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

Friday, 26 June 2009

A live blog post for once!

I'm back on the coast and have managed to snatch a few minutes of
ludicrously slow internet access to upload the previous three blog
posts (I also have one for Feminazery which is annoyingly still on my
laptop, I'll see if I can bring it over later) for you to enjoy from
the comfort of your cool, clean living rooms. I've survived my first
two weeks in Walikunda, though it's been tough and rather frustrating
as nothing has really worked properly yet, making me wonder what
exactly I'm up there getting hot and uncomfortable for. But I'm
hoping things'll start coming together next week when I go back.

The biggest blow has been that I've lost my fieldworker, Samuel L, who
has been recalled to another project. Not only has he been invaluable
for identification work he's also been my interpretor, general fixer
and resolver of staff issues and I'm not entirely sure how well I'll
manage without him - he is without question the most diligent,
reliable member of local staff that I've encountered out here. I have
been assigned another fieldworker who I'll meet on Monday, if he's a
third as good I'd be satisfied

The drive down yesterday was pretty hard, with long delays crossing
the river and difficult driving across flooded roads. I've given my
driver the wekend off to recover, and I think I think I need a weekend
to recover myself. Fortunately my beloved arrives later this
afternoon, so I've booked us into a posh hotel (Fajara Golf
Apartments) and hang the expense (although I did feel bad spending the
money after spending most of the drive explaining to one of the other
fieldworkers that I couldn't afford to pay for his flight to the UK).
To be honest I have mixed feelings about bringing him over here - I
miss him like crazy and am so desperately keen to see him, but feel
bad that I'm dragging him up for two weeks in a humid, spider-infested
(not his favourite creature) mudhut. Still, we'll have fun being
tourists this weekend - I'm hoping to take him to see the sacred
crocodile pools, and plan to spend a lot of time at beach bars and,
frankly, in air conditioned rooms with no clothes on.

Off to the airport to get him now. Bye! :)

Tailors and tall tales

I can't upload pictures and even if I could you'd probably be more
interested in seeing a shot of me climbing the wall to escape a giant
millipede I've mistaken for a snake than a photo of a mesh fly cage,
so take my word for it that these cages can be converted into fly
traps by a skilled tailor, or even by a moderately competent one.

One of the lab workers here, lets call him Bud, assured me on Monday
that he knew of such a tailor who had made these things before so that
evening we took eight cages round to Bud's house for him to take for
modification. Unfortunately on Tuesday Bud remembered that he didn't
have a car and so couldn't take the cages to the tailor after all, and
as Lamin was at that point halfway across the country driving The
Runner to a conference there wasn't a lot I could do about this. By
the time Lamin returned on Wednesday Bud had disappeared.

On Thursday Samuel L took charge, wheedling the name of the tailor out
of Bud. We drove to Bud's house to pick up the cages from his rather
startled wife then took them to the tailor's shop in Brikama Ba where
Bud had told him this man worked. There we were told that he'd moved
to another tailor's shop – turn right at the mosque and drive to the
next village. We drove for quite some time, found a tailor's shop
that had never heard of him, drove a bit further and found another
shop that had never heard of our man, let's call him Mohammed Mbye.
They had, however, heard of a tailor called Mohammed Njie and directed
us to a fourth tailor's shop (it should have been left at the mosque)
where we found the man himself, dozing on the porch.

We explained that he had been recommended by Bud and he beamed. "Yes,
yes, that man is my brother!" he said, surprising me as Bud had been
rather uncertain not only about where he worked but about his name.
He said that he could do the work overnight, but asked for extra money
as he had a lot of other jobs to do which he would postpone especially
for us. Samuel L seemed to think that paying this was a good idea so
I did. I felt rather guilty if his other clients wouldn't be getting
their clothes on time, but given the lack of activity he had been
displaying when we arrived I couldn't help suspecting that this was
the standard patter that all of his customers got. "Thank you, thank
you, I shall start work straight away and I shall work through the
night!" Satisfied we returned to Walikunda for lunch.

Twenty minutes after we had sat down the tailor, rather startlingly,
roared into the site on his motorbike and pulled up a few feet from
the picnic table. He had just remembered that he wouldn't be able to
complete the job without sellotape, and had no money to buy sellotape.
I still don't quite understand why sellotape was necessary for the
job but handed over the money anyway. After this transaction the
tailor decided that his workload was not in fact so excessive that it
would prevent him from having a drink with us and trying to hit on
Shivonne for fifteen minutes until she eventually went indoors.

We decided that after this rather frustrating morning we deserved an
afternoon being tourists, and so took the car ferry to the confusingly
named Janjanbureh/Georgetown/MacCarthy island. Local folklore tells
that when the British first arrived they asked two palmwine tappers
the name of the island and they, having possibly sampled too much of
their own product, gave their names – Janjan and Bureh. Why they
bothered asking I'm not sure as the British promptly renamed the place
Georgetown, and after independence the island was renamed MacCarthy,
but the three names are now used interchangeably. The island was used
by the British colonial administrators as a slave trading post as the
crocodile-infested waters around it discouraged escape attempts. They
still serve the same purpose – someone with either a keen sense of
irony or an acute lack of historical sensitivity has situated a hard
labour camp for maximum security prisoners on the island.

The town itself feels shabby and neglected. Driving in we passed its
most prominent building; the slave house, or rather its remaining
three walls. What remained was two storeys high and effectively
windowless, strongly reminiscent of the industrial barns factory
chickens are bred in. The roof was long gone but when intact it must
have been horrific, a dark, airless prison. And this was where the
more cooperative slaves were kept.

Worse was to come though. We paid a local guide a quite frankly
extortionate price to take us into the underground cellar where the
most rebellious slaves were kept, which we reached via a low, dark
tunnel that must truly have felt like the mouthway of hell itself to
those who were led down here in chains. Inside the ceiling had fallen
in, making it less claustrophobic than it would have been when in use,
but the supporting beams remained. I cracked my head on these several
times; they couldn't have been more than five foot off the ground, and
this was where the tallest, strongest men, the ones judged most
dangerous, would have been kept stooping in the darkness. The cellar
was built below the water table and in the rainy season water would
have come up to their knees, mingling with their own waste and the
scraps of food thrown down through four tiny chutes at the top of the
walls. By the time we were shown the tiny cells where the most
rebellious slaves were chained up to starve within earshot of those
who may have been considering following their example, I was feeling
rather unimpressed with humanity in general.

While obviously to a rather lesser extent, I was also feeling rather
disenchanted with our guide, who had asked for a perfectly reasonable
100D for the upkeep of the place but then demanded nearly four times
that sum for himself. He wasn't worth it – Samuel L had already
filled us in on the most important points and the buildings spoke for
themselves, but we learned from our guide that when the Europeans
first came the Gambians had been living in tin-roofed houses, and that
the slaves were transported to Brixton in the UK. He then discovered
that Shivonne was a doctor, and tried to convince her to sponsor his
brother to go to medical school.

He also told us that the buildings had been in his family's care for
generations, but I couldn't help feeling that they could have made a
slightly better job of it. Granted restoring the crumbling structures
would probably take more investment than a poverty-stricken West
African state could muster, but I felt that they could at least have
done something to prevent the graffiti. While some of it was at least
a heartfelt condemnation of slavery, most was the usual scrawled
stream of conciousness – names, mobile numbers, football teams.

Our guide then took us out into the yard where slaves had been weighed
and sold. The gravity of the place was rather spoiled by the presence
of a pair of heavily soiled underpants next to the spot where we were
standing, and by the fact that our guide proceeded to give exactly the
same talk as he had given underground, punctuated by aggressive
demands to know whether we understood whenever out attention seemed to
wander. Behind the yard, now walled into a separate compound, stood
the Freedom Tree. The original was long dead but a replacement had
been planted by Peace Corps volunteers. Any slave able to run the
twenty or so metres from the cellar door to the tree was granted his
or her freedom, which sounds like a sporting chance until you realise
that the British considered it great sport to shoot at them as they
passed. Needless to say very few made it.

At this point our guide left us so we headed for the famous Wooden
House, built by the first freed slaves to return to the island after
abolition. I knew this because it said so on a sign next to the
house, and this was confirmed by Samuel L. I would not, however, have
known this if I had listened to the young man who sidled up to us
offering a breathless commentary on how the first British people to
come to the island had built this house to keep a vicious dog which
they set on Black people. What made this fabrication so bizarre was
the fact that he was standing next to the explanatory sign when he
told it.

Our new self-appointed guide proved impossible to shake off, which was
particularly annoying when we returned to the barn-like slave house
where I would have appreciated a little space for quiet reflection and
found his incessant patter about slaves being fed to crocodiles rather
distracting (for all I know this may well have been true, but it was
hard to know what to take seriously when everyone just seemed to be
trying to find the story that would shock the most money out of you).

I know that it's monumentally arrogant and insensitive of me to be
disappointed by the way this place seems to be preserved with only the
minimum amount of care necessary to ensure that it continues to
function as a cash cow. As a white British woman I have no claim on
the ruins here, they should belong to the people who were taken, the
people who were left behind and the people who returned and if they
choose to let them crumble and tell fairytales about the remains then
who am I to have an opinion? But then a part of me says no, this is
part of my heritage too – the university I went to, many of my
employers, the wealth of my country that has allowed me to enjoy a far
more comfortable life than Samuel L could dream of – all of this was
built on the profits of slavery. Britain has benefited from slavery,
and I have benefited, and that debt should not be forgotten. Nor
should the suffering of those wrenched from their loved ones and
transplanted to an alien land be forgotten; out here I feel I could
empathise with the homesickness and dislocation but can't even begin
to imagine how people could have coped with a displacement that was
not of their own choice and from which there would be no return. Mine
should not be the last generation to see this; monuments to their
suffering should not be allowed to slide into the silt or be obscured
by the names of today's petty idols – Beyonce, Paul Gascoigne.

Lost in thought I bought a warm, sticky Fanta and we headed back. We
reached the dock to discover that the ferry had broken down, and for
once I was glad of traditional Gambian gender roles as Shivonne and I
sat in the Landrover while Lamin and Samuel L joined the other men at
the ferry railing, pulling on a heavy steel rope to haul us across.
At the other bank I asked Lamin whether we still had to pay full price
for the ferry crossing. "Of course!" he laughed "This is The Gambia!"

The next day we returned to discover that the tailor had made a
complete pig's ear of the fly traps (these were unlikely to trap
anything smaller than a gerbil, and even then only if it wanted to be
caught). Samuel L was furious, I was actually unsurprised and had to
leave the shop at one point in case the fit of the giggles I felt
coming on undermined what he was saying. The tailor was once again
shown what it was that we needed, and promised to have it done for the
next day, when we returned to find he'd cocked it up in a slightly
different way. I gave up at this point (if we'd given him back the
traps he'd probably have turned them into a wedding dress or
something), paid reluctantly and took them back to sew myself, which
at least I could do sitting by the river.

One of the senior entomologists on site saw what I was doing and asked
why I was making them myself. I explained the whole sorry saga. "I'm
not surprised" he said "there are no tailors good enough up here, we
get ours done in Farafenni."
"But Bud said this was the man you always went to!" I protested.
"Of course, that man is his brother" he said then seeing my
expression (PMT + prickly heat + access to machetes) and surmising
Bud's likely fate added with a sympathetic shrug "these things happen
And I had to laugh.

Here comes the rain again

The first night was horrible – I've never been so hot in my life. I
could hardly breathe let alone sleep and was finally forced to abandon
my hut and spend the night sitting at the picnic table while Mansonia
(a mosquito roughly the size of a 747) treated my back as an alfresco
buffet. I was a little worried about being eaten by crocodiles, but
reasoned that they were at least cold blooded so maybe I'd be cooler
in there. I spent most of Sunday drifting around the lower values of
the Glasgow coma scale.

On Sunday night the storm broke. In theory this meant that it was
cool enough to sleep, in practice the torrent of rain water (and for
all I know dissolved rat and gecko droppings) cascading through the
thatch onto my right shoulder made sleep impossible. I tried to drag
the bed out of the way, quickly discovering that Gambian furniture is
incredibly heavy, made from solid wood and apparently depleted
uranium. Gambian flooring on the other hand is incredibly flimsy;
what I'd taken for linoleum was in fact sticky back plastic ("Today on
Blue Peter, Yvette will show you how to build your very own
entomological research station") and I realised to my horror that in
dragging the monstrous bed I'd managed to tear two massive holes in
it. As icing on the cake I'd also managed to trap my thumb between
bed and table and was now sweating as much as I had on the previous
night. As if on cue the rain stopped, the cascade shrank to a trickle
and I collapsed onto the bed, cursing and praying for sleep, a
blizzard or a teleporter.

The next day was beautiful, as close as this place gets to cool and
with the heaviness washed from the air by the storm. We breakfasted
watching the river while a fairy-like swarm of winged ants issued from
the roots of a nearby tree. "They call them flood-flies in Belize"
said Shivonne, who has visited more countries than I've had hot
nights. A lovely name for lovely creatures. Later that day discarded
wings littered the compound like confetti. Large vermilion red mites
have emerged from their hiding places too, "the sons of the rain" they
call them locally. They stride purposefully across the earth, going
about whatever urgent business it is that brings them to the surface.
And a graceful, slender potter wasp is building a nest beneath the
toilet cistern, skilfully navigating the narrow crack between door and
frame with her burden again and again.

The lizards and geckos must think it's Christmas. I watched one
station herself next to the mouth of an ants' nest, busy tongue
flicking in and out to catch the little fairies as they emerged as
though from a snack dispenser. The feast has made the ubiquitous blue
and yellow lizards randy – the males circle each other, do pressups to
intimidate their rivals then begin a bout of tail-flick jousting that
usually culminates in a high speed chase across the compound.

The nightshift is something else though. Bats swoop low around the
research centre chasing the myriad flying things brought out by the
rains, each one a sinister little potential rabies vector. And we had
been warned about the scorpions and poisonous snakes that come out to
feast on this bounty after the lean dry season.

Shivonne and I were both very keen not to be stung or bitten by either
scorpions or snakes, and for once Michelle shared our caution.
Instead of eating out at the picnic table as usual (this would have
been impractical in any case because of the kamikaze ants dive-bombing the
candles) we decided to dine in the mess room – hot and stifling but,
we hoped, scorpion free.

Michelle stepped through the door first, carrying three plates of the
surprisingly palatable Indian MREs. I followed bearing assorted mugs,
cutlery and condiments. As Michelle headed for the table something
large, brown and extremely well endowed in the articulated legs
department scuttled out from under the sofa and stopped between her
feet. Hardened fieldworker that I am (hah!) I screamed, then gasped
"Michelle. Do. Not. Move". Amazingly not only did she follow
instructions she managed not to drop any of the food she was carrying.
Whatever-it-was then scurried on its merry way under the bookshelf.
"What's happening?" asked Shivonne, materialising behind me with a
large bottle of water and a puzzled expression. I waited until
everyone was safely out of the mess room before telling them what I'd
seen (Michelle looked rather ill), then went to find a night watchman
to hunt it down with extreme prejudice.

We decided to finish eating in my hut, which I was fairly certain
hadn't contained a scorpion half an hour ago at any rate. Halfway
through a rather nervous meal something came under the door and made a
high speed dash under the bed. At this point I invited one of the
nightwatchmen into my room (apparently as a woman you are really not
supposed to do this as the man will assume you want to sleep with him,
but I think he got the message from our terrified expressions and the
discarded food on the bed that this was not what we were looking for.
He flushed out something of approximately the dimensions and
colouration of an Alien face-hugger and trod on it. It burst quite

"Just a spider! Not dangerous!" he said, laughing. We leaned forward
to inspect the mangled mess of legs, mandibles and ichor. "Of course
it's a spider, it's got eight legs and no sting!" exclaimed Shivonne,
accusingly. ("I'd like to see you differentiate a patient with
pancreatitis and one with a burst appendix if they were moving past
you at 60 miles an hour" I thought of responding, two hours too late.)

Afterwards as we finished our meals we became quite blasé about the
facehuggers. I killed the next one myself with a surgical strike from
a sandal, not quite trusting it not to bite. Shivonne took photos of
its twitching corpse so that people would believe her about its size –
at least three people reading this will be very grateful that I can't
upload them. When the fourth and fifth came in we ignored them and
hoped they would eat the mosquitoes. We toasted snakes and scorpions
with ice-cold water and decided that Wali Kunda wasn't as dangerous as
we'd been told.

The next morning Michelle saw a real scorpion in the bathroom, which
the watchmen had to kill, and was very relieved to head back to the
coast. That evening the watchmen killed another scorpion and two
snakes. I'm wearing my jungle boots after dark now, and getting some
practice in with the sandal.

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

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.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

030609 - Who watches the watchmen?

Last night, in the stifling heat, I had a lovely dream about cool
waterfalls then woke up to find I could still hear water. Still half
dazed I assumed that someone had left the tap on, and that Jeff would
go and turn it off in a minute, and it was quite some time before I
was alert enough to realise that not only was there no Jeff here,
there shouldn't be any water either. My room is one down from the
shared bathroom (making me convenience food for the mosquitoes
breeding in the toilet there) and this seemed to be the source of the
noise, so I found my torch and went to investigate, Nancy Drew style.

Sure enough I was shocked to see that one of the taps had been left
turned on and water was cascading into the basin (my first impulse, I
must admit, was to stick my head under it). Those blessed with UK
plumbing will no doubt be wondering why seeing water coming out of a
tap was so startling, but here at the Mission although in theory we're
meant to have 24 hour water from the storage tanks, in practice the
guards empty them whenever they fancy a brew and I knew for a fact
that the tanks had been empty when we'd come back from the field the
previous day. The only was for them to have been refilled would have
been for the guards to have turned the pump on again in the middle of
the night, something they certainly shouldn't be doing as turning it
on more than twice a day doesn't give the well long enough to refill,
causing the pump to suck up sand which damages it.

Hell hath no fury like Julie needlessly deprived of a shower, so I
stormed up to the guard station to demand an explanation. There
should always be at least two guards on duty but only Elderly
Nightwatchman was present. He at first categorically denied that the
pump had been switched on, but changed his story after I escorted him
to the pump (which was on) and switched it off. Apparently Young
Nightwatchman had turned it on to have a shower, and now he had gone
to the village. When would he be back? "Soon, soon." I decided this
was more than I could handle alone and knocked on Emma's door, but she
was too soundly asleep to notice so I decided she deserved her rest
and sat down to wait.

At this point the righteous indignation fizzled out and I began to
have some doubts about my course of action. I had just caught Young
Nightwatchman out deserting his post, turning on the pump when he
wasn't supposed to, wasting electricity and wasting water, and Elderly
Nightwatchman covering for him. I began to wonder if he'd left the
tap running on purpose to empty the tank again and cover his tracks.
There were two of them and one of me, and while Elderly Nightwatchman
would probably fall over if I poked him with my little finger Young
Nightwatchman was a rather more formidable presence. Just as I was
considering bolting back to my room and locking the door Young
Nightwatchman returned.

In the event I needn't have worried. When asked where he'd been Young
Nightwatchman intially, rather ingeniously, claimed that he had gone
to turn the pump off. When I explained that this was impossible as I
had turned it off myself they both just started laughing and said "No
problem! No problem" when I tried to explain why they shouldn't turn
the pump on more than twice. Eventually I gave up in disgust and went
back to bed, vowing to call down the wrath of Emma upon them the next

Two hours later I was woken again by a roaring noise. My first
thought was that the generator had broken, and I rushed to the window
expecting to find the compound on fire but saw only backness. To my
horror I then noticed water cascading down the veranda - the guards
must have broken the pump after all, and now they couldn't switch it
off and the tank had burst! It was only when I remembered that the
water tank was on the other side of my room that I realised what it
was pounding on the flimsy tin roof of the mission.

The rains have come early this year.

020609 - I've had better days

There is a species of wasp (I've forgotten the name but I'm sure
someone reading this will be able to provide it in the comments) which
buries a cockroach in its burrows for its developing larvae to feed
on. It's a small wasp though , and a cockroach is a large insect, so
dragging a dead cockroach into the burrow would be impossible.
Instead of killing it then, the wasp stings the cockroach and injects
a very special toxin which doesn't paralyse it but destroys the part
of its brain that gives it volition (if that word can be applied to a
cockroach). The cockroach loses any desire to move of its own accord,
but if the wasp seizes it by the antennae and gently leads it towards
its burrow it will walk, unresisting, to its doom. There it will
remain alive as the young larvae feed on it, devoid of any desire to

In this heat I feel like that cockroach, capable of completing tasks
if led to them but not really in any fit state to plan a study. The
rains aren't due for another fortnight or so, but yesterday I saw
clouds in the sky for the first time and last night the heat felt like
a solid thing, heavy and smothering in the darkness. Sitting in the
village to catch flies I could feel the sweat pouring down my legs,
and when I got home I discovered a livid sweat rash between my tits
(in a way this is quite gratifying, as I didn't think my tits were big
enough to sweat between). To replace the water I'm drinking about
four litres of water a day, with a couple of sachets of dioralyte.
Fortunately knowing Lou has prepared me for that fact that for doctors
no bodily function is an unsuitable subject for polite conversation,
but I was still a little unsettled when Shivonne asked me how many
times a day I was going to the toilet. I was even more unsettled
when, after a brief stop to irrigate a nearby palm field (no ants this
time) Shivonne gave me an encouraging little smile and said "You're
not doing too badly for hydration!".

In spite of the heat we got some good flycatch data in the morning,
but things started to go wrong after lunch when we returned to a
village we'd screened last week and found to have a high incidence of
trachomatous infection. I could tell that something wasn't right as
soon we pulled in to the village - usually we are greeted with smiles
and shouts of welcome, but here the people looked sullen and were
reluctant to talk to Smauel L. It turned out that the day after we
had inspected the childrens' eyes there had been an outbreak of vernal
conjunctivitis (an eye infection different from trachoma) in the
village, for which the villagers were blaming. It's not impossible
that we caused this, but it seems very unlikely - when screening
Samuel L and the Professor followed the standard hygienic procedures
between eyes, this hadn't happened in any of the other villages we'd
screened and outbreaks of vernal conjunctivitis amongst children are
not uncommon that time of year in the normal course of events. What
mattered in this situation though was not what had caused the outbreak
but that the villagers believed that we had.

We gave out tubes of chloramphenicol to the mothers of the infected
children, and as a PR excercise gave sweets to the Alkalo for all the
village children, but they didn't want us to take samples. Suddenly a
furious mother confronted us with a sobbing girl with blood red
corneas and swollen eyelids coated in a white powder. It turned out
that she had conjunctivitis and that her mother had attempted to treat
this by crushing a packet of paracetamol tablets and pouring it into
her eyes. There's a bit of an attitude here that if a medicine treats
one thing it'll treat anything, and the more the better, but I think
even Shivonne was shocked by this. She washed her eyes out and gave
her some ointment for the infection, but there was nothing she could
do for the irritation.

If that wasn't enough, just as we were preparing to leave a shout went
up and a man came running up to the bantaba with a small girl in his
arms, blood pouring down her face. Once Shivonne had cleaned it up it
turned out to be a very small cut that had just been bleeding
profusely, but as she had done it on a rusty iron sheet Shivonne was
worried about tetanus. The child had no clinic card and noone knew
whether she was up to date with her vaccinations, so Shivonne told the
parents to take her to the nearby hospital for a vaccination - of
course as a trachoma screening team we had no vaccinations to give
out, but the villagers had a hard time believing this.

Driving home, Samuel L was uncharacteristically quiet. He eventually
explained that we would be going back to our own countries but these
were his people, whose language he spoke, and he had friends in nearby
villages - could we be absolutely certain that he hadn't given those
children conjunctivitis? We tried to reassure him, but "correlation
doesn't imply causation" is a nice pat phrase beloved of sceptical
bloggers but doesn't provide much comfort in these situations.

We stopped off at the Kaur weather station to ask for temperature,
humidity and wind speed data for the region over the sampling period.
All was going well until the station operator explained that providing
this information was complicated and that many people made a small
payment to help cover expenses. As he was paid a salary to collect
the data anyway I couldn't see that the expenses involved in providing
it would be much more than the cost of a pencil and paper, but by that
stage I would have given both kidneys to get the data and get home to
a cold bucket bath so I agreed to give him a "small present". I did
feel bad afterwards, knowing that by giving in I'd made things that
bit harder for the next researcher to come by, but screw it, I think
I'm accruing enough good karma just by being here and washing out of a
blue plastic rubbish bin every day to balance it out.

We stopped again to buy cold soft drinks and I was briefly amused by
my can of inaccurately named "Real Orange" (the only plant-derived
ingredients being sugar and, bizarrely, esterified wood-resin). My
mood was still sufficiently dark though that when Shivonne pointed out
a huddle of children around a well by the road I said the first thing
that came into my head, which was "One of them has probably fallen
in". She looked slightly shocked and said she thought they were
probably telling stories.

The thing about fieldwork though is there's no time or headroom to be
miserable, you just have to try to get some sleep and go out and do it
all again the next day. I hope tomorrow will be better, Inshallah.

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.

Monday, 1 June 2009


Before coming out here I had to complete an exhaustive fieldwork risk
assessment detailing every activity I planned to undertake and how to
minimise the risks that it entailed. When it comes to transport I am
supposed to travel only in well maintained MRC cars driven by a
reputable driver. Travelling by mule cart would not, I expect, have
been an alternative acceptable to Rothamsted's health and safety

Shivonne and I had Sunday off and decided to visit the local lumo or
Sunday market. As this is held in a field some distance out of town,
and as our drivers also had Sunday off we went the local way, on a
two-wheeled metal frame to which a few wooden slats had been attached
which doesn't really deserve to be dignified with the name "cart". We
tried to pick one pulled by the healthiest looking mule we could find
- most of the horses, donkeys and mules here are in shocking
condition, emaciated and with open sores on their sides. It seems a
bit silly to care about the condition of the animals here when the
people are living in poverty, but the people look happy and the draft
animals certainly don't.

We hopped up onto the cart and set off, picking up more passengers on
the way. I tried to take a photo of the driver but as I did so he
whipped his mule. The poor beast put on a sudden burst of speed and
the cart lurched, almost making me drop the camera. I decided to
concentrate on holding tight from that point on. After a
bone-rattling ride we reached the lumo and clambered unsteadily down.
I went forward to pay the driver and the cart promptly ran over my
foot. Thank you Roxana, Imogen, David et al., without those army
boots I'm sure I would have broken it but as it was I just felt a bit
sore and like a total tit. Note to parents: I will not do this again.

The lumo seemed packed and chaotic, and it was often hard to tell who
was the customer and who was the vendor. Sacking and tarpaulins were
strung overhead for shade, often a few inches below headheight, so I
spent much of the time stooping.We quickly discovered that there was
an underlying order though, clothes here, homeware there, car parts at
the back, vegetables at the front and next to them the dried fish
section which we steered well clear of because of the smell. I
bought a cooking pot (there was only one in the kitchen), some
homemade local soap which looked nice but turned out to be incredibly
harsh, some veg and a pretty headscarf (I could really get used to
this fake Muslim thing) before finding another cart to rattle us home.
This time we didn't have such a choice of horses and the poor beast
we picked was in very bad shape and farted all the way back, not great
for the passengers downwind.

At least I assume it was the horse, I suppose it could have been the driver.


One of the things a naive European visitor to The Gambia (such as
myself) finds most shocking is the rubbish strewn by the roadsides -
plastic bags, tin cans and other unidentifiable detritus mingle with
animal filth and the occasional rotting cow or horse carcase,
contorted and bloating in the sun. It's enough to make a naive young
entomologist realise that fly control may be more of a challenge here
than she had thought.

The drivers simply fling their used bottles and wrappers from the car
windows. One of the workers here has instituted a rubbish bags in
cars policy, but it does seem a bit pointless as as far as I can tell
there's no rubbish collection here - the cleaners would just take the
bags out to the bush anyway.

The President is apparently also not a fan of litter, but instead of
providing rubbish collection and recycling facilities he has
designated the last Saturday of every month as a Setsetal or clean up
day. Everyone in the country is meant to stop whatever they're doing,
indeed you can be arrested for driving between the hours of nine and
twelve, and clear up litter. I'm not sure what you're then supposed
to do with it, but I saw a lot of smoke and smelled burning plastic on

There is actually a form of recycling in operation here; the children
will pick up anything they can possibly make toys out of. I've seen
broken glasses frames, machine parts, a tin can lid fastened to a
stick with a rusty nail - anything sharp or broken or dirty that would
give a British mother nightmares the kids'll pick up and probably put
in their mouthes. I actually snatched a rusty wire coat hangar away
from a small boy because he was trying to stick the end in his ear,
then gave it back because he'd probably only have gone and started
playing with a razor blade instead or something. This recycling
actually worked in our favour once, when the landrover broke down in a
village. My knowledge of cars doesn't go much further than the fact
that you push the pedals and magic pixies under the bonnet make it go,
but apparently a wire had snapped. OUr driver asked one of the
village elders for help and explained what he needed, the elder
whipped a wire out of the mouth of a passing child and bingo, the
magic pixies started working again.

The problem is I think that Gambians are used to using materials that
do break down when they're discarded; houses are built from bricks cut
from the earth in pits outside the villages, and roofed with reed
thatch or palm leaves. The spiny, grey-purple stems of the same palm
make a goat-proof fence, neatly tied with bark ropes. Halved gourds
are used to serve food alongside the new enamel dishes on woven grass
mats. Gambians are accustomed to using things taht will return to the
earth if left outside for long enough, and simply have not yet adapted
to the fact that plastics will not do the same, but then again it's
not like we've got used to this fact either. When something is built
or made in the west no thought is given to how it can eventually be
disposed of, the only difference is that it goes somewhere we can't
see and don't have to think about. So of course a far more sensible
solution than leaving rubbish lying around the countryside where it
won't biodegrade is to dig a big hole somewhere out of sight and drop
it in there where it won't biodegrade. Because our system is
obviously far more sustainable.

Sprogs and swabs

On Thursday I finally got to start the work I'd come here to do -
taking samples from the eyes of kids with and without trachoma. The
first step was to actually find some kids with an active trachoma
infection, and to this end Shivonne (the doctor volunteering with the
project, who is the one actually poking the kids in the eye), The
Professor and I drove out to screen some local villages. On the way we
picked up our fieldworker, who is the spitting image of Samuel L
Jackson and so that's what I'm going to call him from now on. This
bloke is incredible; he's been working on the trachoma project for
some time and is able to identify Muscids in the dark and identify the
signs of trachoma from 500 metres. I exaggerate slightly but
certainly he should be the one getting the PhD, not me.

The children were summoned, lined up and the Samuel L turned the upper
eyelid inside out and checked for visible signs of infection. This
isn't painful but it is quite an unpleasant sensation and although the
kids didn't enjoy having it done to them very much they thought
watching it happen to others was brilliant entertainment. Some of the
older boys, unbidden, took it upon themselves to capture their
screaming peers and drag their sacrificial victims to the examining
stool. Some kids fought all the way, some looked resigned, some seemed
to enjoy the attention, some bawled as soon as they looked at us and
one little girls stamped up to the stool, crossed her arms and scowled
at Samuel L through the whole procedure before stomping off again with
a "hmmmph!".

Some of the kids struggled so much they had to be held down, which
made me feel rather uncomfortable. There's a rather different
attitude to discipline here - in Britain a crying child undergoing a
procedure like this would be comforted, here they were physically
restrained and often thumped or hit with switches if they cried, which
apart from being unpleasant to watch was rather counterproductive as
it just made them squirm and fight more. Usually it was the mothers
who held the children down, but in one village the Alkalo or headman
took on the task and performed it with a gentleness that I found very
moving, soothing instead of chiding and gently stroking the children's
eyelids closed with his thumb once they were done.

When not being sampled the kids were great fun, scared at first of the
white people but quickly gaining courage. One little girl in
particular stands out in my memory; four or five, shy at first, when I
smiled at her she came up to me and held out her hand. I shook it
gravely and she beamed, then started dragging other children forward
to shake my hand. As we left she shouted what sounded like "Send me
email!", and as neither Samuel L or our driver knew of anything in a
local language that sounded like that I can only assume it's what she
said. I doubt she could read or write, there was no electricity let
alone a computer in her village and as I have discovered internet
cafes are incredibly scarce here, but someone muct have taught her
that phrase and she wanted to stay in touch.

As we pulled out of the last village I saw two boys playing at doctors
trying to turn each others' eyelids inside out.

Having identified suitable clusters of trachoma, we returned the next
day to actually take the tear samples and the swabs that would tell us
whether the children had an active trachoma infection. (The symptoms
of trachoma can ake a while to develop and so can lag behind the
presence of the bacterium, and may persist once the infection has
cleared, so what you see on the childrens' eyelids may not correspond
to what you see with a PCR test for the presence of C.trachomatis
DNA). Shivonne took swabs by rubbing a cotton bud on the inside of
the eyelid and stciking another cotton bud up the children's nostrils
- I was amused to note that some of the dirty little perverts seemed
to rather enjoy this step. After the procedure was completed the
children got a "mintie", a boiled sweet, and it was amazing to see how
a child who had been crying inconsolably a second earlier suddenly
quietened down when a twist of luridly coloured cellophane was
deposited in their mitt.

Next to one village The Professor spotted a rocky outcrop rising a
good thirty metres into the air, unusual in a country that's mostly as
flat as me in a bikini. He asked the local villagers about it with
rather unsatisfying results ("What do you call that?" "A hill.") and
was informed that some missionaries had once climbed it, in a way that
suggested that this was only one of the crazy things missionaries did.
Not wishing to be beaten by missionaries he immediately decided that
we should do the same.

By this point in the day I had a thumping headache (usually we found a
place to sit in the shade for sampling, but something had gone wrong
in thelast village and we'd spent the afternoon sitting in full sun)
and couldn't think of anything less appealing than scrambling thirty
metres up baking rocks, but The Professor is a very singleminded man
and I don't think anything less than a stampede of hippos would have
stopped him. I reached the top feeling pretty awful and had to sit
for a few minutes with my head between my knees. Then I looked up and
the climb was suddenly worth it - the view was amazing with lush
swampland to the south soaking into the river Gambia and stately palms
rising above the dusty plains to the north, and the the thatched roofs
of villages we had visited dotted all around is.

Coming back down I snagged the back of my shirt on a rock and Samuel L
had to free me. He then decided it would be helpful to hold the back
of my shirt up and out of the way all the way down, so we came of the
hill like a slightly surreal bridal procession.

We set out again the next day and repeated the sampling operation.
More villages, more children, more screaming and smiles, resistance
and resignation. In the last village we met the Gambia's answer to
Richmond's pushy mothers. In Britain this woman would have been the
first to fake Christianity, move in with her sister to get into the
catchment area, anything to get her son into the right school. Here
she was determined that he should be included in our study. She dug
out his clinic card and kept trying to give it to me, and even went as
far as lifting poor little MOhammed onto the sampling bench ahead of
the other children we'd picked - Samuel L would then argue with her
until she took him away to make space for our sampling subject, then
she'd try it again when we changed child. Pushiness works -
eventually we included Mohammed in the control group just to give
Samuel L a quiet life. I took a picture of Mohammed, which I'll
upload when I get somewhere with a good enough connection. I'm
surprised she didn't ask me to print it out and frame it.

Coming back The Professor treated us to lunch at a small shack
restaurant next to the Kerouan bus garage, or rather treated everyone
else as I had no idea how coeliac-compatible the rich, spicy-smelling
stews were and declined. It was pleasant sitting in the shade under a
tree by the garage, even if the diesel fumes were occasionally a
little overpowering, and though the food smelled wonderful I was
really too hot to feel hungry and so didn't feel I was missing out.
In fact as I watched a pair of grubby small boys washing their hands
in the uncovered water bowl used for cooking I was suddenly glad I
hadn't eaten anything.

We have a few more vilages to sample, and then start the fly work on Monday.

The Missionary Position

After a variety of sickly soft drinks containing enough tartrazine to
send a whole class of eight year olds hyperactive, the most popular
drink in The Gambia is attaya, a very sweet, frothy green tea. There
are rituals around the making of it, involving pouring it from glass
to glass to make it foam, and around the drinking of it; the first,
weak cup is for the children, the second for the women and the third,
after it has stewed for some time, for the men. It's not unpleasant,
once you get used to the fact that it's brewed in what is basically a
saturated sucrose solution, and it gives you a welcome caffeine kick
in the soporific, scorching afternoons. The trouble with attaya is
that it's the reason I can never get a bloody shower.

I am staying at the Catholic Mission in Farafenni, as the missionaries
have all left now and are renting it out to the MRC. The compound
gets water twice a day, in the morning and evening, and this is pumped
into two storage tanks held high above us on scaffolding towers. In
theory this should mean that there's running water on tap, as the
water in the tanks should last until the next time it's available to
pump. In practice however the compound guard station is situated just
next to the tanks, and when they fancy making attaya they open the
storage tank drain tap to fill their kettles rather than walking the
extra ten metres or so to the water tap. As they usually forget to
close it again the water drains away, and then we have no water until
the next pumping period. Apparently there is nothing that can be done
about this, as every other firm of security guards in Farafenni is
crooked whereas ours are just incompetent, but coming back from a
dusty drive to find there is no water is enough to make me wonder how
bad the others could really be.

The guards' other job, apart from failing to open the gate when we try
to get back into the compound, is to switch between generators. We
have 24 hour power here to keep the sample freezers running, but it is
only provided by the grid for a few hours a day. Because of the
timings the guards have to switch on the backup generator at three
ever morning, but they will not do this unless someone wakes up at
three to tell them to, no matter how many alarm clocks they're
provided with.

Staying here is a strange mixture of hardship and luxury. Water is
scarce and the fan in my room doesn't work, so I'm typing this in the
coolest place I can find, the senior kitchen (or rather the "senior
chicken" as it says on the key fob). On the other hand we eat off
fine china and silver tray; the visiting Bishops, coming to check on
how the conversion of the heathens was progressing, apparently liked
their home comforts. I have a fridge in my room, although it's
currently full of dirty dishes that I haven't been able to wash up
without water (it's the only way to stop them smelling). We also have
the amazing Sarah, who comes in to clean our rooms and somehow manages
to leave everything spotless with barely any water, no mean feat given
the thick red dust that settles on everything. She will also take
away your filthy clothes every morning and return then, immaculate,
ironed (no Tumbu flies for me!) and neatly folded, in the early
afternoon. She even managed to get the Deet stains out. I think I
could get used to this.

Driving up to Farafenni I needed a bush, the African equivalent of a
Starbucks, and had no sooner started performing my official business
when I felt a sharp pain in my left buttock. My first thought was
that I'd been bitten by a snake and that I was just going to have to
die from it as the alternative was asking my driver or the Professor
to suck the poison out. Fortunately, or perhaps not, it turned out
that I had simply flooded a red ants' nest and they were now biting me
in all sorts of amusing places and indeed everywhere else. It took a
great deal of thrashing and a fair bit of nudity (luckily it was a
very secluded bush) to dislodge the majority them, and I was still
finding them in my hair several hours later.

The wildlife at the mission is rather friendlier. Jewel-bright yellow
and blue lizards bask on the trees and scuttle across the verandas and
the ground is pitted with ant lion traps. There are three potter wasp
nests on the bathroom doorframe too, but they seem to be abandoned at
the moment. The mission also has two semi-feral cats, Clair (mostly
white with black bits) and Vas (Mostly black with white bits), named
after two previous researchers here. Claire is the friendlier of the
two and keeps trying to get into my room, but I have a policy here of
not getting too friendly with anything that could give me rabies or
fleas and have learnt to open the door very quickly and make a dash
for it before she goes between my ankles. This mode of exiting my
room does of course look ridiculous when there's no cat outside, but I
just have to live with that.

The strange thing about Claire and Vas is that half-starved, scrawny
creatures that they are they're just as fussy about food as a pampered
pussycat back in the UK. The first time Claire ambushed me she did
get into my room and under the bed, and proved impossible to
extricate. I was finally forced to make up some dried milk in a tin
to tempt her out, and although she followed it outside she took one
lick of it then turned her nose up and walked away. She also refused
to eat a perfectly good dead yellow and blue lizard. I know that it
was a perfectly good dead lizard because it was a perfectly good live
lizard until I didn't look where I was going and put my fat hoof on

Anyway, shower time, let's see if there's water today.

Shaken and stirred

It's something of a cliche to say that travel in developing countries
makes you appreciate things you had previously taken for granted, but
it's said so often becaus eit happens to be true. Clean water.
Internet access. Roads with more flat surface than pothole. The road
to Dakar had so many potholes in that leaving it altogether and
driving cross country would probably have been a smoother.

I went to Dakar in search of solvents - another thing that I have come
to appreciate is things turning up when people say they're going to
turn up, as the six litres of hexane I had ordered a month before
coming had somehow failed to materialise at MRC Fajara. Such things
aren't available in The Gambia so I got to see two west African
countries for the price of one and head to the Senegalese capital
Dakar, where The Professor remembered a shop selling lab supplies and
reagents. I found this quite remarkably as I don't think there's
anywhere in London where you could just walk in off the street and buy
a couple of litres of analar grade solvent.

I'm still accompanied by one of the world's leading experts on
trachoma, over whom I fortunately failed to vomit on the flight. I'd
met him in the UK before and found him rather shy and awkward, but the
transformation here is amazing - he seems far more at home in The
Gambia than he did in London. Everyone here calls him Professor. At
first I assumed that they called all white people that, but I have
since realised that he does actually know every single person in The
Gambia personally. So I'm calling him The Professor in this blog too,
mostly so he never finds out that I called him shy and awkward.

Dakar appears to be one huge traffic jam with a city wrapped around
it. The locals see this as a business opportunity rather than an
inconvenience though, attempting to flog sim cards and cheap watches
to the vehicles' captive occupants. We arrived at twelve to discover
that Fermon, the lab supplies shop, didn't open until three, so went
for some lunch. We got chatting to the restaurant owner, who asked
where I was from. She was very surprised when I said I was from
Britain, and said she'd never have known I was English from my accent.
I felt very flattered that my French was so good until she added "I
thought you were German".

Dakar is a curious blend of French elegance, vibrant African
streetlife and abject squalor. We visited an air conditioned, marble
tiled patisserie that wouldn't have looked out of place in Paris and
were served by elegant women in crisp uniforms, then stepped out on to
a street lined with beggars, most of whom seemed to be missing at
least one appendage. My headscarf, which had worked like a charm in
The Gambia, suddenly meant I got the worst of it.

I've been wearing a headscarf since I got here, not only because it's
a Muslim country but because it keeps the sun off my ears and neck. I
put it on at the airport and it was like flicking a switch,
immediately stopping men from hassling me. It's also gone down very
well with the local staff, who The Professor says are very impressed -
certainly everyone's gone out of their way to help me. There are
downsides though, I'm tying my scarf the Arabic way rather than the
West African way just because that's the only way I know how to do it
but I've discovered that here wearing it this way apparently means
that I've been to Mecca. The Professor finds this hilarious and tells
anyone who asks that I have indeed been - I'm dreading the day when I
meet someone who speaks enough English to ask what it was like. There
are also certain things that the local people would forgive a "toubab"
for, but expect a "Muslim" to know better - I got a filthy look off a
woman for handing her the hat she had dropped with my left hand. And
in Dakar the beggars expected more charity from a "Muslim" than from
the others, following me down the street tugging at my headscarf and
shouting at me to remember my obligations.

We returned to Fermon at three, and over cold Fantas purchased a
bottle of solvent for the equivalent of seventy pounds, more than
twice what we would have paid in the UK. I hugged it on my lap like a
baby all through the bone-rattling ride home.

MRC Fajara

I'm accustomed to waking to the Hounslow dawn chorus; the scrape of
metal on metal of the next door shop's ventilation fans, punctuated by
the sporadic roar of planes overhead and with a baseline provided by
the rumble of traffic. So it was a pleasure this morning to wake up
to the hoots and shrieks of Fajara's exotic birdlife. Some of the
calls didn't even sound like birds; it took quite an effort to
persuade myself that there are no monkeys here, but I'm certain that
there are no squeaky wheels or wobble boards in the mango trees
outside my window, however insistantly my ears may tell me otherwise.

Today is a public holiday in The Gambia, giving me a chance to settle
in before starting work in earnest. (Tomorrow may also be a public
holiday but this hasn't been decided yet - presumably it depends on
how hard the people who make these decisions party today.) My main
task for the day was therefore to change some money and to this end
one of the MRC drivers, Omar, picked me up at ten in the MRC jeep.

The journey into town was picturesque to say the least, past scenes
that I'd only seen in National Geographic magazine. Donkey carts
shared the road with trucks seeming to defy the laws of gravity with
impossible amounts of baggage pled on topof them, and with people
dressed in vibrant waxcloth hefting equally improbable loads on their
heads. The buildings appeared to be in the process of either
construction or disintigration and sometimes both simultaneously, but
gaily flapping laundry hanging from balconies showed them to be
inhabited. Splashes of green were rare in that dusty red landscape
but insted sprays of red or purple hibiscus flowers hung over the
whitewashed walls. The smells too were incredible; sunbaked earth,
roasted meat, unwashed bodies, dung, diesel fumes and underneath it
all the tang of the sea. This cocktail should have been unpleasant
but I actually found it triggered pleasant memories, of festivals and
childhood holidays on the Isle of Wight (I'll let you guess which
smells were which).

Sadly I seem destined to be an observer rather than someone who has
much interaction with the local people for some time yet. My
relationship with Omar feels rather awkward - I forgot about the
formalised greetings (a scripted exchange of "How are you?" "Well"
"How is your family?" "Well, praise Allah!" "How is the day?" "Good")
when we first met which must have come across as incredibly aloof and
rude. My subsequent attempts to make small talk foundered against a
wall of either disinterest or incomprehension ("Why is there so much
building work here? Is the city growing?" "A lot of people are
building houses") and I was a little startled by the scope of the role
of a driver; I had assumed that he would simply take me from A to B
but instead he took my money and bartered for the best exchange rate
then changed it for me, and then when we got to the supermarket
insisted on pushing my trolley, packing it for me and taking the
shopping to the car. I felt that the effort he had put in to changing
my money for me went a long way beyond the call of duty - I could
certainly never have got such a favourable rate on my own, so
afterwards I offered him the equivalent of £15, which seemed
reasonable as I had changed several hundred. The reaction was not
what I had hoped for. He seemed shocked, then slightly insulted,
before finally taking the money with a mumbled "God bless you" that
was hard to read. I'm going to be spending quite a lot of time in his
company, so I'm going to have to find out pretty quickly from someone
how to deal with someone who seems more like a manservant than a

Returning to the compound I met some of the other people sharing my
accomodation block,including the luckiest placement student alive who
was sent out here to work on hepatitis for his undergraduate project,
and two women from the university of Iowa who I recognised from my
flight. I got chating to one of them, who was working with a group
trying to reduce the incidence of female genital mutilation in The
Gambia. This sounded amazing, and I raved about how worthwile her
work sounded before turning to her friend and asking whether she
worked on FGM too. "No, I'm a statistician." she replied. Oops.

Anyway, off to enjoy the comfort of my air conditioned room and
ensuite shower while I have them - I won't get this sort of thing
upcountry. Night all.

Long blog post is looooong

I've only just got internet access, so am going to upload the blog
posts I've been saving individually rather than as a whole novel at
once. Enjoy.