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African reforestation grows hope


The Precision Air twin turboprop was about to make its final approach to the Kigoma Airport, a thin, red ribbon of dirt tucked amid the clay hills on the west shore of Tanzania’s Lake Tanganyika.

The plane left the shoreline behind, swinging wide over the waters of a lake so big its shoreline touches four different countries. Fortunately, Mary Schott, BS’84, was a seasoned flier, so the bumpy, noisy three-hour flight from the capital city of Dar es Salaam hadn’t fazed her.

Mary Schott had to acquire permits from the Tanzanian and U.S. governments to bring tree seeds to the United States.

Photo by Tom Campbell

Mary Schott had to acquire permits from the Tanzanian and U.S. governments to bring tree seeds to the United States. She is now growing a collection of the threatened Afzelia quanzensis trees (pod mahogany) in a Purdue greenhouse.

After all, her husband, Tom, was an Air Force captain before being discharged in 1992. After marrying in 1984, their lives had hopscotched from base to base stateside, then overseas. One of their four children, Katie, was born on the air-base at Zweibrücken, Germany.

Mary had flown in just about everything with wings, so the duct tape on the seats and seat belts didn’t worry her on that January day in 2009. Nor did the fact that the seats didn’t seem to be bolted securely to the floor.

Schott had spent most of her life waiting for this day. This lumpy, bumpy plane was carrying more than passengers; it was carrying her hopes and dreams.

Out the tiny, scratchy window, Schott spotted the tiny fishing village of Kalalangambo and the smoke of a hundred distant fires that would be her ultimate destination. The murky, brown waters of the lake gave way to azure tones of the deeper waters as the plane flew further from the shore before turning to line up with the runway. The adjacent terminal, Schott thought, looked no bigger than the McDonald’s restaurant in her hometown.

Schott had only seen Kalalangambo and its denuded hillsides with GPS maps on her home computer, the one with the message “Your dream is not big enough if it does not scare you” taped to it. Now, the real village, not the pixilated computer image, was stretching out and coming to life before her eyes.

Schott has established a nursery in Kigoma, Tanzania

Photo by Mary Schott

Schott has established a nursery in Kigoma, Tanzania, as part of a reforestation protocol to reestablish threatened trees.

Three weeks. Alone. In Africa. This dream was big enough to scare anyone.

Schott had led a good and full life. She married her college sweetheart, Tom, and raised four children with him. She traveled the world and returned home to Attica, Ind., a town of 3,500 people on the banks of the Wabash River, to live in a house that her mother, Ariel, designed and her father, grandfather and uncles built. It was the house she lived in as a child.

“It was the first time we ever moved,” Schott said, “where I actually knew where the light switches were located.”

The seeds, which grow in pods to more than an inch in length, eventually dry up and fall off the young trees.

Photo by Tom Campbell

The seeds, which grow in pods to more than an inch in length, eventually dry up and fall off the young trees.

It was a comfortable life. Schott worked mornings so she could be home when her kids – Amy, now 24; Katie, 21; and twins William and Ryan, 17 – got home from school.

“I was dedicated to being a stay-at-home mom. We moved so much we thought the kids needed the continuity of having someone at home when they were there,” Schott said.

Sure, she was putting her Purdue degree to work, performing progeny trials and doing genetic research for Arbor America, a hardwood timber research and investment company 10 miles from her home. She even thought about going back to school to become a more effective researcher.

She took a couple of courses to see if pursuing a master’s degree would be something she could do. But there was something missing. Both Mary and Tom knew there was something in her future, something big, but neither knew exactly what it was.

“From the first day I met her (in a Comm 114 speech class at Purdue in August 1982), I knew she was destined for something very profound in her life,” her husband said. “Everything about her indicated to me there was something far greater for her than just to lead a ‘normal’ life.”

Maybe the look in her father’s eyes held a clue. There was a level of excitement and wonderment there every time he told tales of his visits to Africa.


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