Camping with the Prince and Other Tales of Science in Africa

by Thomas A. Bass
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1558

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.

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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. Are the instances of theoretical research anomalies, or does Bass deliberately ignore them to make his point? Is the Union of South Africa being ignored for political reasons, or because it is uninteresting?

A second theme is the failure of European and American ’experts” to solve the many economic, social, and health problems of Africans. Although Bass promises not to dwell on these failures, they appear frequently, perhaps in spite of his efforts to try to ignore them. Often Bass’s informants identify the cause of the failures as the attempt to impose inappropriate technological or social solutions upon the people and environment of Africa. Time after time, Bass provides examples of problems that persist or new problems that arise because of the solution attempted or because the climate, social structure, and needs of Africa are not the same as Western Europe or the United States. Underlying these attempts to utilize inappropriate solutions is the desire by both the non-African experts and the African leaders to attempt large-scale complex, technologically dependent, expensive solutions. Perhaps most discouraging is Bass’s documentation of scientists’ insights ignored by funding agencies, political leaders, and non- African experts because the scientific discoveries did not fit the preconceptions of either the non-African sources of funding or the African political leadership, or conflicted with the short-term economic needs of the local community. Science tends to deal with long-term solutions that may result in short-term dislocations.

Third, the commitment of the African scientific community and the non-African scientists highlighted in the book to both research and the improvement of the lifestyle and environment of Africans shines forth. Ultimately, this is an optimistic account. Despite limitations of funds, the political instability of many African nations, and corruption in government, the indigenous scientific community is growing quantitatively and qualitatively, achieving international recognition. Africans do not appear in this book as second-class scientists. They are partners in the international scientific community. If they are sometimes junior partners, the reasons are limited funds and technological resources. They are dedicated both to the international community of learning and their own people.

Bass’s own level of scientific literacy is relatively high. He communicates the essence of scientific research to the nonscientist clearly, without becoming overly simplistic. Despite the multitude of disciplines covered in his account, he does not falter. He is especially successful in providing insight into the methods that scientists must bring to bear on their problems. These range from catching fish to taking blood samples at midnight from less than happy villagers. For readers interested in more technical detail than Bass supplies, the bibliography is adequate.

He is at his best, however, when he attempts to convey the motivations and personal commitments of the scientists. These men and women clearly fascinated him. As he noted in his preface, he enjoys being with scientists. His pleasure in their company is evident. He treats them as heroic, dedicated individuals.

Using the word “tales” to describe the chapters in this book is very apt. Bass’s accounts are neither historical essays nor journalistic reports. Despite the bibliography, his primary objective does not appear to be the popularization of specific scientific research. He has not written a political tract either. He avoids judgmental analysis as much as possible. Yet neither are his chapters straightforward chronological reports. To call them anecdotes or simple descriptions would belie the research that provides the foundation for them. Fundamentally, they are good stories, told well, with feeling. They make their point, sometimes subtly, sometimes vividly, but always entertainingly. Ultimately, the point of every story is that Africa is not as badly off as Westerners usually think. There is hope, because of the dedication and perseverance of the men and women he describes and the natural resiliency of the African people.

The separate chapters are also tales in another sense. It makes little or no difference whether they are read in random order or as they are placed in the book. Each tale stands alone. The chapters are self-contained in terms of the political and social background, the science, and the major participants.

Unfortunately, Bass chose to begin with his tale of Prince Philip’s visit, the longest and in many ways the least interesting in the book. Too much space is taken up with cultural clashes and problems with the Prince’s schedule and too little space is dedicated to science. Persevere. The pace and the tales improve through the book. Perhaps the best of the tales is the last, which focuses on Otewale Tomori, director of the virus laboratory at the University of Ibadan. Despite asides on tribal customs, the civil war in Nigeria, and other aspects of the social and cultural context, Bass never loses sight of his primary subject: virology and African diseases. Interest never lags.

Science—the observation of nature for purposes of prediction and control—developed in Europe. It is alien to the native cultures of the Americas and Africa, who traditionally have used ritual in the way Western scientific culture uses experiments. Bass views Africa as a test case for the transplantation of science into a non-Western cultural environment, and his book as a preliminary report on the success of the transplantation. There are still many hurdles to overcome, but there is reason for hope. Science in Africa is not an oxymoron.

Sources for Further Study

Bookwatch. XI, April, 1990, p.6.

The Christian Science Monitor. March 23, 1990, p. 12.

Foreign Affairs. LXIX, Summer; 1990, p.192.

Kirkus Reviews. LVII, December 15, 1989, p.1794.

Library Journal. CXV, February 1, 1990, p.103.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 18, 1990, p.1.

Nature. CCCXLIV, April 26, 1990, p.901.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, July 29, 1990, p.8.

Publishers Weekly CCXXXVI, December 15, 1989, p.54.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, March 25, 1990, p.13.

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