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Notes from the Field: Dr. Ian Tietjen in Africa, Part 5

October 24, 2023

Dr. Ian Tietjen is a Research Assistant Professor in Wistar’s Montaner Lab, where he investigates traditional African medicinal compounds’ potential for drug origination against viruses like HIV. Dr. Tietjen travels to Africa to work with traditional healers to better understand the function of these compounds.

If you haven’t started this series with part one, click here.

9 August 2023 — After the big community session and the experimental workshop, today was a lighter day with the group. We travelled to Domboshaba, which is a cultural heritage site for the Kalanga peoples that was excavated nearly 100 years ago. The healers pointed out numerous plants that are used for medicines. The place has long been a site for training healers and general spiritual contact with the ancestors. After lunch, we gave some final speeches, and both the Secwepemc delegation and Kalanga healers serenaded all of us with their traditional songs. The healers are being driven home to their local villages or as far as Francistown.

They’re excited to work with biomedical researchers in a way that shares the benefits of collaboration between scientific partners.

Entrance and walk to the historic village.
On the left is a grinding stone and a wall continually rebuilt by people looking to preserve the village and continually torn down by baboons looking for insects to eat. Today the people won. On the right is the Chief’s residence, on top of a large hill. 

10 August 2023 — Today our group of researchers and some healers took a cultural trip out to the Elephant Sands park, where there are very few people but lots of wildlife. There is a watering hole nearby, and the elephants come up very close to you while you are eating lunch. 

Apart from the occasional village, herds of cattle, and the random elephant, it’s pretty much this for four hours. You don’t want to drive this road at night because the wildlife is frequently much larger than you.
On the left are weaver bird nests. In the middle is our van stuck in the sand. We all pushed and got it out, and the elephants stayed away. On the right are grass harvesters (for thatch, brooms, and other necessities.) returning home for the night. 
On the left is a very big tree. If you look close you can see Rhona at the bottom. On the right is what’s left of a large cattle herd.

On the way back one of the healers seemed to be getting more comfortable with us, asking a lot of questions about how HIV works and health science advice more generally. Afterwards, he treated us all to cups of sour milk from a roadside stand that also had Mopani worms, which are large grubs that are dried and salted. I’ve seen reality shows where contestants have to eat these in order to stay in the competition, but it was nowhere as bad as the shows made it out to be. 

Dr. Richard’s homestead, chicken coop, and homemade breakfast!
Local delicacies: mopani worms (left) and sour milk (right)!