Sokoine University of Agriculture, Tanzania: I’m sitting on a windowsill. It’s a nice windowsill and I like it here.
The terracotta red buildings with their timber-framed screen doors, the pink flowers, the palm trees, my big cousins, which my human friends call cows, are coming along the path, and to my left, in the distance, I can’t see them, because my eyesight is not great, but I can smell, my cousins the camel.
I’m glad we young rats get this time that the Apopo bosses call ‘socialisation’, before we begin our training and then our work.
I’m glad too that my friend Hannah is here and she is letting me lick her hand; this morning she was eating bananas.
I’ve learned so many things already in my life. I was born under the ground in a comfortable dirt place which one day was dug up and then we were introduced to the light.
My siblings and I were then given our names. I am Aaron, and at four weeks we were moved from our mother, we were put in a new cage with a brown clay pot to sleep in, wood to play on and we began to be properly introduced to the world of humans.
This is a place of important learning but it took me a long time to learn its name was Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) because everyone calls it ‘Soowa’. I have smelled the fresh cut grass on what is called a football field, the grass cut by young men with machetes, I have seen the different types of vehicles that the students move about in, the tired, beaten looking ones called taxis and the small bright coloured ones which have no windows and doors called tuk-tuks – my favourite being a red one with words in thick pretty writing that said ‘campus shuttle’.
I am an African giant pouched rat, when I start work I will become a Hero Rat. I wonder what role will be chosen for me.
Inside, this building some of my older brothers and sisters are already working. There is a long glass box with many different holes. One by one the holes are opened, inside each hole is a small tub of a clear substance which sick humans cough up when they are in a place I have never seen called a hospital.
At one time some of these little tubs of sputum would have been harmful, bearing the contagious disease with the tongue-tying name tuberculosis (TB), which I’ve heard kills many human beings in this world, especially when they are poor.
The sputum has been processed to make safe to handle but the strong smell of TB – which we with our long noses smell though our human friends cannot – remains.
As a Hero Rat my job could be to smell each hole and tell the humans, through scratching, when I sense the deadly disease. I know that each one of these pots has been checked by human heroes called lab technicians with a strange silver thing called a microscope – but they do not have our noses and sometimes they miss things.
Of course we are sometimes wrong too – that’s why two of us Hero Rats must identify the same sample which the humans have missed before it will be taken next door to the dark, cool, room where one of the two nice men in the white coats will look through the microscope to see the disease that we smelled.
The banana-eating Hannah Ford, whose job is to tell the world about us Hero Rats, is talking to a type of human called a journalist and I hear her say with pride, which I feel too: “A lab technician can view 20 to 30 samples a day with microscope, The World Health Organisation says that 40 is the maximum they can look at in day, our rats easily do that in under seven minutes – they’re just so much faster.
“In an average week our rats will check 600 to 700 samples and find 5 to 10 cases of tuberculosis which the hospitals missed. Before we started collecting these samples there was never any second-line screening done, the samples were simply thrown away.”
We walk inside, my long whiskers twitching excitedly at the change in atmosphere from the heat and packed dirt outside to the cool cleanness inside.
The journalists are shown how one day I may be trained, first with a smaller box with only three holes in it, and how when we correctly sniff out the tuberculosis we are rewarded with food. The training takes about six months but is slightly different for each of us.
Peter Luanda, who is 40 in human years, and one of the trainers for the 33 heroes who work in the TB lab, is holding Melitta – she is running around on his shoulders and Peter says she is “showing off for visitors” – I think Peter is right.
He describes how some of us rats will pass our test to become TB detectors more quickly than others. He also says: “Sometimes, just like you get a human that doesn’t like to work, so you can get a rat that doesn’t want to work, just lies down and starts sleeping. But most of the time they are passing their exams and that makes us happy.”
I am determined if I am chosen for TB work I will not be lazy, I will make Peter proud.
But, perhaps I will not be working in this lab; perhaps I will be working far away in a place called Mozambique where a new TB lab is to be built in the city of Maputo so that we can help Mozambicans as well as Tanzanians.
Or perhaps I will be in Mozambique sniffing the ground in fields and open countryside to find these things which humans put in the ground to kill other humans, even long after their quarrel has ended.
It is this work with landmines for which we Hero Rats are most famous. We rats are relatively newcomers and I hear that there are many humans who do this work, sometimes when there is a thing in the ground around these mines called oil, which must be very important indeed, big machines will be brought to the place by white humans who come from faraway places.
Then the mines will be exploded by the machines and the land quickly made safe. But when there is no oil there is no one to pay for these machines and the people must go on dying while farming for long years.
We Hero Rats aim to be most useful to those who are poorest and we are improving all the time. Recently we have doubled our speed.
We are trained here at SUA for nine months with mines that can no longer injure people but which still smell of their deadly substance. Our trainers use a string to help us walk in straight lines carefully sniffing the ground. When we find a mine we are rewarded with food.
Once when I visited the field here I heard a man speaking. His name is John Mosha and in human years he is 37.
He was telling some visitors of his favourite Hero Rat named Glory. Like all the SUA trainers here in Tanzania John had the chance once to go to Mozambique and see us in action with our new Mozambican handlers. Glory had graduated and started her work sometime earlier but John said he recognised her at once “because of her size and body morphology”.
“Most of my friends find my job funny and says it needs a lot of imagination,” said John.
“Locals in Mozambique also found it very funny. When they saw them performing this most of them were surprised but when they saw them bringing in land mines they were happy because they were releasing tension from their community.
“After removing mines the land can be used for agriculture, grazing, a lot of economic activities.”
John said he has been working at Apopo since the very early days, since 2002, when there were only 90 of us heroes as opposed to the 300 we have in our family now.
We work only early in the morning as it is too hot for us rats to work later in the day and John has now completed his part-time studies in business administration at SUA and will be looking for a new job, although I know from the tone in his voice he will miss us.
I remember him also saying to the visitors: “I think the SUA community should learn from Apopo. By that I mean they should do research that has a positive impact on communities working here. Apopo gives a good salary.
“They should be not just academic but there should be more practical research like this that has an impact on the community.”
Glory is probably dead now, not from a landmine – we are too light to set them off – simply from old age as we African giant pouched rats live only 6-8 human years; they were both in Mozambique in 2003, but John still remembers her.
But perhaps I will not be in either of these roles. Sometimes when I am put on top of the radio in the office, but the radio is not too loud, I hear about new jobs being devised for us Hero Rats.
Perhaps I may be a land mine detector in Thailand or Angola. Or perhaps I may be a pioneer rat in the illegal tobacco trade or in detecting salmonella which is the cause of a lot of thoroughbred horse deaths in a faraway place called the US.
Recently there was a Tsunami. I can’t imagine what this thing could be but I know from the way my human friends talk about it that it was horrible. Research has begun to find out whether we Hero Rats could be used to help in searching for and rescuing humans who have been caught in these horrible disasters.
All these jobs may one day be mine – but for now my job is to sniff, scratch and whiskery feel everything around me here at Sokoine University of Agriculture, Tanzania.
Please forgive a journalist her whimsy in channeling her inner rat (perhaps precipitated by the fact my school nickname for a time was ‘mouse’). All the speech in quotes and the facts and figures are reportage.