By the end of this century, 1 in 4 people in the world could be African, says Thomas Smith, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA, quoting United Nations data. He believes this massive demographic shift will prompt countries to rethink partnerships with Africa, a youth-dominated continent that’s larger than the United States, China, India and most of Europe combined.
And UCLA is ahead of the game, as hundreds of Bruin students, scientists, doctors and administrators work hand in hand with local colleagues across the 54 incredibly varied countries that make up Africa today.
Unlike past “parachute doctors” — who would jump into a crisis, often perform heroically and then go home — UCLA people are deeply embedded in African communities, helping to prevent the next medical, economic or environmental calamity.
In January 2020, Chancellor Gene Block and his team of UCLA administrators attended the Diversity in Higher Education Colloquium in Bloemfontein, South Africa — co-hosted by the University of the Free State in South Africa, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and UCLA — to promote diversity and equality in global education. They met tireless and passionate advocates for change, many of whom work through malaria and deprivations unthinkable to many colleagues.
It’s not hyperbole to suggest that their roles are vital to the future of the world. “UCLA’s partnerships in sub-Saharan Africa have been incredibly successful in helping tackle regional issues to improve the quality of life,” Block said upon his return. “It is important for UCLA, as a public research university, both to share our expertise and to learn from and collaborate with colleagues around the world for the advancement of society.”
It’s a paradigm shift away from previous efforts to help Africa through “aid with strings” packages or infrastructure investments that have bred monstrous civil wars and ugly kleptocracies.
Smith, who has been working in Cameroon for three decades, agrees that there are still widespread corruption and brutal struggles, which create mass displacements — 750,000 people were driven from their homes in Burkina Faso last year. But there are also extraordinary reasons for optimism. These include the global legacy of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and the promise of peaceful nations such as Ivory Coast, whose gross domestic product has nearly doubled over the past decade, challenging gloomy stereotypes.
Among a wave of fresh-thinking UCLA scholars who might have never expected to be working in Africa, three inspirational leaders spoke with UCLA Magazine.
Smith started out as an evolutionary biologist chasing an unusual finch, which led him to the jungles of Cameroon in West Africa. Anne Rimoin M.P.H. ’96, a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, might have become a Hollywood lawyer if the Peace Corps had not offered her a position to track 30-inch-long worms in West Africa. And Sundeep Gupta was an epidemic intelligence officer working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta before UCLA and Malawi came calling.
From Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, it’s 600 miles of rough road and river south to Rimoin’s bare-bones offices in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). And it’s another 1,500 miles south to Gupta’s desk at the Partners in Hope offices in Malawi. The UCLA trio face very different challenges, but they’re united in their deep commitment to working with African partners.
When Smith got started, he recalls, “I was in Central Africa studying a fascinating species [of bird] called the black-bellied seedcracker, which shows unique variations in the size of its bill. I went to the rainforests in Central Africa, where my passion for biodiversity, sustainability and people was reinforced.
“In those days, I was living in a tent. But decades later [in 2015], we developed the Congo Basin Institute [CBI] to host scholars studying topics ranging from the rainforest’s enormous capacity to sequester carbon to zoonotic [species-jumping] diseases such as Ebola.” Located in Cameroon, the CBI is UCLA’s first foreign affiliate.
Smith adds: “In 2011, my colleagues and I discovered that the swine flu, [which was] first identified in Mexico, had taken a U-turn. It had moved from people back to swine, and no one — including the World Health Organization — knew it had reached Africa. Swine are the mixing vessels for influenza. This is how new pandemics start — there are no borders anymore.”
Smith saw something like the coronavirus coming. He remembers a prescient research paper from 13 years ago that referred to “the presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats that, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.”
Smith adds, “Even more than China, Central Africa is ground zero for infectious diseases that spill over from animals to humans. These include the ones we know — Ebola and SIV [the origin of HIV/AIDS] — but many we don’t. It turns out there are varieties of coronavirus circulating in African bats. Motivated by the current pandemic of SARS-CoV-2, our lab has launched a new study to assess the risk of these potentially dangerous, yet undescribed coronaviruses — both now and under future climate change.”
Losing and Learning Skills
As an investigator, Smith works closely with the Baka people, seminomadic hunter-gatherers who intimately know the rainforests of Cameroon and Gabon. He pays tribute to his friend Augustin Siec, a Baka chief who could hear a rustle in the canopy and identify not only the species of the animal but also its gender and role in the forest’s ecology.
Smith has been worried that the younger among the 30,000-strong Baka community — under pressure from urban officials to settle in villages — have been losing this indigenous knowledge. But the CBI, which employs Baka research assistants, has created opportunities for them to relearn the skills of the “professors of the forest,” including herbal medicines that could unlock future cures for diseases. Siec’s recent death from misdiagnosed tuberculosis reminds Smith that health projects across Africa still have a long way to go.
Smith’s dream is that one day Africans themselves will run the CBI, including its labs. But first, Cameroonians will have to become more economically self-sustaining. To help achieve that, Smith partnered with San Diego–based Taylor Guitars on The Ebony Project, which is planting 15,000 ebony trees, interspersed with high-value fruit saplings, in Cameroon. According to Taylor Guitars, ebony wood creates richly ringing overtones with a clear lineal quality across the spectrum — and guitarists can hear the African difference.
The Congo Basin Institute provides a center for science in Africa for Africans, says Smith, offering facilities to young Africans who otherwise might have taken their skills abroad.
In a 2017 TED Talk, Cameroonian Kevin Njabo — the Africa director and an assistant adjunct professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability’s Center for Tropical Research — mourns the wholesale exportation of “the best and the brightest” from Africa.
Njabo says he was drawn to UCLA not only because of its ability to develop programs that could save lives — like the 1 million people, mostly children, who die from malaria each year — but also by its ability to encourage expatriates to return home. “For every African who returns home, nine new jobs are created,” Njabo says. At the Congo Basin Initiative, he says, “we are building a one-stop shop for logistics, housing and development of collaborative projects, empowering Africans to find their own solutions. If this had existed when I was 18, I would have never left home — but I am coming back.”
A Joyful Day
The brain drain is a dilemma that haunts Rimoin, a popular voice across media who urged for calm during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak. Raised in Los Angeles, she credits a “brilliant” French language teacher for opening her eyes to Francophone Africa.
“My father [David Rimoin, who was famed for his work on inheritable diseases] was in medicine, but I was considering becoming an entertainment lawyer. [Then] the Peace Corps offered to send me to Benin [in West Africa] to track and eradicate Guinea worm infections. Who could resist? And my French made all the difference,” she says. Rimoin remembers a joyful day when a Benin woman said to her: “You have found who you are.” And she was right.
Since 2002, Rimoin has worked in the DRC, the troubled country once known as Zaire, and her research has revealed the zoonotic secrets of monkeypox and other emerging pathogens in remote areas along the Congo River.
Every day brings light and dark, she says. For example, in 2019, 50,000 Congolese died from measles, a disease that was thought to have been eradicated from the world.
But there’s also hope: In February 2020, after the latest Ebola outbreak in North Kivu, DRC, the last few patients were safely released from the hospital. Even more good news: Rimoin’s team tracked down survivors of the first-recorded Ebola outbreak in 1976 — people living in remote areas of the Congolese forest — and discovered that they still had lifesaving antibodies in their systems. This precious data could help prevent or treat future outbreaks.
“It’s incredible and hopeful, but we still have to raise more funds to protect those workers on the front line,” Rimoin says, with her characteristic blend of enthusiasm and practicality.
The sources of many such outbreaks have been tracked back to “wet markets,” where trapped wild animals are sold as food — as in Wuhan, China, which was ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s complicated,” Rimoin says. Wet markets “are built into the culture, and the people need the protein in areas where it’s difficult to find alternatives.”
“Right from the start, I was not interested in parachute medicine,” Rimoin says. “I was there for the long term — to build trust and my understanding of the issues. And I love it.”
As director of the Fielding School’s UCLA Center for Global and Immigrant Health, Rimoin appreciates the colleagues who have relocated to the DRC, such as Nicole Hoff Ph.D. ’14, the UCLA-DRC Research Program’s country director and senior administrative analyst, and Kirstin Chickering M.P.H. ’95, the program’s associate director. “Kirstin and I were together at elementary school in Palos Verdes, but did not know each other,” Rimoin says. “Kirstin came to Kinshasa to help me set up a project for three months, and that was 11 years ago. Kirstin, Nicole and I are three tough UCLA sisters!”
Rimoin is well-known around Kinshasa, fighting for causes such as protecting the bonobo ape from being hunted as bush meat. Although her knowledge has been in demand during the COVID-19 crisis, and she has appeared frequently on NPR, HBO and MSNBC, she has no plans to walk away from the DRC — even if its bloody spasms of civil war continue to displace 5 million people. After all, she and UCLA have work to do. Plus, she jokes, “phone reception is better than in Benedict Canyon.”
When a Fielding colleague described Rimoin as “just so boss,” the epidemiologist admits, “I am very persistent. When I go see a local official, he will say, ‘Oh, it’s you. I will just say yes, yes, yes now, to save time!’ In [the Bantu language] Lingala, I am called ‘Mama Étêté,’ or ‘the woman who never gives up.’”
Gupta takes a low-key approach to his clinical work in the AIDS wards in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi — one of the Central African countries most severely weakened by the HIV pandemic. He says that what he has witnessed over the past decade is a miracle of modern medicine and thinking about flexible approaches to diseases.
In 2000, Perry Jansen, a doctor who had completed his residency at UCLA in 1994, established the nonprofit Partners in Hope, Malawi, to bring antiviral drugs to the country. At that time, the life expectancy at birth was 45 years; today, it’s 64 and rising. The number of HIV treatment clinics has increased from one to around 20, with UCLA contributing funding and personnel on the ground. So far, around 200 UCLA students and staff have worked in Malawi.
Gupta wears many hats: He is an epidemiologist, a family physician, an assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and programs director at Partners in Hope. “You go where the need is greatest,” says Gupta, speaking from Lilongwe. He says the stable UCLA presence in Malawi is key, allowing recently arrived doctors, such as Faysal Saab ’07, M.D. ’12, to focus on improving medical practices, using both textbook theory and evidence-based medicine.
One diagnostic issue was that many young men were embarrassed to go to an HIV clinic. But UCLA doctors introduced self-testing kits, and this experimental switch increased the number of Malawians who got tested for and diagnosed with HIV. Ten years ago, 100,000 Malawians were undergoing treatment; today it’s around 830,000. There are still problems, but for many observers, it’s an emotional revitalization of a nation.
There are as many positions of interest for Bruins in Africa as there are countries spanning the continent. It’s not about what Westerners think should happen, but about what works for the Africans themselves, Smith says.
So what is UCLA’s role in Africa? “There is an incredible awareness of the university, earning respect with its research from South Africa and Mozambique to the Congo Basin,” Rimoin says. “The way we practice global health is much more collaborative than in the past. It’s been decolonized, as we have helped nations develop their own health infrastructures. We have made a promise to be here, to maintain funding, and the Africans are learning to trust that. Our first priority is to not let Africa down.”
This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.