Research in Zambia provides season of growth

Hiking down to the base of Victoria Falls in Zambia, College of Idaho political economy professor Erin Hern and students Cameron Arnzen and Ruth Nakalyowa came upon a baboon casually sitting on a park bench. As the group passed by this strange and amusing sight, the baboon rose from his seat and sauntered over to the group.

But he wasn’t monkeying around.

The baboon pulled on Nakalyowa’s backpack, yanking her down in the process. After much screaming and fighting to keep her bag, the baboon eventually was scared off.

“It was funny in the end, I guess—I survived,” Nakalyowa said. “Professor Hern told us not to go out alone at night, because you can get mugged and all of that. I almost got mugged, not by a person, but by a baboon.”

The tale, while slightly humorous in hindsight, was one most people can’t tell. But new experiences and being pushed outside the zone of comfort became the norm during the group’s one-month stay in Africa—especially for the students.

“In terms of going out into the field and being in a different place, I think [going abroad] provides a really important challenge,” Hern said. “Especially when you’re young and you’re figuring out where your boundaries and capabilities are, to really push you out of your comfort zone.”

The Yotes traveled to Zambia this summer to work on Hern’s dissertation research, which focused on how people’s experiences with social service provision influences their political involvement and attitudes in a developing country. Arnzen and Nakalyowa tagged along to help interview local residents near the cities of Lusaka, Livingstone and Kabwe.

A strict planner who likes to be in control, Arnzen found himself dealing with uncertainty, whether that was not having a taxi show up, being surrounded by a different culture or struggling to communicate.

“It was an experience that I thought I was prepared for, but I wasn’t,” said Arnzen, a senior political economy major and current student body president. “It put me in a lot of uncomfortable situations that helped me grow as a person.”

He also experienced what it is like to be a minority. Traveling to rural villages in Zambia to do research, Arnzen found people staring at him, as he was one of the only white people the villagers had ever seen.

“I wasn’t prepared for that kind of attention, where someone assumes your story,” he said. “It really puts you in a situation where you start to be a lot more mindful of being different from everyone else…being a part of minority gives you a completely different mindset and approach to everyday situations.”

For Nakalyowa, who is from Uganda, going to Africa was nothing new. But, she did face her own challenges. Hern and Arnzen were more welcomed by people, she said, because the locals thought she was a Zambian government agent, or even just the translator.

“I went there doubting I would be surprised,” she said. “But with this research, we were taken out of our comfort zones, out of our bubbles. We left the city and went into the villages where you know people don’t have water of electricity, but getting to see it firsthand was really, really eye-opening for me.”

Being a senior international political economy major with a deep interest in African politics, the trip was right in Nakalyowa’s wheelhouse. And having the chance to go out into the field and do research was very fulfilling.

Both students also had the chance to work on their own research while helping Hern. Arnzen focused on why more educated people in Zambia have a larger distrust in the government. Nakalyowa wanted to know why Zambian women were less involved in politics than men. They even had the chance to share their preliminary work at the Southern African Institute for Policy and Research, where Hern and fellow researchers in the country had gathered to talk about the upcoming Zambian elections. And those in attendance took note of the only two undergraduates in the room.

“Everyone was super surprised that we were undergrads,” Arnzen said. “I took that as a compliment.”

“For me, them giving us so much respect for what we were doing made me think, ‘Yeah, we are undergrad students doing this research with our professor,’” Nakalyowa said. “It’s pretty big.”

The month in Africa offered everything from cruises down the Zambezi River at sunset and viewing the beautiful Victoria Falls to first-hand experiences in the field and memorable encounters with monkeys. But the most important aspect offered was the chance for Arnzen and Nakalyowa to grow as people, realize what they’re strengths and weaknesses are, and learn how to overcome tough situations beyond their control—such as getting sick, or having to dig their taxi out of the sand.

“It was an opportunity that was both once-in-a-lifetime and life-changing,” Arnzen said. “I know that sounds very cliché to say…but even though we were just there for a short month, it’s been impactful in the way I think about everyday situations.”

The College of Idaho has a 125-year-old legacy of excellence. The C of I is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.  For more information, visit