Reflections on Africa

I have been back in America for nearly a month and a half. I have been back at school just about a month. My body is in Montana, though my heart and mind are still in Africa. I have had a lot of time to reflect on my experience and have come to a few conclusions.
America is weird. In coming back I have had a more powerful response to reverse culture shock than I ever had while in Africa. I have realized that Africa is so comfortable. I have lived an incredibly privileged life. I have had supportive parents, friends and community that allowed me to succeed in my chosen activities. I have had enough financial support to send me to college and gain a degree. I have had the security of safety within my community. I have taken a lot of these for granted. After living in Africa for three months, I saw a lot of variety in the quality of life people lived. Some were also very privileged, and others… were not. These stark differences only gave me a slight insight into the world of developing countries.
In my last few years of schooling I have focused on development in Africa with a health lens. One of the concepts we cover in development classes refers to how we measure development. Often times it is in GDP or infrastructural progresses or economic stability, however I have issues with these terms of measurement. If we only encourage communities to grow, they will become yet another society that is unable to support their population as well as increasing the effects of climate change.
I also believe that “development” from a western context does not encourage sustainability or inginuity within a community. If we do not place emphasis on communities developing in their cultural way, then we will soon wipe out all forms of diversity. While visiting the eastern cape, an area known for immense poverty and rural communities, I saw how happy the lives of the villagers were. I believe this is because their communities were small and tangible. People could see where their food comes from, knew who was treating them at the clinic, and were friends with those teaching their children. These small communities are dependent on each other, and thus peace and happiness are emphasized greatly.
It was such a privilege to become part of these communities, and only furthered my passion and curiosity about Africa. I wait with eager anticipation for when I can return to this diverse, untouched, and beautiful land.

so low key that you probably missed it

About two weeks ago I arrived in Auckland New Zealand along with 19 other college students and our 5 teachers (Peter, Na, Charles, Ash, and Aga), to start our next three months together. We stayed in Auckland for two nights visiting sites of historical significance, one tree hill, and pikes point where many Mauri and Kiwi activists occupied land that the government was attempting to take from them to build new expensive housing developments. Starting now every week I will be doing at least two critical questions, on topics that we have been addressing in class. Here are the first few

1: Something that I’ve been wondering a lot about lately is just how ecologically sound agriculture can get. At this point in the semester we’ve seen a few farming ventures, from large-scale organic dairy farming, to Rick and Liz’s home based permaculture food-forest. For the most part all of these farming operations were awesome, but I’m curious if there are some simple ways that they could further improve.

The thing that bothered me about the organic dairy operation and a lot of agriculture in general (I should probably just get over it,) is that the place their cattle grazed was a drained wetland, which is not only un-natural, but likely magnifies many of the issues that currently plague dairy farmers, like erosion control and nitrogen run-off. I’m sure there is a way to tap into the natural state of the land, similar to Charlie 2’s eel farm operation, and am curious if there are other similar ventures into this new territory. Rick and Liz’s food forest was amazingly inspirational to see, and a great step towards perfecting agricultural practices. I’m interested if you could grow native crops with the agricultural model they’re using. I would likely create a great habitat for animals (which hopefully wouldn’t eat the plants,) and provide yummy food! Idk

2: Back home in Missoula I worked at a recycling center for a while and had a blast. It was great to have a job I could feel good about and I worked in an interesting environment with some funky, interesting people. On top of the normal recycling thang we worked on little side projects like up-cycling and booths to educate the public. Because of this background it was really rewarding to visit Rick at xtreme zero waste. It was inspiring to see how him and a few others had bought the land where Raglans old landfill was from the city for just one dollar a year to start their operation, and how they had got a hold of a recycling truck for next to nothing. They have so many great things going on at xtreme zero waste now, including glass, plastic films recycling, and a cool shop were they sell all the reusable materials; which is most of it. They are working on taking organic waste, permaculture, and restoration projects. They also have an awesome business plan: the best recycling company is one that doesn’t exist because the people will be well educated on reducing and reusing everything.

Because of the versatility of the Xtreme waste they are an important and appreciated part of Raglan’s community. I’m curious and hopeful that a recycling company might be able to attain this level of efficiency, versatility, and importance in Missoula, and what challenges may lie along the way to establishing this kind of company in somewhere with a different political structure that Raglan and New Zealand. Could it be attained in a large city such as Minneapolis or Chicago?

3: Something I’ve noticed during our time here so far was how most of the people that we talked stressed that no one makes any change at all no matter what the cause, unless it’s economically beneficial, and we should learn to except that. I don’t agree with that statement. I agree that economics currently play a core role in how the vast majority of people make their decisions. I disagree with the idea that we should accept that.

I think that it is a cultural issue that people factor economics so much into their decision-making, and that we should make efforts to change that, by learning from other cultures that don’t have such purely economic incentives, like the Maori and many other indigenous peoples, along with others such as hikers, and surfers. I’m don’t believe that we can eliminate the economic incentive entirely; or that it’s bad, and I don’t think we should; there is just too much of it right now. I’m curious as to what the right balance of economic incentive is, and how it changes.

How to dance like an Omani


On one of my favorite nights in Oman, my friend Ashraf (right) and Saleh took me out to watch an American movie at the mall, car dance to Spanish music videos and then sing old Arabic songs on top of a mountain that overlooked our city, Muscat.

It was just after 7 p.m. I knew the call to prayer had sounded but I couldn’t hear it over Ashraf’s salsa music.

With his left hand on the steering wheel he used his right to filter through music videos on his iPad. I was worried his eyes took in dance steps more than the road.

“Ashraf, watch the road,” I said between nervous laughter.

He paused only to dance or swerve through traffic.

“Katheryn,” he said patiently, “you are in my country, I’ll keep you safe and still drive like an Omani.”

From the highway I could see the lit dome of the Grand Mosque. I was taken by the irony.

Just a few weeks ago I had walked within the Mosque’s walls, my hair covered beneath a hijab, my bare feet hot on the sun-exposed marble floors.


The courts at Sultan Kaboos Grand Mosque


Inside a prayer room.


I rarely felt the need to wear hijab, but when in a mosque or a smaller community I always covered up. And to be honest, for short amounts of time it was nice. I felt like I dressed for myself and not those around me.

I Now I sat in the back of my friend’s car, a shawl hiding my black dress as we sped to my first salsa class, which happened to be in an Islamic nation returning to normality after Ramadan.

An hour later a man in traditional Omani clothing bought me a shot of “sex on the beach” and the irony felt overwhelming.

Even now, I feel uncomfortable admitting I accepted that drink. I know some of my Omani friends reading this would never have entered “the club”. In Muscat international hotels play the role of bar, and young Omanis blend in with a mix of Europeans and other East Asians.

To a few of my friends who described me as “not the average American” – meaning I’m not a daily partier and wont date a man that doesn’t get the okay from my parents – that moment might contradict who they think I am.

My personal conflict of whether or not I should write this post is a side effect of my own entanglement with the cultural shift in Oman.

When I left Montana to live abroad for the summer I thought it was a temporary goodbye to my new love of dance. I wasn’t aware the country I was about to live in had a stronger beat then most of Missoula.

My friend Fahm moved around me as I tried to follow.

“Katheryn, I am the man and you are the woman,” Fahm said. “You are supposed to shine. But instead, I am shinning.”

I stopped dancing and jokingly glared at him. “Well, maybe I don’t know how to shine like you.”

It was true. My hips swayed like a dysfunctional robot.

He replied simply and sweetly, “It’s okay Katheryn. I will teach you how to shine.”

He tried. I failed.

Though my friends seemed more comfortable in the atmosphere of the club than I was, it wasn’t due to drinking, since every Omani person I had came with were followers of Islam. I took a break and watched them in their element – Movements felt more passionate, clear without the blur of alcohol.

Dancing wasn’t just exclusive to this mixed niche of foreigners and vibrant Omanis.

I danced Bedouin-style with new gracious friends in my small Omani apartment. We only took a break to have the last meal of the night before another day of Ramadan began and they returned to fast. (A video will be posted in the near future)

I danced crammed in a car with eight Omani women when a beloved song came on the radio. Their wrists flicking to the beat and their heads swaying in a somehow perfect way I couldn’t imitate, much to their amusement.

I danced in a village with an Omani family over Eid when a woman asked me to teach them “American dance” while an Arabic version of MTV was on. The men had left and the woman ran to lock the door. Before I understood my role, she impatiently repeated, “American dance Katheryn! American dance!”

I initially tried swing dance but soon found out they were looking for a toned-down version of grinding. She tried to do the same, allowing her hair covering drop to her shoulders. There was a knock on the door. We covered ourselves and let the men back in the room, suppressing smiles.

I danced alongside two young girls at a backyard tent wedding in front of over 100 people as one of two white people in the room. The crowd of women let out short yells as I failed to mirror their Omani dance, the shy bride smiled. I never saw the groom. Omani weddings are segregated.

The juxtaposition of old and new is apart of this country I may never get use to but I will always love. Thank you for the dance, Oman.


My new dancing friends in a small village dressed me in a traditional Omani outfit after I taught them “American dance”.



Little boys peer out from the wedding tent at the white stranger outside. When I first took this photo I didn’t realize they were there. My friends and I showed up 30 minutes early for the Omani wedding – we were the first to arrive and waited another three hours for the bride to walk down the aisle in true Omani time.

Also, follow my travels at or check out my Twitter, @UMHoughton



The year draws to a close.

Honestly, I didn’t do nearly as many blog posts as I thought I would, but that’s the way life goes. If there is anything in particular anyone would like to hear about, let me know. Otherwise, this will be the last post in this blog.

For the last post, I’d like to talk about the difference between a traveler and a tourist. (For clarification, a traveller meaning one who travels and not a member of the traveling community)

It’s important to note that, when it comes to being a tourist or a traveler, neither is superior to the other, they’re just different. In fact, I think it can even be considered a skill to know which you are while on your journey. After all, nothing is more annoying than a tourist who thinks they’re a traveler.

But let me elaborate with an anecdote about castles.

Before we came to Ireland, all I wanted to see was a castle so I could stand atop it and survey my kingdom. The first castle we went to was Blackrock, but it had been converted into a science museum so it hardly counts. Thus, the first real castle I saw was Blarney Castle.

Blarney is a really easy and fun place to be a tourist. Not only can you kiss the famous stone in order to receive the gift of gab, but you can also tour the massive grounds with almost all of the flora and fauna Ireland has to offer. It really is a mini-Ireland.

When I went to Blarney, I was so excited to finally see a castle. I took an absurd amount of photos and touched everything I could. I was a tourist and I was having fun.

Here’s one of the photos of Blarney from the inside:

I know, it’s awesome.

However, looking back on it, I realize that seeing a castle wasn’t what this journey was all about, and even though I loved Blarney, my favorite photos are these: 

And frankly, you could crop out the castle and I’d still love the the photos.

When you’re touring, it matters where you go and that people know you were there. The post cards you bring home and the souvenirs you give to your friends matter. And that’s an important part of the journey. But I think when you’re traveling, truly traveling, it doesn’t matter so much where you are or where you’re going, it doesn’t matter if it’s the same or the opposite from home, or how long the plane ride was. Traveling introduces you to people. Traveling reminds you of the people you miss and why you miss them. Traveling makes you feel small in the best way possible. It’s a big world after all, and yet we can still all be so connected. 

So, as I pack my bags and clean the apartment until I almost forget we lived here, I really don’t think back on the castle so much. Because it was never the castle that matter the most. And in the future I hope to tour Europe and South America and, frankly, the world, but I will always take time to travel. Like traveling to a coffee shop just to get to know the waiter, or traveling to a new school just to get to know the students, or traveling back home to get to know my family better. 

There will always be pictures of castles and buildings and oceans, but they will never matter as much as the experiences which can’t be put into words. Maybe there’s a reason there aren’t words for everything. Maybe it’s meant to encourage us all to travel, if only down the road.

So I saw goodbye to this journey in Ireland. We’ll be back, of course, but it will never be the same. We’re coming home, but we’re coming home changed.

We’re coming home travelers.

See you soon, America.