East Africans should consolidate and regionalise national genetic banks

What was seen as a miracle 45 years ago will now become a normal occurrence in the lives of ordinary Ugandans
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The government of Uganda has this year offered a Christmas ‘miracle’ to people with difficulties in having children. The timing for this gift could not have been more perfect as Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, who is believed to have resulted from miraculous conception. As a testament to the fact that scientific advancements are increasingly making what were believed to be miracles now attainable through human ingenuity, the national teaching hospital of Mulago in Kampala has thrown its sperm bank doors open to the public. Men are now invited to deposit their seeds there free of charge, and women can, in the near or distant future, go and withdraw these seeds free of charge to conceive and bear children (with characteristics of their choice) from the available genetic variety of the men making the deposits. What was seen as a miracle 45 years ago when Louise Brown (the world’s first so-called test tube baby) was born will now become a normal occurrence in the lives of ordinary Ugandans. However, more efforts are needed for these national and isolated investments in genetic banks to yield long-lasting benefits to all East Africans.

We must keep in mind that human genetic banks on their own may not thrive without proper nutrition for our people. Neither will human beings survive without preserving those other species that form parts of our ecosystem. Therefore, there are other genetic banks, some older, some in the making, in the East African region which the public and the authorities should pay attention to.

In northern Tanzania’s greater Arusha area, for example, the government has for many years been running a bank for all plant species that ever grew in the country. For a government establishment in Africa, this bank’s operation is impressive. With a few buildings housing laboratories, stores and offices, the bank sits on a huge tract of land where plants that you may no longer easily find on farms and in forests are grown. Inside the buildings, seeds for all these thousands of species of plants are stored, some are planted and fresh ones are harvested and stored.

In southern Uganda’s greater Masaka area, scientists from the traditional Buganda (Kingdom) institution have this year been actively encouraging farmers to deliberately develop and maintain small gardens of their almost-forgotten hardy legumes and tubers (varieties of yams and peas) locally referred to as either “forest” or “underground” food, for two major reasons. One, they are not seasonal and are ‘naturally stored’ in the ground as they keep growing bigger and in forests where they thrive perennially, coming in handy for hard times – call it food security. Two, they have special nutritional and (preventive) medicinal values that farmers’ families can enjoy “free of charge”.

Obviously, all African countries have their peculiar flora and fauna varieties that kept the ancestors healthy, strong and long living before the colonial disruption that led to the loss of knowledge around their properties and usefulness to the extent that our modern scientists are now almost helpless without the techniques and equipment imported from abroad. Therefore, there are many foreseeable benefits to regionalise these different initiatives taking place in different countries, including the recovery of the knowledge lost.

Working together on the regional level to put an end to the chaotic and irrational management of our precious African heritage would obviously yield positive outcomes. Since, Africa’s natural ecological zones were crudely divided by the colonial boundaries drawers, only animal species that are of touristic value manage to live as if the rudely drawn borders don’t exist. The seasonal wildebeest great migration between Kenya and Tanzania is a case in point. Turning westwards at the confluence of three countries – DRC, Rwanda and Uganda – man’s closest relatives known as the mountain gorillas move within the impenetrable forest. Like the wildebeest of Kenya and Tanzania, the mountain gorillas aren’t bothered by international borders, inadvertently spending more quality time in Rwanda, where they seem to be more comfortable in recent years. Isn’t it about time that the East African humans took a leaf from the wildebeests and the mountain gorillas, and started regionally managing projects that preserve and promote the genetic heritage that has been trodden upon since colonial times?

Most interestingly, ordinary east Africans are investing in food seed preservation while our agricultural scientists are daily working on improving crop species to make them more drought and pest-resistant. This is quite timely and even more crucial now that countries like Kenya are moving ahead with adopting the Genetically Modifies Organisms (GMO) technology for food production. The GMO debate is not about to be concluded in the next decade as it is both emotional and political. But, in the meantime, East Africa would do well to step up the strategic development of genetic preservation of important crops and animal species (which now seem to include humans) while the GMO debates continue.

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