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

Friday, 12 June 2009

Easy living

I'm back on the coast, where the air con is on, the shower is wet and
life is sweet. Shivonne and I have a week of comfort while we extract
the samples we took before going back up to Wali Kunda to broil in
the forty degree heat and eighty five percent humidity. This gives me
a liitle breathing space to catch up on tasks I'd been neglecting,
like taking a pair of tweezers to a moustache almost worthy of Gomez
Adams and darning the huge rents in the back of one of my shirts - the
daily laundry service is indeed a pleasure, but sadly they don't seem
to be too gentle with the clothes.

In the accommodation block (like Mildert with mosquitoes) I ran into
the woman from Iowa who was supposed to be working on FGM. I'm going
to call her Michelle, because that's her name and I'm too tired to
keep thinking up nicknames for people. I was surprised first by the
state of her legs (I thought I'd been eaten alive by mosquitoes but
she seemed to have more bite than skin) but mostly by the fact that
she was still there - I had expected her to be upcountry by now. She
explained a little more about her project; she had been hoping to take
a harm reduction approach to FGM, accepting that it was not likely to
be eradicated soon and providing clean instruments to use to at least
reduce the assosciated infections and complications. The NGO she had
been hoping to work with had apparently been happy to support this
study before she left, but now she was in The Gambia had suddenly
decided it didn't want to be associated with anything that could be
seen to be condoning FGM. I can see both sides, I do think Michelle's
harm reduction approach is probably more likely to suceed than a bunch
of outsiders turning up and telling people to stop doing something
that they consider part of their heritage, but on the other hand
cultural relitivism is all very well but some practices are genuinely
abhorrent however you look at them and I could see that the NGO
wouldn't want to support something it felt might dilute this message.
It seemed a bit harsh of them to change their position once she was
actually in the country though - she's here for another ten weeks and
has so far played a lot of frisbee, done a lot of shopping and gotten
rather frustrated. I felt very lucky that my project was so
uncontroversial - no one is going to object to the eradication of
trachoma apart from the flies, and they don't get a say. I hope she
finds some way around this soon.

My work on the other hand is going very well. Shivonne and I have
tested all the DNA samples we took for the presence of C. trachomatis,
and seven of the 42 children have come back positive - not quite as
high as I'd hoped, but not too shabby. I'm extracting the eye sponges
as we speak, and hope that the volatile profiles I get back in the UK
will tie up with infection status and maybe with the number of flies
caught from children's faces. I'm not very confident that the fly
catch data will yield anything significant as our fly catch totals
were much lower than those recorded in a previous study though. This
is in part due to weather conditions but it may also be due to two
very welcome changes in the five years since the previous study - an
expansion of latrine provision may well have led to lower fly number,
and the last study sampled the children in the mornings when flies
were in theory most active but we had to get them whenever we could
because many of the children were now in school (in practice there
seemed to be little difference between fly catches in the mornings and
afternoons though).

This is the point of a pilot study though, to find out these things so
you know what can be done better next time (probably a larger sample
size). Actually the biggest headache I've had has not been due to the
method itself but to the labelling of the samples. I'm using
Cryobabies labels (I love scientific humour) which are meant to be
freezer safe, but mine started peeling off. I think they're probably
not designed to be applied in dusty field conditions, and are meant to
be kept in a high specification freezer which doesn't regularly
defrost due to power outages, rather than the old meat freezer that
dripped so much I actually had to pick some of my tubes out of a
microglacier. I only lost the labels for two entirely, and that may
actually be quite a good thing as one is the volatile collection from
an unifected child and one the volatile collection from an infected
child - if I am actually able to distinguish between the two using
volatiles this will be an interesting test. But next time I'll
definitely label my tubes before getting into the field, then fix them
on with Parafilm. And maybe some superglue and a nail gun.

It hasn't all been extraction though, I've also had some time to
sample the local nightlife, though everywhere seems a little desolate
as the tourist season winds down. The Professor left on Tuesday, and
later that day my other supervisor arrived. He is also a professor,
but for the avoidance of confusion I'm going to call him The Runner
because running is his passion outside science, and because he has a
manic energy that is great fun in the UK but is perhaps a little
exhausting here. To celebrate we went to Leybato's beach bar, a very
pleasant place with shaded tables and gently swinging hammocks amongst
lush palm trees. All this was rather wasted on me however as ten
minutes after sitting down my stomach lurched, my mouth filled with
saliva and I realised I was going to be sick. I stumbled out onto the
sand and found a palm tree to hide under, disturbed only by an
extremely persistent elderly hawker who was determined that what
someone hunched in the foetal position groaning gently to themselves
really, realy needed was to buy some roasted cashew nuts. In spite of
her attentions I eventually started to feel better, and retreated back
to the bar when a huddle or attractive, half naked young men formed
around me clearly deciding amongst themselves who got first dibs on
comforting me.

Strangely it passed as quickly as it had come on, and later that
evening I was able to make it to the Alliance Francaise, the French
cultural centre, to watch a really excellent jazz concert featuring
Sandy Patton and the husband of one of the lab workers. She was
wonderful, not only thoroughly professional when faced with crackling
speakers, a brief power cut and a row of the audience who wandered in
halfway through and didn't seem to realise they weren't supposed to
carry on their conversations at full volume, but she also seemed to be
genuinely enjoying herself which was wonderful to watch. The venue
was quite magical too, an open air amphitheatre under a starry sky.
And the toilets had no paper, no lock on the door and no light for
that authentic French cultural experience.

Adopting the headscarf isn't the only thing I'm doing here that I'd
never dream of doing at home. I'm wearing the bumbag that my parents
gave me as a moneybelt every day, which I realise isn't exactly the
height of fashion particularly in combination with the creases that
have been ironed into all my trousers. I had planned to buy a nice
bag when I got out here, something smaller than my thirty litre
rucksack, but the only bags on offer seem to be the kind of garish PVC
designer knock-offs I could pick up from a dozen stalls in Woolwich
market, and I have no more desire to buy them out here than I did in
London. So for the moment the bumbag will have to do.

I'm also keeping my knickers in the freezer, behaviour that would
probably get me sectioned in the UK. This is not for the pleasure of
frosty-fresh kecks in this heat, enjoyable though it is, but as an
extra line of defence against the tumbu fly - the launderers are
assiduous in ironing outer clothes, but seem less so with underwear.
I'd actually be quite interested, from a scientific perspective, to
get a tumbu fly on my arms or legs, but nowhere my knickers cover.

My tastes in reading matter have also changed dramatically. There is
a bookshelf in the student accommodation where visitors can exchange
books they've brought from the UK, and it's interesting to note how
many worthy books it contains; Dubliners, Bury my heart at wounded
knee, various incarnations of the Great American Novel. I'm guessing
that a lot of people brought out the books they'd always been meaning
to read. I wonder how many of them, like me, discovered that in this
heat they only had the attention span for trash. I've been entirely
incapable of making any headway with anything intelligent so was
delighted to find "Plague of the Dead - A Zombie Novel by Z A Recht"
tucked away in the corner. It features measured endorsements from
esteemed sources; "... a zombiefied Out of the Ashes, a blend of 28
Days Later zombies and Romero zombies, with a climax so intense it
literally had me shaking. A FANTASTIC book!" - Travis Adkins, author
of Twilight of the Dead, "A truly epic novel that deserves your
immediate attention!" - pain@allthingszombie.com, "An understated
masterpiece." - TLS (or maybe not). It has some extremely dodgy
science (a virus described as a cross between malaria and ebola) and
dialogue that sounds like it was written by a fourteen year old - I
laughed out loud when a sixty year old army general stated that the
desert blows chunks. In short, it's awful, wonderfully, wonderfully
awful, and just what I needed. I could feel myself going down several
notches in Shivonne's estimation when she spotted it on my desk.

Internet access is still hard to come by, as MRC has blocked access to
just about all non-work related websites (a bit of a stupid move for
an organisation mostly staffed by people a long way from home, and
hardly what you'd expect from a humanitarian body). I am therefore
typing this in La Parisienne, a cafe on Kairaba Avenue. ALthough it
has ice, coffee and milk the waiters are apparently not authorised to
combine these substances to make me an iced coffee, and the advertised
orange juice turns out to be Fanta, but though it may disappoint in
the beverage stakes it more than makes up for it by offering free
wireless internet access for which a large number of MRC staff decamp
there every day.

1 comment:

membracid said...

when I saw your comment about laundry, I was wondering about tumbu fly--freezer is probably a good precaution :)

I'm so glad you have internet access--really enjoying reading your travelogue.