An Epic Walk
On January 10, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek set off on an epic 21,000-mile, seven-year walk around the world. His Out of Eden Walk attempts to retrace the migratory pathways of our early human ancestors, as discernible from the archaeological record and the emerging science of genography. Project Zero, a research organization at the Ed School, is developing an online learning community to accompany this walk — a community in which school children from around the world come together to follow Salopek's momentous journey and use it as a touchstone to learn about history, each other, and themselves. National Geographic is supporting Salopek in the field and publishing his reporting in real time as online dispatches, with additional support from the Knight Foundation and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Excerpts that appear here are used with permission from National Geographic.
January 24, 2013 Herto Bouri, Ethiopia, 10°17'12'' N, 40°31'55'' E "Where are you walking?" the Afar nomads ask. "North. To Djibouti." (We do not say Tierra del Fuego. It is much too far — it is meaningless.) "Are you crazy? Are you sick?" In reply, Ahmed Alema Hessan - wiry and energetic, the ultimate go-to man, a charming rogue, my guide and protector through the blistering Afar Triangle — doubles over and laughs. He leads our micro-caravan: two skinny camels. I have listened to his guffaw many times already. This project is, to him, a punch line — a cosmic joke. To walk for seven years! Across three continents! Enduring hardship, loneliness, uncertainty, fear, exhaustion, confusion — all for a rucksack's worth of ideas, palaver, scientific and literary conceits. He enjoys the absurdity of it.
Paul Salopek's starting point was Herto Bouri, in Ethiopia's heat-drenched Rift Valley, where fossils of three of the world's suspected oldest human beings have been found. From there he crossed the arduous Afar desert, accompanied by three local guides and camels laden with supplies, including laptop-charging solar panels. Hundreds of miles later, he entered Djibouti, from where he boarded a ferry packed with bleating sheep and goats to cross the Red Sea. In July, when this article was written, he was inching up the Saudi Arabian coastline. Over the next few years he will travel on foot across the Middle East and Central Asia before catching a boat across the Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska. He will then walk down the entire length of the west coast of the Americas, ending his journey in Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia — the last corner of the continental world to be settled by humans approximately 12,000 years ago.
As he walks, Salopek is using our deep past as a sounding board for interpreting contemporary issues and assessing where we have come in our unfolding human story. A key goal of the project is to generate foot-level reporting or "slow journalism," which Salopek views as a counterpoint to the relentless 24-hour news media to which we have become accustomed. By slowly walking from place to place, he aims to connect the dots between local, often invisible, stories and to get a more thoughtful reading of where we might be headed collectively. As he explained to NPR, "after jetting around the world as a foreign correspondent, after flying into stories, after driving into them, helicoptering in, even, I thought about what it would be like to walk between stories. Not just to see the stories we were missing by flying over them, but to understand the connective tissue of all the major stories of our day." From Ethiopia, for example, he reported on the desperate flow of migrants seeking to flee Africa, the still ubiquitous presence of Kalashnikov rifles, and the proliferation of cell phones. Salopek is also the consummate storyteller. Besides concerning himself with one of the biggest stories of all — the overarching story of our species — he collects stories about the lives of people he encounters along his way, including, every 100 miles, a video interview with the nearest human being. He also engages readers in the story of his own Out of Eden journey, through his "dispatches," replete with its trials and tribulations, as well as moments of beauty, poignancy, and poetry.
February 26, 2013 Near Asaita, Ethiopia, 11°48'38" N, 41°24'38" E There is something comforting about traveling with large animals. Their honest bigness, their extraordinary power, when moving in tandem with your own punier step, can buck up your spirits on the trail. It seems as if animals, too, have thrown in their lot with your journey. An absurd conceit. (Nobody ever asked a beast of burden its opinion about carrying our loads.) But the sense of cross-species solidarity is hard to shake.
How did Project Zero throw in its lot with Salopek and his journey? In the spring of 2012, Salopek, was based at Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism on a three-month fellowship to plan the Out of Eden Walk. While at Harvard, Salopek took full advantage of the surrounding community of experts, consulting with anthropologists, archeologists, geographers, and the like. He also began thinking about the broader legacy of his walk and how he might reach out to younger generations.
Salopek sent an email to several Ed School faculty, including Project Zero's director, Lecturer Shari Tishman, Ed.D.'91, seeking to start a conversation about the educational potential of his walk. Tishman was naturally intrigued. She also thought of my research interests. I am a former history teacher and have been associated with Project Zero over the past 11 years. At that time, I was finishing my doctoral thesis at the Ed School: an investigation into the ways in which 16- to 18-year-olds use the past to talk about their own lives, identities, and values. I was also conducting a follow-up study that sought to apply some of my research findings to actual curriculum development — with a view to making history and social studies education more engaging and personally relevant for teenage youth. This online project, called Personal Reflective Spaces in the History and Social Studies Classroom, involved three schools in Australia, Canada, and the United States; some of the activities I developed have been incorporated into the Out of Eden project. However, the scale and scope of what we are now doing, with me serving as project manager and Tishman and Carrie James as coprincipal investigators, far surpasses anything I could have imagined.
Salopek's efforts to engage a world audience in big questions about our collective humanity and to try to connect the dots between isolated news stories sit well with Project Zero's educational philosophy. As an organization, we have a long track record of promoting learning experiences that foster deep and meaningful understandings of the world. We are particularly focused right now on what learning looks like in our rapidly changing contemporary context.
April 2, 2013 Near the Gagade Plain, Djibouti, 11°32'54'' N, 42°12'28'' E Winter in the desert of Djibouti. The sun does not shine equally for all. By nine a.m., the thermometer pegs 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius). I begin to stew in my sweat. The Afar guides, meanwhile, shiver under shirts, sweaters, scarves. Mohamed Youssef, a cameleer, zips himself inside a Tom Tailor brand parka from China. The only uncomplaining one is Madoita, the lead camel. He is both warmed and shaded by a $600 blanket of photovoltaic silicon cells. He is a belching, furry, ambulatory wall plug for my satellite phone. We take turns cleaning the dust from these cells with a cloth. A new chore on an ancient caravan trail: wiping down your solar camel.
Just as Salopek often found diversity all around him, even in how differently the guides reacted to the weather, we, too, looked for diversity when we started to test pilot materials in the spring of 2013. Our small group of schools were a somewhat eclectic mix in terms of age, gender, socioeconomic background, and geographic location, with schools in Australia, Canada, India, Kenya, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Students ranged from sixth to 11th grade. (This fall, we are launching a new platform that is open to all schools and students around the world, free of charge.) Through our project, young people following Salopek's journey exchange stories with other young people around the world. Online, they are also invited to reflect on how they fit into the wider world and our unfolding human story — one important facet of becoming more informed, thoughtful, and engaged "global citizens."
In an age where like-minded people often find each other on the Internet, we believe it is important that young people have the opportunity to learn with and from youth who are growing up in very different circumstances to themselves — both to appreciate others' perspectives as well as to uncover potential and perhaps surprising similarities among themselves and others.
For our pilot study, we used Edmodo, the equivalent of Facebook designed for schools. We posted a sequence of weekly activities for our participants to complete. Some students completed them during class time, others at home as part of their coursework, while others did them on a voluntary basis as an extracurricular activity. The first activities invited students to replicate what Salopek was doing at the local level: Sketching maps of their neighborhoods, going for a walk and taking photos, and interviewing someone. Another activity challenged students to think about global connections and the provenance and design of everyday objects. Students read each other's work and left comments for one another. They also completed private check-ins to help them process what they were learning.
June 11, 2013 Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 24°42'46"N, 46°40'25"E I buy two male camels, five and seven years old, to walk with me out of Saudi Arabia. I find them at a cattle souk close to my starting line in the Arabian Peninsula, the coastal city of Jeddah. Or rather: Fares and Seema have found them for me. Dust. Dung. Wranglers hooting in rickety corrals. I am transported instantly back to Africa. I am back in my element. The sellers are bemused Sudanese. We haggle inside a canvas tent. It requires 14 glasses of tea to seal the deal. (My purchase has saved these two beasts, I suspect, from a fate worse than carrying my spare socks through the Nefud desert: Their fur is clotted with yellow paint applied by the meat graders at the port's stockyard.)
Salopek cuts a heroic figure, and for many young people (and adults), his walk is inspiring. Many students expressed their incredulity that he is devoting seven years of his life to this project; they will be grown adults by the time he reaches the end of his journey. In an age when many children — at least in the West — have limited ability to roam around, many of them marvel at the intrepid nature of his walk. Students enjoy feeling a special connection to "Paul," and their engagement, in turn, buoys him as he walks. In a special audio message for the students, he commented:
I may be the guy who's burning through most of the walking boots, but I want to thank you for working so hard on these prompts and I'm delighted to have you along on the walk. And I want to thank you too for allowing me to join you, for a little while, along your own trails. Onward.
Salopek's journey serves as an anchor for all our learning activities. Students follow his progress via the walk's website, and we incorporate his journalism into our activities. He also serves as a sounding board. At the request of students who desired a greater connection, Salopek began creating short, tailor-made audio recordings for the students. For example, he shared tips about effective interviewing. He also recorded his thoughts about what "culture" means to him. Using the metaphor of a river, Salopek described culture as constantly flowing, mixing, restless, and alive. Students posted thoughtful follow-up questions; Salopek then wrote responses to a selection of these questions.
More fundamentally, however, we asked students to embrace Salopek's brand of journalism, to slow down and be more contemplative. Most students reported that they enjoyed walking in their neighborhood and trying to view it with fresh eyes. As Tamerslain from Mumbai wrote, "I've been staying there for the past six years, but what I learned in that one walk is probably more than what I learned in the past six years."
January 25, 2013 Yangudi Rassa National Park, Ethiopia, 10°33'12.9'' N, 40°21'30.5'' E Ahmed Alema Hessan, the 60-year-old balabat, or leader, of the Bouri Modaito clan of the Afar in Ethiopia, hasn't driven camels for more than 30 years. The start of this walk is a journey of rediscovery for both of us. He tries to recall the complicated harness roping of his youth. And I struggle to apply, once more, the skills of mule packing learned in childhood Mexico. As often happens in this part of the world, people materialize out of the desert void to help us. They mock our clumsy handiwork and rebalance our loads. Most walk along for awhile, exchanging news at a murmur before padding away, so quietly that by the time I'm aware of their absence, they're often mere squiggles on the horizon.
For many students, having the chance to interact with other youth from around the world has been the most powerful aspect of the project. Diana from Massachusetts noted, "This was definitely a worthwhile experience because I learned so much about something that cannot simply be taught in a classroom." Salopek's walk is built on the premise that as human beings, we are fundamentally connected to one another — both by our collective past and by our shared present and future. Our learning community serves as a space where young people can explore the ways in which their own life journeys are similar yet also unique compared to those of other young people growing up in very different contexts. Given their age, they are developmentally primed to consider big questions about who they are and how they fit into the rest of the world. In this sense, we are inviting students to "walk" together to help one another grapple with major questions concerning their identities and lives.
March 15, 2013 Trail camp near Howle, Ethiopia, 11°42'58" N, 41°48'8" E What is it like to walk through the world? It is mornings like these: Opening your eyes to nothing but seamless sky for day after day; a pale, numinous void that for one fleeting instant when you first awake, seems to suck you upward, out of yourself, out of your body. It is the clean hollowness of hunger, a lightness that seems blown through by the wind, the way an empty pipe is blown, to make it whistle. (We trekked 18 miles yesterday on short rations, on a single bowl of noodles and a handful of biscuits each. My wedding ring, once tight, jiggles loosely along my finger.) It is learning to interrogate landscapes with your eyes for camel fodder, for wind direction (dust), for wood, and of course for water — an antique power resides in this. And it is watching the vastness of Africa slip by at a walking pace and coming to realize dimly that, even at three miles per hour, you are still moving too fast. It is the journey shared.
I have mentioned that this project builds on a follow-up study related to my dissertation that experimented with "personal reflective spaces." Like Salopek often does with his dispatches, students reflect on their own positions within the world and our unfolding human story. For example, students were asked to draw diagrams or pictures to explain how our human history is connected to who they are and the lives they are living or expect to live. The exercise became more powerful when they looked at other students' diagrams and then reflected on how these diagrams were similar or different to their own.
A striking initial finding from our surveys and interviews was the personalized nature of what students took away from their learning journeys with Out of Eden. It is ultimately a space where young people can explore their own stories or observations, reflect on what they have learned, and then draw their own conclusions about the world around them and their place within it.
As we look ahead, we are designing a customized platform that will enable many more students from around the world to engage with Out of Eden. This fall, we are also organizing online "walking parties" to enable clusters of classes or afterschool groups from around the world to take part in a learning journey together — in a manner similar to our pilot study. Individual young people, including those being homeschooled, will be invited to become honorary members of larger groups. Students will also be able to virtually drop in to do activities directly related to Salopek's current location and reporting. At Project Zero, we may not be physically walking alongside Salopek, but we are on a learning journey of our own.
— Liz Dawes Duraisingh is an adjunct lecturer and project manager at Project Zero.