Meghan Casey ’15

SO MUCH TO CATCH YOU ALL UP ON! Right now I am sitting in Las Cruces Biological Station, curled up in 3 blankets in my bottom bunk while eating Chikys, a Central American brand of these little shortbread cookies with chocolate on top (going to have to buy them in bulk before I come home!). My time at La Selva, our first biological station, and San Jose, where we had some intensive Spanish, was absolutely incredible! I was able to see sloths on a daily basis, carry out a dengue prevention campaign in a local community, hike for 4 hours through the rain forest to an indigenous BriBri village and live there for 3 days, swim in a waterfall, meet a traditional sacred shah man, learn to surf, live with the nicest old lady named Carmen, get all my Spanish back (it’s still there! thank god!), attend the Costa Rican Classic soccer game (even bought a jersey…if I’m going to pretend to be a fan for one night, might as well go all out, right?) and more. Oh and did I mention the daily snake sightings? That’s what I love about this program: it’s so full of experience. Anyone who knows me knows that my favorite thing is to learn (nerdy but true) and I feel like I’m doing that every second here.



Manuel Antonio!

Manuel Antonio!

A pit viper on the trail!

A pit viper on the trail!

This program was made for me—it’s the perfect combination of biology, public health, language, and culture. Literally every lecture is on something that I want to learn about—malaria, diarrheal diseases, primary care, emerging diseases, economy of health, and the burden of global health, to name a few—and for the first time, I feel like every detail directly relates to what I want to do with my life. My time in Costa Rica has also inspired changes in my own lifestyle: I appreciate the environment astronomically more than I did before coming here. I mean, sure, I valued it previously, but I never really stopped to truly think about the ways in which our surroundings are connected to disease and the devastating consequences that environmental destruction can and does have on our world. It’s made me seriously consider the ways in which I contribute to this degradation, and I’m ashamed at how much I and many others take advantage of the very thing that enables us to live. After our countless hikes, I also just appreciate being outside even more, taking in the natural beauty! I mean, when else am I going to live in the rain forest?! Well, time to head to bed here because tomorrow at 7 we’re leaving to visit a Ngobe indigenous village! Hasta luego a todos :)

The forest!

The forest!

Me at Cahuita Beach!
Me at Cahuita Beach!


I’ve made it: San Jose, Costa Rica! I can’t believe I’m actually here. Compared to the 42 hours it took to get to Zanzibar, my 8 hour plane process felt like heaven. Besides a slight mishap involving the spillage of bright purple yogurt all over myself during my layover, the travel went smoothly and I made it to San Jose without a problem! Natalia, our TA, was waiting with three other girls outside, and we all took a small bus to the hotel that we’re staying at for our first two nights. Walking around the city in the evening, I was shocked at how urban and modern it is—I honestly almost feel like I’m in the US considering all the Pizza Huts and McDonald’s and even Dairy Queens that line the streets. However, there’s still a distinctly Central American vibe to the city in a way that I just can’t explain. Maybe it’s the bright colors of the buildings or the way they all have swirly iron gates or even just the smell of the air and the way that everyone is wearing jeans and leather jackets as they walk through the central square.  MAJOR culture shock moving from Zanzibar to San Jose! Oh, and did I mention the city is surrounded by beautiful mountains?

The really awesome thing about my program is that we’ll get to experience all aspects of Costa Rica, not just the capital. Tomorrow we leave bright and early for our first biological station—called La Selva—which is a four hour drive and right in the middle of the rain forest! We move around about 6 times between 3 biological stations, the capital, and Nicaragua, so I’ll get to see everything from the rain forest to the city to the rural villages to another country altogether! When we do our home-stays for a month in the capital, we’ll take 5-hour intensive Spanish classes each day at the Costa Rican Language Academy. Today after orientation we headed over there to do a 15-minute oral placement interview that they are using in addition to a written exam to figure out which class is right for each of us. Oh my god, it was so embarrassing and hilarious at the same time. I’ve studied Spanish since I was 6, but after speaking strictly Swahili for the past 7 months my brain has stopped thinking of Spanish as my go-to second language: instead, it retrieves Swahili first! During the entire interview, I kept switching between the two languages, and eventually got so confused that I couldn’t even remember which words were in which language. Luckily my interviewer thought it was amusing, so she worked with me every time I had to correct myself. Anyways, I ended up doing much better than I expected so I was really happy to learn that all those years of Spanish really have ingrained it in me! In just a few minutes we’re headed out to a “welcome dinner” to eat some good old rice and beans- can’t wait to keep you all updated! I’m so glad to be back in Central America- is it possible to feel like I’m at home in three different continents? Pura vida, les amo a todos ustedes!

I haven't been able to take pictures yet, but here's a beautiful shot capturing the mixture of urban city and beautiful landscape!

I haven’t been able to take pictures yet, but here’s a beautiful shot I found capturing the mixture of urban city and beautiful landscape!


This could be a city in the US, right!?

This could be a city in the US, right?!

Zanzibar. As I sit here snuggled up in my sweatpants by the fireplace, surrounded by my laptop and I-phone and heaters and all things first-world, it seems almost surreal that just a few weeks ago I was sitting in my mosquito net with no water. It makes me sad—that a place so close to my heart feels so far away.  The fact that Zanzibari culture is so very, very different made it so much more frustrating and challenging to live in, but it also makes it so much easier to miss because I can’t find reminders in my daily life.  I miss Buthaina, my host sister, sneaking into my room to play with my adopted kitten. I miss sitting in the back of a dala-dala—public transportation in the form of trucks that fit about 40 despite being meant for 15—smushed and unable to breathe. I miss eating with my hands and waking up at 5 to my mom banging pots and speaking in Swahili without even thinking about it. I miss the Tanzanian sky and the ancient architecture and the pure white sand. I even miss the Zanzibari passive aggressiveness and the way that my host mother always forced me to drink excessively sugary juice with every meal.

Shopping for traditional fabrics at the market!

Shopping for traditional fabrics at the market!


A few family members! Such beautiful people!

A few family members! Such beautiful people

Safari with my parents!

Safari with my parents!

The icing on the cake to my time abroad was the fact that my parents got to come visit the week after my program ended! I wanted them to experience everything, so we split our time into 3 sections: a safari on the mainland, a few days in Stone Town, and a few days on the East side of the island where the best beaches are! The entire week was incredible, and on the first night when we ate with my massive host family it was such a wonderful feeling to see my two worlds collide at last. Zanzibar was  full of amazing memories and people (and a special kitty who I took home with me!). Although not a typical crazy study abroad semester, my time on the island taught me more than I ever thought possible in 4 months. Before coming to Zanzibar, I had never thought about the fact that having fun is a privilege, one that not all people have, or about what it means to be a woman in a society where women are not treated with the same freedoms to which I am accustomed. I learned what it means to be surrounded by certain laws and beliefs that might infuriate you, and how to form relationships with others despite these gaps. I think the best thing Zanzibar taught me was that sometimes we really do just need to take it one day at a time. I’m working on developing a women’s empowerment project in Zanzibar and will hopefully be back in August—until then, nakupenda Zanzibar. Usinisahau. I love you Zanzibar. Don’t forget me. Next stop: Costa Rica! Stay tuned for my semester in Central America.

DISCLAIMER: For some reason, my computer literally REFUSES to let me put pictures up. I’ve been trying for over a week now and given up for now. I’ll keep trying and get some more up as soon as I can! So sorry for the monotonous paragraphs!

I’d like to use this post to write about the most significant part of my life here: my host family. My host family is absolutely great— and huge. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love children, and the efforts of my excessive highlighter and drawn-in stars/arrows that I inserted into my host family form back in June for the “how important is it to have children in your household” question were not for nothing. I’ll divide into 3 categories: the older children, the younger children, and the babies. First, there is Shemsa, who I mentioned in my second post. She’s 17 and an absolute gem. Beauty, brains, sass—she’s got it all. She’s also my life-line when I can’t understand something because she speaks decent English. However, words are still pronounced so differently (because of the accent) that it once took me 7 minutes to figure out that she was saying the word “Chinese” in reference to a dish we were eating. Also, on one of my first days here she asked me what the verb “kutulia” meant in English, because she kept saying it to the smaller kids. I looked it up in the dictionary, and it said: “to be eager.” Well, something to keep in mind if you ever go to East Africa is that Swahili dictionaries are terrible and half the time completely inaccurate. I eventually figured out that “kutulia” means “to calm down” (her yelling that verb at the children now makes so much more sense). However, considering the fact that she says “be eager” to them in English every day while smiling over at me in special gratitude, I’m not sure I have the heart to tell her the dictionary was wrong.


After Shemsa there’s Buthaina and Farida— aged at 13 and 14, respectively. These two are partners in crime, which is funny because they’re opposites. Buthaina is loud and aggressive and dramatic. Farida, on the other hand, is shy and sweet and quietly funny, the one who will make a random comment to herself that causes you to laugh for five minutes straight. At first, they were the hardest to get close to—I couldn’t relate to them like I could with Shemsa’s age yet I also couldn’t just do some crazy dance to get them to love me like I could with the kids. After hours of washing clothes together and trying to make sense of the plot of Indian movies and secretly looking through my American magazines together (SO not allowed), I’d say that I’m equally close with them now as I am with Shemsa (despite Buthaina frequently/eternally driving me insane).
Next comes the little kids: Anwar, Abduli, Nawaf, Ismaili, and Rumaisa, aged 10, 9, 7, 7, and 6. I’m absolutely in love with Ismaili. Picture the most precious, innocent, kind-hearted child you’ve ever met, and multiply it by 10. THAT’S Ismaili. I wish he could come home in my suitcase, but he actually just moved out a few weeks ago…hear my heart breaking? Abduli is a spitfire who does a weirdly incredible imitation of Tanzanian rappers. He’s also obsessed with soccer (everyone here is), and on my third or fourth day here the topic inevitably came up. He asked me which team I liked, and in response, I asked him which team he liked. He told me that Manchester City was his team of choice, so, not thinking anything of it, I said that I liked Manchester City, too, instantaneously becoming Abduli’s hero and best friend. I have now been living a deep lie for about 3 months in which I have consistently pretended to be a passionate, die-hard fan of Manchester City. Luckily, it just involves a ton of screaming and jumping and victory dancing and the occasional Google Search after I don’t know a tiny detail about a player’s childhood, details that Abduli views as essential in my identity as a fan. More to come on the other younger kids later!
Finally there are the babies—oh, and my host mom! There are two babies—Imrani and Sheimah, who are 1 and 2. They are both pretty deathly afraid of me, probably because they haven’t seen Caucasians much before, but Sheimah has warmed up and even said my name a few weeks ago. Also, Imrani took his first step about 2 weeks back! Although they refuse to love me, I will continue to shower them with kisses and love until they do. You’re probably wondering why my host mom has so many children—it’s because she’s actually not their mom, but their grandma! I consider her my mom here and call her “Mama Shemsa” because she is my mother figure, but she is actually the kids’ grandmother and they call her “Bi Shemsa.” My host grandma—their great-grandma—also lives with us, but she’s very elderly and ill so unfortunately I don’t get to interact with her too much. Lastly, there are a million other kids running in and out of the house every day that I guess I could call “half-host-siblings.” All in all, I couldn’t ask for a more loving and welcoming family. There are no doubt challenges, like having to deal with all the strange Zanzibari theories that they force upon me (in case you weren’t aware, if you bathe before your sweat dries then it will form a permanent film on your body and cause organ failure later in life…) and being fed only bread for 6 days straight one time (I eventually had a slight breakdown and now I’m fed yummy food so don’t worry). And, of course, they will never be my real family, who are my very best friends in this world. However, I know that without them I would be so utterly lost here—they give me a home, but, more than that, a place in their hearts. A place where I truly matter here. I spend more time with them than anyone because family is such an integral and indispensable part of the culture here, and I find myself starting to realize how hard it will be to leave them. However, as my host mother and pretty much every Zanzibari likes to say: “Tuko pamoja.” Translated: We are together, united. I’m lucky to say that when I leave on December 20th, I’ll have two families—one in America and one in Zanzibar. More to come on the lack of power and my internship!

Joyous music blares from across the road, forming a dissonant yet strangely comforting mix with the fainter music being played in the distance. Women flock the streets donned in their most decadent clothing, lips painted red and eyes thickly lined in black. Children run every which way, hoping and praying that a generous soul will fall into the spirit of the holiday and slip them a coin or two. This, my friends, is Eid—what a time in Zanzibar! Although Eid al-Adha passed about 2 weeks ago, there’s just no way that I can justify skipping it in my blog. Eid al-Adha is a Muslim holiday that honors the willingness of the prophet Ibrahim to sacrifice his young first-born son Ismail in response to Allah’s command to kill him—as a Catholic who is familiar with this story, it was utterly fascinating to see how an event shared between the two religions could hold such different levels of visible importance within the society.
As legally stated by the government, the holiday is only one day. However, within the culture the celebration is an unofficial 4-day event that takes over the entire island! Every single Zanzibari knows how the ins and outs—endless food, endless noise, endless guests. Considering the fact that people have been talking about “the holiday” since the day I arrived, I was more than excited to actually see it firsthand. I’d have to say the best part for me was the huge festival that spanned about 6 football fields in size, the biggest I’ve ever seen! The entire environment—vendors left and right, music slowly deafening my ear drums, kids running around, a moon bounce—reminded me of American festivals and made me strangely nostalgic for those of my own childhood. Speaking of childhood, it’s expected that kids receive gifts for Eid, kind of like Christmas, and all of my siblings absolutely loved what I chose—especially the soccer ball, which I can hear being kicked around outside this very moment!


It’s unbelievable that I’m officially halfway through my program here. My time in Zanzibar has been difficult because there are many days in which at the core of life here I can’t seem to find any cultural similarity, any foundational connector. Some of the greatest frustration that I have experienced has come from feeling as though I just can’t break through the deeply rooted cultural barriers that separate the way that our minds think. However, in addition to being the most frustrating, this aspect of my Zanzibari life is probably also the most valuable. Living in an environment so completely detached from my own has taught me that yes, people will not agree with you and will not see the world the way that you do and you can’t always change that. In this vast and sprawling world, I have no doubt I will encounter this on multiple occasions. But you know what? It’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. Instead, it’s what makes the world so darn beautiful—none of us will ever be the same, but this doesn’t mean that one way of living is lesser or greater than another. Yes, globalization is without a doubt creating an interconnection of cultures in a way never seen before. However, nothing will morph us into the same exact plane of vision, and for a world eternally hoping to advance and grow, we should celebrate this idea. Our differences are our greatest asset in that they have the ability to spur discussion, passion, and invention. So thank you, Zanzibar, for being so incredibly different and thought-provoking and strikingly beautiful. Nitashukuru kwa muda wote– I’ll be grateful forever.

Well, I’ll start off by saying that my family thinks I have a serious fear of octopus. Considering Zanzibar is an island, seafood here is a huge part of the diet—I had the opportunity to go to the fish market with my host mom and quickly realized that despite being from New England, I’d never seen so much fish in my life. We bought a giant squid which I proceeded to carry around for about an hour (squid juice all over your clothes is surprisingly not as gross as I thought it might be) as well as the fateful octopus. That night, we ate said octopus, which I wholeheartedly tried but just didn’t like too much. So my host mother asked if I’m afraid of the octopus, and, thinking that she was kidding, I laughed and said yes and continued eating my meal. Didn’t think of it again until 2 days ago when my host sister Shemsa came into the room with octopus…all of a sudden my mother begins screaming for Shemsa to leave the room because “Zuhura is afraid of octopus.” I tried to explain that I’m not actually afraid of a cooked plate of octopus but alas, she still thinks I have a deathly fear and now makes me sit in a separate room when the family eats octopus. Oh, Zanzibar.

More about home—great news is that my host sister has come in second place in a national science competition! Now she will be sponsored for the rest of her secondary education; she has three years left. I am so proud of and excited for her. I’d definitely have to say that she is my best Zanzibari friend here, and as the youngest child in my family back in America it’s kind of nice trying out the whole having a younger sister thing. Today we were at the market together running some errands when a man that my sister was buying from asked who I was. After being told that I was her sister, he got extremely confused and clearly did not believe us. “How is that?” he asked. Shemsa replied that we had the same father but different mother—I nodded the whole time and occasionally added a few words in my best Swahili accent possible. Finally, the man looked at us closely and conceded, “Oh yes, I suppose I do see a resemblance.” We had convinced him! We walked away arm in arm and burst out laughing as we turned the corner. I then bought tende—my guilty pleasure here in Zanzibar. Apparently it comes from some tree in the Sahara desert. It’s kind of like a date but different and sweeter but has the whole raisin around a nut feel. They are SO good and once I start I just can’t stop!

These moments—carrying a giant squid, arguing with a man at the market that I really am Shemsa’s sister, buying tende from a street vendor and hoping my stomach won’t regret it later—these are the moments that shape my experience every day. Zanzibar is still a challenge but I find that the more time that passes, the more I find things that allow me to transform this island from a place to a home. Getting ready for a wedding tonight! Another update to come tomorrow about the big holiday that’s just happened– Eid– and my family!


I’m here! I’ve made it! Not only have I made it, but I’ve been here in Zanzibar, Tanzania for a week and a half. Now that I have an internet modem, I can share my experience with all of you! I’m living in Stone Town, one of the only functioning ancient cities in the world—and it’s true, because when I walk down the streets I feel like I’m walking straight into a page from Arabian Nights. The streets are narrow and winding, a maze just begging to be explored. So, naturally, the past few days I’ve been doing what I do best—getting lost. But here, getting lost is an adventure. Every corner that I turn has more shops, more women in beautiful veils, more crumbling buildings and shining mosques looming above me. More excited chatter, more lively music, more vivid colors. And if I find myself seriously panicked, I can just ask one of the shopkeepers who are quickly pleased with my Swahili language skills.

“Zuhura, unasema Kiswahili vizuri sana!!!” – “Zuhura, you speak Swahili so well!”

I’ve heard this one a hundred times—and I’m pretty positive each time has been out of sheer   kindness after I ask the speaker to slow down once or twice. Because Meghan is difficult for Swahili speakers to say and remember, I go by Zuhura here, a classic Swahili name given to me in Kenya last year that was also used during my program this past summer. Although I do know quite a bit of Kiswahili, being thrown into a new environment with people who speak a mile a minute while throwing slang in every few sentences makes me realize I’ve got endless work to do. However, I’m getting noticeably better every single day— and I’ve found that instead of being frustrated like I was the first day or two, I’m excited to tackle the things I don’t know. There’s truly no other way to learn a language besides throwing yourself into full immersion and forcing yourself to constantly learn. I’m hoping that by December my skills will be fluent!

There is so much to write about that I honestly don’t know where to start:

Zanzibar is so very different from the culture that I’m used to, but so strikingly beautiful in its own way. It’s been an adjustment this past week, but I am more than up for the challenge. Sitting on a mat and eating with my hands for meals, hearing the call to prayer on a loudspeaker 5 times a day, having spicy chai 24/7, waking up at 5 am, and sleeping with a mosquito net are already becoming a norm. I love being in a place completely different than what I’m used to— and it doesn’t hurt that this place happens to be a gorgeous island in the Indian Ocean! This week we’ve started our full schedule of classes: Advanced Swahili Composition and Conversation, Advanced Swahili Grammar, Oral Literature (the art of Swahili storytelling!), an internship with Save the Children, and 5 hours a week with a conversation partner. Plus activities like the beach-side yoga class I’ve been going to! I’ll be a busy girl but there’s nothing else I could ask for in my beautiful new home. Zanzibar, get ready for me! More to come soon :)

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Meghan Casey '15

  • Studies: Self-designed global health studies major with premedical and Africana Studies concentrations
  • Hometown: North Attleboro, Mass.
  • Read more about Meghan »
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