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

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Photo time!

I've got my photos up on Picasa:


The international language of suspicion

So I'm back down on the coast, with a few samples, a few pupae that I hope are still alive and the majority of my marbles. I've just come back from visiting my fieldworker D's wife, daughter and extended family who touchingly and quite out of the blue presented me with a dress for myself and a shirt for the bloke.

The Gambia is so different from everything I'm used to that it sometimes feels like I've landed on a different planet, until something startles me into realising just how connected we all are. Meeting D's wife's aunt, who dresses like a traditional village wife and speaks flawless English after living in Bromley for two years, was one such event but the person who really surprised me was D's brother in law, a school headmaster. We got talking about how I'd get back to the hotel, D explaining that he would accompany me in the taxi, a plan which the headmaster approved of. He then announced, and I quote pretty much word for word:

"It is good that you are going with her because it is not safe now in The Gambia. Before it was safe for a woman at night but now they let anybody into the country, all these Senegalese and Nigerians. Sometimes now I go into Banjul and all I hear are languages that I don't understand."

I burst out laughing, a bit of a courtesy fail that I had to talk myself out of, but I think that just goes to show that whatever our cultural difference people all over the world are all the same. We're all so frightened of each other but even the more prejudiced members of society are prejudiced in exactly the same way.

That's about as philosophical as I get when sleep deprived, high on Coca Cola and demob happy, so I'll leave you with that thought and try to finally get some sleep. Night all.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010


Fun day yesterday, it was so hot you could actually watch beads of sweat forming on your skin and the generator exploded. Actually, genuinely exploded – Sarah, one of the MSc students had to put out the fire and in doing so discovered that the fire extinguisher had already been discharged. A miscommunication with the guards sent me and D off yomping round town to try and sort out a problem with the NAWEC (National Water and Electricity Company) that didn't actually exist, and to top it all off one of the kittens is missing and has been for several days, presumed... well not presumed anything good anyway. Just about the only thing going well here at the moment are the sores on Mission's ears – I didn't expect the antibiotic powder to do much but they're about half the size they were when I arrived. He may even be ready for a photo before I go (I know they'll just get worse again when I leave, but at least I can give the poor dog some relief for a short time).

In the evening wrote a long email to my supervisor, summarising how my work had been going (badly) and the internet cut out as I was sending it – I lost the whole thing. So I decided it was finally time for the five tiny strips of streaky bacon the students had picked up for me in Senegal, that I'd been saving for when things got really bad and cooked this:

And incidentally facilitated cannibalism in the process, by unthinkingly lobbing the plate of peelings over the wall to the pigs the way I usually do and forgetting there was bacon rind on there too. So I cut my losses and got an early night.

A few hours later I woke up, needing to visit the toilet to give the mosquitoes their midnight snack. Getting back into bed by the dim illumination of the security lights is always tricky - I don't know if you've ever seen that daft film in which Catherine Zeta-Jones writhes around in a catsuit to dodge laser beams, but if you imagine a mosquito net that has inexplicably multiplied overnight into a dozen layers instead of laser beams and me with a sweat-stained t-shirt and hair like a refugee from the eighties instead of CZJ in a catsuit you'll get the picture. I'd managed to get inside from the waist up and was leaning on my hands to pull my legs in when something largish and indistinct in the feeble light darted across the sheet and came to rest against my hand.

My heart started beating like that of the average teenage audience member watching CZJ writhe in the catsuit, but I didn't move my hand ("Must...not...disturb whatever it is, spider? Baby scorpion? World's largest tick? It doesn't seem to be biting me yet. WTF is is???"). Instead I cautiously, slowly reached for my torch with the other hand, flicked it on and carefully moved the circle of light closer so as not to startle the...... @(**$%@ing rubber earplug that had rolled across the sheet into the depression made by my hand (I keep the box inside the net with me to be easily accessible in the event of enthusiastic mosques or rams, and it had come open). I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry so I settled for passing out asleep instead, falling into feverish dreams in which the person I'd expected to most disapprove of my involvement with Mission was paying to bring him over to the UK and helping me to choose a crate for him for the flight. I think all things considered that if my subconscious is going to torment me with anything I'd rather it was phantom insects.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

The people who look like baboons

Whilst making a collection in a family compound today, D got chatting to some of the women and soon the whole group was doubled over in laughter. Feeling a little left out I asked him to translate the joke for me.

"These people come from the South Bank, so they are Jarankas." He explained. "I am Nionka and I was telling them that their old people look like baboons."

I was momentarily stunned, seeing as this wasn't really the sort of thing I was hoping a diplomatic fieldworker would be saying to a family helping with my study. But everyone seemed quite happy, so on the way home I pressed him for further information.

D explained that many years ago, the Nionka man and the Jaranka man were brothers living in a village on the north bank who decided to set out to seek their fortunes. The Nionka man went first and was able to find a lot of food on his way so did well. The Jaranka man came after him, but he wasn't so good at finding food and in any case the Nionka man had already taken most of it so he quickly became very hungry. One night the Jaranka man came across the place where the Nionka man had crossed the river and set up camp. He found his brother getting ready to eat, surrounded by good food and clean water. The brothers greeted each other and the Jaranka man asked for something to eat, complaining of how hungry he was.

"Of course you can share my food" said the Nionka man "but first please go into the bush and fetch this thing (some sort of seasoning?) so that we can enjoy our food together."

The Jaranka man (who seems to have been a bit of a proto-bumster) pleaded that he didn't know how to find whatever it was, couldn't his brother see how hungry it was and didn't that show he was no good at finding food? The Nionka man agreed to go looking for it instead, and while he was gone the Jaranka man ate all the food and drank all the water.

When the Nionka man came back he was furious and hurled insults at his brother. The Jaranka man tried to calm him down, saying that he had been starving and if he had not eaten he would have died and never seen his brother again, but the Nionka man would not accept this so they ended up fighting. The Nionka man was tired and hungry after hunting in the bush for that time's equivalent of Maggi cubes, so he lost the fight to his well fed brother and went home to his village in disgust.

Many years went past and the Jaranka man prospered in his new land, marrying and having lots of children. But he started to feel bad about the way he had treated his brother, so he made the long journey back to the village where he had grown up to find that his brother had also prospered: he was now headman of the village, with many wives of his own. At first the Nionka man was angry with his brother and insulted him, which made him angry in turn and he insulted the brother that he had come to apologise to. But eventually they remembered that they were children of the same mother and that if they hurt each other they also hurt themselves. In this way the brothers were reconciled, and the Jaranka man returned to his new village on the south bank, which became Jarra. All the people from that area now call themselves Jarankas. The area where the Nionka man stayed became known as Nioni, and all the people from that area as Nionkas.

"So now" explained D "when a Nionka meets a Jaranka we must always insult each other, but it is a joke. The Nionka and the Jaranka are brothers. If a Nionka is hungry the Jaranka must give him food, if a Jaranka travels abroad the Nionka must pray for him. A Nionka cannot steal from a Jaranka or a Jaranka from a Nionka because it would be like stealing from yourself." Wouldn't it be great if all regional and national rivalries operated on the same basis?

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Greetings from The Gambia!

Hi everyone, just to let you know that I've arrived in Farafenni and just to confuse you all am going to upload my Farafenni blog posts out of sequence. If anyone who talked me down after my little freakout over the generator is reading this, just to let you know that it has now been fixed and it turns out that it wasn't actually me who broke it – apparently the guards broke it a couple of weeks ago and got one of their dodgy friends to patch it together with bits of rusty wire (Firefly fans think Serenity's engine room, but not rigged up by a genius) and the generator just chose my watch to finally say Do Not Want.

Frustrations and a Mission update – 12/7/10

A blog I'm rather enjoying and sympathising with is http://whatsgambianforbluescreenofdeath.blogspot.com/, maintained by a VSO volunteer trying to get various virus-riddled Gambian computers into some sort of working order. He perfectly captures the frustrations involved in trying to get anything done out here, where everything is a little bit more complicated than you expect and nothing quite goes according to plan.

A perfect example of these difficulties is the little saga of the water tank, which concluded today. The Catholic Mission's water tank is supported on a platform three metres or so in the air, to produce enough pressure to get water through the taps and showers and so the sun can warm the water to the perfect temperature for the breeding of assorted nasties – shower with your mouth closed please. When he was up here last week The Professor noticed that the planks supporting the tank were nearly rotten and decided to get them replaced before they gave way and the falling tank made someone considerably shorter. This involved contacting a carpenter, to replace the planks, and a plumber, to drain the tank so that the carpenter could reach the platform.

The plan was for the plumber to come on Saturday morning and for the carpenter to come on Saturday afternoon. The plumber did not arrive on Saturday morning. Saturday afternoon brought a carpenter but no plumber. The carpenter cut the wood and hung around while the plumber was contacted, said he would come and failed to do so, and eventually went home after being told that we would contact him when the plumber had arrived. Late on Sunday, by which time it was too late to contact the carpenter, the plumber arrived and did....something. We're not entirely sure what because when the carpenter arrived this morning he found that the tank had not been drained. He was understandably quite angry about this and demanded that we contact the plumber. Surprisingly he came only an hour later, at which point I showed him round to the watertank and discovered that the carpenter had already erected the platform. I was a little surprised and asked how he had done this, hadn't he needed the plumber after all? It turned out that the carpenter had, rather enterprisingly I suppose, sawn through one of the water pipes to drain the tank himself so it was lucky that we now had a plumber to fix this.

So we now had a completed platform, which in the UK would have been the end of it. The carpenter wanted paying, which shouldn't have been a problem as I had the money and it looked to me as though he'd done a pretty good job, apart from his little bit of improvisation with a saw. Unfortunately, as the repair would be paid for with MCR funds I needed a receipt to account for them and this was where the trouble started. The carpenter wanted the money but did not want to give me a receipt. I tried to explain that I was quite happy to give him the money but I needed a receipt. I didn't raise my voice, was reasonable but firm. The carpenter got angrier and angrier. The guards joined in to harangue me "This man does not make receipts. He has done the job, why will you not give him the money?". Sirra the Mission cleaner joined in, as far as I could tell on my side (sisterhood ftw). The carpenter said he did not have a receipt book, so I gave him a sheet from my notebook and told him to write me a receipt on that. And then, horribly, it emerged that the man couldn't write and I'd just shamed him in front of the substantial audience that had built up. So I paid him and wrote the receipt myself and one of the guards signed it.

And that still wasn't the end of it. The carpenter had bought and planed eight timbers for the job but had used only seven of them. Technically we had paid for the extra timber, but I couldn't see MRC using it whereas a carpenter probably could so I told him he could keep it, trying to make a bit of a peace offering after the receipt business. Unfortunately this was taken as a signal to launch into a speech on how hard it was to be a carpenter in The Gambia when materials were so expensive, could I provide him with more materials? No. Why not? You are a toubab and you have so much money. I am a student and I don't have much money actually, and there are a lot of people in The Gambia who need help and I can't help everyone. But when you have studied you will have a good job and you will be able to help me. No, just no, I'm so very, very sorry but I get this from every single person I meet and I can't help you. Also I need to check my fly traps. Sorry, goodbye.

Just to complicate matters while all this was going on I was also trying to arrange for the MRC mechanic, (who shares a name with a member of the Adams family and damn it's appropriate) to fix the generator which broke yesterday, having to contend with dodgy reception and his complete unwillingness to spend any of his credit calling me, and of course to carry out all my experiments which aren't working so well at the moment. Luckily the students went to Senegal on Sunday to watch the world cup and have returned with what in Britain would be a very nasty bottle of rosé, but which will I have no doubt taste like the nectar of the gods out here so I plan to accompany tonight's instant mash and packet curry with a glass of that.

And a quick update on Mission – I think I spotted him once in the distance, loping along with a scrawny brindled creature, but yesterday whilst spending a brief peaceful moment sulking or skulking in my room I heard the unmistakeable flapflapflapflapflap that any dog owner will recognise as a long-eared head being shaken. I went out to investigate and there under my window was Mission. I've been trying to convince myself that he can't really remember me, that the encounter in the street was just a coincidence, but that belief is becoming increasingly untenable. For a start he had chosen my window over all others to sleep under, possibly because he could smell me (and believe me you don't have to be a dog to smell me out here, I hum) but rather more conclusively as soon as he saw me his tail started thwacking the ground and he rushed up to me, squirming with pleasure.

So at this point I decided to say sod sensible and went and found a pair of latex examination gloves so I could touch him and the antibiotic skin powder one of the students had bought and started trying to treat the sores on his ears, which was made rather more complicated by the fact that all this little dog wanted to do was roll on his back sneezing in ecstasy while the nice toubab tickled his ears. And actually after the initial shock I realised he didn't look quite as bad as he had first appeared – under all the scars and scrapes and sores he isn't nearly as thin as some Gambian dogs I've seen. I'm still not going to put up a picture of him because I think some of you might find it too upsetting, but if his ears heal up maybe I will.

So I'm going to try and fix the worst of the sores with the antibiotic powder, and maybe if I come back to Farafenni look at getting him castrated and vaccinated, but I think all in all Mission is probably happiest here- he's obviously getting enough food and has a little friend to run around with. I must admit that after my first encounter with him I did have a moment of weakness and start googling the procedure for bringing Gambian dogs into the UK. This only served to convince me of how thoroughly impractical the whole enterprise would be, but did turn up this rather interesting charity - http://www.gambicats.org.uk/ - a group of vet volunteers who come to The Gambia to neuter and vaccinate stray cats and dogs.

If I can't do much for Mission I can help dogs like him and I will be making a donation to Gambicats – while it may seem selfish to care about animal welfare in a country where children are going hungry, it really isn't any more selfish than to care about animal welfare in the UK while children are going hungry on the same planet. If you want a justification in terms of human welfare, castrating strays to reduce their numbers in a humane way will reduce transmission of worms and vaccinating strays will reduce transmission of rabies. I can even justify it in terms of my project – dog faeces breed Musca sorbens and cat faeces certainly seem to attract them, so fewer strays should lead to less breeding material in the environment. But to be honest I care about the animals here – Mission and the cats Claire and Vassie and Vassie's kittens, provisionally named Smoky and Midnight – for my own selfish reasons. When you and everything around you is filthy and dusty and your clothes stick to your body and there's grit in your bed it's so nice to have something soft and silky twining around your ankles, chirping prettily, and in a country where it can so often seem that people are only interested in you for your estimated bank balance and perceived power to secure a visa, to have Mission genuinely pleased to see me just because I once showed him a little kindness really makes a difference. I have given gifts and donations to people here and to be honest donating to Gambicats feels a lot less morally ambiguous – I don't need to worry whether I'm encouraging dependency and the patronage system or only giving to those who are already advantaged enough to be able to explain their needs to me. In short, I'm doing this because it makes me happy and I don't think I need to justify myself beyond that.

I do, however, need that rosé.

11/7/10 - Consent

There's a bit of a perception among the general public* that scientists are a pretty immoral bunch, merrily stuffing haddock genes into turnips, feeding nail polish to kittens, cloning dead dictators and recklessly creating Earth-engulfing black holes for a laugh when there's nothing on telly. Obviously nothing could be further from the truth and I am definitely not breeding an army of mutant super flies with which to take over the world cough. But in all seriousness there's at least one area where medical science is ethically in advance of society in general, and that's the principle of consent.

For a scientific study to be approved by an ethics committee, anyone participating in the study in a way that carries any conceivable risk or inconvenience to them must give consent, which at its simplest means they must sign a form to say that they are willingly participating. But there's far more to it than that. The consent must be informed – people must understand the purpose of the study, how their samples or information will be used and the possible risks to them in participating, and it must be freely given – people must not be coerced into participating by an authority figure or for fear of loss of some benefits, and while they can be compensated for any inconvenience participation may cause them (for example having the cost of their transport to a hospital where samples can be taken paid for) they cannot be paid or given gifts for participating. Not paying participants is probably the most important, because it ensures that the study doesn't exploit those in the greatest financial need who might be tempted to take part in the study for the rewards rather than making a free choice to do so having weighed up the risks to themselves against the benefits to science.

I do wonder whether we'd be better off if the principles of consent could be applied to society at large, if people should not be offered money to submit to any procedure that carries a risk to them. Project Prevention, a deeply disturbing scheme being piloted in Glasgow in which drug addicts are offered money in exchange for getting sterilised, would certainly not be permitted if strict principles of consent were applied. And some interesting issues would arise if it were applied more widely – not permitting money to be given to someone in exchange for doing something which carries a risk to them would put an interesting spin on the perennial feminist debate on prostitution, and the practice of offering soldiers free university education in exchange for risking their lives and health in war would start to look extremely dubious.

So that's how consent should work in theory. The reality here on the ground in The Gambia is inevitably slightly different, as I discovered today when all five of the children in the compound where I usually collect human faeces to bait my fly traps with had diarrhoea. We had done the consent procedure in this compound by the book, with my fieldworker reading out a translation of the information sheet to the heads of the household, and while it is of course impossible for me to tell how accurate the translation into Mandinka is, both fieldworkers I've used are very reliable, and I've worked with this family for quite a while now and from the questions they've asked me they seem to have a fairly good idea of what I'm doing and why. Unfortunately with no, umm, material of a suitable quality available it was necessary to find an alternative compound within the next two hours, before it was time to replace the traps. "Do not worry!" proclaimed D my fieldworker. "God is great, we will prevail!" which I found a rather encouraging attitude towards the whole enterprise.

I had had an agonising choice of two possible fieldworkers, both equally qualified and equally desperate for work. Emotionally the balance lay rather in M's favour, as D had a job already but was eager for one that paid better than a government salary (I carefully explained that this work was temporary) whereas M was unemployed and was the nephew of a senior fieldworker so was probably the better political choice, but eventually I decided on D whose English was fractionally better. The choice has really paid off – in such a highly connected society personal relationships are so important and I was extremely lucky to discover that D used to live in Farafenni. D led me to the compound of a man he used to work with.

"But now he has been..." he paused "what do you call it when they sack someone when they get too old?"

I considered. "Discrimination?"

"No, the other thing."

I tried thinking laterally "Umm, retirement?"

"Exactly, exactly".

Sacked or not, D's former colleague seemed to have done rather well for himself and was apparently the landlord for the entire block of compounds, probably the equivalent of the village Alkalo or head man. D greeted him warmly and explained why we were here, then when his friend ducked into the house explained to me that all of the children in the compound had already been to the toilet except for one small girl who was still asleep. As he told me this the landlord reappeared carrying the girl in his arms, still blinking and fuzzy from sleep. He deposited her in front of me and whispered something to her, presumably explaining that this big scary white woman has come all the way from the UK and wants you to do a poo for her. The little girl did what any rational person would have done on being woken to be confronted with this information, and burst into tears. We waited a while in the compound, D catching up with his friend and me sitting in the one chair being eyeballed nervously by the little girl who had had the worst awakening ever, but with the deadline approaching and no poo forthcoming we decided to try another compound.

At this point things got a little complicated. The landlord was either so impressed by our study or so pleased to see D again that he decided to come with us, encouraging people to help out. How freely consent can be given when your landlord is encouraging you to participate is something I'm not sure about, but at this stage the issue was fairly academic as all of the children had already been to the toilet and, impressively, it had been hygienically disposed of in the latrines. At this point we had acquired quite a horde of hangers on: the landlord, a crowd of laughing women grateful for some respite from the monotony of daily chores, another long lost friend of D's who chatted delightedly to him before rushing off and of course the ubiquitous gaggle of Gambian children who appear spontaneously around any toubab who might possibly give them sweets or do something amusing like falling over (there is nothing a Gambian child finds funnier than a toubab falling on her great white arse). But with collection time fast approaching poo was, it seemed, scarcer than bacon in this country.

With just 20 minutes to collection time our saviour ran towards us up the road, D's long lost friend with a plastic bag of child's shit. Reverently we scraped it into the pot on the scales, but disaster! Only 27 of the necessary 50 grams! The clock ticking, the landlord summoned two of the small boys following our party and handed them each 5 dalasi. I had completely lost control of the situation, money was changing hands, I didn't know if their parents had been informed but as I was trying to work out my next move they pulled down their trousers and squatted in the street whilst all around them their friends laughed and clapped, cheering them on. As the first deposit hit the ground D let out a triumphant cry of "Praise God! God is great!" and all the adults started congratulating one another heartily as the children whooped. So all in all I'm really not sure if I did anything properly or right but it worked out and everyone seemed to come away happy, and I'm increasingly coming to realise that out here that's probably the best possible outcome. I gratefully accepted the sample – it would have been churlish not to as it was, after all, a gift from God.

*And by "general public" I mean "my Mum", but I know she loves me really.

7/7/10 – Hopeless Mission

If you get upset by animal suffering then you probably shouldn't read this post.

The last time I was here at the Roman Catholic Mission the guards had a little puppy unimaginatively named Mission, who they planned to train as a guard dog. Unfortunately this training was done in the traditional Gambian way, with kicks and beatings with a stick. I did my best to ignore him and keep my distance, Gambian dogs being vectors of all sorts of horrible things, and though it was tricky because he was quite frankly adorable and because I could hear him yelping whenever he was "disciplined" I managed to keep this up for the first three weeks. Then one night I found myself sat outside the mission, waiting for my fieldworker to bring me some crucial item (the identity of which I've now forgotten) and trying desperately to tune out the sounds of a particularly savage beating which eventually stopped after what seemed like a decade. A few minutes later Mission staggered out of the shadows, limping and shivering in spite of temperatures in the high twenties. He came straight towards me and in his pitiful state I couldn't bring myself to practice good vector avoidance and shoo him away. I don't know how but he must somehow have sensed that this was one person who wouldn't hurt him, and he came up to me and just rested his hanging head against my leg. Gently I rumpled the loose skin on his neck, telling him he was a good dog, and slowly he stopped quivering and even began, hesitantly at first, to wag his tail. After that we became friends, vector avoidance be damned. We played with sticks and, though I found him to be entirely untrainable (after learning that punishment meant a beating, any verbal reprimand was just met with a cocked head and a look that said "I know you're just fooling") I did manage to partially cure him of his habit of snapping at shoe laces by soaking mine in Listerine. This is what Mission looked like as a puppy:

Fast forward six months and, while I was in the UK, the mission guards were fired after some food and computer equipment got stolen from the mission. They left Mission behind, like some piece of obsolete rubbish, and he became just another Gambian stray. "He's not nearly as cute as he used to be" warned Emma, and I vowed, this time to be sensible and steer well clear, which should after all be easier now he was no longer a cute puppy and no longer actually in the mission grounds, right? He probably wouldn't remember me anyway. I knew he'd be in a bad way, but i was sure I was prepared for that.

It didn't quite work out like that. Opening the mission gates this morning I saw a filthy dog lying in the road. He had patches of fur missing and was covered in scabs and sores with a particularly nasty one on each ear. "Mission?" I gasped, not wanting to believe it, and any hopes that I had that he'd have forgotten me were dashed when he lumbered up to me and rested his head against my leg, exactly as he had done that night six months ago. Gingerly I stroked the back of his head, the only clean part of his body, and he wagged his tail. And I burst into tears, right in the middle of the street, and a passing boy rushed at him shouting and scared him away.

"Give me ten dalasi!" Demanded the boy, clearly seeing himself as my rescuer.


"Give me five dalasi!"


"Give me one dalasi!"


"Give me your watch!"


And it took all of my self control not to scream "You horrible child, I didn't want you to scare him away!"

But now I've had a chance to think about it rationally I think the boy probably did do me a favour, there's really nothing I can do for Mission, and seeing him can only upset me. Even if we were in the position to have a dog at the moment, which we're definitely not, and even if I had the money it would take to bring him to the UK, which I don't (and if I did I could benefit a lot more dogs by just giving it to a UK dog charity), he's a Gambian outdoor dog and would be miserable in quarantine and miserable in a house in the UK and utterly impossible to train. I've already had my heart broken here by a little girl with a crippled hand and a little boy with HIV, in this country of broken children to lose my heart to a dog would just be decadent.