My hand is being ever-so-slightly electrocuted by poorly-earthed taps as I fend off my daughter from the broken shower cubical with my foot. She slides around the floor adding a good coating of wet bathroom grime to her layers of dust and stuck on food. She has sand in her mouth and grass in her hair. Her clothes are filthy. I too am covered in dust and dried on sweat. My hair, which I have failed to find time to wash, has semi-solidified into a permanent pony-tail. Fieldwork in Botswana has challenges. Attaining any sense of cleanliness for more than a few minutes remains one of them. Add a 10 month old baby into the mix and you may as well give up on ever being clean. Still, we at least have running water, something that in field seasons pre-baby would have been a luxury. And, thanks to a ‘returning carer’s’ fund from the University, I am not in a tent.
Combining baby rearing with saltpan-drilling in Africa is not entirely without risk and in a moment of weakness, two days before we left the UK, I was genuinely considering next day delivery on ‘snake repellent’. Through suburban Oxfordshire tinted spectacles, the Kalahari is chock full with dangers. There are scorpions in the wood she likes to throw about, venomous spiders in the little holes she loves to poke her fingers and a lot of chat about widespread outbreaks of Malaria after a particularly wet year in Botswana. But I am lucky to be surrounded by friends (most of whom have small children) who not only live perfectly safe, happy lives amongst the mosquitos, snakes and dust but who thrive here on the space and the sunshine and the proximity to wildlife we just don’t have the privilege of being around in our very dull, very English little village in Oxford. Their children grow up culturally colour-blind, unafraid of bugs and beasts, of getting grubby in the dust and mud. They watch crocodiles and hippos from their gardens and somehow the inherent understanding that we are part of that big beautiful ecosystem that spreads out into the distance from their garden gates seeps into their little hearts and stays with them forever. It is a life I aspire to. And so we ignored the comments, left the largely useless snake repellent in the online shopping trolley and arrived in Botswana with enough stuff that we could probably have kitted out a small army of Botswanan babies for a year.
From my daughter’s perspective, this world is magical. In the mornings we watch the dog chase the village chickens, she plays drums on the camping tupperware with the University of Botswana students and digs endless holes in the sand with her hands. We hang out with habituated meerkats, watch the bushbabys leaping through the trees before bedtime and if we’re very lucky we meet big grey elephantine giants munching their way through the Mopane. Some days she stays with Unami, our nanny in the local village, and some days she comes into the field with us where she rearranges the sampling tubes and reads the Munsell colour chart upside down and backwards over and over again. When I’m busy working, colleagues take it in turns to sing and read with her and, mostly, she loves it – babbling and giggling, pointing out birds and trees and trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to be helpful. There are tears too of course – the burning sun and spikey Kalahari grass mean she is confined to the covered area we have rigged up between two trucks. She’s always been unimpressed by incarceration of any kind and sometimes, the days are just too long for a tiny, teething human.
The trip is not without its emergencies – I lost the charger to my tablet and in my world long car journeys without the Teletubbies rank alongside extreme psychological torture. She hates the car and lone, long-distance driving around Botswana without Tinkywinky, Dipsy, Lala and Po filled me with fear and dread. Two of my colleagues drove several hours to search the electronic junk shops in Nata for a replacement charger – I will forever be eternally grateful.
It’s hard to be a fully functioning part of the team – some days we must, frustratingly, stay in the village whilst the others go out into the field to overnight in less travelled corners of the Makgadikgadi. I am snot-green with envy but, at least I am here and I am able to bounce ideas back and forth with them when they arrive back from their adventures into the unknown. On other days I was unglamorously confined to the back of the truck with a bottle and breast-pump as we bounced somewhat comically over beach ridges arguing about how the landscape evolved to the melodic hum of a Medela milking machine. My contribution to cooking and washing up this year was also woefully non-existent as I battled to get my daughter fed, cleaned and asleep. Sometimes I never made it to dinner at all. But to my relief (and perhaps surprise) no one ever made me feel like a burden or an inconvenience. No one raised their eyebrows or whispered under their breath. In truth, I think even the least likely of the team seemed, in the end, to quite like having a small dribbling, giggling midget around, lowering the tone and generally keeping things real.
I’m sure there are other scientists out there who might have to take their kids on fieldwork or to conferences to keep doing their research. I hope their colleagues and institutions can be as positive and supportive as mine. It is tough enough to be a scientist and a parent – the nights are long, the workload is large and the days between nursery drop-offs and pickups are short. To be further isolated from the rest of the scientific community is enough for many brilliant young women (and men) to lose the momentum and the motivation to carry on. I am certainly not sure if I will make it. I hope by the time my daughter grows up there will be more money in the University pots to offer the practical and financial support to keep women scientists in the career they chose. In the meantime, it helps a lot if you just manage not to raise your eyebrows and tut under your breath.
I am extremely grateful to my family (especially Andrew), my friends and my colleagues in Botswana and Oxford for helping me get back out to the field. You all rock. Long may our adventures in science continue.
Sallie is a Quaternary Scientist, National Geographic Explorer, Trapnell Fellow of African Environments at the University of Oxford and a mum; though not necessarily in that order.