Over the years I’ve had the opportunity of visiting a number of African countries, my first being Ethiopia in early 1993. From then until my retirement in 2010, I made a number of forays into that continent linked to my work in international agricultural research, including South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique, Madagascar, Kenya, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Morocco.
In 1993 I attended my first meeting of the CGIAR Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR), hosted by what was then the International Livestock Center for Africa (ILCA) in Addis Ababa (now ILRI-Ethiopia). After several days couped up in a tiny meeting room we did manage a field trip and I traveled down into the Rift Valley to visit ILCA’s research station at Debre Zeit. There was also lots of Eragrostis tef – teff -to see growing in the fields – a small-grained, indigenous cereal that is used to make injera, a fermented flat bread. There – but also on the ILCA campus in Addis – the bird life is truly magnificent. Beside a lake in Debre Zeit the fish eagles were as common as sparrows in the trees.
In early 2010 I was ‘asked’ to attend a CGIAR planning meeting in Addis for just one day. I flew all the way from the Philippines for one day! However, my departure flight on the second day didn’t leave until the evening, so I spent much of the day relaxing or walking around the campus bird-watching – buzzards two-a-penny, beautiful long-tailed flycatchers chasing one another through the scrub, and flocks of brilliantly colored bee-eaters on the open ground, just to mention a few. Having lived in the Philippines for almost 20 years seeing so many bird species was truly a delight, because where we lived in Los Baños was essentially an ‘avian desert’. But it has become much better – see the latest issue of Rice Today.
Although I had passed through Jo’burg in South Africa on a couple of occasions, I did spend a week in Durban in May 2001 to attend a meeting of the CGIAR. All delegates had been warned to take care when walking around outside, but that didn’t prevent some Malaysians being mugged right outside the hotel entrance. And one of my colleagues found himself in the middle of a gun battle when he took a walk along the sea front. We did have a day trip to visit agricultural research in Pietermaritzburg so that gave an opportunity to see something of the country. The day of activities in Pietermaritzburg was opened by a member of the Zulu royal family, and I can still remember the shivers up my neck as a choir sang the South African national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel.
And as with my Rift Valley trip in Ethiopia and in Kenya on another occasion, it reinforced this perspective that Africa is a continent of huge landscapes.
I first visited Mozambique in about 1995 when I was setting up a large rice biodiversity project funded by the Swiss government. I spent much of my time in Maputo, with just one short field trip. One thing that has stayed in my memory are the Danger – Landmines! warning signs, a consequence and reminder of the various conflicts that dogged Mozambique in previous decades.
Until recently, IRRI’s regional office for Eastern and Southern Africa was based in Maputo (now transferred to Burundi). Here’s IRRI’s former regional leader Joe Rickman talking about rice research and development in the region.
Mozambique was also the venue for the CGIAR to hold its annual meeting in 2008.
Again this was another biodiversity-related trip, specifically to meet scientists at the SADC Plant Genetic Resources Centre in Lusaka, where a couple of my former MSc students from Birmingham were working. The genebank had been set up in a collaborative project with the Nordic Genebank in Sweden, and I took a number of ideas away from that visit about low-cost, appropriate technology genebank design that I introduced to several genebank programs in Asia.
On my last day, I had a late afternoon flight to Nairobi, Kenya, but no other commitments. I’d been struggling with a draft of a paper that IRRI had committed me to write for German-published GeoJournal (IRRI had been given the opportunity of a special issue). I decided to use my several ‘free’ hours in Lusaka to make some headway with my draft. After an early breakfast – and with just a couple of ‘comfort breaks’ over the next six or seven hours, I finally drafted almost 40 pages of single-spaced hand-written text. I’d brought along a sheaf of plain paper (I hate using ruled paper) and a bunch of sharp HB pencils. When I came to have the draft typed up ready for editing I surprised myself by actually making very few changes. This was the result.
I’ve spent time in Nairobi on three occasions, although I passed through the airport on a couple of others. The first time I flew in for 48 hours en route to Nigeria. In 1998, the ICWG-GR met, hosted by the World Agroforestry Centre, and we held our meeting upcountry near Mt Kenya. Not that we got to see much of it as it was shrouded in cloud almost all of the time. Nor did we see any big game.
But the meeting was successful and the Group awarded me about USD200,000 to organize a meeting the following year in The Hague on Genebanks and Comparative Genetics, a first for the CGIAR!
The CGIAR held its annual meeting in Nairobi in 2003 – I managed to lose my mobile phone. At all these meetings there are opportunities to visit agricultural research projects. The one I joined had to do with range land ecology, i.e. big game! That was a popular outing with many delegates, and eventually took us into the Nairobi National Park that really does come right up to the outskirts of the city. This was the only time that I have ever seen big game in the wild: rhinos, buffalo, giraffes, cheetahs, and wildebeest and zebra, of course. This park does not have elephants, unfortunately; you have to travel to some of the other reserves to see those.
Another CGIAR center, IITA, is based at Ibadan, and I guess I must have been there maybe half a dozen times. Ibadan is about 170 km north-north-east of Lagos, a three-hour drive. IITA has a marvelous 1,000 ha campus. It was once quite isolated from Ibadan (now one of the largest cities in sub-Saharan Africa) but over the years the city has sprawled right up to the IITA boundary fences. In addition to its experimental fields, there is some virgin rainforest, and even a lake stocked with Nile perch – angling is a favorite IITA sport. But there are miles of roads to wander, and I always found the IITA campus a place of great relaxation after work hours. It was just the threat of malaria that always used to worry me. The ICWG-GR met there in the 90s, and one day we took an excursion into the forest looking for wild yams.
An overnight stay in the IITA-Lagos guest-house is a must if a flight arrives in the evening. There is no shuttle service – for obvious security reasons – at night. And even during the day, a second vehicle, riding shotgun – literally, but also carrying luggage would accompany a passenger vehicle on the trip from Lagos to Ibadan.
Lagos airport was always a cause for concern, especially on departure, where both immigration and customs officials would be looking for a ‘gift’, and searching one’s hand-luggage for any suitable item. Always a source of tension, although by the time of my last visit, maybe around 2000, the situation had improved beyond any comparison with my first visit in 1994.
Being met at the airport in Lagos was always a relief, and IITA staff were immensely helpful. I remember one occasion when I was flying in from Abidjan, Ivory Coast. On arrival at Abidjan airport I was informed that my ‘confirmed’ flight would not be departing. In fact it had ‘never existed’, but I could fly on the next flight later that evening, with intermediate stops in Accra (Ghana), Lomé (Togo), and Cotonou (Benin). I hadn’t been able to contact IITA to let them know of the changes in my travel plans, and was praying that someone would be at the airport. My sense of anxiety was not helped when, on arrival in Lagos, and just before the immigration desk, this man in plain clothes stepped out and demanded my passport. I’d always been advised not to hand over my passport unless the person could provide some means of identity. After showing some hesitation to comply with the ‘request’ I was threatened with dire consequences. Who this man was I never found out. On collecting my luggage and departing the customs area it was a huge relief to see someone wearing an IITA cap – my meeter and greeter.
The Africa Rice Center (formerly known as WARDA – the West Africa Rice Development Association) had its headquarters in Bouaké until it was forced to abandon the site and leave the country when the civil war commenced in 2002. It relocated to the IITA sub-station in Benin, just over the international border from Lagos in Nigeria. While it has hopes to return to Bouaké some day, personally I think that day is a long way off.
On two occasions I flew from Abidjan on the coast to Bouaké, but have traveled south by road via the capital Yamoussoukro, where a former president built one of the largest Catholic basilicas in the world, and one to rival St Peter’s in Rome.
Under the then Director General, Eugene Terry and Deputy Peter Matlon, I found WARDA to be a small but dynamic institute, well-focused on its regional mandate, but in awe of its bigger rice sister, the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. I believe that some of the work I undertook on a joint mission commissioned by Terry and IRRI Director General Klaus Lampe, helped to improve relations between them. They certainly couldn’t have dipped much lower at that time in the mid-90s.
I visited Madagascar just the once, in the late 90s, although I had tried to get there a couple of years earlier, but had to cancel, even as I was in Jo’burg waiting for a flight because the schedules was totally disrupted and I had no idea when I’d be able to travel.
Again it was related to my rice biodiversity project. We supported a major program to collect both wild and cultivated rices, one of the major staples of Madagascar. Having seen something of the incredible wealth of indigenous animal species through some of David Attenborough’s TV specials, it would have been great to go beyond rice and see what else this fascinating island has to offer. Regrettably there was no chance, but a couple of short trips, on incredible bad roads, from the capital Antananarivo to a rice research station in the boondoks allowed me to see something of the countryside.
And that’s more than I can say bout my one and only visit to Morocco in 2005 when the CGIAR held its annual meeting in Marrakesh. I went down with a nasty cold not long after I arrived, and because of some pressing commitments, I had to spend much of my time locked away in my room finalizing a research project proposal to an important donor worth several million dollars. You can imagine where my DG saw my priorities! So most of the time, I only saw the hotel.
But I did manage to visit the market on one afternoon, and pick up some silver beads for Steph that she has subsequently used in her beading projects.