In January, June Lowe traded ice storms and polar vortexes for Tanzania’s sunny shores.
Whenever she could, she cycled the streets, swam in the Indian Ocean and enjoyed cold beer alongside East African staples like ugali.
The locals saved her copies of the newspaper and called her “mama, which in Swahili is like sir,” though she preferred “dada,” meaning sister, instead.
With a warm smile and disarming humour, Lowe could fit in anywhere. For 12 weeks this past winter, that included the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
Africa’s East Coast is a long way from the home she built with her own hands on the edge of the Grand River in West Montrose. It must’ve felt even further during this bitter Ontario winter, when she arrived in Dar es Salaam’s perpetual 30-degree heat, surrounded by five million people.
She left just days after retiring from the University of Waterloo’s engineering department, where she worked as a professor for more than 40 years. The journey was spurred by an invitation from a former student who now works as an instructor at the University of Dar es Salaam, who was interested in starting a design course.
The semester brought new challenges to the veteran educator.
“The students are very book oriented,” she said. “We’re now going the project route where [students] build things and it’s very hands-on, and some of them had never even used a ratchet.”
The class was motivated, she said, but they “didn’t want to learn outside of the box. If it wasn’t in the book they’d ask, ‘how am I supposed to learn this?’”
June pushed her pupils out of their comfort zones with a project to design a device to extract the juice from bananas.
“You can’t get the juice out of bananas until you mix them with something that has tannin in it,” she explained. “Tannin is in palm leaves, so what you have to do is mash the bananas with the palm leaves, but you can only do it slowly and you can only bruise the leaves, you can’t crush them up.”
The goal was to create a machine that could replicate the process typically done by hand.
“When I first had the class do it by hand they weren’t happy, they said ‘ew I’ve got banana gunk on my hands!’”
But in the end it turned out quite well, with a class full of banana juice extracting gadgets and some of the sweetest – 28 per cent sugar – juice you could handle.
While teaching is Lowe’s passion and she enjoyed her time at the University, the trip’s highlights were during excursions to the coast.
“The first thing I wanted to do was get out of the city,” she recalled. “So I took the public bus –an hour and a half ride – along the coast to a little wee town, probably about the same size as Elmira, called Bagamoyo.”
The village, rarely visited by tourists, served as a slave port during the nineteenth century. The history is reflected in its name which means “abandon your heart,” Lowe explained.
Now, it’s a fishing village that also happens to be home of one of the region’s finest chefs.
“He trained in Kenya as a professional chef,” she said, lighting up. “They have the nicest spices, and they spice things very nicely, never hot. Pirrie pirrie was the hottest one that we had, but also biryani, nutmeg and turmeric. He did everything, I’d have lamb one day and fish on another, and crab legs the next day. I would go down to the fish market to choose whatever fish I wanted. There was something called ugali, which is halfway between porridge and a ball of dough, and they have it with everything. Sometimes you’d have rice or potatoes but usually it was ugali.”
Lowe has travelled to Africa on numerous occasions, including a stint at a University in South Africa, and even to visit her extended family.
“I have a cousin who married [a man from Africa] 25 years a go and one day their daughter called me up out of the blue and said she wanted to study engineering in Canada,” she remembered. “So she came, and now she is now an engineer. So they invited me to visit them.”
During her trip she visited a wildlife preserve.
“The animals were loose and we were caged, and I was sitting behind some tall grass when all of a sudden a lioness came and killed a deer.”
Later, Lowe watched from a stone bunker as elephants approached.
“One got so close I could see my reflection in his eyeball.”
Now that she’s back home in West Montrose, Lowe says it’s time for a “life of leisure.” Still, it’s hard to imagine that it won’t be long until she’s off on her next adventure.