Camping with the Prince and Other Tales of Science in Africa

by Thomas A. Bass

Camping with the Prince and Other Tales of Science in Africa Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The phrase “science in Africa” usually conjures up images of European or American scientists investigating the flora and fauna of the jungles or deserts of Africa, with Africans relegated to the status of laborers, or perhaps visions of anthropologists studying African tribes. Some aspect of an apparently alien Western science being practiced in Africa does appear in this book. The title is derived from a visit by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, to Mali in his role as head of the World Wildlife Fund, with the resulting clash of cultures described in some detail. There are other examples of non-African experts using Africa as their laboratory. Balancing these, however; are accounts of the rise of an indigenous African scientific community, with laboratories and institutions manned by scientists pursuing an African agenda. The European and American scientists discussed here are sympathetic to Africa and its people. To a large extent, this book acts as a corrective.

Thomas A. Bass describes research in a wide range of disciplines in the biological and human sciences: entomology, ichthyology, human paleontology, virology, environmental science, economics, and agriculture. Some of the research is in the field, some of it in laboratories, and some has both components.

His geographical perspective is more limited. Aside from Mali, a former French colony, he considers only activity in the band of nations stretching across central Africa which were once part of the British empire: Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, and Rwanda. Other past components of the European colonial empires, North African nations—such as Egypt and Libya—and the Union of South Africa are ignored. The advantage of such a selection is that English served generally as the common language and most of the scientists, European, American, and African, shared some commonality in education and scientific orientation. Many of the Africans received at least some of their training in American or English universities. It would be interesting, however, to have more explicit comparisons drawn between English and French scientific and colonial traditions.

Three themes are evident in Bass’s descriptions. The first is the significance of practical applications for the patronage of scientific research. Neither theoretical physics nor astronomy appears in this book. Pure mathematics and other theoretical fields are also missing. For Bass’s purposes, they are not practiced in sub-Saharan Africa. The biological and human sciences which do appear, whether the participants are Africans or non-Africans, all have applied components. From Bass’s reports, the problems of the continent are apparently too great and pressing to allow for the luxury of scientific knowledge for the sake of knowledge. There must be a practical payoff. Insect physiology is studied because of the impact of insects on life in Africa. The morphology and behavior of cichlids (a family of fish) in Lake Malawi has significance for understanding fish evolution, but it also leads to answers to questions concerning the control of disease and the local fishing industry. Economics is used to explain why famine can occur despite the presence of food. The only exception to this emphasis on some sort of societal return on its investment in science is human anthropology. Africa was the site of the origin of humans, and Bass cannot ignore the research community searching for evidence of earlier and ever earlier humanoids. No claims are made in this case for the betterment of life. Unfortunately, Bass does not make it clear whether the emphasis on applied science is a manifestation of his selectivity or a true indication of the distribution of scientific resources in Africa. For example, astronomy does thrive in portions of Africa not considered by Bass, such as the Union of South Africa....

(The entire section is 1558 words.)