“Follow the Things that Light You Up”: The Unconventional Life of Cat Jaffee ’08

Cat Jaffee holds a microphone and leans toward a man holding a fishing net.
Image credit: National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project
Author  E.B. Bartels ’10
Published on 

“My friends joke that my life sounds like a game of Mad Libs,” says Cat Jaffee ’08. “‘Honey hunter in eastern Turkey’ and ‘podcaster in rural Angola’ sound like made-up jobs.” But Jaffee has been both, as well as a rural-development business owner, a Fulbright scholar, a communications director, and a National Geographic Explorer grantee. “There is no way I would have led such an unconventional life without the opportunities I had at Wellesley,” she says.

Jaffee arrived at Wellesley in fall 2005 after transferring from New York University: “You can live in a city the rest of your life, but you can only go to college once,” she says. She wanted a small liberal arts college and access to “all the fellowships, all the cool programs, all the unique opportunities I’d never get to have at another point in my life.”

On campus, Jaffee was the captain of the crew team and a member of Wellesley’s improv group Dead Serious, alongside Ali Barthwell ’10 and Claire Ayoub ’11. Jaffee credits Dead Serious with teaching her how to be a creative problem solver: “When you do improv with a group of women-identifying people, that means every character in every sketch is played by a woman. You need someone to play the president of the United States? It’s going to be a woman. A terrorist? A woman. A serial killer? Also a woman. You get to play all the parts, and imagine yourself in roles that you might not normally have.”

But it was her off-campus experiences while at Wellesley that changed the course of Jaffee’s life: She spent the summer of 2007 in rural Japan as a Luce Scholar and traveled to Bihar, India, for the fall semester of her junior year, where she lived and studied in a Buddhist monastery. “I meditated six hours a day and learned about the philosophy of the mind, and studied with all these different monks,” she says. “When else in your life do you get to do something like that other than during college?”

Those experiences got her interested in how stories, religions, and politics move through regions based on human migration. After graduating with a double major in political science and religion, she received a Fulbright scholarship to study this topic in Turkey. There, she interviewed conservative farming women who had moved from rural areas to cities and become leaders in local politics, then she returned to their home villages to try to understand how their migration experiences had affected their identities.

During that time, Jaffee also fell in love with honey. Many of the rural, nearly abandoned villages in Turkey she traveled to had been taken over by migratory beekeepers, and Jaffee began to study and document them. Soon, she was applying for more grants and funding, and she ended up spending five years in Turkey studying bees and beekeepers. She even began her own business, Balyolu: The Honey Road, a honey-tasting trekking company that supported women entrepreneurs in local villages.

Jaffee returned to the United States in 2014 as the political situation in Turkey was becoming less stable. Once she was back, she felt depressed and lost. “I had developed all these really specific skills,” Jaffee says. “While many of my friends had learned how to live in cool apartments, or find partners and have kids, or develop careers, I could differentiate different kinds of honey and speak Turkish fluently. I could barter and hustle in several very specific regional languages. I could repair a car on the side of the road and jump borders easily. But I didn’t know how to be part of conventional American society.”

She shuffled through various communications jobs that didn’t feel right. Eventually she quit, and she spent several months living out of her car, training to be an EMT, and driving around listening to podcasts.

Podcasts became Jaffee’s next focus: “I just knew I had to make this medium.” But Jaffee was frustrated by the high cost of entry into the podcast world—the expensive equipment, the need for a quiet studio space, the cost of all the software—plus the fact that the industry was dominated by white, cis men. Jaffee herself is financially privileged; her father died when she was young, and with the inheritance he left her, she bought property in her home state of Colorado that she turned into a duplex and rented out starting in 2016.

“Creativity can happen when there is some level of stability,” Jaffee explains. “I’m really privileged, I know, but I think what makes privilege icky is what you do or don’t do with it.” Jaffee wanted to both make podcasts herself and help others create them, so in 2018 she started House of Pod, a full-service production center in Denver where anyone can come to make a podcast accessibly. She also opened a podcast incubator there for people whose voices are underrepresented in media who want to break into the field.

In addition to running House of Pod, Jaffee produced podcasts for Rocky Mountain PBS, SAPIENS magazine, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, among others. In 2019, she was awarded another National Geographic Explorer Storytelling grant, and this time she traveled to eastern Angola to record the story of the Okavango water system. For four months, she lived with a caravan of 35 scientists who were surveying wildlife in a part of Angola that had been closed to the public for decades. Slogging through peat bogs to record bats, avoiding landmines, stocking up on enough gas and food to last for months, hanging off the back of trucks while holding out her microphone, and hearing people’s stories—Jaffee was back in her element.

But it was a tough four months: Jaffee felt sicker and sicker, and by the time she flew back to Colorado in February 2020, she could barely walk and had a massive bulge in her side. After several doctors dismissed her concerns, a physician who had spent time in Sierra Leone happened to treat Jaffee in the ER. He quickly figured out that Jaffee had malaria and dengue fever; later on, after a surgery gone wrong, Jaffee was also diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

“While many folks were making sourdough, my COVID project was trying not to die,” Jaffee says. She spent the early months of the pandemic recovering from surgery and undergoing chemo. During an already isolating time, Jaffee was even more isolated due to her cancer treatment.

Still, Jaffee kept working on her podcast project. She sorted through the thousands of hours of tape she had recorded in Angola, and she pieced together eight episodes, finding connection by working with sound designers and composers. She released Guardians of the River in summer 2021, and the series won the 2021 best narrative nonfiction podcast award at theTribeca Film Festival and the Jackson Wild Media Award in the podcast category. Jaffee published the final episode on the one-year anniversary of completing chemo treatment; her cancer has since entered into remission. Now, she is working with the Wild Bird Trust to have the podcast episodes translated into Portuguese and Tswana, and distributed to radio stations in Angola and Botswana.

And after that, who knows? “We need to have imagination and creativity if we are going to make our way in the world,” Jaffee says. “You have to follow the things that light you up.”