Students and faculty rise early at our campsites on the African equator, perhaps awakened by the roar of lions or hippos nearby. By flashlight we check the notice board hung on a tree for today’s events; as well as class and study schedules, there are game drives, and sometimes guest speakers, field labs, or even soccer games with local residents.
When camp is on the coast, students might be getting ready to go snorkeling on the coral reef before breakfast, but if the camp is in the dry savannah, we might take advantage of the sunrise and have a 6:30 a.m. game drive in the trucks, revealing (with luck) a diverse panorama of African wildlife, from a lion pride devouring the remnants of last nights kill, to a herd of elephants bathing in the river. The trucks return from game drives by 8:30 a.m., in time for a large buffet breakfast at long wooden tables in the shade of a flowering acacia tree.
After breakfast, those students taking early classes disappear into the large teaching tents, while the others have time to linger over coffee, study, finish assignments, have a ‘hot’ shower, or maybe do their laundry. Our classrooms in the field are large canvas teaching tents equipped with the usual blackboards, overheads, or slide projectors. But in a field school, an instructor can also point to real examples outside the tent/classroom, possibly interrupting the lecture to point out giraffe moving along the sky line, or to chase baboons out of camp. Some classes may take place with students simply gathered under the acacia trees or under the shade of an open air shelter.
Sometimes the morning teaching sessions begin with a lab, not in a fluorescent lit laboratory, but with students in small groups going out to analyze vegetation or observe birds. Some labs take place on foot, but others take place on the move in trucks, following animals or birds in their natural habitat. Eagerly awaited lunches and dinners are served either in the dining tent or out in the field. The food is delicious, with our friendly cooks able to produce fresh bread daily, or even a birthday cake upon request.
The camp moves regularly to visit a broad diversity of environments, so if the next day is a travel day to a new site, we have a general meeting to outline the plans for the move. A map of the route is posted so that everyone knows where we are heading, what routes we will take, and when to break camp. Even though students may be enrolled in up to five classes, we generally have breaks during the day, when students unwind with everything from soccer or volleyball games, to trips to the local market or to visit and make donations to a local school.
By late afternoon classes are usually over, leaving time for the second game drive of the day. Students hate to miss these drives, because any of them could be the one everyone talks about that evening around the fire. One year students reported seeing all of the Big Five game animals during a single outing. At any time of the day, though, you can find students busy in camp studying or completing assignments. Fortunately, instructors are usually not far away, available for consultations at the water filter, or even in the lineup for the shower.
Around 7:00 pm, everyone has dinner together, followed by coffee and conversation about the day’s events around the campfire. This is the perfect time for stargazing up at the African sky. Faculty and students often spend the evenings sitting outside their tents, reading and studying by kerosene light, or talking about the plans for next day, until quiet time begins at 10:00 pm, when we fall asleep to the sounds of the African night.