will spend next spring as a field researcher with the Jane Goodall Institute in Gombe National Park studying the social strategies of male chimpanzee, especially their rates of dominance displays. With three year's experience as a data analyst with the U's Jane Goodall Institute's Center for Primate Studies and a summa thesis with U professor and center director Anne Pusey, Foster had the qualifications for work at Gombe.

But before that research begins, Foster will spend time in Tanzania using his theatrical training to help two Tanzania-based organizations--Envirocare and Simba Theater International--raise awareness among Dar es Salaam residents about locally available waste disposal methods and options.

According to a study in Managing the Monster: Urban Waste and Governance in Africa, 100 percent of the residents of Mwananyamala--one of the high-density areas in Dar es Salaam--identified solid waste disposal as a "major irritating problem" and 82.5 percent of them stated that they were willing to pay for solid waste management disposal.

Raising awareness

If you'd like to help U student Mark Foster and Envirocare's "Health and Environmental Enhancement through NGOMA (theater)," project, you can mail a check before Dec. 10 to:

Attn: Simba Theater International Fund
P.O. Box 9824
Makongo juu, Dar es Salaam

(Please make checks out to "Envirocare," and in the "For" slot write "Simba")

"It takes four stamps, and you'll have my endless admiration and gratitude," says Foster.

To learn more, see Envirocare or e-mail Mark Foster.

But most Mwananyamala citizens are unaware of their options for a cleaner neighborhood and need simple information. That's where Simba theater and Envirocare, a non-governmental agency committed to human rights, gender equality and environmental issues, come in.

As the Envirocare intern, Foster is responsible for working with artists from Simba theater to produce several educational skits that incorporate traditional music and cheza ngoma (dance-theater). They will perform the skits for free, Dec. 4-20, in five highly populated areas of Mwananyamala. Each show will cover a range of specific topics, such as health hazards from excessive litter, local waste management companies and environmental sustainability.

"We have been rehearsing... and things are going really well," says Foster.

His unpaid internship is an independent study through the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at the University of Dar es Salaam. University of Minnesota African History professor Tamara Giles-Vernick is also supervising his work.

In addition to rehearsals, Foster is busy fundraising. Envirocare needs approximately 500,000 Tanzanian shillings (or $400) to cover the actors' transportation and salary. (According to the project proposal, each of the 14 dancers and drummers will be paid $20, or Tshs 25,000, per show.)

"I know that if I can find 25 people to donate $20 each, then the project is taken care of, but again any amount will suffice," says Foster. His plan includes approaching public and private waste-management companies in Tanzania, as well as individuals and groups in the United States (see side bar), and organizing various activities such as student drives, theatre performances and auctions at the University of Dar es Salaam.

"My biggest surprise [about being in Tanzania] is how blind I was to extreme poverty before coming here," says Foster. "Of course, I have family members who have been out of jobs, and certain days passed in college where I couldn't eat much because I had to save for rent. But the experience now of having close friends my age take on a double responsibility of paying costly bills and being the sole providers for 8-10 family members...changed my life and perspective forever."

Mark Foster with Envirocare director Loyce Lema.
Mark Foster with Envirocare director Loyce Lema in Tanzania.

Foster, who hails from Colorado Springs, Colo., credits his parents for his openness to other cultures and his daring spirit. Prior to his yearlong sojourn in Africa, Foster also studied and interned in London and spent some time traipsing about the European continent.

"I am very blessed to have had an adventurous father and mother who traveled quite a bit in their lives," he explains. "Every student should study abroad, and if possible, in a so-called 'third world' location. In today's world every aspect of life involves influence from seemingly 'marginal' places--look at the tags of clothing, pop-culture music or even everyday politics. I think the importance of having first-hand experience in places outside 'the west' is essential to understanding how our world currently works."

In ten years, Foster sees himself "with a Ph.D., working as a director and actor across the globe, exploring how anthropology and theater intersect from the perspective of a practitioner," and creating work that is "both stimulating and engaging."

With excerpts from CLA Today, spring 2006, a publication by the College of Liberal Arts.

Further reading One size does not fit all U and the new Guthrie Class acts