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In February this year, a group of students from the 2nd year Master of Oceans and Lakes programme spent 12 days in Zanzibar (Tanzania) to participate in the newly set up Monsoon School. It’s a project that is part of the course and funded by VLIR-UOS. It is part of the South component which all international course programmes have to organise as requested by VLIR-UOS. It’s a compulsory item in the curriculum of students with a VLIR-UOS grant; other students who want to go need to find funding. Others again have alternative summer schools, following their own interests.



In all, 18 students took part in the Monsoon School. It is jointly organised by the three Oceans & Lakes universities: Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Universiteit Gent, Universiteit Antwerpen.

The Monsoon School brings together a wide array of people: students, local researchers, alumni as instructors, local communities, local decision-makers, and people from all walks of life. The main drive behind it is to put the students in a real-life context. The other requirements are that it must be a place that is relatively easy to get to from abroad but also internally within the country, that it is safe, politically stable, and – very important – that it represents a microcosmos of a ‘South situation’ (African, in the case of Zanzibar).


Professor Nico Koedam of the VUB’s biology department who is responsible for the programme and for this course, expands a bit on this microcosmos concept: “Zanzibar is a perfect location for our Monsoon School. It has for a long time been a historical stepping stone towards the Monsoon countries of East Africa and is a virtual melting pot of Arabic and African cultures, while it underwent all the vicissitudes of colonial history, and now the impacts of tourism.” Before heading out there, the students had to thoroughly prepare, so they were familiar with their new surroundings, understood the different actors involved locally and the dynamics on the ground. Once there, the 12 days were used for assignments. The groups stayed in an eco-mangrove lodge that is based on a sustainable business model in relation to the local economy.

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Assignments emulating real life

Their second assignment once they arrived in Zanzibar (on Unguja Island to be exact) was to map out all the stakeholders involved: who/what has access to the environment and its resources in both a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ way, and what businesses are around. The mapping was done via interviews with locals, but also tourists, the corporate sector, visitors from mainland Tanzania, etc. The challenge for the students was to do this as an emerging expert in the natural sciences, simulating future professional contexts. The third assignment saw them being split up into 6 groups and spread across the island. Care was taken to mix up the students according to their backgrounds and emulate real life situations, where they would have to work with teams of different backgrounds and expertise. All topics were prepared in the field and based on peer-reviewed literature. The subjects selected for each group were based on thesis topics:

  1. Mangrove restoration, against the background of local exploitation whether legal or illegal, climate change, exploration for oil, financial constraints, and applying science-based principles in a demanding context of conflict of interests.
  2. Impact of diving tourism on coral reef health, including checking with local and international legal frameworks, (local) user conflicts, destructive fishing techniques, and also novel topics like sunscreen-based damage.
  3. Aquaculture: looking at sponge and seaweed mari-culture companies. Seaweed is the 2nd biggest industry after tourism and mostly run by women with NGO support. Students had to do interviews, estimate the risks in terms of climate change, ecological impacts, propose novel approaches, survey the value chains.
  4. Non-industrial artisanal fishing: looking at local fisheries. Students studied fisheries and the fishermen who are in a complex migratory context, often coming from Zanzibar’s other island Pemba and travelling to the shores of the continent. How has blast fishing been controlled, what about bycatch, are stocks diminishing, international licensing…? Interviews were done with NGOs, at fish landings, with a focus on local communities and how to engage them.
  5. Dolphin watching: looking at the impact of this unchecked tourism hype on populations of two dolphin species. The number of dolphins has been decreasing, and biologically this is not yet explained due to lack of good monitoring. Sustainable dolphin populations and income are intertwined: the downward spiral needs solutions and these require data and science-based policies.
  6. Plastic pollution: plastic bags have been forbidden in Zanzibar since several years, but an influx of micro and macro plastics is still visible. Local legislation cannot solve global problems: with ocean currents, lots of plastic ends up on the shores of Zanzibar but the island has no recycling facilities. Additionally, in the greater scheme of things the islanders have to deal with, managing plastic ocean pollution isn’t very high on the list. Students had to map out local people’s issues versus the local authorities’ priorities and come up with science-based suggestions.

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“The Monsoon School taught me how to work with different groups and think out of the box, and how to be prepared for handling tasks after my master’s degree”

Monsoon School, preparing for the future

The groups had until Spring to write up their (10-20 page) reports with all their scientific findings. They already had to present findings as a policy brief in Zanzibar to the local communities (including the Head of the village and the District head), the local experts, alumni, and their own peers. It was part of the learning process for them to again emulate real life situations where you have a multi-faceted audience in terms of knowledge and culture, so they had to adapt their discourse, approach and attitudes. They had to be a scientist with their own expertise but a communicator setting out to help solve problems.

Of course, running such a course in a distant location comes with its own climate impact. The organisers are well aware of this, so they ensure they calculate their group’s carbon footprint and set it off through voluntary donations from students which are met by the programme itself. The total amount is invested in the Mikoko Pamoja project, an externally certified community-led mangrove carbon offsetting project in nearby Gazi, in Southern Kenya.

The first Monsoon School was a hit from all perspectives. As Rey Harvey Suello, one of the participating students, sums up:

“Being a budding scientist, the Monsoon School was a perfect simulation of the real-world scenarios that I will be most likely subjected to in the near future. Additionally, it also provided me with an excellent opportunity to be immersed in a different but very beautiful set-up”

Other students noted:

“The Monsoon School taught me how to work with different groups and think out of the box, and how to be prepared for handling tasks after my master’s degree”

“The Monsoon School taught me that before any project is done, local communities should be included”

“The Monsoon School met my expectations… I wanted to gain more experience in social ecological studies because I’ve always been focused on hard science, and never had the chance to take into account social problems which are lying behind an environmental problem”

With this excellent feedback from those who participated it is upwards and onwards to next year’s Monsoon School, clearly!