From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
On the Cover
Chris Conte and Domingos Muala

History professor Chris Conte (left) recruited Domingos Muala (right) to Utah State to learn how understanding a place’s environmental history is necessary for preserving its future.

A Place for History

By Kristen Munson

The Mountain was made by Mulungu, by God. All of us, even those who can walk only with a stick, or have to be carried, found the Mountain here. It was made before our ancestors were born when all the land here was created.
—excerpt from Tales from Gorongosa

Chris Conte boarded a plane for a six-week tour of Africa in 2011. His itinerary included stops in remote sections of Mozambique and Tanzania where some of the world’s most ecologically diverse landscapes are in jeopardy. Conte, an environmental history professor at Utah State, went to observe conservation efforts underway. In order for indigenous people to be stakeholders, he argues they need to be a part of the process.

“Some of the best development projects come out of local innovations,” Conte said. “If you want to do conservation then you must know an area’s environmental history. It explains how these landscapes have changed over time. It helps us understand the restoration and degradation processes. What was the cause of degradation? How did people rebuild these landscapes in the past? That history is rarely told.”

He traveled to the outskirts of Tanzania to the fledgling Gombe School for Environment and Society (GOSESO) where its founder Yared Fubusa, PhD ‘10, has spent much of the past decade securing public support and private funding to build a school in his hometown. He established it to promote environmental stewardship in the region by fostering grassroots conservation initiatives and economic sustainability. Conte served as a faculty advisor to Fubusa at Utah State and is now a member of the school’s International Advisory Board. He got involved because it was a cause he could get behind.

“I have been going to East Africa for a long time; it’s nice to see homegrown initiatives—they work a lot better,” he said.

He also visited Gorongosa National Park, a wildlife refuge in the Great African Rift Valley that was once one of Africa’s most biologically diverse habitats and a hotspot for celebrities. However, when civil war broke out in 1977, millions of Mozambicans were displaced. Some fled to the rainforest on Mount Gorongosa, a 6,100 foot peak rising out of floodplains of the park, to hideout from the rebel political group Renamo that used the area as a military encampment. During the 16-year conflict, a majority of its large mammals were slaughtered for food by militants and local populations.

“They killed just about everything,” Conte said.

While two decades have passed since the signing of the peace accord, bullet holes still mar the side of park headquarters in Chitengo and serve as a reminder of what happened there, Conte said. He went to Gorongosa to enlist a local person to document its past and to witness ongoing restoration efforts spurred by Greg C. Carr, ’82, an alumnus of the history department who has partnered with the Mozambican government to rehabilitate the park.

Carr amassed much of his wealth in the field of telecommunications after co-founding Boston Technology Inc.—a global communications firm that specialized in voicemail technology, and chairing the early online service provider Prodigy in the late ’90s. However, Carr stepped down from his for-profit ventures in 1999 to devote himself full-time to humanitarian work. The restoration of Gorongosa is a long-term investment for him. Carr’s philanthropic organization, the Carr Foundation, has pledged 20 years and millions more in funding to assist the project.

Conte kept a travel diary during his tour of Africa. The following is from an entry of his visit to Gorongosa:

Violence has played a central role in the park’s history, as it has for many parks in eastern and southern Africa. A history of Gorongosa must account for how violence has contributed to transformations in land use and land cover. My purpose in visiting Gorongosa was to identify a potential Mozambican student who might be able to write such a history. I have succeeded.

The person he found was Domingos Muala, a communications officer at Gorongosa National Park who serves as an interpreter and conduit between the organization and local communities. He understands the interests of the park and the people who have lived on the land when it was a sanctuary from war. He is a former teacher in the region.

“When I met Domingos I thought to myself: ‘this person is unique in the world,’” said Carr. “He was born and raised in a remote Mozambican mountain community, speaks the local language and is immersed in its culture. Yet, he pursued an international education. As such, he understands Western Civilization, can quote our philosophers, knows our history. He is also fluent in English and Portuguese. As such, he is the ideal bridge between these two cultures. He is full of compassion, understanding and good will.”

Conte calls Muala “a healer” of sorts. Locals still refer to him as “teacher.” He may need to be both.


Greg Carr

Humanitarian Greg Carr, ’82, has partnered with the Mozambican government to restore its flagship national park.

‘A Spectacular Park’

The first boundaries of Gorongosa were drawn nearly a century ago as a 1,000 kilometer hunting preserve. The Mozambican government declared Gorongosa a national park in 1960 and was a draw for tourists around the world to view one of Africa’s densest concentrations of large mammals. But decades of violent conflict and poaching decimated animal populations by upwards of 90 percent by the turn of the century. The opportunity for revival came in 2004 when Carr was invited to join the Mozambican government on a project to create jobs in rural areas of the country. He visited Goronogosa and saw its potential to boost sectors, including ecotourism, conservation, education, and park administration.

“This is a spectacular park and it could become one of the best in Africa with some assistance,” Carr wrote in Gorongosa’s guest book. His foundation became that assistance through the Gorongosa Restoration Project.

In 2008, he signed a 20-year agreement with the government of Mozambique to restore the ecology of the park and jointly manage sustainable development of Gorongosa and its buffering communities. Afterward Carr is to walk away from park operations. However, for the effort to be successful, it has to be run by Africans, he said. They have to be invested in it.

“A healthy environment and healthy people are interconnected,” Carr said. “The people of Mt. Gorongosa cannot keep their families together if they cannot earn a livelihood on the land that they love. For that land to continue to give blessings, they’ll need to implement the principles of conservation agriculture and sustainable use of all natural resources.”

Each year, 20 percent of park entrance fees are distributed to surrounding communities for development projects such as the building of schools and health centers. Park officials have made hiring local personnel a priority. Ninety-nine percent of the employees of the restoration project are Mozambican, Carr said. Wildlife populations have begun to rebound after buffalo, elephants, wildebeest, and hippos were reintroduced to the preserve. The tourists have also returned. However, the effort is not without setbacks. After Mt. Gorongosa was annexed into the park’s boundaries, some residents set fire to a hillside in protest of rumors that they would be pushed out.

In October, leaders of Renamo set up camp outside their former stronghold after taking issue with their representation in the Mozambican government. During a follow up trip in 2012, the situation around the park was tenuous, Conte said. He witnessed as area police and militants began carrying weapons. Conte hiked Mt. Gorongosa with Muala and saw the burned hillside.

“It’s a message: ‘don’t come here,’” Conte said. “All the restoration work could be reversed in a short period of time. How do you save these amazingly beautiful places? People have to eat.”

Much of the land outside the park has been deforested with much of the wood headed to China. Muala led Conte to the site of an abandoned gold mining operation where a nearby riverbed was contaminated with mercury. The scene disturbed Conte. In his retelling of the story, he recalls looking at the churned soil and asking Muala whether the site could ever be healed.

Absolutely! he replied.

“I’m still not convinced, but I think that’s the kind of attitude that’s necessary,” Conte said.

Both men sit in Conte’s office at Utah State discussing Muala’s studies. He is a full head shorter than his professor and has a tendency to laugh easily. Conte is harder to tease out a smile. When asked how he could assist restoration efforts in the region, he was candid about his limitations and motivations.

“I am not involved in research there; I’m interested in getting the local people involved,” he said. “My role is to find people like Domingos. I can’t do something, but he can. The solution has to come from Mozambique. Once we find someone like that we have to help them.”

There may be something else at play. Recruiting Muala and assisting him in his graduate study may be Conte’s way of clearing an outstanding debt. He is the author of Highland Sanctuary: Environmental History in Tanzania’s Usambara Mountains, a book he wrote after spending months in the country gathering the environmental history of the mountains. He did it with the assistance of a local a high school history teacher named Peter Mlimahadala who spoke the five languages necessary to conduct field interviews in the region. The work may not have been possible without him.

“People shared their stories, their lives with me,” Conte said. “I just took, took, took. I always felt like a bit of a carpetbagger. With Domingos, I feel like I’m giving back. And I feel good about that. When I met him, it was obvious to me that he should be doing graduate study.”

He will advise Muala on a project to complete the environmental history of Gorongosa National Park that will include the oral history of local populations for public display. It is continuation of work Muala has already been performing in the region for years. When the two first met, Muala showed Conte a copy of Tales from Gorongosa, a collection of stories he collected and translated from local populations about the mountain they call home. The Carr Foundation published it in 2010.

Producing Tales from Gorongosa was important to Muala to connect the people living in and around the park to the land. When he was first hired at Gorongosa, he began researching its history using the books available in the office. But the more Muala read, the more he noticed something was missing.

“Scarcely you would see a paragraph on local people,” he said. “There was a lot of information about birds and animals and plants, but not about people—and they are part of it.”

Often conservation efforts in Africa do not involve local communities, Conte said. Part of it originates from when the early European explorers first arrived on the continent and saw tracts of open space and an abundance of wildlife. Their accounts did not often include the people already living there and contributed to the idea that Africa was a place untouched by man.

“This is where history has a place,” Conte said. “These are landscapes that have been used for thousands of years. We are trying to dispel the notion that these are pristine places.”


Domingos Muala

Muala travels to the surrounding communities of Gorongosa to gather stories from village elders.

‘An Invaluable Contribution’

There are two seasons in Gorongosa: rainy and dry. After the rains stop, traditional leaders in the surrounding communities hold a mbamba, a ritual blessing of the park and its visitors. In the past, the ceremony was performed before dangerous activities such as hunting or travel. It maintains a community’s ties to the dead by channeling the ancestor spirits to protect those involved, Muala said. Each year before Gorongosa opens to tourists, the leaders hold a mbamba to bring everyone involved together. Carr goes. Community members attend. So do top government officials. After attending his first mbamba at Gorongosa, Muala began wondering what else these traditional leaders might know about the parkland.

“I thought maybe I could help a little by learning about how this place used to be,” he said.

Muala approached them about sharing their knowledge with him on the weekends. They agreed. Once Carr learned Muala was performing this type of outreach he gave him a stipend to travel to gather more.

“I was thrilled when Domingos showed me the hundreds of pages of local stories and interviews he was collecting,” Carr said. “Very few of those cultural treasures have ever been written down. I felt that he was making an invaluable contribution to those people and also to the whole world to keep this knowledge alive. As Domingos studies environmental history he’ll be in a better position to see and teach from a larger perspective.”

Both Carr and Conte speak of Muala’s ability to transcend cultural boundaries. However, Muala sees himself as something of a collector with a mission.

“There has to be somebody to collect what remained after the years of civil war,” he said.

The communities surrounding Gorongosa were some of the country’s last holdouts to colonialism. They resisted occupation until 1917, Muala said. As the southern portion of the country boomed with new development, central and northern Mozambique remained largely ignored.

“Education was introduced to Gorongosa very, very late,” Muala said. “It was an island.”

The region remained underdeveloped after the civil war. During the conflict, roads to and around the park were destroyed. Building public services such as schools or hospitals seemed out of the question. More than 15 different communities occupy the buffer zone around the park and they are among the most marginalized populations in the country, Muala said.

In 2001, when he arrived to teach in the community of Villa Gorongosa, he had no idea the park existed for the first 18 months he was there. Muala eventually learned of it through his students who told him they would hunt there with their parents—a term he later would understand meant poaching. People outside the park, including himself, bought meat that likely came from animals poached there, he said. “That’s the practice until somebody tells you it’s wrong.”

In a small conference room in Old Main Muala spreads a map of Mozambique on a table. He points to the splotch of green that represents Gorongosa National Park. Muala bows his head while listening, taking each question in before answering. He brings his lips together in a tight smile before answering. He knows the path seems difficult to imagine. But things will be fine. You will see.

“Conservation,” he repeats. “I met that word several times during my study. But it is like seeing someone on the street. I never knew or understood what it meant until I was introduced.”

It is a word you need context for.


‘Things Can Change’

Muala was raised by relatives during the civil war and attended seminary school in the coastal city of Beira. But instead of becoming a friar, he chose to pursue teaching because he learned he was not supposed to be reading things like Nietzsche. And he enjoyed reading Nietzsche. Though Muala left the Franciscan order, he still adheres to many of its tenets.

“We value every living thing from human to the microscopic organism,” he said. “Working in the park is the appropriate place [for me]. I began to understand that conservation was not just about animals and plants, it was also about humans.”

He hopes that his work gathering the local and environmental history can be used to encourage the country’s Ministry of Education to make changes in its curriculum. Perhaps they could include the local African history in addition to that of its colonial past, Muala said.

When Conte pitched the idea of pursuing graduate study at Utah State, Muala liked the idea of learning the theory of environmental history. He believes the experience will benefit him and the local communities because he will be able to do it better. Conte reasons that compiling and teaching the local history is necessary if sustainable conservation efforts stand a chance.

“If you lose that centeredness in a place, in a landscape, then you’re apt to destroy it,” he said. In the communities around Gorgongosa, village elders play important roles. They operate often in parallel with government officials, but hold a different type of authority. They are problem solvers, rainmakers, and medicine men. The elders know the story of the land. They know the labor and generations that has been invested in it over time.

“Somebody like me,” Conte said, “I could never get that type of information.”

Muala can. He has local ties. He has their trust. During Conte’s last visit to the park, Muala took him to Mt. Gorogonsa where they visited tree nurseries and met with community elders. It was not a place Conte could have gone alone. And the stories they shared would not have been repeated without proper respects paid first. For instance, one may need to ask a village elder for permission to enter the community.

“If you know their culture, you know how to get to someone’s house,” Muala said.

Muala has written a second book Voices of Mount Gorongosa about the history of the mountain.

“Local people are very wise in terms of knowledge,” he said. “Most of the local knowledge is stored in the memory. When you lose these people you lose the local encyclopedias.”

He is trying to capture it before the elders pass. And they are passing. Flipping through photographs on his laptop Muala points to various men who died shortly after he interviewed them.

“I am kind of a voice,” he said. “I listen. I take notes and I write the stories down. Then I return them. That’s the purpose of collecting—returning.”

Muala always gives people he interviews a copy of his work–even if they can’t read—because it is their story. And it is changing, as stories are apt to do over time. Gorongosa has been many things to different people. Getting them on the same page will likely produce some friction. Muala suggests educating local communities about the impacts of pollution, poaching, and water management may help alleviate some tension. He believes common interests exist between all.

“This is possible,” Muala said. “I think I am optimistic that things can change. They don’t change on their own. We have to do something and education is of course one of the tools…Working together means understanding wants and needs. The park needs to understand its community and the community needs to understand the park.”

In remote portions of Mozambique, a shift is coming. Elders are dying at the same time area youth are gaining exposure to modern comforts through film. Muala recognizes his work needs to appeal to younger generations who are growing up with a different perspective of the park and what it means to them. They need context for the past. Throughout the year, local children are bused to the community education center at Gorongosa National Park and have their entry fees waived. Otherwise, some could not afford to visit this special place in their own backyard. And they need to come to understand why it needs to be saved.

“When they visit the park it is to teach them,” Muala said. “In the end, in the future, they will be the ones taking over.”