Monday, December 17, 2007

Conversation with a Congolese Scientist

I just had a conversation with a biologist from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He is in the PhD program at UCLA. I was over at my friend Josh Beck's apartment and we had dinner with him. I asked him his perspective on Africa, its problems and his ideas on solutions and decided to email you what he said.

Neville has been working in Congo with the NIH (a US institution) on Monkeypox, an emerging disease with the potential to become as deadly as Smallpox. His advisor in Washington DC and he organized a massive sampling in the villages throughout DRC. In the end, he collected 15000 blood samples by trekking through the Congolese jungles. They are going to be processed in Oregon where they hope to track the mutation of existing diseases and identify new viruses that are emerging in the jungles.

He is one of the top scientists in DRC, which has one of the best educated populations in Africa. He was awarded a scholarship from the NIH to be trained as a PhD at UCLA.

He is critical of aid as it exists today, but believes it is very important nonetheless.

The UN works with whomever the government tells them to work for, and then the clothes or food go to the families and friends of the government workers.

He also talked about how stupidly it is given. Right before he left, he told of visiting a neighboring country and seeing a very expensive piece of diagnostic/science equipment (a flow cytometer) just sitting collecting dust. France had donated it to help in the fight against AIDS, but there were no scientists who knew how to use it. Someone stole it thinking it was a TV, but after being unable to get it to work, he brought it back. The bottom line was if the machine were given to DRC on the other side of the river, it could have actually been used.

His idea is to connect with individual and trustworthy individual Africans who would be faithful in giving aid to those who actually need it. He said when he went out into the villages, that there were naked and hungry people. Most of the aid stays in the cities or goes to greedy politicians. He said he has many trustworthy friends that could be held accountable by being expected to show pictures and stories of children helped and with occasional visits to Africa. I've gotten his email and plan to follow up with that.

There was definitely a Flat-World moment or two. When he was doing his research, he had a Land Rover that was connected with an antenna to a high-speed modem back in the city. He said he once was in a village 1000km away talking via Skype videophone to Washington DC to get advice on how to proceed in the Congolese rain forest.

He mentioned the cost of Internet was rather low, about a cent a minute. To call the US, it was 40 cents a minute.

He believes education is a major part of getting Africa back on its feet. He said he would help as much as he could, but he just didn't have the money to send everyone to school. A student really wanted to go to university, but couldn't afford it. He said the cost of attendance would be less than $1000 per year and that a degree took 3 to 4 years to complete. There are 2 year masters programs, but no PhD programs.

The thing he wants to achieve to build up the scientific world is collaborations between American and African institutions. Surprisingly to me, there are many Congolese scientists. They know all about what a Western Blot would be, but have no money to do them. There are no resources in DRC for researchers or students, so he proposes an exchange program. Americans could go to Africa to study Malaria as it really is, and Africans could come to America to learn how to use equipment and get trained.

I asked him what were some of the things that were different about America's culture that he noticed. The first thing he said was, "You are very hardworking."

The second thing he pointed out and admired was our patriotism. He thought our patriotism was important in our success as a country. He said, "Without patriotism, it is the death of that country." He believes that this is a major problem in African politics: the leaders aren't patriotic and don't want their country to be great. Their patriotism can be bought, so they sell their country.

He believes our biggest failing is in our ignorance of the world. "The world is a village," and we have no idea what is going on in it.

"That is what is lacking in Africa: men of principles". He respects America for its principles, or rather the principles of our founders that exist now only as a residual (He told a proverb of using a jar to store chilies, and then even if they are taken out, the jar will still smell of them forever).

It was a really cool night. I learned so much and got such an improved perspective on the world. I hope to actually collaborate with him and have an impact on Africa instead of just feeling bad.

1 comment:

  1. The fact that the gentleman you spoke with is studying here in the United States is testament to one of the central issues surrounding education in Africa. We hear many stories and even the occasional novel about a heroic African native who fought their way out of the bush into a western institution of learning. What we aren't usually privy to is the part of the story where said African scholar/artist/leader etc.. remains in the U.S. or Europe and lives out the rest of their lives sharing their experiences with seemingly philanthropic "westerners" willing to listen. You mentioned the solution in your post...and it appears (and I'm happy to hear) that Neville agrees that what is missing from this scenario is patriotism. An African who is priveleged enough to be able to study alongside the greatest minds of our time but who at the end of the day will turn around and focus their effort on their nation of origin.

    Aid will fail so long as it is misdirected and it will be misdirected as long as there is no one with a good perspective on a country's political situation, health situation, technological situation and overall MO. This someone would almost assuredly be a native who has developed an apprectiation for the nature and origin of foriegn aid money who still retains a good working knowledge of the issues facing a sucessful implementation of those funds. This, Dave is why I think we should start a development consulting business. With the money that is wasted/imbezzled in a poor attempt at implementing aid in countries with corrupt individuals in the command chain, we could provide a comprehensive plan for redevelopment and appropriate distribution of aid money with the help of local "insiders" such as your friendly biologist.

    You and I know perhaps as well as anyone what technology can do for an underpriveledged community. The problem, once again is the implementation of that technology. We can send a tractor to a community who harvests by hand. They will fail to use the tractor appropriately because one must fail several times before they learn. Long before that learning curve has ended, the tractor will break down. There is no one who can fix it because while we could afford to ship a tractor, we couldn't provide a mechanic. The tractor then becomes useless and now, we have wasted most of a season trying to reap with a 10 ton John Deere that has not only failed to be as productive as our "manual" method but is now stuck in the middle of my field and is leaking oil and hydraulic fluid into my crops. Forgive my extended metaphor but that is the classic example of how throiwing technology at a problem without providing support and a long term, sustainable implementation plan can cause more harm than good. Solution? Implementation strategy developed by nationals who do not benefit directly from the aid money but rather by the sucess of the program.