Will the Square Kilometre Array benefit the African continent…

SKA dishes courtesy of SKA Organisation/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

…not just South Africa? It should.

South Africa is touted as the champion of African development, proverbially like “Moses” leading the dark continent into the light according to the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma. Their successful World Cup bid was hailed as Africa’s world cup  is it the same for the  Square Kilometre Array  (SKA)?

 What  is the SKA?
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be a mega radio telescope, about 100 times more sensitive than the biggest existing radio telescope. Radio telescopes detect electromagnetic radiation emitted by objects in space. The SKA will consist of a large collection of 4,000 telescopes spread across continents costing US$2.2 billion. The combined collecting area of all these antennae will add up to one square kilometre (= one million square metres).

The SKA is being designed to answer fundamental questions in physics, astronomy and cosmology to understand the origin and workings of the Universe better.

It’s a partnership
Although it is referred to as South Africa’s bid, the bid is in actual fact a partnership  with several countries including Ghana, Kenya, Botswana, Mauritius, Madagascar, Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique. They have been working on the bid to host the SKA since 2003.  The SKA bid was endorsed in July 2010 by the African Union with the final proposal submitted to the SKA Siting Group on 15 September 2011.

The core of that part of the SKA telescope which is hosted by South Africa will be located near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, with antenna stations in Namibia, Botswana and the other African partner countries.

The gains
Manpower and brain gain
Since 2005, 70 out of the 398 SKA South African post-doc fellowships, PhDs and MScs and undergraduate bursaries were awarded to non-South Africans. To build the vast collection of telescopes, to assemble and run them will require man- and woman- power: scientists, engineers, IT specialists, these people will have to accommodated, feed and transported so there are both opportunities for blue and white collar employment.

Construction is scheduled to begin in 2016 with the first science to get underway in 2020.

Growing fibre connectivity across Africa is making 20 large telecommunications antennas obsolete. These antennaes will be used to develop the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (VLBI, or AVN).

Paul Swart, Roufurd Julie and Obert Toruvanda with some of the hardware in the digital back-end laboratory at the Cape Town MeerKAT engineering office.

The SKA has already had an impact through the MeerKAT project. The MeerKAT array will be a world class ground breaking radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere until the SKA is completed in 2024. Close to 100 scientists and engineers are already working on this project pooled from the SKA African project partners. The MeerKAT has been the precursor to building the human capacity for the SKA.

Communication and E-everything!

Each dish will produce enough data to fill more than 5,000 160-GB iPods. This data will have to captured and transmitted widely. Increasing South Africa’s bandwidth to the world will have knock on effects for the rest of continent.

In an article in the Conversation, Tshilidzi Marwala Dean of Engineering at University of Johannesburg  writes

“Because of the expanded telecommunication infrastructure it will bring in its wake, the SKA will improve connectivity, allowing vital initiatives such as e-health, e-education and e-government.”

In the same article Tshilidzi Marwala talks about countering superstition “…the elimination of certain elements in our society, such as superstition, that have held us back.”  In my opinion, this is debatable as our Indigenous stories of the creation of the universe should not be contested but should sit comfortable side by side with scientific discoveries.  As Prof George Miley, Vice President of the International Astronomical Union and International Coordinator of the EU Universe Awareness project says

“Astronomy is a unique instrument for development. It links cutting edge technologies, frontier sciences and our deepest cultural layers.”

Pockets of funding
Bernie Fanaroff, director of South Africa’s SKA project in an interview with SciDev.Net said

“SKA will be the biggest research infrastructure in the world, that’s why it will be iconic. Iconic projects do things that incremental projects can’t do: they open up pockets of funding that might otherwise not be available.”

These pockets of funding according to Bernie Fanaroff will develop infrastructure, a legacy of skills, stimulate careers in science and technology, promote high level industry and improve university research and teaching.

Science communication
Jesse Shore, President of the Australian Science Communicators poses the question “What will SKA do for science communication and what should science communicators do for SKA?”. Stealing a few lines from the report  Engaging the world, Science Communication in Australia and New Zealand and applying it to this scenario…

“ Nothing else has the same ability to inspire and engage people as big science. Whether it’s a new synchrotron, a nuclear research reactor or a major telescope facility, people will seek to engage with what it means and to understand its implications for their lives and future wellbeing.”

The opportunities for science communication are immense from moving images, stories, art, music, formal and informal education, policy – hopefully this pushes the capacity for African public engagement with science. Incidentally there is vacancy for Chief Communication Officer at the SKA Organization Headquarters in the UK.

The winner is…..
The independent SKA Site Advisory Committee (SSAC) identified by consensus Africa as the preferred site but for the sake of  inclusivity, the SKA Organisation has agreed to consider constructing one of the three SKA receiver components in Australia. Two will be constructed in Africa.

The announcement of the winning bid coincided with the celebration of  Africa Day, 25th May. This should signal the importance of the announcement to the continent. In the words of Prof Justin Jonas, Associate Director for the SKA project

“For South Africa and our African partner countries this represents a new era, where Africa is seen as a science destination and takes its place as an equal peer in global science.”

What next?
The next two years scientists and engineers will work on a detailed design and pre-construction, following this will be the construction of SKA Phase 1 which makes up 10% of the total SKA instrument. Phase 1 will be ready for scientific research by 2020. This will coincide with commencement of the construction of Phase 2 2018-2023, with full operations expected by 2024.


Public communication of science and technology conference 2012, tell it like it is!

You would think at the biggest biennial international conference for science communicators you would see a formidable display of scintillating presentations, amazing speakers, intriguing and thought provoking panel discussions and Pulitzer prize winning posters but sadly that was not the case. It was my first Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) conference; I have had my fair share of conferences and I know they can be a bit hit and miss but this one fell very very far from the target. Why? Where my expectation high?

The theme was Quality, Honesty and Beauty, I knew to expect well…a few “flowery” presentations but also some “Quality” presentations however the theme did suit the venue of the conference Florence, Italy – what a romantic medieval city! Secondly, the run up to the conference was plagued by several abstract rejections which normally is an indication that only the best of the best made it through. Thirdly, it was a conference for science communicators, communicating well is what we do!

My intentions for going to the conference were to seek out potential collaborators, examiners and or advisors. My area of research is science and culture and film, an odd combination but I was hoping to find people with interest or experience in either. I was surprised that there was a paltry number of science film makers. Efforts to find potential collaborators were made extremely difficult by the absence of a delegates list. There were over 650 delegates, I am sure at least one would have been a useful contact but I shall never know.

By day 2 which guess what…was the last day! Very sneakily the conference was a two day conference…I pity those who travelled so far (like me). 18-20th April, that’s more like 18.9th day to 20th because all that happened on the 18th April was a late afternoon registration and a few key note presentations by people who only spoke about themselves like Giovanni Bignami who showed himself off with National Geographic videos where he was presenting. Semir Zeki’s measurement of beauty using brain scans was interesting but he framed it as response to critiques on his methods. The presentation was directed to his adversaries and not the audience that was actually there.

So A LOT was crammed in the actual two days, 12 parallel sessions, yes I said 12, more than 11 and less than 13.  You couldn’t exactly switch in the midst of a parallel session, so you chose one and stuck with it for the whole 1 hour and 15 minutes even though only one of the four presentations interested you.

I spent a lot of time choosing my parallel sessions, but my strategy of trying to pick the one’s which were most useful failed and on Day 2, I went for the ones that looked interesting and had speakers that I knew were engaging.  I wont even mention the 5 hour afternoon with no coffee break on Day 2 or my butt cramp from sitting on the floor in a packed parallel session. And where was the entertainment during the ball? Beautiful palace with cold food and no entertainment… I know Italians to be excellent hosts so what happened?

Presenters and commentators often wanted to make it clear if they were scientist, science communicators or social scientists and it was obvious we did not all speak the same language.

Besides my movie screening, there were probably only five or so presentations from or about Africa. It got heated though, at least for me during a presentation on PCST surveys in South Africa. Eurocentric PCST surveys are the worst measurement  of “scientific literacy” in Africa but I will leave that for another blog post. As for my  movie screening at the conference well….well…well… as my supervisor put it….one of the worst conference chairing she has seen.

Fine, I have complained enough but there was some really truly awesome stuff. One being Florence, what an amazing historic city of paved narrow alleys, enchanting street markets, delightful cafes and breath taking art!

There were some good speakers Felice Frankel who spoke on visual metaphors and IIaria Capua who spoke about open science and bird flu.  And of course our own Miriam Sullivan who truly captured the attention of science communicators with her great performance on science and tv.

The day of the registration, in the morning, there was a PhD student meeting. They tried to present it in such a way … “Hey we would like your ideas on whether a PhD student network is a useful thing and how would it best work for you and PCST”  but it came off more like… “We know its a good thing to have this network, we already have our opinions on how it will work but we just need to tick the consultation box.”

I think there was some missed opportunities for interaction between PhD students but maybe the next PCST…oops…I should have graduated by then. Which was one of the things that came up…..PCST meets biennial as a PhD candidate, you may only attend one or two  meetings.

The idea of a PhD student network is great but very ambitious. Rather than making it exclusive to PhD students, a central PCST Research network committee with a paid secretariat would be more efficient otherwise it’s a lot to expect from already busy PhD students to manage a network.

I think most of all for me I got a chance to catch up with some old friends and plan some projects (not related to my research) for the future. I met old friends from South Africa and England, including the lady who was the first ever science communicator, I  met her in 2008 in South Africa. She was instrumental in showing me the Science communication light.

With some of my colleagues, we planned our take over of the world with science communication, science cafes and brilliant insightful papers on science communication in Africa! I also made new friends and heard new ideas like Eric Jensen and Emily Dawson’s notion that science communication evaluation is under theorized and that makes it difficult to share findings.

All in all, I learnt a lot from the good and the bad so  I am looking  forward to PCST in Brazil in 2014!

The most popular question about HIV

One of my other passions is writing an HIV and AIDS column in the Malawi Nation Newspaper. Readers are welcome to, in fact they are strongly encouraged to, email me their weird and wonderful questions and encouraging or scathing comments.

I  dug into my email archives to find out what is the most popular question people asked….If you guessed “Can vitamin supplements help fight HIV?” – guess again. If you guessed “How long can I live with HIV?” not that one either…the question I got asked most often…would you believe is…drum roll please….is about cuts and open sores. Here are some of the questions that readers have asked:

“If don’t have any cuts on my penis – I checked very carefully but I slept with a girl who might have HIV, am I safe?”

“ So if a chick alibe ma (does not have) sores and I don’t have any, is there any way for HIV to infect me?”

“If I masturbate someone else can I get HIV? Should I be wearing gloves?”

Note the question usually comes from guys.

And here ladies and gentlemen is the response:

People are often misled by the notion that during sexual intercourse the only way to become infected is through the open cuts and sores. This is only partly true.

HIV is spread during vaginal sex when HIV-infected semen, vaginal fluid, or menstrual blood comes into contact with the mucous membranes of the vagina or penis.

The Department of Health New York, US sums it best

In general, since there is more mucous membrane area in the vagina, and a greater possibility of small cuts in the vagina, women are more likely than men to get infected with HIV through unprotected vaginal sex. Teenagers and women entering menopause are at especially high risk for getting HIV (and other sexually transmitted diseases) because the tissue lining of the vagina is more fragile at these ages. Cuts or sores on the penis or vagina raise the risk of HIV infection during vaginal sex for both men and women. The presence of sexually transmitted infections also increase the risk of HIV transmission.

Cuts present on or in genitals can be invisible to the naked eye. HIV can NOT cross healthy unbroken skin but it can enter through an open cut or sore, or through contact with the mucous membranes. Transmission risk is very high when HIV comes in contact with the more porous mucous membranes in the genitals (vagina and penis), the anus (the bum), and the rectum which are inefficient barriers to HIV. Transmission is also possible through oral sex because body fluids can enter the bloodstream through cuts in the mouth. Likewise transmission is possible during masturbation or “fingering” if cuts are present.

Nobody has magnifying glasses for eyes so you wouldn’t be able to see the smallest of cuts, you are much much much better off using a condom to reduce the risk of getting HIV during vaginal sex.

Fanta face, coca cola body: why do black people bleach their skin?

South African singer Mshoza, before and after bleaching

It was meant to a pimple blaster, to help with the unsightly outbreaks on my pubescent teenage skin…well that’s what my Aunt told me when she handed me the tiny lime green box.  The box contained a small chapstick sized tube. The instructions were simple – apply to affected areas. It was quite bland… pale in colour and odourless. Finally I had a remedy for teenage hormonal skin eruptions! But my excitement was short-lived, after a few weeks of “treatment”, my face began to resemble a patchwork of dark and light splotches.

I was 12 years old and that was my introduction to skin lightening. Some of us enter this realm with honest expectations – get rid of acne and pimples, others for the obvious desire for the elusive “glowing, fair, soft, young, clear, radiant” skin…. 6 words that can make any facial cosmetic product sell sell sell!!!!

The reasons
Women (and no surprises here…a lot of men ) have a desperate desire that borders on manic obsessions for beautiful fair skin. Studies show that men from all races prefer fairer skinned females.

Fair skin is subconsciously linked to “innocence, purity, modesty, virginity, vulnerability and goodness”.

The preference for light skinned women has remained prevalent over time in all cultures: Asian, European, African, Caribbean and American however they are exceptions like the Maasai in Kenya who associate light complexions with being cursed or witchcraft.

In Europe, during the Industrial revolution, light skin was associated with high social status as those with tanned skin were the poorer classes who worked outdoors. Colonization and racism perpetrated the idea that light skin slaves were more beautiful, smarter and cooperative and they often got jobs working in the house “house Negros” while their darker relatives slaved in the fields “field Negros”. Lighter skin amongst blacks still retains its elevated status to the point that studies have associated blackness with low self esteem.

The industry
So in a quest to marry men of a high social standing, beauty, confidence and self esteem, women are supporting a multibillion dollar skin lightening industry. In 2015, the skin lightening industry will be worth 10 billion dollars. The biggest demand for skin lighteners is Asia, in 2009 Asians spent an estimated $18 billion (which contradicts other figures) but with the West becoming more ethnically diverse the demand for products is increasing.

The cost of products on the market range from 50 cents to $150, making it accessible to almost everyone. Studies show disturbing results of the prevalence of skin lightening in Africa, in Bamako-Mali there is 25% prevalence, in Dakar- Senegal 52% prevalence, in Pretoria-South Africa 35%, 60% in Zambia, while Lagos-Nigeria hits an alarming 77%!

The terminology
This industry has spawned a new language..with terms either being derogatory or flattering. Skin whitening and lightening seems more political correct while bleaching is more critical. In Zambia bukes/beauxing refers to bleaching, in Jamaica browning – light skinned female,  cake soap – skin lightening products, in Tanzania – tetrasaiklini, a woman whose skin has become speckled because of the use of bleach cream, and Ghana “fanta face, cocoa cola body” for women who have bleached their face but not their body.

The science
Its not called bleaching for nothing – bleaching involves removing the melanin pigment of the skin. Melanin absorbs ultraviolet light, thus protecting humans from harmful UV radiation. Using chemicals to lessen the concentration of melanin is one of the most common forms of potentially harmful body modification practices in the world.

Active agents in skin bleaching products include hydroquinone, steroids (of which there are many types, with different potencies), mercury, lemon, citric acid and even cement water. I know of a woman to overcome “fanta face, cocoa cola body” would soak her feet in concentrated Jik!

In East Africa, mkorongo is potent mix of Jik, talcum powder, hair relaxer, mashed raw potatoes (for the starch) and battery acid. This is mixed with over the counter products like Clear Tone or Ambi, which women then smear all over their naked bodies.

Jamiacian dancehall artist Vybz Kartel has released a range of skin lightening products

The nasty effects
Some are able to achieve a fairly even skin tone but a majority end up looking like the raw, red, speckle faced dancers in Koffi Olomide videos. Prolonged use of skin lightening products and the concomitant decrease in concentration of melanin increase risks of skin cancer. Skin bleaching also encourages premature aging, irritates the skin, and cause other complications like eczema.

Misuse  of Hyrodquinone (found in products like Body Clear, Fair White, Peau Claire)  paradoxically  leads to blue-black darkening of the skin i.e. increased pigmentation in the skin called ochronosis.  In the USA and European Union over the counter sales of products containing hydroquinone are banned. Over-the-counter versions of Fair & White contain 1.9 percent hydroquinone, but bootleg versions are being sold with 4 percent to 5 percent.

Steroids can be useful for treating some skin diseases but treatment must take place under the care of a skin specialist.  Long term uncontrolled use of products which have steroids can lead to increase risk of skin infections, fungal infections, scabies, hypertension, elevated blood sugar, skin thinning, poor wound healing, acne and permanent stretch marks!

Mercury is the most harmful culprit found in products like Lemon Herbal Whiting Cream (misleading  or what?), Lulanjina, Diana and Fasco. Topical use can lead to mercury poisoning, the symptoms are memory loss or forgetfulness, headache, emotional instability, fatigue, inflammation of gums and mouth. In most cases if not discontinued it leads to kidney damage and psychiatric problems.

There are a lot of counterfeit skin lightening products on the market that will cause harmful, permanent damage to the skin. These products are often mislabeled or have the toxic products omitted.

Why do it?
A friend so obsessed with skin lightening would not only bleach herself with the most toxic of agents but persuaded her husband to bleach and also “treated” her babies skin! I have mixed race friends who bleach to appear more white and worse even only marry people who are the lighter shade of mixed race because

No one wants a dark skinned baby…they aren’t cute!

So…. I fail, even with now knowing more of the history, to understand the obsession with light skin. My friends and family say I don’t get it because I am already fair. They laugh at me when I choose to bask in the sun and envy me when I turn white during the cold dark winters. In Europe, the tables are turning with tanned skin becoming more popular as it is associated with a life of wealth and leisure. Tan, capucchino, caramel, or mocha are still several flavours away from dark chocolate but hopefully dark skinned models like Alek Wek will challenge these stereotypes.

We, black women, modify our physical experiences in many ways some more permanent: from hair straightening, hair removal, hair dye, make up, tribal attractive facial scarring, so then….does the argument then hold that sporting a perm, putting a weave in your hair and skin bleaching are all equally acceptable?

The best way to siphon fuel

Picture by 10b travelling

…from a jerry can into your car. Some bad minded people might think I am talking about siphoning fuel out of the tank of a car….no, no, no….this is more to do with the chronic fuel shortages affecting Malawi with those who have jerry cans (chigubus) getting first dibs at the pump. But after hassling your way to the front of queue or paying the guy off to stand in the queue for you..what is the safest and most efficient way to get that fuel from the jerry can into your car.

An obvious choice. Poke around in the back seat of your car for a discarded bottle of water, cut in half. A funnel must have a wide, often conical mouth and a narrow stem. The wide mouth collects the fuel from the jerry can and runs through the narrow stem (the neck of the bottle) into the tank.  For those of you who bought black market fuel and are worried about damaging your engine…check out this funnel which filters out water, dirt, and debris. (Unfortunately not available in Malawi…but at least food for innovative thought).

A siphon (tube) works on the difference in potential between two containers one being at a higher level than the other. The flow of liquid is caused by a difference in hydrostatic pressure, which allows the liquid to be drained without being pumped through an uninterrupted path e.g. no air pockets in the tube.

Siphons works on the basis of gravity and need to be triggered before the liquid starts to flow. Most times its by sucking with your mouth…and often you can get a mouthful of fuel…bad idea! By vacuum suctioning on the lower end you lower the pressure in your lungs to beneath atmospheric pressure by expanding them. Once the liquid has passed the highest point in the tube, the continuous chain of  bonds between the liquid molecules in the tube, and the force of gravity, do the rest.

For more scientific explanations on how siphons work check out the Naked Scientist or American Physical Society or the Guardian Newspaper‘s elaboration on how Oxford English Dictionary got the explanation of how siphons work wrong for over 100 years.

Is there a way to siphon without getting a mouthful of fuel
It is very dangerous; the fumes alone can damage  lungs, and if ingested, fuel can damage the your throat and stomach. A siphon pump is a safe option, there are some battery operated pumps and some handheld pumps. Those in Malawi…must be saying well that’s great but how do I get one…..well I don’t have answers for that but what I can say is I have seen an extremely innovative way of suctioning whilst visiting my in-laws in Salima…where instead of sucking at the end of the pipe, you seal up as much as possible the hole of the jerry can (the source container – with for example a cloth). Leave a little of space for you to suck the air out of the jerry can, best done by sucking in one huge lungful. This creates a vacuum in the jerry can, the fuel then moves into pipe and through the siphon….and your mouth remains fuel free!

Tips on siphoning
–       The jerry can has to be at higher height that the fuel tank.
–       Avoid air bubbles in your siphon line.
–       Be sure to keep an eye on your fuel in the jerry can and make sure the hose stays fully submerged, otherwise you’ll end up with bubbles.

If anybody has other ideas please do share.

What do you think about the development of new pharmaceutical medicines?

Please help with this research. It will provide important information on the much needed effective communication of drug development, drug adherence, drug discovery and drug resistance. The theme for this year’s World Health Day was “Antimicrobial resistance: no action today, no cure tomorrow”. It brought to the world’s attention that we are on “the brink of losing our precious arsenal of medicines” that protect and cure us from infections caused by bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses. Without potentially biasing your answers any further please complete the survey…..

Evenda Dench, a PhD candidate at The University of Western Australia, is conducting a short (10 minute) online survey as part of research investigating attitudes held by the general public towards the development of new pharmaceutical medicines.

Your participation in this survey would be greatly appreciated; simply follow the link below to take part.

The survey can also be accessed at the research group’s homepage at http://www.communicatingscience.org/, or under the menu title > Research.

Your help in forwarding this information to any or all of your personal and professional networks will also increase the number of responses collected, and your support would be sincerely appreciated. The greater the number and diversity of respondents who take part in this survey, the better will be the overall representation of public attitudes about the development of new medicines.

All responses are anonymous, and any individual information collected will remain confidential. This research will not be used for marketing purposes in any way. Following statistical analysis, the results of this survey will be published and made available in 2012 at http://www.communicatingscience.org/.

If you would like more information about this survey or the research project, please contact Evenda Dench at evenda.dench@uwa.edu.au.

Approval to conduct this research has been provided by The University of Western Australia, in accordance with its ethics review and approval procedures (RA/4/1/4786).

Can Malawians sing? What does it take?

Goodson and Charity, thank you for giving me ammunition for this post. What you may lack in talent you certainly make up with your courage, for that I salute you!

But why is it that Malawians always seem to miss out on the limelight? Idols Africa – Malawi auditions were extremely painful and Malawi talent search shows like Pop Music Star can be agonizing. Vocal talent is few and far between with rare gems such as the powerful voice of Wambali and reggae smooth singing sensation Sally Nyundo. How come local church choirs are so moving yet most Malawian-English pop song renditions are so unbearable to hear. Is it language, accent, genre or something more biological? How come some have talent, others don’t?

I was overwhelmed by the wealth of information out there on the science of singing, you can approach it from any angle: from the biology, looking at how the larynx  (voice box) works to the physics of musical scales to the effect music has on us…If you interested in knowing more, I highly recommend the science of music or check out discussions at the science of singing.

But going back to Goodson and Charity…..what failed them? And is there a way for science to fix it?

Tear gas! Tear gas! What is it and what to do?

a protestor malawi

photo credit Amos Gumulira - A protestor throws back tear gas cannister in Lilongwe

“Its like breathing fire!” “ My face was burning!” “My chest was so painful!” Comments from my friends and family who were caught in tear gas during the civil unrest that recently gripped Malawi, after peaceful demonstrations against the government turned violent.

The road to positive social and economic change is a bumpy one but I sincerely hope that nothing as brutal as this ever happens again, but in the event that it does…..what to do if you ever caught in the midst of teargas? What exactly is teargas? Can you protect yourself? What are the remedies?

What is teargas?
Tear gas is a term used to refer to a group of chemicals more formally known as lachrymatory agents (taken from Latin – lacrima – “a tear”) as they cause the eyes to tear.  Tear gas produces extreme discomfort by irritating the mucous membranes of your eyes, nose, lungs and mouth causing tearing, sneezing and coughing, and sometimes vomiting.…it will stop anything dead in its tracks hence its use in riot control! It is non-lethal with discomfort usually disappearing after 5-30 minutes.

A bit of science
Tear gas is actually not a gas but a very fine acidic powder (its acidic property is important to note because this determines its remedies).  The acid powder is made into a solution which is then sprayed as an aerosol or released by grenades. There are different types of compounds that are used as tear gas, but they often share similar structural chemical elements. These structural chemical elements affect enzymes along mucous membranes in the mouth, nose and lungs.

As tear gas is an acid the most effective compounds are anti-acids. Its effects can apparently be mitigated by antacids like Maalox and Alka-Seltzer, by washing the eyes and face with a mixture of antacid and water. The only antacid I am familiar with in Malawi is milk of magnesia and I am not sure whether it would work as well, chemistry says it should.  Avoid any mint flavoured anti-acid on your face! That will just add more sting to the burning sensation.

Try and wash the clothes that you are wearing separately and make sure you wash your hair and skin as soon as possible.

Obviously a gas mask or googles but who has the time or money to have those on the ready during a riot, alternatively cover your nose and mouth with a wet bandana.

A cost-free protective device is your behaviour…panicking only makes the situation worse, stay calm, don’t rub your eyes and breathe slowly. Avoid swallowing, try coughing, rinsing your mouth and spitting. Remember this is only temporary.

Malawian media’s use of language when reporting on HIV and AIDS

I recently wrote a column for the Malawian Nation newspaper on ethical reporting of HIV/AIDS after I came across a Daily Times article that had the word ‘victim’ in a news report “…..250,000 victims are on antiretroviral therapy treatment”.

The media plays an important role in informing the public about HIV. Language is powerful in shaping people’s beliefs and thus influencing their behaviours. Inappropriate language can promote discriminatory stereotypes and harmful prejudices.

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), one of the main global leaders on HIV and AIDS prevention, treatment, care and support, has guidelines on terms that should be avoided as they denigrate and undermine people living with HIV and AIDS e.g. ‘AIDS victim’, the word ‘victim’ is disempowering, it invokes images of helplessness and weakness, UNAIDS recommends use of ‘person living with HIV’.

So….armed with the recommended terminology from UNAIDS, I am putting the spotlight on Malawian media that are unethically reporting on HIV and AIDS. I chose Malawian newspapers that are available online and therefore searchable.

There are a number of terms that UNAIDS 2011 terminology guideline states should be avoided but I chose the ones which tend to more common ‘AIDS victims’, ‘AIDS patient’, ‘AIDS carrier’, ‘AIDS virus’, ‘AIDS sufferer’. There some really tricky terms…e.g. use of ‘HIV/AIDS’,  or the ‘fight against’ AIDS, ‘sex worker’ instead of ‘commercial sex worker’ or ‘prostitute’, ‘men who have sex with men’ instead of ‘gay’  but I refer you to the UNAIDS terminology for advice.

The newspapers I searched were Nyasatimes, the Times Group (Daily Times, Sunday Times, Weekend Times), the Nation and Malawivoice. Unfortunately the Malawi Democrat does not have a search function. There are a number of limitations with this ‘study’; the print papers – the Times Group and Nation do not put all their content online although what appears online is content extracted from the print edition. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most of the websites except for Nyasatimes are fairly new i.e. not more than three years or so..ish. I relied on the search functions on each newspapers’ website, these may have limited search functionality. I did not look for instances where the words were separated i.e. I did not look for the word “victim” on its own when not together with “AIDS victim” although the word “victim” is still inappropriate on its own if used in the context of an article about HIV.

What did I find?

AIDS victim – Nyasatimes 1, The Times Group 0, The Nation 3, Malawivoice 0

AIDS patient – Nyasatimes 1, The Times Group 0, The Nation 15, Malawivoice 2

AIDS carrier –  Nyasatimes 0 , The Times Group 0, The Nation 0, Malawivoice 0

AIDS sufferer – Nyasatimes 0 , The Times Group 0, The Nation 0, Malawivoice 0

AIDS virus – Nyasatimes 0 , The Times Group 0, The Nation 1, Malawivoice 1

All in all Malawian media are doing a pretty ok job although some media houses, one in particular, needs to improve their reporting. I wonder what the not so appropriately named (Malawian) Association for Journalists Against HIV/AIDS would say about these results. But even Reuters, the big global news agency makes mistakes… the term ‘AIDS virus’ found in the Nation article was because of a mistake made in the original Reuters article. When I searched Reuters, I found 394 instances of the term ‘AIDS virus’, 29 instances of ‘AIDS victims’ some of these are as recent as yesterday

There is always room for improvement whether its Malawian media or global news agencies; during this exercise I learnt that I should avoid using HIV virus because that’s like saying human immunodeficiency virus virus!

Grandma’s finger lickin’ chicken: a road runner, a clay pot and a wood fire

Image by Arthur Haines

I could never be part of the chase. As long as I did not see it before the kill, I was more than happy to enjoy the finger licking chicken that my Grandmother lovingly prepared. Every year as a young child, my family would take the long dusty drive to visit my Grandparents in the beautiful hilly village of Junju, Malawi. We would bring with us gifts from the city – clothes, blankets, shoes and leave laden with maize, bananas, rice, beans, cassava and fish.

My grandmother and cousins as soon as we would arrive would busy themselves with catching the fattest chicken. My cousins would chase it around the banana trees but my Grandmother would know just how to coax and catch it, quickly and effortlessly slaughtering it. We would eat the chicken with nsima by evening candle light after being blessed by a lengthy prayer from my Grandfather, the Missionary.

The children, smelling of Lifebuoy and shining with Vaseline – clean after a day of herding goats and playing by the river, would sit on the floor eating from battered tin plates while the grown ups sat respectfully on the table with Grandma’s best China. Food would be served by the eldest child, everyone getting a skinny chicken piece and a fistful of nsima.

The chicken had a chewy texture, full of flavour and the sauce, a tangy smoky taste. My grandmother used no special herbs nor spices, no special olive oil, no complex cooking procedures. She simply would skin and boil the roadrunner (local chicken) and fry it with tomato and onion in a mud pot on the wood fire. I have asked my mother to replicate this dish but some thing is always missing.

In time I have to come to suspect there are three essential ingredients: a free range road runner fed on maize husks and food scraps, an unglazed clay pot and a open wood fire (not pine wood) in a small window less room. There is a fourth magic gradient…my Grandmother of course!

The scientist in me is curious (without taking out the magic) what is it about the clay pot that made the chicken taste soooo good. There are many cultures and dishes that cook in clay pots  from the Moroccan terracotta tagine to the Chinese sand pot. The benefits of cooking in a clay pot range from retaining the essential nutrients to using minimal fat. My Grandmother did not use clay pot cooking  (cooking food in an unglazed clay pot which has been soaked in water so as to release steam during the cooking process), call it mud pot cooking if you like, but she found a way to make trips to the village a culinary pleasure!