Wednesday, December 24, 2008

It's cold here

It's nearly been a heat wave these last few days. I walked to my friend's house in Wisconsin and he was smoking a cigarette on his front porch in a T-shirt. I think today was 22 degrees. I guess that's T-shirt weather, even with all the snow.

I like Wisconsin but I'm leaving to go back to Seattle.

Lansana Conte died yesterday. When I was in Guinee two years ago (today in 2006 I was packing my bag to go to N'Zerekore) people were guessing he'd die any minute. He had disappeared from public view and from any TV broadcasts for the past year, at that time, but it was known his health was failing. Conte kept control pretty tight, so there was no one lined up to take control after him. He left an important empty chair and the immediate, apparent military coup broadcast over the national radio that an interim party, the National Council for Democracy and Development, would rule until elections could be held in a few months. They reported that the constitution and the government was dissolved, and meanwhile the prime minister broadcast from his office that he government was still functioning as it should. We'll see.

The constitution says that the president of the National Assembly should be named president in situations such as this, but it hasn't happened yet. But if everyone, including the military, is really upset with the current conditions, I don't know why they'd obey the constitution. Conte changed most of it throughout his 25 or so years in power, and it's the second the country has had with two presidents. (Mali has had as many constitutions as presidents). Seems to me that if a new National Council for Democracy and Development does take control, they'll probably want a new constitution that doesn't give unlimited terms to the president.

Lansana Conte took control in the 80's after Sekou Toure died. Toure was a brutal dictator who took power at Guineen independence from France in 1958. Among most people I've talked to, besides being a ruthless Guineen president, Toure is revered as a hero because he told France to get out of Guinee, that they weren't needed in Africa and he didn't want their "help", whereas in places like Senegal and Mali, for example, Leopold Senghor and Modibo Keita kept close contact with the French government. Sekou Toure wanted an Africa for Africans. Ever since Guinee has been one of the poorest countries in the world.

Sekou Toure has mythic status and people are still scared of him. When I was in Yanfolila in 2006 we were talking about Toure and my friend Lansine said "Sekou est un sorcere, et il peut mettre sa bouche dans notre coserie". It sounds better in French, but the translation is that Sekou is a witch and he can put his mouth in our conversation, meaning Sekou can control people and events. I don't know, but it was scary at the time. Anyway, even though he was a brutal dictator he at least brought running water and electricity to every region of Guinee. When he died and Conte took over, the far corners of Guinee, away from Conakry, were left behind. No more clean running water, no more electricity, while the powerlines are still connected to the tall poles and the wires droop across the sky into crumbling buildings. I never heard one person say anything good about Conte except that he's going to die soon, which isn't anything good, but the manner in which it was said lead me to believe it was a positive thought. I got really sick in N'Zerekore and took the long road back to Mali. It was one of three things: the water, undercooked chicken, or this one guy's dirty hand that was ripping the chicken off for me.

The road to N'Zerekore:

Early morning in Kankan:

As promised, here are more pictures of Yanfolila from 2007.

Here's Bijou when I left,

This is Sekou Kouyate, who I wanted to see but it turned out that he was somewhere in Bamako. His friend is Yoro Diallo (not the famous Yoro Diallo who's the best ngoni player, but just a different Yoro who plays the metal tube. And unfortunately he's just a substitute for Sekou's main tube player, Solo. When I was last in Yanfolila Solo gave me a tube.)

Here's Sekou's axe. He used the metal alarm disc from a digital watch with stereo wires soldered on, hooked it up to a battery powered pre-amp, then wired that to the dirty stereo speaker. In person the sound is indescribable. Gritty, dirty distortion coming from a folky west African gourd. It was rad.

And now here are climbing pictures.

I want to go climbing.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

"Mishi b'i fe wa?" Yes I do have cows, thank you for asking.

I consider today a big success primarily because my first interaction with a baby didn't end up with her exploding into tears at the sight of me, which often happened last time I was here. Apparently I'm terrifying to small children. Well, not all children. Mainly the Senegalese, Guineen, and in this case it was Hawa's baby, Kadiatou, who is Malian. I think she even winked at me while peering from behind her mom's back, or it was a fly that landed on her eye.

Adjusting has been more difficult than I imagined it would be. I live in a gigantic house, my footsteps echo, and I'm alone. It's psychologically difficult, right now at least, to venture out into the public from behind the eight foot wall that surrounds the house, but in time it'll be alright. I'm a cultural chameleon. I only knew Mali as Issa Sidibe, a member of Papa Sidibe's family in Yanfolila. There I'd eat from a bowl with five other people, using our hands to eat, stay up till the early morning hours watching the one TV channel with a lot of the neighbors crowding around the TV set, pull water from a well, and pass morning till night together. There was never time to be alone. These first few days have been quite drastically different. But then again, it's the adjustment period. I have to remember how to handle a severe lack of communication, eyes staring at me from every direction, kids screaming "Toubabou" from a mile away, and lots of other psychological hurdles to be dealt with, like venturing out to find food for myself. I'd prefer eating with my hand with five other people all clawing at the same piece of fish than have a waiter deliver me a coke in an air-conditioned restaurant. I need to make good with the family next door so they invite me to eat.

So this brings me to success number two. After being granted the opportunity last night to complain about my somewhat lonely situation to a friend, via gmail, I pulled myself together and remembered everything I learned/endured the first time I was here and spent the day sitting under the tree out front with the neighbors and passers-by. I'm starting to fall back into stride. I spent the majority of the time trying to decipher what they might be talking about by listening for the few words and phrases I do know in Bambara, then watching body language and other context clues that might tip me off to the rest. Then when I heard something I could repeat, I'd ask what it meant. I remember it being much, much easier with Wolof. It was easy to distinguish the beginnings and ends of words, but with Bambara they all kind of run into each other, and there are a lot of small words like be, ka, ke, bo, ra, so, bi, ni, fe, which, when used in different combinations or attached as suffixes to different words, can mean a variety of things. That's hard. When I started studying French I couldn't understand a word anyone said, but it was only a matter of tuning my ear to how the language wants to work. I was used to Spanish, which seemed much clearer and defined not so annoyingly throaty. As soon as I became accustomed to how French is phrased, it was easy. Maybe I learned Wolof so well in comparison to Bambara last time because I invested so much energy into tuning my ear to Wolof that by the time I arrived in Mali, I was too tired and unwilling to go through the painful process again. This time around, fortunately, I studied Bambara a little bit and I don't have Wolof messing things up. I can devote myself to Bambara. I already saw some progress today out front. That being said, tomorrow I am going to try to find my old Senegalese friends. They moved but I know where they used to work and I can probably find a phone number for them as well as practice Wolof again.

A third success today was realizing that people prefer not to call me Tim, as Tim is short for Fatima, a woman's name. That gave me the opportunity to present myself as Issa Sidibe, the name given to me in Yanfolila last year (I think only 3 people in Mali knew my name was actually Tim last time). I like this because as I said, I was only known as Issa before, so to be called again gives me a sense of comfort in the craziness that is Bamako. So frequently, when people learn that I'm a Sidibe, my conversations go like this:

= I togo be di?
= Ne togo ko Issa.
= E jamu?
= Ne be Sidibe.
= Eh?!?? E be fula-ke??
= Owo.
= Fula a man nyi de!
= Aich! (while waving a finger at them). A ka nyi.
= Mishi b'i fe wa?
= Owo, mishi be n'fe.
= E Sidibe.
= Nba.

It's pretty fun. They ask me if I have cows (mishi) because often times the Fula are cattle herders. The Fula, or commonly, Puehl, are from the Wassoulou region in the south. Yanfolila is the main town down there and where I spent the majority of my time in Mali last year. Once I remember who the Sidibe's can joke with I'll be able to respond to people telling me that Sidibe's are no good ("Sidibe a man nyi"), by telling them that they're no better than a donkey (fali). That always gets a good laugh because it's so unexpected from me. I think I remember that Sidibe's and Diakite's and Sissoko's can all joke with each other. But a Sidibe can't have the same playful relationship with Konate's or Koita's.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Climbing is rad

I'm on Orcas Island with Brett and Nicole, well Nicole is at camp right now--boring. It just started raining, we're going to boil a duck. I found these pictures on Brett's computer.

On the Grand Wall (5.11a/A0). Brett and I basically came off the couch to do this. We didn't make it look pretty but we got up it.

Illusion Dweller (5.10c). Brett being a badass in Joshua Tree in 2006.

Coming off Bellygood Ledge after The Grand Wall in Squamish. This is one of the three sketchy traverses across the face of the Chief. Luckily this one was bolted, but it's still terrifying traversing across a ledge that's no wider than your shoulders and a 1000 feet off the deck.

I think this is on top of the Split Pillar on the Grand Wall.

This is our beautiful rack. The Grand Wall took us a good many hours, lots of blood, and sore feet.

Probably one of the last trips with my van. It'll be hard to part.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Nous parlons en Bambara avec plaisir. An ka bamanankan kalan. A ka nyi kosebe.

= I ni ce.
= Nba, I ni ce.
= Here sira wa?
= Owo, here doron.
= Sogomow ka kenna wa?
= Tooro t’u la.
= E Coulibaly.
= Nba, Sidibe.
= Nba.
= Mun don?
= Nin ye ne negeso ye.
= A be min?
= A be jirisun koro.
= I be ta min?
= Ne ta Wassoulou sisan. Wassoulou sira be min?
= A be kofe doni.
= I ni ce, ne ta sisan.
= Nba, k’an b’u fo.
= U n’a men.
= Allah ka here tile.
= Amina. Kamben sogoma.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Monday, August 4, 2008

CD4, CD8, Killer Cells, and Philly Soul

After a small investigation I found out that CD4 cells--helper cells--regulate other immune responses by secreting growth hormones and cytokines to give our immune system directions on how best to act. Cytokines are proteins that act like hormones and tell our Killer Cells--their actual name, not a substitution for ease of explanations--that a pathogen is in our blood. CD8 cells are responsible for killing virally infected cells, among other things, by secreting toxins that cause cells to lyse; basically, pop open and die. So Helen is wondering why the Long-Term Non-Progressors' CD8's are able to remain HIV intolerant and kill infected cells, while the Patients' cannot. If you have no idea why I'm writing this you should read my first post.

Philly soul looks exciting. The Delfonics are sweet but pretty heavily orchestrated with lots of strings, which I'm not necessarily so into. Nevertheless, they do well like the Four Mints off of the Capsoul label in Ohio, with tight arrangements. They are all about the early 70's slow jam. While the Delfonics don't have slightly over-weight men in blue leisure suits hanging out in a forest on their album cover like the Four Mints do, I like their use of the sitar in the track The Delfonics Theme (How Could You). It sounds like Frank Zappa's guitar in Peaches En Regalia and Stinkfoot. Funny Feeling is an awesome shuffle, rolling and rollicking, kind of the feel of Bernard Purdie's drumming, though this album didn't have a personnel listing for the tracks so I don't know who their drummer is--probably the studio band of the label. I want to get a few releases from Funkadelphia Records that look good and whose website is so basic and low-key that I feel obligated to support them, but these are obligations I can hang with. Just more Philly Soul.

Motown parties are rad and so are Tequila Saturdays.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Werwie Archives

Werwie Archives Vol. 1 = 100% Soul
Werwie Archives Vol. 2 = Letters From the Pleasure Palace
Werwie Archives Vol. 3 = Honey In the Rock
Werwie Archives Vol. 4 = 100% Made for PDX

Pelleted red blood cells lysed in bleach, then poured down the drain looks like Sprecher Root Beer. It even has foam.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

When people take action

I received an enthusiastic request for comment capabilities, and who am I to deny?

Elvin Jones is a Jazz Machine.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


A lot of you probably have spent more time in Seattle than I have so this might not be as interesting or new to you as it is to me. There's the one woman in the morning who stumbles with straight knees up to the bus stop on 19th and Thomas. Her thoughts run into each other, dealing with anything from her qualms with heroine to her dissatisfaction with Tom Cruise and Mariah Carey, and then seamlessly to her mom's friend Michelle who used to drive around with a large man in her blue Toyota that, apparently, neither this woman nor Michelle knew very well. I don't get anymore details before she segues beautifully into some of her past medical history that I think, because of confidentiality issues, I shouldn't repeat. Some mornings she's already beaten me to the stop and is sleeping curled up under the awning in her faded but not ragged black sweatpants and an oversized blue hooded jacket. I don't mind so much about the bench because she's there again in the evening, ranting, symbolically wrapping up my day as I pass on the opposite side of the street, walking back from Seattle Biomedical, twenty-five blocks west. People are already asking me about Safeway locations in the Capitol Hill area and I know of two to which I can direct them: 15th and E John, or 23rd and Madison. I prefer 23rd and Madison.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

J'attends d'abord

Today I waited for 2 hours with Elahi, my new 50-something-year-old Iranian friend, for Anonymous Girl to deliver two 40mL blood samples, each HIV negative but potentially Hepatitis B or C positive, in which case we don't care anyways, to our lab bench at Seattle Biomedical Research Institute. This link takes you to Helen Horton's site at SBRI. She is my host for my pre-Africa training and the Principle Investigator of one arm of the Immunology core at SBRI working in the Viral Vaccine Program. Briefly, I got a job that starts in September in a clinic and HIV research lab in Mali. I don't know anything about viruses beyond that if you get a lot of biologists drunk, they'll argue for hours about whether or not the viruses can justly be considered "alive." I know even less about immunology (antibodies and immune responses to anything, specifically HIV for my case).

Well, not exactly true. I'll tell you what I learned about Helen's work after my first "All Staff Meeting," held today. The opening slide-show of the meeting as people filed into the room, that was projected on a large screen almost big enough to cover the glass windows that looked out onto ground-level Seattle streets and the people passing by--who could very well be subjects of the HIV research I describe below, were the head-shots of the all the staff at SBRI. Only my second day and my picture is already up as "visiting scientist." It was somewhat comforting to me that the science and research being done really isn't too far removed from the people they aspire to help.

I pestered enough people long enough to agree to train me in HIV blood tests, cryo-preservation of blood samples that should be frozen at -80 degrees celcius within 8 hours of venipuncture, as it's called, as well as a few other important skills that may or may not come in handy in the labs in Mali. I like to imagine the lab in Bamako as any other building I saw last year in the city: mud bricks that were once sitting in rows, baking to dry in the red streets, then stacked to make a house and painted whitish-blue on the inside, but will most definitely be chipping. And the sun will shoot a visible column of light through the dust in the open window. What I don't like to imagine, though I could be wildly wrong, is the basic and limited lab equipment, un-calibrated centrifuges and pipettes, re-used tips, and data in disarray that I was already warned by the heads of the GAIA Vaccine Foundation (with whom I'll be working in the TB/HIV clinics in Mali, and through whom I got the research job in the HIV lab with Dr. Ousmane Koita) that I'll have to "extract" and "make sense of." I annoyed them too, for the past 4 months until they finally decided that I was willing and determined enough to work for them and found some extra money in their fund to throw at me for an initial 6 months of work.

Anyway, I'm training in Seattle for a few weeks and not leaving for Mali until September. These writings will deal with some science, because that's what I'm doing (I can already see Caitlin falling asleep), but also I hope to make more music recordings in the future, especially in Wassoulou, where my heart lays, as well as write about the goings-on in Bamako, where I'll be stationed for the next 6 months.

Helen and her crew, at SBRI, are looking at populations of HIV positive people in Seattle with the vision to develop possible vaccine based on the differences in immune system bits and pieces between these two groups: Long-Term Non-Progressors, and a second more basically named group, Patients. LTNPs are interesting because, while HIV positive, they show no symptoms and lead as healthy of lives as you or I for years and years and possibly till death. The Patients however, show advanced stages of HIV or have developed AIDS, and their immune system is being beaten down everyday, their immune system becomes tolerant of these foreign viral cells and fails to elicit any sort of response. So what's the difference? CD8 T cells. (And here is where my lack of knowledge will show to anyone who is qualified, but it's good enough to get the point across).

If you remember from middle school or high school or whichever school, we have red blood cells and white blood cells. Our white blood cells make up our immune response team, and that team is further divided into other classes of cells, but we'll focus on T cells. The HIV virus in the Patients group is able to take over a class of white blood cells, the CD4 T cells, and depletes them until their immune system is so compromised that a common cold could be fatal, as well as rendering CD8 T cells, another class of white blood cells, tolerant to the presence of the recently, virally infected cells. As I understand, CD4 T cells recognize foreign invaders diffusing throughout our blood but are vulnerable to HIV that will randomly be captured by receptor proteins on our defense cells and hijacked by the virus, and the CD8 T cells recognize infected cells, perhaps as a second defence. But, as in the case of the Patients, if the CD8 T cells are tolerant, they don't react. If they don't react, we have no defense. For an unknown reason and the subject of Helen Horton's work for which she was awarded another research grant, the CD8 T cells of the Long-Term Non-Progressors remain intolerant to virally infected T cells and continue to battle those sick cells and defend the castle that is our body. For this reason the LTNPs remain healthy. They can still elicit a strong immune response. And they are an interesting place to begin important research.

The internet is a cool place because scientists can search huge databases of sequenced DNA and proteins all at the click of a few buttons, rather than sifting through volumes of Cell, or Genes and Development, or Current Biology back-issues from the last 70 years, jotting down thousands of A's, T's, G's and C's to compare to your samples. Not only is that boring, it would take a million years. Helen's team is, among other things, taking those CD8 T cells and lining up row after row of sequenced DNA to look for any sort of sequence conservation or at least a place to begin investigating possible reasons that LTNP CD8 T cells can remain intolerant while Patient CD8 T cells eventually run out of steam.

HIV is tricky because it evolves rapidly and it is constantly editing and republishing it's own book so that no T cells can read it quickly enough and understand how to stop it. Helen is also aligning thousands of sequenced HIV viruses to see which parts of their book are never edited. T cells in most cases are so specific to any one part of a virus that the chances of them running into a perfect match are tiny. So in order to develop an effective vaccine candidate we should target those areas of the virus, perhaps what might code for the attachment proteins, or the directions to fuse with our immune cells, or whatever paragraph or sentence or word, out of their whole book that might remain un-edited, to develop a potentially effective vaccine for HIV in Seattle that might also work for HIV in Mali, as an example of the grand vision of a "global vaccine."

In comes my future work with GAIA VF, the Global Alliance to Immunize Against AIDS Vaccine Foundation, hence forth known as GAIA. GAIA is a Rhode Island based non-profit organization working in Sikoro district of the capital city, Bamako, in Mali, in West Africa. For those not keen on African geography:

What I like about these people is that they are committed to developing and distributing a global HIV vaccine for free. GAIA, and eventually me, work closely with and employ African physicians and scientists, often educated in Europe or the States, to provide clinical activities that foster important foundational knowledge about TB and HIV in the area. They recently opened a brand new clinic in Sikoro. They have programs called Mother-To-Child, that focuses on transmission of HIV from mothers to children via childbirth and the like, and important peer-education campaigns called Here Bolo, which in Bambara, the predominant language of much of Mali and more or less understood in greater west Africa, translates to le main d'espoire, hand of hope. Each finger represents a different facet of HIV education and treatment.

The stats that you can find on their website are pretty impressive, especially regarding condom distribution, records of patient consultation and treatment, as well as follow-up treatment. For more interesting reading search through the GAIA Blog for the med students' or the GAIA director's writings. The work is interesting, I promise.

Brief stats I learned today: Of the 35 or so million HIV cases today, about 25-28 million are in Sub-Saharan Africa. The first HIV cases in the US were published in 1981. HIV is thought to first have been transmitted to humans from monkeys as recently at 1940, probably through the slaughter of monkeys and eating their meat. Common mechanisms of acquiring HIV are through mucous membranes (eyes) so upon slaughter some blood could have splashed in their eyes, transmitting simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) to humans, and hence human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in humans.