Two years ago, I met 30-year-old Jahi at a holiday lodge down a rutted road in Arusha, Tanzania. When my husband and I first arrived in Arusha, Jahi was our official greeter and hotel guide. A childlike man in a burlap smock, he couldn’t wait to show us the lodge’s open-air restaurant, its private flock of egrets, its individual bungalows with red cement floors and batik curtains. No sooner had we closed our door than we heard a tap-tap on our window. Once again we spied Jahi’s bobbing head, ear-to-ear smile, and daft gaze. Did we need anything else? he gestured energetically. No, we replied, we’re great right now. Asante, Jahi. Thanks but no thanks.
A few hours later, we exchanged another greeting with Jahi, then left for the Arusha International Conference Center. Its lawn was filled with birdsong and scientists immersed in lively conversation. It was the opening reception for the world’s largest-ever malaria research conference, the Third Pan-African Multilateral Initiatives in Malaria, MIM for short. I’m not a researcher, but I had recently agreed to co-edit a report on malaria subsidies. To the casual observer, my purpose was clear. I was at MIM to soak up as much knowledge as possible.
In my heart, however, seeking facts was not my sole mission. While in Tanzania, I also longed to learn something intangible: the private fears, hopes, and dreams of malaria experts and at least a few stakeholders in the field. What were their gut feelings about Africa’s oldest enemy? Had the time finally come to wrestle it to the ground? With the recent publication of the gene sequences of Plasmodium falciparum and its chief African vector, Anopheles gambiae, many MIM attendees were predicting a great leap forward for malaria research. But others at the conference—particularly those from Africa—seemed to temper their expectations. For starters, they would gladly settle for more bed nets plus new treatments like artemisinins (highly effective antimalarial drugs available in Asia but scarce and unaffordable in Africa) to counter growing resistance to older remedies like chloroquine.