There is a poem by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa titled Viajar! Perder países! (Travelling! Losing countries! in English, I believe). I don’t know what Pessoa meant by that. I often struggle to catch meanings in poetry, more so in the case of Pessoa, who wrote behind all of those alter egos or pseudonyms (he called them heteronyms), and was playful, or anxious, and fragmented. Travelling, losing countries, he says. Is the writer in favour or against the act of travelling? Lost in the ugly, unrigorous jungle of quotes websites, I find sentences attributed to Pessoa, or to one of his heteronyms, suggesting that travelling is about feeling excessively (in favour), that travelling is for those who cannot feel (against), that life is what we make of it and travel is the traveller (in favour), and that the mere idea of travelling made him feel physically sick (against). So I am confused here. According to the body of the poem, it seems to me that Pessoa is praising his travel experiences, although I am not completely sure. In any case, I like the sentence in a standalone form. Travelling, losing countries. There is a hidden beauty in it, some sort of underground logic. Travelling, losing countries… what this means to me is that places, destinations, are always better in our minds. They exist more tangibly in our imagination, and to go there is to convert them into vanished territory. In other words, we should not travel to certain places unless we are ready to be disappointed by them.
There are two countries that I’ve always been afraid to lose. The first one is Argentina. It is unlikely that I will travel to Argentina anytime soon. The second one is Cameroon. This country has been in my family’s imagery since I was a kid, mainly due to the figure of Thomas N’Kono, the ultra-charismatic Cameroonian goalkeeper who played for R.C.D. Espanyol in the 80s. As it turns out, my father, also a football player himself, was the backup goalkeeper of Thomas N’Kono in this team. You can see them training in the picture below. It is difficult (in that it is embarrassing) to convey how fascinated I was by my father’s friendship with Thomas. For a kid like me, grown in provincial Catalunya, Thomas was a magnetic presence, a messenger from an outer world, a world where everyone was gifted and everything was torrential.
All of this is to say that I was disquieted by our upcoming trip to Cameroon. I was not ready to lose this country. We were travelling to Cameroon to kick-start a collaboration with Prof. Fidele Ntie-Kang at the University of Buea, in the anglophone (Western) part of the country. The context of the collaboration is a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Calestous Juma Fellowship in which the Ersilia Open Source Initiative is a sub-awardee, together with the group of Dr. Ian Tietjen at The Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. Ian had visited Buea a few weeks before us. It was our turn to show commitment to the project.
We learned about Fidele a year and a half ago. Fidele is the scientist behind the African Natural Products Database, the major online repository of metabolites found in plants and marine species of African origin. Fidele’s ambition is to catalogue all natural products of potential medicinal interest in the continent, with a focus on the discovery of antiviral treatments which, as we know, are often missing or neglected in the Global South. Creating such a natural products database requires the involvement of traditional healers, and is a means to recognise biodiversity and communities in rural areas. So the idea is irresistible. It is certainly irresistible to the European in me, always fascinated with the ancestral and the exotic— if I remember correctly, it was also in Cameroon where Nigel Barley took notes for The Innocent Anthropologist, his cliched, autoparodical account of the Dowayo lifestyle.
The layout of our collaboration with Fidele is the following. Fidele and his team are creating a Centre for Drug Discovery (CeDD) at the University of Buea. The CeDD is now under construction — there will be laboratories, a shared office space and a spacious seminar room. It will be the first facility of its kind in Central and West Africa. Ersilia will offer data science and artificial intelligence support to the ongoing projects at the CeDD. In practice, this means that we will develop a tailored version of the Ersilia Model Hub adapted to the scientific needs of the centre, including instances of antimicrobial models fine-tuned to accept natural product compounds as inputs. There is plenty of expertise at the CeDD to take over our initial contributions, since Fidele’s group has an important track record in computational chemistry. I don’t exaggerate if I say that, in almost every way, the current collaboration with Fidele is paradigmatic of the ideal role of Ersilia as a tech non-profit operating in the Global Health space.
For a first, introductory visit, we had a busy schedule in Cameroon. We presented Ersilia in a faculty meeting at the University of Buea, also at the University of Douala and the MboaLab in Yaoundé. We offered a hands-on workshop on artificial intelligence applied to drug discovery, and had the chance to visit the current and under-construction laboratories of the site. Along these activities, we captured our collective thoughts in a perspective article that we have already submitted for peer review and we hope to publish soon.
So it was a productive trip. Quite clearly, we didn’t lose Cameroon. If anything, we might have gained Cameroon. Pessoa’s sentence works almost equally well this way. Travelling! Gaining countries! retains some hidden beauty, the underground logic, much like you can flip Anna Karenina’s opening and still get a fundamental truth: ‘Unhappy families are all alike; every happy family is happy in its own way’. As a young organisation trying to grow responsibly, Ersilia must find the right balance between online work and onsite visits. We need to be in favour and against travelling at the same time. I feel we’ll always live with this contradiction, perhaps this was the contradiction that Pessoa himself was facing. This time, however, I am convinced we made the right choice. I am beyond thankful for the opportunity that Fidele and his team have given to us. This was a necessary trip, I am glad we were all able to identify this need.