It is 5.30 in the morning in Manhiça—southern Mozambique—and I am about to enter a traditional house without running water or electricity. My companions are Albina and Celso, the other two members of the entomology team. Dawn is breaking and the African sun has already started to burn.
Our goal is to capture the villain at the top of the most wanted list—a specimen of the genus Anopheles—the a specimen of the genus Anophelesóthe mosquitoes responsible for transmitting malaria
- Bji Xile
- Bji Xil, Kanimambo
- Wu Djnai
- Ni Bom
With these formal exchanges in the local language, Shangana, we initiate the greeting ritual, a symbol of respect and the key that opens the doors of local homes, whereólike every other dayówe receive a warm welcome.
What is the purpose of our visit? Our goal is to capture the villain at the top of the most wanted list -a specimen of the genus Anophelesóthe mosquitoes responsible for transmitting malaria. We need a live specimen that we can take back to our insectarium, where we will rear its progeny for use in experiments designed to measure the effectiveness of different kinds of insecticides for spraying homes and impregnating mosquito nets. Our experiments will provide the Mozambican Ministry of Health with the evidence they need to select the most effective insecticides for controlling the malaria vector.
Our weapons? Our weapons are very simple: a portable fridge, sheets of ice, a silicone glass tube, disposable paper cups, cotton wool and a few pieces of mosquito net.
That was my daily routine for many weeks after I arrived at the Manhiça Health Research Centre (CISM) to begin work my doctorate and to launch the activities of the centreís recently established entomology department. I got up every day at 4.30 to go out into the field and hunt for our daily catch of adult mosquitoes. By 11.30 I was back in the office working on training the team and all the other activities involved in the operation of the entomology department. At that time, the team consisted of only 3 people, and the projects existed only on paper. Our insectarium had been provisionally set up in the back office of the centreís haematology and biochemistry laboratory. Sometimes I was still at my bench at 11 pm, still looking down a microscope trying to appreciate the subtle distinctions between the different Anopheles species caught in the traps of our entomological surveillance system.
It was my first experience of setting up and managing a team and I felt I should carry out all the tasks that other people would later have to do in order to gain an understanding of the difficulties involved so that I could help them in their work. Those first few months were tough, but living so close to the rural population, the future beneficiaries of our work, made one thing clear: achieving the goal was worth the effort.
The entomology department-now known as the 'mosquito team'- has grown to sixteen people. We have our very own purpose built insectarium and I have been dubbed 'Mrs Mosquito'
One year later, thanks to the support of the "la Caixa" Foundation Against Malaria programme and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the entomology departmentónow known as the ìmosquito team"óhas grown to sixteen people. We have our very own purpose built insectarium and I have been dubbed "Mrs Mosquito". While I know I still have to achieve a great deal to be worthy of the nickname, I am definitely not the same person as when I arrived. The experience is a mutual learning process and I actually receive more than I give. Every day I spend here is an intense apprenticeship on every level, but most of all an unforgettable lesson in humanity.
[This text was originally published in Spanish in El País - Planeta Futuro]