(Not) Lost in translation: UC student documentaries tell true stories about life in Tanzania

CINCINNATI - University of Cincinnati students in the multimedia journalism seminar “Documentary Studies: Telling True Stories in Tanzania,” want to show people what they learned during their spring break trip to Africa.

On May 17, students will present short videos they created about daily life in three remote villages in Tanzania: Roche, Nyambogo, and Burere. The event is from from 6 to 9 p.m. at Pallet23 in Northside.

Course instructor Elissa Yancey, an associate professor at UC, will show a longer video titled, “Schooled: Lessons about Learning in Tanzania.”

The seminar was a semester-long, journalism boot camp offered by the UC Honors Program. It ran concurrently with another UC Honors course in Tanzania called “Humanitarian Design: Thinking across Disciplines.” Both courses gave UC students the chance to learn life-changing lessons outside the classroom and out of their comfort zones.

Engineering student Blair Jones said the journalism class prepared him to interact with people from different cultures.

“It was amazing to see how well they live,” he said. The experience made him grateful for what he has and helped him realize that it doesn’t take much to be happy.

Elese Daniel, who graduated last month, came home from Tanzania knowing that people in other parts of the world are more like us than different. In terms of wants, needs, and lifestyles, she said: “It surprised me how much was the same.”

Learning, sharing

The Tanzania trip was conducted in partnership with the Village Life Outreach Project (VLOP), a Cincinnati-based organization that coordinates volunteer projects to help people in African villages get better access to health care, education, food, and clean water.

VLOP’s founder Dr. Christopher Lewis worked in Africa during his family medicine training at UC. Another nonprofit group, The Shirati Health, Education and Development (SHED) Foundation in Tanzania provided translators and insights into the specific needs of each village.

One goal of the videos was to show some of VLOP's work.

"We wanted to share the stories, but not in a promotional, public relations way," Yancey said. "We just wanted to talk about the people of the country and what differences this organization has made.”

She hopes the documentary videos will help viewers see beyond news stories about poverty, disease, and brutality in Africa and recognize the common humanity that binds us together.

“Everyone we ran into wanted a better life for their kids,” said Yancey. “They wanted to have a good day’s work, come home, and listen to the soccer game.”

In Tanzania, the UC students interviewed people who had built a new health care center in Roche and people who were building a new addition to a school in Burere. The UC students also shot video showing how Tanzanian students in Nyambogo are benefiting from a “Bike Scholarship” program. With the bicycles provided through the scholarships, students can commute to the nearest secondary school in an hour and a half instead of the three hours it takes to walk to the school.

Preparing to travel

Before embarking on the trip March 14, the UC students learned about Tanzanian culture and the fundamentals of visual storytelling. Experienced documentary filmmakers from the Cincinnati area explained some of the technical and creative challenges the students might face during the project.

Guest lecturers and coaches included:

  • Molly Berrens of Spotted Yeti Media
  • Chase Whiteside of New Left Media/Lifelike Docs
  • Carrie Cochran of the Cincinnati Enquirer
  • Michael Wilson
  • Michael Holder

To practice shooting, the students created three videos to show the Tanzanian people what life is like in Cincinnati. Three teams shot videos about student life, Findlay Market, and Cincinnati’s bike culture. 

In Tanzania, the students discovered that showing videos to villagers was a challenge in buildings without electricity. So, they improvised a way to project the video about Cincinnati’s bike culture onto a classroom wall. They hooked up the projector to a generator that they connected to a truck. The digital video played from Yancey’s iPhone to the projector.

“As I sat in the back of the classroom, watching the kids watch the video on the wall, it hit me that some of them had never seen a movie before,” said Daniel.  That moment, “will live with me forever.”

“It was miraculous,” agreed Yancey. After watching the first movie, the audience asked for more.%page_break%

(Not) lost in translation

Not all 10 students in the “Documentary Studies” course were journalism majors; some were studying engineering, architecture, and interior design. According to Yancey, bringing together students with different backgrounds and perspectives was beneficial, because it was similar to how collaboration occurs in workplace projects.

Yancey took time at the start of the course to discuss the importance of relationship building.

“I wanted students to get the gift you get as a journalist, a window into someone else’s world,” she said.

Learning how to relate to people you have nothing in common with on the surface can be a powerful lesson, she added, whether students are relating to people in Africa or in different neighborhoods within the greater Cincinnati area.

Daniel said the “Documentary Studies” course reaffirmed her commitment to journalism while introducing her to the power of visual storytelling. Video not only engages more senses than the written word, but can also communicate more information in a shorter period of time, she said.

Another lesson students learned was how to conduct interviews through translators.

“It’s so much simpler to get a story from someone when you can have a real conversation and speak the same language,” said Daniel. 

Once the UC students explained to the translators that they wanted more than the basic gist of what a person had said, they started getting more of the information they needed to tell their stories.

Lasting changes

As an instructor, Yancey said, “It was amazing to see my students respond to the people, and connect with people across barriers of language and culture.” As a result of their experiences, some of the students “shifted how they define education, how they define faith, and how they define their place in the world.”

“Being part of a global community changes how you look at things locally. You see the difference you can make here,” said Yancey. “Some students came back intending to do more in Cincinnati. They are more open to people they might not have crossed paths with.” Some resolved to live more simply, focusing less on what they can’t do, and more on things they can do.

“I learned so much about the importance of the relationships we build locally and internationally,” added Yancey. “It changed me forever as well.”

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