Entomology, chemical ecology, evidence-based environmentalism and science in general. I like big bugs and I cannot lie.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

010609 - No flies on us

One of my non-science related goals for this trip was to see some of
the famous Senegambian stone circles which dot the countryside between
the River Gambia and Senegal's river Saloum. They consist of between
ten and twenty four squat laterite cylinders enclosing a burial area.
Their original architects are a mystery, vanishing from the region
over a thousand years ago before the area's current inhabitants
migrated in, although the decorative tooth notches shared by today's
Jola tribe and the skeletons unearthed within the circles suggest some
continuity of culture. I find it fascinating how so many ancient
civilisations across the world all independently arrived at the idea
of building these monuments. There's obviously something very
deep-seated in the human psyche that has driven wildy disparate
cultures to impose some sort of order on the world around them by
arranging stones into complex geometric patterns. Either that or a
deeply ingrained urge to say "Look at me, I can afford to have bigger
stones dragged about than that bastard in the next village can".

I hadn't expected to see any of the circles until I reached Wali
Kunda, but as we drove out to screen on Monday morning we spotted a
ring of red pillars out of the landrover window. We pleaded with the
driver to stop and take photographs, but he grinned and said just
wait. We pulled into our first screening village, Sinchu Demba, and
as Samuel L requested permission to screen from the Alkalo Shivonne
and I went to have a look at a curious building we'd seen on the way
in - brightly painted, tin-roofed and situated in a large wire-fenced
compound with its own water tank and mobile phone mast, seeming quite
out of character with the rest of the village.

Although none of the villages we'd visited seemed especially affluent,
Sinchu Demba looked like a village that had fallen on hard times.
Most villages are aranged around a bantaba, a wooden platform shaded
by a large tree or thatched roof, upon which the men lie during the
hottest part of the day to snooze, talk politics and brew tea (the
women, needless to say, keep pounding grain whatever the temperature).
Although the shade tree was still standing in Sinchu Demba, and we
could see the struts that had once supported the bantaba, the platform
had long rotted away. There seemed to be fewer animals here than in
the other villages; no sheep or goats, just a tired donkey and a few
mite-ridden chickens, and the childrens' hair was fluffy and
unbraided. The Alkalo was a quiet, dignified man, but unsteady on his
feet and with a hacking cough. The only other men in the village
seemed to be the thinnest elderly man I'd ever seen and a youth of
nineteen who fancied himself as a bit of a ganster with his
much-darned JaRule T-shirt, patched adidas trousers and fake Ray Bans.

But right next to it was something that in any other country should
have been bringing prosperity to the village. The Alkalo explained
that a toubab had come from London and built the compound, but when he
had finished it the government had taken it over and were now using it
as a regional administrative post. He said the administrators weren't
there at the moment and offered to take us in through a gap in the
fence. From his description it sounded like the toubab had been
building a house here, and it was only when we got closer that we
realised what it really was; a museum of Gambian culture, with the
Kerr Batch stone circles in the grounds. The government had moved
into the offices, the museum itself was abandoned, the keys still in
the swinging door.

The whole place made me very sad; sad for the mysterious toubab, who
had obviously put a lot of love into designing the museum, choosing
and explaining the exhibits and commissioning paintings and dioramas,
only to have it taken from him and left open to the wild dogs and
dust, but also sad for the villagers who seemed to feel so little
connection to this place, this museum an outsider had built to their
culture, and who had derived so little benfit from it. The stones were
smaller than I had expected, though still majestic in the early
morning stillness, but these too seemed removed from the villagers,
fenced off as they were in the grounds of this museum to a museum.
Suddenly I noticed that one of the stones had a number of smaller
stones precariously balanced on top of it, certainly not looking as if
they had stood there as long as the stone pillars themselves. For some
reason this made me shiver - maybe the stones weren't as removed from
the villagers as I'd thought.

The Alkalo led us to one of the circles, explaining through Samuel L
that if you prayed here you would get whatever you wished for. I
looked at the Alkalo, wondering if that sad, noble man had received
everything he had wished for here, and it seemed only right to kneel
in the dirt and pray too. I prayed for successful fieldwork and for
my grandmother, then felt slightly guilty that I'd done it in that

Finally the Alkalo showed us a slightly raised mound with a slab on
top, warning us not to smoke on the mound and not to tread on the
slab. He said that there was something here, a shape that you could
see when you were far away, but it vanished when you got close to it.
The morning was clammy and grey and I was developing a major case of
the creeps, so I was glad to get back to village and get involved in
the usual pandemonium that ensued when trying to sample a horde of
squealing children. Particularly memorable was the tiny girl with the
cheeky smile who giggled every time Shivonne tried to take a nasal

So please, if anyone finds this blog post whilst googling to plan a
trip to The Gambia, visit the stone circles at Kerr Batch. Stop off
in Sinchu Demba, give the Alkalo some kola nuts and see if you can
find someone to make you attaya for ten dalasi (2009). The wannabe
gansta speaks a little French, if the government officials aren't
there ask him to take you to the museum and give the Alkalo a few
dalasi. If the officials are there, buy more attaya in the village
and look at the stones through the fence. These people are sitting on
a fantastic heritage that should be bringing them prosperity but seems
to be only bringing them trouble. Maybe that's Africa all over.

After that we moved on to fly-catching experiments. I'm trying to
correlate the presence of certain chemicals in nasal and occular
discharge with the number of flies attracted to children's faces, and
to do this have to sit the children down on a stool somewhere shady
while Samuel L catches the flies that touch their faces with a
handnet. Fortunately he's extremely good at it. I tend to catch ears
and noses instead. We do this for fifteen minutes, which would be an
impossible amount of time to expect a Western child to sit still for
but attention spans seem to be rather longer here in the absence of
TV's and Xboxes. It's hilarious to watch - the child inintently
watching Samuel L, him intently watching their faces for flies and all
the other kids clustered round watching something a bit out of the
ordinary happening. My favourite fly-catching village was Sare Janko
- the first little boy kept falling asleep, which was adorable, and
the Alkalo spoke English and wanted to know "everything about England
and her agriculture" which was a little challenging but quite fun.
Somehow I got talking about the Eurostar, which amazed him - a tunnel
under the sea that trains go through? I suddenly realised that this
was actually quite amazing, and not for the first time on this trip
felt like a spoilt, complacent twat.

When we got back there was no water. There was also no electricity -
our credit with the power company had run out in a third of the time
it was supposed to. Either someone had been using way too much
electricity without anyone else noticing or the power company was
scamming us. Emma, the woman in charge of the mission, ordered a car
to the power station to sort it out forthwith.

Emma is incredible. She runs the North Bank trachoma survey, runs the
mission, supervises the fueling of the landrovers and luckily has no
ambitions to run an army because if she did half the planet would be
conquered by Tuesday. After a day in the field I just want to wash as
best I can, grab a bite to eat and pass out but Emma spends her
evenings with the fieldworkers checking through the questionnaire data
they have collected, then deals with the administration of the mission
and still has the energy to pay close attention to my work and pull me
up on any points she thinks I may be being sloppy over. Somewhere in
all of this she is also finding time to do a PhD. I haven't given her
a nickname because I'd be scared to. (The same goes for Shivonne
incidentally, whilst planning this fieldwork I was told I'd be
accompanied by a paediatric nurse to take my swabs, so when I met
Shivonne I assumed that she was the nurse. She is actually a fully
qualified doctor, which she lost no time in explaining to me. This
and the fact that she is one of the most incredibly competent people
I've ever met have left me a little in awe of her too.)

In fact, there are quite a lot of things and people out here that are
pretty awe-inspiring.

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