Dancing with Life

Posted on January 13th, 2011 by

Written by Megan Gode ’10

Cindy Johnson with students on a safari in Tanzania. (photo submitted)

I am a professor of biology. Teaching is my calling, my passion and love. It is through teaching that I am freest to express my true self. I can play. Teaching is a playful dance staged in the wonders of biology. As the student learns the steps, the dance becomes a thing of beauty. Teacher and student, both rise to new ideas, inspirations and questions. The probing is deep and the awe is profound. The dance contains elements of a spiritual quest for a deep connection to one another and to the study of life.  –Cindy Johnson (blog entry)

The Fulbright scholarship provides an academician with an educational exchange opportunity that works to promote an increased understanding between the United States and other countries.  Gustavus’ very own Professor of Biology, Cindy Johnson, received a Fulbright scholarship to teach and conduct research in Tanzania for the ‘09-10 academic year.

Tanzania has become a place of knowledge for Cindy; seeing as she’s been leading a January course there since 1996.  Cindy always joked that one day she would write a book that would do justice to her subject matter.  With this dream taking on a sudden reality, Cindy was approved by the Fulbright committee to begin writing her book, Conservation Biology of Tanzania, an in-depth look at the ecology and conservation biology of Tanzania.

Once finished, her completed efforts will serve as a textbook for short-term travel courses, an introduction for long-term travel courses, and a reference to those in the ecotourism and safari industry.  However, Cindy’s main goal is to promote an awareness of the difficulty, urgency and complexity of issues relating to the conservation of biological resources in northern Tanzania.

In September 2009, Cindy made the journey to Tanzania with her daughter Mara, who will graduate from Gustavus in ’13. The two moved to the small town of Mweka, northern Tanzania- 15km from Moshi, a town that sits on the shoulders of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  In addition to completing her book, Cindy teaches at the College of African Wildlife Management, an institution that focuses on wildlife management and tourism.

Her experiences are not only touching the academic scope, they go down to a much more personal and emotional level. “Living in a different culture has changed me in ways I have yet to understand.  I have learned many things about myself and this culture,” says Cindy, “I am learning to laugh more, accept what comes my way, and dance with life more than ever before.”

As Cindy has gained such valuable insight from her experience, she hopes to pay it forward to her students in Tanzania.  “In the US we are taught from a young age to dream.  We are encouraged to strive for our dreams and be all we can be.  In Tanzania, the realities of life prevail and dreams are largely viewed as unachievable and simply dreams.  I have tried to help students here see their dreams first and the barriers secondly.   I hope I have inspired some,” says Cindy.

Therefore, in wanting others to realize their dreams and pursue their true passions, Cindy reminds us to push ourselves, but still maintain a zest for life: “Be open to new ideas!  Try new things!  Push yourself into places and situations that are new and even uncomfortable.  We grow and stretch our abilities when we try new things.  Reach out to others and listen to their dreams.  Learn from them.  Follow your heart and let your passions emerge.  While you’re waiting for those passions to emerge, kick up your heels and have fun!  Laugh hard, work hard, play hard and don’t take yourself too seriously.”

Following her own advice, Cindy has extended her time in Tanzania, as she received notice that her Fulbright grant has been renewed for a second year.  She had always wanted to do something different with her sabbatical, and the people she’s met and the cultural experiences she’s had, have all culminated into an unbelievable adventure- she can’t wait to able to continue her journey for another year.

Cindy will return to Gustavus in September 2011.  For those of you interested, Cindy will be taking students on a camping Safari to Tanzania in January of 2012!

I can think of no other dance I’d rather do. I am a teacher of biology and a student of life and death. I’ve learned many new steps in this dance. It is an eternal celebration of the relationship between teacher and student, mentor and mentee, elder and youth, parent and child; a celebration of life and all that we have to learn about living and dying. To dance is to embrace life, to honor the sacred. Our time is brief, the music is sweet, let us dance.  –Cindy Johnson (blog entry)



  1. Safari Tanzania says:

    It sounds like an excellent opportunity for both Cindy and the students which join her on safari this time next year.

    Are the parks they will be visiting decided yet? Is it going to be a tour of the more popular Northern circuit parks (Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater), or will they be straying further South in search of a more ‘authentic’ safari experience to Selous and its surrounding parks and reserves?

  2. Evan Hazard, Prof. Emeritus of Biology, Bemidji State Univ. says:

    It is gratifying to see one my former students doing so well as a college teacher and scientist. It is has been a joy to maintain contact with Cindy and several others (U. Miss. and Southern IL come to mind) who are making their mark in academe. If Cindy has not already experienced that joy, I expect she someday will. Peace.

  3. Cindy says:

    The camping class safari will take in the northern parks (Tarangire, Ngorongoro, Arusha, Serengeti) and also it will include time with the Hazabe, a tribe of hunters and gathers. It will also include some time at the beach (Pangani) for some awesome snorkling and beach combing! It is a great opportunity for students to see some of the most amazing ecosystems on this planet and to interact with a very different culture.

  4. Cindy says:

    There is much joy in my job!!! Today I am leaving to climb Kilimanjaro! I look forward to seeing the endemic plants (Lobelia and Senecio), found no where else in this world other than Kilimanjaro.

  5. Marketing and Communication says:

    Cindy would like everyone to know that this is her blog and you can follow her on there: http://tanzania2010-2011.blogspot.com/. Thanks for reading and keep checking back!

  6. Cindy says:

    I made it to the top of Kilimanjaro, 5895 m., highest peak in Africa and tallest freestanding mountain in the world! Plants were awesome! Read the blog for full details.

  7. Scholastica Ponera says:

    Cindy, you sound a great mentor. Great to read of the time your dreams began and where you are heading with a distant sound of music. Since you are just at Mweka would you try to visit the Southern parks of Tanzania, especially the Ruaha and Udzungwa Mountains National Parks and Selous Game Reserve, you may create different steps into your dancing style. I am a tour operator but a conservationist in heart. You have touched me. I would be more delighted to read about your works and travels around Tanzania.