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

Friday, 26 June 2009

MRC Walikunda

On Saturday we drove up to Wali Kunda, bouncing along the corrugated
road behind buses and jalopies overburdened with rice sacks,
cloth-covered bundles and the occasional live sheep (looking entirely
unperturbed by this novel vantage point. I have a new driver, a
smiling, affable bloke named Lamin (MRC has two drivers called Lamin
and three called Omar. Lamin is the traditional name for first-born
sons here. Presumably all subsequent sons get Omar). Samuel L had
ridden on ahead on his motorbike, a form of transport that makes his
resemblance to Samuel L Jackson even more pronounced.

I was accompanied by The Runner, Shivonne, and Michelle, who is coming
with us because she has no project to work on and she has always
dreamed of seeing hippos. Personally I have always dreamed of living
long enough to have a horde of grandchildren, a rose garden in which
to potter and licence to say whatever the hell I like to anyone under
the pretence of dementia, and had therefore planned to stay as far
away from the hippos as possible, but each to their own. Incidentally
the mystery of Michelle's project, or lack of one, has been solved;
the NGO didn't change its mind about working with her, turns out that
her contact at the Gambian University who said he'd arranged
everything hadn't actually bothered to get in touch with them before
she arrived. She spent three days waiting for a meeting with him that
never materialised then gave it up as a lost cause and decided to come

We stopped off for lunch at a small restaurant in Soma, a town as
sleepy as it sounds. As I has teh coeliac, as usual there was nothing
I could eat on the menu so I settled for my usual plain boiled rice.
The Runner, unused to the rather spartan meals I'd been having here,
asked if this would be enough. I explained that I had some
gluten-free bread and a tin of sardines in my bag to eat later.
"Have the sardines with the rice" he suggested.
"Will they mind if I eat my own food in here?"
"Not at all, this is The Gambia. They may charge you corkage
though." The Runner quipped.

All went well until the time came to leave and I idly wandered out
with the sardine tin in my hand. Realising this I asked if anyone had
a rubbish bag as I still can't get used to the Gambian car-window
method of waste disposal. "Just leave it in the restaurant, they'll
probably use it as an ashtray" said The Runner. Somewhat
apologetically I returned to the restaurant and deposited my greasy
burden on the nearest table. There was an indignant outcry from the
staff (who outnumbered the customers about four to one) and I was
forced to exit at a rather higher velocity than I'd entered. Diving
gratefully into the safety of the Landrover I realised I'd learned an
important lesson; your supervisor isn't always right.

We reached MRC Wali Kunda in the early afternoon and, after being
introduced to the hundred or so ground staff, brothers of ground staff
and cousins of sisters in law of ground staff, had a few moments to
explore. The compound is truly beautiful – the labs and living
quarters are in traditionally thatched mudbrick huts and the site
slopes down to the bank of the River Gambia in all its palm-fringed,
languid glory. Some thoughtful soul has placed a shaded picnic table
next to the river, where you can sit with a coffee and watch the
kingfishers hover and the fishing canoes glide by.

This beauty comes at a price though, Wali Kunda is certainly the most
uncomfortable place I've stayed to date. All the water for washing,
bodies, clothes and dishes, comes from the river and is most likely
teeming with Lord-knows-what. There is a filter for drinking water
but it's broken – I've had a shot at fixing it and will try again
later, but feel more comfortable buying the dusty, overpriced crates
of mineral water from a shopkeeper in the nearby Brikama Ba who can't
believe his luck.

My lab is a windowless mudhut with a distinct odour of rat. There is
no electric light, but as electricity is only available from the
generator for a few hours a day this isn't such a concern. Most
difficult of all to deal with though is the heat – if you've ever
woken up in a tent-turned greenhouse with a hangover, imagine that
feeling 24 hours a day. Trying to keep clean here is impossible,
shower and fifteen minutes later you're drenched in sweat again. I
smell of...myself actually, very strongly of myself. Strange how
humans must be the only animal that can't stand their own odour.

This place is a health and safety officer's nightmare. The kitchen
freezer functions as a fridge due to intermittent electricity and
sports a stern sign warning "NO ethidium bromide! NO unlabelled blood
samples! (Labelled blood samples are presumably acceptable) NO
dangerous hazard in the freezer!" Fortunately when I arrived it just
contained some chillis, which are only a dangerous hazard if you get
really creative. The wiring looks like it was done by a suicidal
gibbon on acid – sockets dangle off wall, empty light fittings dangle
off ceilings and French plugs are jammed into English sockets and
secured with matchsticks. The food hygiene isn't much better, with
dying fish deposited on every available surface and cups and cutlery
used then replaced unwashed – it's just like living with Johny again.

But back to our first afternoon, The Runner was delighted to discover
that the canoe he'd left behind was still there and decided to take
Michelle (praying to see hippos) and me (praying not to see hippos)
across the river to celebrate. A lot of squelching an one pair of
trousers that'll never be the same again later, we were safely on
board. We headed for the gap between islands (I say we but The Runner
provided most of the motive force and all of the navigation, I just
dipped my paddle in from time to time to feel useful). Halfway across
he instructed us to stop paddling and just listen for a minute. The
only sound was the local avian orchestra and, as the research station
was now obscured by trees there was no trace of any human presence
anywhere around us – quite an amazing sensation.

We reached the other bank and clambered out of the canoe, muddying the
places that had until now remained unmuddied. As I struggled to
extract my foot from the human equivalent of a yellow sticky trap my
trusty TEVAs finally expired, with the straps on the left foot tearing
away from the sole. Almost simultaneously Michelle managed to turn
her ankle. I had rather expected, given her hobbled state and my
uni-shoedness that The Runner would simply plant his foot on a nearby
rock, say something along the lines of "I claim this land for her
royal majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Huzzah!" and then we could
all row back for a nice cup of tea. Instead he established that we
were both capable of at least some form of locomotion, instructed us
to remember that the canoe was tied up under a big tree and strode off
into the distance. We stumbled after him as best we could, over a
drought-fissured landscape that suddenly, dramatically gave way to
lush rice paddies, then beyond into the forest at the foot of a rocky

I had been eyeing said rocky escarpment rather dubiously for some time
now, remembering how keen The Professor had been to climb the hill
back in Nianija. Perhaps this determination to climb things says
something about the kind of person who becomes a professor – as soon
as they see something high they want to be at the top of it. Sure
enough, as soon as we got to the base he smiled brightly and said
"Let's climb up!". My heart sank.

Then something magical happened. As we surveyed the summit, The
Runner doubtless imagining the view from the top, Michelle and myself
considering feigning malaria, a silhouette passed across the skyline.
Then another, then another, then another with a youngster on its back.
"Baboons!" I gasped and Michelle started counting breathlessly
"sixteen...seventeen...eighteen". She soon lost count. We stood
mesmerised until the last of the shapes passed behind the trees and
the evening was still once more. "Let's not disturb them" said The
Runner to heartfelt agreement and we headed back to the canoe,
discovering on the way that there were quite a number of large trees
on the river bank.

Rowing back as the sun set over the river I felt a sense of great
peace descend around me. Life will be tough here, but there will be

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