How an abandoned lab could show us the future

The Amani Hill Research Station in Tanzania was once one of East Africa’s leading laboratories – now it is a shadow of its past glory. Rachel Nuwer visited to find out what happened, and discovered lessons about the fragility of scientific progress that the whole world should consider.

Pushing open the creaky wooden doors, I was first hit by the mineral smell of dust and paper. The air was warm and still, and sunlight streamed through tall windows, illuminating floor-to-ceiling shelves neatly packed with thousands of books. While some were labelled “Not to be Borrowed,” the vast majority of this library’s impressive collection was available to check out. As I browsed subjects ranging from agriculture to medical mathematics, I noticed a sign hanging overhead: “Realm of Knowledge and Silence.”

Indeed, all was utterly quiet, but for its order and solemnity, the overwhelming feeling in this library was eeriness. Approaching a shelf labelled “Current Periodicals,” I removed a heavy, hardbound volume at random. Its once-blue spine was faded to a sickly green-grey, and worm bores riddled the brittle cover. The tangled, hollowed remains of a long-dead spider fell to my feet as I opened it to its cover page: “Current Chemical Papers 1956.”

A sign asks for quiet in the Amani library (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

A sign asks for quiet in the Amani library (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

Back when that periodical was actually current, this library was a very different place. Home to one of the most impressive collections of naturalist books and scientific journals in Africa, it served nearly 100 staff members working at the Amani Hill Research Station. Though located in the remote Tanzanian jungle, the station was a world class centre of study, one widely respected and regarded as playing a pivotal role in developing East African science. I’m here to discover the forces that led to its current disarray – and the lessons they could teach us all.

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Sometimes referred to as a time capsule in the jungle, Amani and its scientific legacy speak to a unique moment in history, when African researchers took the helm at field stations, universities and hospitals in Senegal, Cameroon, Nigeria, Kenya and more following colonial independence. Optimism brimmed for a bright future of African-led research – and all the innovations, prosperity, freedom and racial equality it would bring.

Old books on a shelf in the Amani library (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

Old books on a shelf in the Amani library (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

For most, however, this dream was cut short. From the 1990s, promising young researchers left the continent to work abroad, or signed their talents over to Western-led labs in their home countries. As the years passed, many African-run research stations, including Amani, entered into a long, slow decline, thanks to financial, political and structural troubles. Others that remained operational often became dependent on foreign funders that ultimately set research agendas.

To understand Amani and places like it is to understand the forces that could dismantle science anywhere

But despite stereotypes about Africa’s dysfunction turning the continent into a “hole in the map” for science (as Jean-Paul Sartre once put it) the challenges that drove Amani and other stations to close are not Africa-specific. Time and time again – in much of the former Soviet Union, in Europe’s southern periphery today – shifting politics and spiraling economies have spelled doom for research agendas. To understand Amani and places like it is to understand the forces that could dismantle science anywhere.

“We live in this strange, imaginary place where we think this cannot happen to us, that our academia will forever be plush and comfortable,” says Paul Wenzel Geissler, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo. “But Amani represents the future for us all if basic foundational science is devalued and infrastructure is neglected.”

The road to the Amani Hill Research Station (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

The road to the Amani Hill Research Station (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

To learn about what happened at Amani, Geissler organised a team of anthropologists, historians, visual artists, geographers and more to visit five key sites across Africa. All are places whose research helped to shape 20th Century medical science and public health, but that are now mere shadows of their former selves. Such sites, Geissler believes, embody “past futures” – the rose-tinted visions of the future that everyone at the time believed in and strived toward. “If you put yourself in the mind of African scientists in the 1970s, they didn’t expect everything to crumble,” Geissler says. “Science was the future – it was durability, solidarity and progress.”

These ‘past futures’ can help us think about what is at stake in our own societies – especially at this political juncture – Paul Wenzel Geissler

As he and his colleagues emphasise in Traces of the Future, a book produced through the project, their aim in researching Amani was not to bask in “ruin porn” or indulge in “voyeuristic curiosity about loss” incurred by others, but to better understand our own shared pasts, presents and past futures in the making.  “All too often, we lack an appreciation of the scientific futures that have thrived on this continent in the past,” Geissler says. “But those past futures can help us think about what is at stake in our own societies – especially at this political juncture.”

Documents in the library from a pre-digital age (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

Documents in the library from a pre-digital age (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

Amani’s story began in the late 19th Century, when German colonials established a sanitarium high in the Usambara Mountains, in what is today northeastern Tanzania. Their time at Amani was short lived, however. Following World War One, Germany ceded the territory to the British, who continued the agricultural and forestry work there until World War Two.

In 1949, the British established a lowland station at the base of the Usambara mountains to study malaria, but the location proved much too muggy and buggy for their liking. They decided to relocate their labs to higher elevation. With its cool mountain air, contemplative isolation and inspirational views – on clear days, you can see all the way to the Indian Ocean – Amani was perfect. “If you want to read papers and books, if you want to study and learn, the environment here allows you to do that,” says Stephen Fedha, a former technician who was hired in 1964. “Unlike a noisy, hot city, Amani is friendly for such work.”

From the beginning, the British scientists set their goals high: the complete eradication of malaria in Africa. Life at the station was no less aspirational. Despite its remoteness, the Amani post office processed a steady stream of mail; a car arrived every Tuesday to bring shopping and movies for cinema evenings; and families received fresh milk and meat from the resident dairy cow herd. The station produced its own electricity and had its own grid and water works. For recreation, there was a netball court and a tennis court, a football field and a bowling alley, and on weekends, staff passed time at two different social clubs, whose crowds were divided along racial lines. Bands were even brought in from Tanga, the nearest town, hours away.

The Amani director's office (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

The Amani director’s office (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

In return for such luxuries, residents were required to abide by a strict set of rules meant to impose an orderly, domestic life, including bans on gardening and trading on the side. Homes were annually white-washed, and even the sprawling English lawn was a high maintenance affair. Planted with grass imported from Kenya, it required the service of two hedge men, 14 grass cutters and at least 23 weeders to keep the surrounding jungle at bay.

There was also a profound faith in science for building a free, equal and developed Africa

Things began to shift in 1962, when colonial independence came and the station soon saw its first African technician named as co-author on a scientific paper. Under a new Dutch director’s anti-colonial leftist views, unspoken racial boundaries at staff clubs, restaurants and sports fields began to dissolve. Some African technicians travelled to Europe to attain graduate degrees and returned to Amani as full-fledged scientists. “The wider winds of change that were happening across the globe during this period with regard to race, class and gender all intertwined at Amani,” Geissler says. “There was also a profound faith in science for building a free, equal and developed Africa.”

The Amani library was once a very different place (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

The Amani library was once a very different place (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

The lab’s transition did not happen overnight, however. Most African researchers throughout the 1960s were still largely confined to important but highly repetitive technical tasks – ones that did not call upon their intellectual input. That finally changed in 1971, when Amani appointed its first African director, Philip Wegesa.

Born in Kenya and educated in London, Wegesa was both passionate about the natural world and slightly eccentric (he sometimes retrieved and dissected roadkill to examine the parasites inside). In addition to his Western education, Wegesa’s scientific career – which mostly focused on malaria, as his predecessors had done – benefited from the East African Community, an intergovernmental body established by Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda for mutual economic development. Amani’s researchers were able to take advantage of field sites located in all three countries, and many considered an appointment there to be a privilege.

“The lifestyle was as plush as it was in colonial times, but now it was plush for African scientists, too,” Geissler says. “They got to have the big houses, the cars and the titles that, before independence, only white people could have.” Most importantly, the station’s research agenda was now in their hands, too.

Faded photographs of memories of the past on the laboratory wall (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

Faded photographs of memories of the past on the laboratory wall (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

At first, things went well under Wegesa’s leadership. He and his wife, a technician from a nearby village, moved into the large German-built director’s house. They continued to work on malaria and river blindness, and later expanded to plague. Dreaming of an ever-greater Amani, Wegesa hired an architect from Dar es Salaam to design a modern, multistory lab for malaria and vector-borne disease research, and to update the staff housing.

Plans were drawn up – but never realised. In 1977, political turmoil caused the East African Community to collapse, and the Ugandans and Kenyans working at the station ­– including Wegesa – were forced to leave. “The change was not so nice, because only Tanzanians were left holding this institute,” Fedha recalls. “When the three countries were working here together, things were much better.”

Wegesa, meanwhile, attempted to carry on his work in Kenya, where he was instrumental in the foundation of Kenyan malaria research. But he was soon diagnosed with schizophrenia and died a few years after leaving Amani. “He had great plans, but nobody listened to him,” his wife later told Geissler.

The Amani post office once processed a steady stream of mail (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

The Amani post office once processed a steady stream of mail (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

Research at Amani continued under new Tanzanian leadership, but finances were becoming strained. Amani’s last British scientist had departed, reducing the station’s direct foreign funding. To further complicate things, in 1979 the cash-strapped government – which had just emerged from a year-long war with Uganda – decided that the country’s medical research programme, including at Amani, would henceforth be funded primarily through overseas collaborations.

“Before the East African Community broke up, the scientists up at Amani were used to the money just being there,” says Peter Mangesho, a social anthropologist and principal research scientist at Tanzania’s National Institute for Medical Research. “When things were restructured and funding suddenly had to be competed for, they didn’t understand the new process.”

The Amani Medical Research Centre became the first to show that treating a mosquito net with insecticide reduced rates of malaria infection

Those who did manage to attain funding usually did so through temporary grants from Western donors or labs, which caused their work to largely shift from basic research to clinical trials. The results were still significant, however. The Amani Medical Research Centre became the first to show, for example, that treating a mosquito net with insecticide significantly reduced rates of malaria infection, and that combination therapy – an approach that incorporates anti-malaria medication, mosquito control management (like bed nets) and pest-deterring building elements – could slow the development of insecticide resistance.

“The impact of the research done at Amani was immense,” says Robert Malima, a principal research scientist and medical entomologist at Tanzania’s National Institute for Medical Research, and current head of the Amani Hill Field Station. “It affected not only people in Tanzania, but those all over the world who used that knowledge to improve treatment of diseases.”

Specimens in jars date back to the 1960s (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

Specimens in jars date back to the 1960s (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

As the years passed, however, keeping a team of scientists at the remote mountain station began to make less and less sense. Maintaining the infrastructure there was expensive, and the isolated location made certain aspects of life – like having a family – inconvenient. Malaria and other neglected tropical diseases were also largely lowland problems, requiring costly and time-consuming trips down the mountain just to reach study sites.

So in 2006, headquarters for the Amani Research Centre were moved two-plus hours down a deeply rutted dirt road, to the lowland town of Muheza. The Hill Field Station, as Amani became known, was left to a small team of technicians, many of whom had worked there since the 1970s and who still hold out a slowly diminishing hope that their colleagues will return.

“They promised us that they will come back to continue with the research,” says Esther Kika, a former technician who was left behind. “But now, I’m not so sure that they will.”

A station in stasis

When Geissler visited Amani, the old technicians’ first question to him was, invariably, what “research” he came to conduct. Those same men and women were just as eager for something to do when I arrived on a November afternoon to tour the station’s remains. Martin Kimweri, a lab assistant and animal keeper who has worked at Amani since the 1980s, was the first to greet me. Relaxed and quick to smile, at 56 years old he’s one of the youngest technicians still on duty.

Martin Kimweri and the lab mice he breeds (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

With the researchers now gone, Kimweri fills his time cleaning around the offices, clearing bushes and tending to a colony of white lab mice that he has been instructed to maintain. “I do these things because there’s no alternative way to be busy,” he says. “I often feel bored.”

I never expected that things would change. It came very suddenly, like a surprise – Martin Kimweri

This stands in sharp contrast to the time when Amani was open, he continued. Back then, he worked “from morning to evening”, making trips to the field, catching black flies for study and cleaning and preparing slides. He earned overtime pay and found the job to be highly satisfying. “When I remember the past, during the time of the real Amani, I was always very, very busy,” he says. “I never expected that things would change – it came very suddenly, like a surprise.”

These days, his favourite part of the job is tending to the mice. Kimweri led me through thick grass to a rusted tin-roofed shed. Inside were rows of cages containing a colony of over 100 tiny white rodents, all descendants of animals originally imported in 1994. Soft squeaks filled the warm air, which smelled of shavings and urine. Spotting us, the mice climbed the sides of their cages, sticking trembling pink noses through the bars to beg for food like spoiled pets. Once or twice a year, university scientists purchase a few mice for use in student exams. But mostly, Kimweri continues to breed them in case the resident researchers some day return.

Amani was once home to experimental rabbits, sheep, guinea pigs and monkeys, Kimweri explained, but now only the mice remain. Gently lifting one of the rodents from its cage and placing it on his jacket, he smiled: “I keep them alive because we’ve been promised that the scientists will come back to continue with their research here.”

Esther Kika

Former technician Esther Kika approaches the research station (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

Kika, the technician who is beginning to doubt that promise, was once Amani’s star netball player – an experience she was eager to recollect. “We played so well that they took us to Kenya for a game, during the time of the East African Community,” she told me, holding her head high. “I got a job here because of my talent, because the institute was looking for netball players.”

Hired in 1974, she quickly learned to like the work. “I was happy then,” she says. She brought me to the now-empty lab where she used to check urine, stool and skin samples for signs of malaria and river blindness. When the space was still bustling, she used to have lively conversations with scientists and fellow technicians, “sharing ideas and discussing how to correct problems,” she says. But now, thinking back to those days, “I feel sadness,” she says, “because that time will never come again.”

Before retiring last summer, Kika spent the last years of her career “cleaning spider webs” and staring out the window. Inside a creaky cabinet in the empty lab, she pointed to two microscopes – her old instruments. “Since 2006, the microscopes have no jobs, and neither do the people here,” she says, shaking her head.

Abandoned home

The abandoned home of a former botanist and her family (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

It was technician John Mganga, however, who perhaps took the scientists’ departure the hardest. “I’m proud of the work I contributed to science,” he says. “Those days were so good compared to nowadays.”

Hired in 1971, Mganga quickly made a name for himself as an expert crab catcher (river blindness-transmitting black flies complete their larvae life cycle in crustaceans). In the Central Lab where he used to work, Mganga showed me a shelf laden with half-evaporated jars of formaldehyde-soaked crabs of various sizes, their shells bleached bone-white. “You weren’t born when I collected these crabs,” he chuckled.

Leading me around the decrepit lab, he pulled out decades-old skewered black flies; opened cabinets brimming with jugs of old chemicals and disused pipettes; and pointed out faded diagrams of mosquitoes and their larvae. I asked him what he thought of how things turned out here.

Technician John Mganga, hired in 1971 (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

Technician John Mganga, hired in 1971, in Amani’s Central Laboratory (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

“I’m so disappointed, very much so,” he replied. “But I know things cannot be like they were in those years, because there’s no money.”

And if the money were suddenly available?

“I’d propose a school, fix the road, build a hospital and improve infrastructure at Amani,” he answered, scarcely hesitating. “If I were king of the world, I’d invite scientists here and propose that research comes back to Amani, so we could return to the old days.”

Past futures in the making

Society at large may assume that science moves in a linear direction, one that constantly improves upon itself, but those who take the long view know better. “Historians of science and technology tend not to see science as a process that’s inexorable, inexplicable and associated with some sort of social progress,” says Asif Siddiqi, a professor of history at Fordham University. “Instead, in looking at the production of scientific knowledge and revolution, you can sense certain patterns of ebbs and flows.”

Amani’s story, in other words, may seem extraordinary, but it’s actually not that unusual.

A bench and equipment in the Central Laboratory (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

A bench and equipment in the Central Laboratory (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

Many of the ups and downs, Siddiqi continues, are closely linked to state support and sponsorship of science. After World War Two, and especially during the Cold War, a phenomenon called the linear model gained popularity in the US, Europe, Soviet Union and elsewhere, including, eventually, Africa. At the heart of the movement was the idea that investments in basic research would help generate innovations. The massive government-sponsored funding that followed this thinking helped to create, among other things, Arpanet, the forerunner of the internet.

Government investment in basic research is no longer as cherished in places like the US, however, where federal budget cuts threaten progress on understanding diseases, and certain subjects, including climate change, are becoming downright taboo.

Jars and specimens of creatures studied in the Amani laboratory (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

Jars and specimens of creatures studied in the Amani laboratory (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

As traditional state support has waned, the private sector – Silicon Valley being the most notable recent example – has begun to play an increasingly significant role in supporting science. But this means that profit-driven companies determine which type of research gets done. In Silicon Valley’s case, Siddiqi says, that means less focus on solving societal problems such as inequality and climate change, and more focus on products that generate shorter-term revenue and entertainment. As happened in Amani, the research agenda is shifting to follow the funds.

“We have a fascination with technology that blinds us to the value of investments in basic, fundamental science,” Siddiqi says. “This narrows down our approach to knowledge and science to one little corporate definition, robbing us of a richer understanding of what research is all about.”

The same types of problems that ate away at Amani can dismantle research programmes anywhere – as is currently happening in places as varied as Brazil and India

When funding shifts too drastically or is cut off altogether, then the same types of problems that ate away at Amani can dismantle research programmes anywhere – as is currently happening in places as varied as Brazil and India. Greece, however, may be the most telling recent example. In 2013, Varvara Trachana, a cell biologist at the University of Thessaly, wrote in Nature that science in her home country is “going backwards.” Thanks to the recession, research institute budgets had been reduced by over 30% and scientists’ wages had fallen by 20%. As a result, up to 150,000 scholars and counting had left the country. “The young, skilled workforce, a key factor for economic development, is disappearing exactly when society needs it most,” she wrote. “I, too, am considering whether to leave.”

Matilda Bunami, the Amani secretary (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

Matilda Bunami, the Amani secretary (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

Aside from funding, political stability, Siddiqi says, is another requisite for sustained development of science and technology. Pakistan has never managed to get its science programme off the ground for this reason, while Syria’s research programmes fell apart with the advent of the civil war. The collapse of the Soviet Union had a similar effect: Russia’s scientific infrastructure and manpower was once among the best in the world, but it’s now “a mess,” Siddiqi says.

These threats, Geissler emphasises, are universal. “Science is not degrading here in Norway – and not yet in the US, either – but if you go just a little further south or east in Europe, it’s collapsing,” he says. “It’s entirely correct to look at places like Amani as a future for us all, if we allow infrastructure and basic research to be neglected and devalued.”

Evaluating bed nets at the Amani Medical Research Center (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

Evaluating bed nets at the Amani Medical Research Center (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

It’s not all doom and gloom. Despite the loss of the iconic Amani Hill Field Station, many of its medical doctors, parasitologists, microbiologists, and sociologists continue their work at the lowland station in Muheza. Clinical trails and product evaluations go on, including large-scale tests on the durability of three types of bed nets; ongoing monitoring of mosquito resistance to insecticides; and studies on mosquito behavior.

“We take pride in being the mama centre of medical research in Tanzania,” says Theresia Nkya, acting head of research programmes at Amani’s lowland station. “Because we’re a government institution, we’re able to sit at the table with stakeholders and advise them how to change policies to suit the needs of Tanzanian people.”

Funding, however, is still a constant source of stress. Though the scientists belong to a national lab, the government provides only their salaries – nothing for research. For that, they are entirely dependent on foreign sources, including government or international bodies such as the World Health Organization; philanthropic initiatives like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and research partners from outside universities, including the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“These are often big, massive economic forces producing great science about new HIV treatments and malaria,” Geissler says. “But unfortunately, they’re still dominated by the interests and ideas of Western institutions.”

Wema Sudi, with a model home

Wema Sudi, with a model home he built to help design mosquito prevention field trials (Credit: Rachel Nuwer)

Many of those large donors, he continues, set their sights on “solving Africa’s health problems, one after another”. When the stars line up in terms of research interest and successful bids for funds, such grants are a clear boon for African partners. But if a researcher isn’t interested in studying HIV/AIDS, for example, or her application is not selected, she will likely be out of luck.

The Amani scientists are well aware of this precarious balancing act – but also of their need to assert their own ideas. “We realise and understand that, as a country, we are not as strong as our partners in the north,” Mangesho says. “But science in Tanzania is growing, and we’ve reached a stage whereby we can design our own research agenda.” Yet gaining that independence, he continues, has proved challenging: “It’s been done on occasion, but it needs to be done continuously.”

The issue of Africanisation that was so central to Amani is still on the agenda in global health research today ­– Paul Wenzel Geissler

It’s a challenge that remains throughout much of Africa, Geissler adds – one that has finally begun to receive attention. “Authentically African science for Africa by Africans hasn’t really materialised,” he says. “In a way, the issue of Africanisation that was so central to Amani is still on the agenda in global health research today.”

There is a chance that the Amani Hill Station could yet play a role in finally realising that decades-old goal. In late 2016, a Tanzanian Minister of Health visited the centre and announced that she would support its restoration. What purpose the resurrected space would serve is still vague: a university campus, an international training centre, a seminar space or – if all else fails – a museum. Those at the lowland station agree, though, that simply “giving it to the forest,” as Mangesho puts it, is not an option.

“It has too much scientific and historical value,” Nkya says. “We cannot just shut it down.”

Whether Amani can once again become a vibrant centre of African-led science depends entirely on sustained political will and funding – neither of which are guaranteed, there or anywhere. But against the odds, the researchers continue to dream. “I’m one of the people who believe that Amani’s resurrection can be a reality,” Mangesho says. “We’re in a low state now, but we’re trying to rise again.”

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