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On the Trail of Scientists in Africa

`Field report' about researchers trying to mesh Western ideas and traditional African culture

THOMAS BASS spreads his cow skin under an acacia tree. The tangerine sky fades to black. Hippos graze so close by that he can hear their lips squeaking up grass from the savanna. Coughing lions, yapping hyenas, and panting leopards add their nervous music to the nocturnal chorus. Once again, Bass has managed to hitch a ride with scientists toiling in a remote area of Africa. The cost of tagging along? A little bedtime anxiety. Bass likes traveling with scientists - some scientists. He seeks the ones who pay attention, know the names of things, ask good questions, and respect traditional lifestyles. He has harsh words for the time-servers and the self-indulgent migrants who flock to Africa's luxury hotels, where they avoid the cold winters of the Northern Hemisphere by peddling 20-year-old development plans over drinks and $40 salads.

When the prosaic, the political, and the profound collide, as often happens in Africa, Thomas Bass is moved to his best writing. He can take desertification - a dry subject, if you will pardon the pun - and turn it into an engaging educational adventure. Though his good guys don't go toe to toe with the bad guys, they are heroes nonetheless. Time and again, they focus their learning, compassion, and quick wits to wear down or go around lazy and corrupt officials.

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If only more field reports read like this one, instead of like World Bank memos, kids would be clamoring for careers in science.

But Bass's book is not simply science writing. Like the researchers with whom he journeys, Bass has learned the effectiveness of combined interests. The result is a tangy verbal concoction: one part science, one part travel, two parts bemused, yet impassioned observation.

Like the new scientists he admires, Thomas Bass has gotten beyond the cynical old science of bribes and expense accounts that has crippled Africa. He has transcended media-generated images of hopelessness and passivity.

Of course, Bass acknowledges the redundant reality of African drought, famine, disease, greed, political instability, and incompetence. Yet he insists on setting beside it another reality, one in which African and non-African scientists, informed by conscience and intelligence, pursue the common good despite discouraging odds.

``Camping with the Prince'' is a wide-ranging, loosely woven account of seven scientific projects Bass encountered over a period of two years. The title story, built around a visit by Prince Philip, relays the frustrations of scientists studying drought-exacerbated problems throughout the fertile inland delta of the Niger River near Youvarou in Mali, about 200 miles west-southwest of Timbuktu. The Saharan sands have been advancing on these historic wetlands that supported the empires of West Africa for more than 1,000 years.

Despite the repeated failure of large-scale agricultural projects, foreign advisers bearing hard cash are pushing the government of Mali to dam the Niger River and channel it into extensive farm projects that would displace native peoples and destroy natural habitats.

Can the few ecologists working in Mali come up with a realistic, hard-nosed alternative plan? More immediately, will they be able to produce enough cucumber sandwiches to feed the Prince and his entourage, who have flown in to lend their moral authority for a balanced solution to Mali's worsening problems?

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IN Nairobi, Bass visits with a Cambridge-educated member of the Luo ethnic group, who takes inspiration from the way in which the contemporary Japanese have maintained their traditional culture in the midst of high technology. Submerged in Lake Malawi, Bass helps to scan the bewildering behavior of rare fish; along its mango-studded shore he wryly observes assorted Europeans, who, intoxicated by the water's charm and the local herbs, have ``gone lake.''

Be they archaeologists, agronomists, entomologists, ichthyologists, or geologists, Bass's scientists share a fundamental talent. They are all excellent unlearners.

The agriculturalists have had to unlearn the benefits of plowing; the virologists have had to unlearn the effectiveness of vaccines. Anthropologists have had to come to terms with the subjectivity and political inflection of their profession. It is humbling to admit that putatively objective accounts of prehistoric (Wo)Man have been colored by present values. Still, how else does one account for the fact that the pacifistic Early Woman of the 1970s was replaced in the 1980s by a kind of Paleolithic arbitrager: ``a crafty opportunist living off other animals' labor?'' Unlearning may make African transdisciplinary science a vanguard global model, but it also serves to propel these scientists beyond the conventions and paradigms of their original fields. Each of these individuals has felt the chill of intellectual loneliness. Unaided, each has had to sustain a fire in the soul for authentic science.

Because Thomas Bass believes that ``revelation lies in the telling detail,'' he leaves summations and generalizations to readers - and book reviewers. He is content to be a storyteller, chronicling scientific ideas as they are lived and fought for by real people. If, in the end, he reveals a gleam of promise in the dark continent, so much the better.

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