In the middle of rural Tanzania, I stared at constellations through the mesh of a 10-by-8-foot tent I’d come to call “home.” I listened to hyenas whoop on the nearby hillside, and worried. Dr. Laly Lichtenfeld, co-founder of the Tanzanian People & Wildlife Fund (TPW) had given me the opportunity to create a day-long staff training, based on accountability and teamwork. It was the final project for my summer internship and, I thought, the one that offered me the largest chance for failure.

tent in africa

My home for 11 weeks — a tent under a few acacia trees.

I left Durham in May for east Africa’s Maasai Steppe and the internship of a lifetime (saving lions). I scored the position with the wildlife fund through a big cat conservation research group at Duke’s Nicholas School for the Environment. TPW works outside of Tarangire National Park, in areas where communities live in close proximity to wildlife.

I spotted this beautiful female leopard while touring Tarangire National Park. We hope the efforts of the Tanzanian People & Wildlife Fund (TPW) will help save her and other big cats.

Lions, leopards, hyenas and other predators hunt impala or zebra or wildebeest amongst the tawny grasses and thorny acacia trees. Unfortunately, these predators also hunt Maasai cattle herds, leading the herders to kill big cats in retaliation. The focus of my internship was to serve as a business development intern helping the local communities around TPW to derive financial benefit from wildlife. It was the ideal capstone for my 3-year MEM/MBA dual degree. During the 10-week internship, I built financial models to assess potential community profit from various wildlife tourism initiatives, trained local community groups on business planning, and wrote a social survey to assess the economics of small-scale farms.

African homes

A nearby village. The homes are laid out around a common livestock corral.

I’d also come to care deeply about the TPW staff members who had supported all of my summer work. In a way, the final training that I’d been asked to deliver was my gift to them. It would cover effective teamwork skills, and introduce ideas of leadership and personal excellence. These were themes that resonated deeply with me, and that I’d been putting into practice all year as a Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics (COLE) Fellow at Fuqua.

African women

I helped to train this group of women on business principles, just before a meeting about their entrepreneurial savings and loan business.

Guided and mentored by Professor Joe LeBeouf, COLE Fellows design and support a living culture of personal leadership and teamwork at Fuqua. COLE Fellows also mentor first-year teams, organize the Leadership Cohort Experience and design the leadership experience at Fuqua from pre-orientation through graduation. For the TPW training, I drew on every resource and experience that I’d had as a COLE Fellow — from facilitating difficult group conversations to mentoring individuals from a diversity of backgrounds. All the COLE leadership training I received came in handy in Tanzania.

african office

The TPW program office is constructed from local stones and a mixture of mortar and termite mound. It’s a modern twist on traditional architecture.

Fostering Fellowship

Tanzania’s first President Julius Nyerere once described his hopes for making each Tanzanian “a member of a kind of fellowship.” A brilliant orator, and deeply moral leader, Nyerere preserved and created a culture of equality within diversity for the fledgling country. He’d also misapplied social development principles from another country, a mistake that sent Tanzania’s economy tumbling. Unlike Nyerere, I wasn’t trying to found a country. But I did want the TPW staff to emerge as a positive and effective fellowship, and I wanted to utilize the principles of Team Fuqua. Would the exercises and teaching styles that were so effective in an MBA program also work for this group? Or would I simply be wasting their time with a system that was neither applicable nor effective?

group of men

During an introductory training exercise, TPW staff members discuss teamwork. (Photo by Christy Ihlo, MEM student at Duke’s Nicholas School for the Environment.)

I set about adapting my training to match my audience — an entirely Tanzanian 30-person staff. They ranged in age from an 18-year-old Maasai named Moses, to a grandfatherly anti-poaching patrol member. A few had only primary school educations (up to grade 6) while others had graduate degrees. A couple participants were expert mechanics, a few were chefs, and the rest were program officers, construction workers, and community outreach assistants. One, a middle-aged team leader named Lazarus, had gone through leadership training in the past, but the other 29 would be completely new to it.

two men

During the training session, Tonui, a Maasai guard, talks about his personal strengths and weaknesses with Meliyo, a member of the wildlife monitoring team. (Photo by Christy Ihlo.)

Multiple staff members helped me develop examples and exercises to resonate with rural Tanzanians (“Talk about soccer!”). When fellow MEM/MBA and incoming COLE Fellow Kirsten Hagfors took an 11-hour bus ride to visit me from her own internship in Dar es Salaam, she immediately pitched in with advice about content and logistics for my training. Dennis, TPW’s wildlife ecology officer, even stepped up last minute to fill in for my teaching partner, who came down sick the day before training.

tall tree

A baobab tree nearby.

I shouldn’t have worried. I’ve never seen a group of people embrace new exercises and ideas with such commitment and energy. Dennis turned out to be an intuitively skilled translator, displaying energy and patience as he took my ideas and lent them the cultural relevance they needed to be understood. And we did, indeed, discuss soccer — why is Manchester United such a great team? Who is the most important member of a soccer team? To emphasize personal accountability, two people acted out a skit in which a staff member did not refill a gas tank after emptying it. When the other person had an important meeting with the local commissioner, he couldn’t get to it because his teammate hadn’t taken the responsibility of refilling the gas. We then acted out the bad way to approach conflict resolution (i.e. lots of yelling), and a good way (i.e. a reasonable, calm conversation), and wrapped up by talking about individuals’ responsibilities toward their teams.

red sunset

One of many iconic East African sunsets.

We ended up having one hiccup when confusion over the day’s training schedule led to the staff not having lunch to eat. At first it seemed each person would have to go it alone. There was talk of leaving camp to buy food, which would derail the afternoon’s training activities. But after thinking about the morning’s concepts, person after person pitched in to help prepare lunch. Most had never cooked in camp before. As a result, we started the second training session on time with a candid discussion about how the staff applied the morning’s concepts to an on-the-ground situation. For the rest of the day, the staff repeatedly referred back to the lunchtime incident to talk about the importance of taking responsibility. This group, in their first all-staff training, came together to turn a precarious moment into a memorable lesson.

Moses and Lazarus talked with me after the training. The sun was on the horizon in that glorious, fireball of a sunset that so characterizes the African savannah, and despite the long day, they were energized. “Nothing I’ve ever done before was like this,” said Lazarus. “It was so different, and I think much more effective. I want to take this to other teams that I have trained.” Moses agreed, “I want to teach my family about this. All the Maasai should know about these ideas.”

As I listened to them, I realized that Team Fuqua embodies universal principles. The tools I developed as a COLE Fellow and a joint degree student can be applied anywhere, given the right context and cultural flexibility. A more effective fellowship of TPW staff members means the organization can build a more effective future for wildlife and communities in Tanzania, and that means a better planet for the rest of us. COLE and TPW allowed me to give back to the team that gave me their all during the summer, and I can think of no better internship than that.

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Jennifer Chin is a recent graduate of the MEM/MBA joint degree program. She now pursues her other passion — competitive ballroom dancing — while working as an independent consultant for conservation and sustainability organizations.