The Desperation of River Blindness

On the road… again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek


The Desperation of River Blindness


Some chronicles of the Footloose Forester are brewed during dreams.  This one escaped from a daydream.  It will be a sad story, but one that should be shared.  It is all about a safari stop in a village in Mali and the shockingly high rate of river blindness found there. 

During the late 1970s, The Footloose Forester traveled in the company of other environmental specialists during an expensive, two-year study phase of an Environmental Impact Study of the Senegal River Basin of Mauritania, Senegal, and Mali.  Our study area also included the proposed reservoir construction site on the Bafing River in Mali, some 300 km upstream from where the Bafing dumps into the Senegal River.

The Footloose Forester was responsible for studying the potential effects of reservoir construction impacts on the terrestrial and aquatic vegetation resources of the region, if and when a reservoir was constructed on the Bafing River near the present-day village of Manantali.  We traveled as a team in two Land Rovers because there was not enough money in the budget to allow the various specialists to go their separate ways.  So, we made plans to conduct our individual research tasks in the same sector; but go about our individual tasks alone or in small teams of only a few people.  It was that association and sharing of transportation with the medical team that set the stage for the shocking revelations that the Footloose Forester recalled during a daydream.

During our evening planning session, The Footloose Forester learned that the medical research team was planning to visit the village of Kéniékéniéko, upstream of our campground headquarters at the proposed site of the future Manantali Dam on the Bafing River.  He made plans to ride with them as far as the bluffs west of Kéniékéniéko, where he planned to spend the day amid the sparse vegetation along the bluffs where a congress or two of baboons lived.  The parting instructions to the driver were to be picked up late in the day.

His day was notable only to mark the event that was to follow, in the village.  Today, the village of Kéniékéniéko has been submerged in the reservoir behind Manantali Dam.  Evidence to that effect can be seen on a Google map at latitude 13°12.8' 20″ N and longitude 10°23′ 06.33″ E.



                  Typical village along the Bafing River in Mali


After the study team driver dropped off the Footloose Forester below the bluffs, and the medical study team in the village, he later came back in mid-afternoon to pick up the Footloose Forester to re-join with the medical team in the village.  That is when the recollections in the daydream came into focus, and how the Footloose Forester came to learn something about onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness.

As the scene unfolded, Dr. Bob Winchell was sitting in a collapsible chair at a portable, collapsible table when the Footloose Forester arrived. There was a line of local villagers waiting to be interviewed, each called forward by one of Dr. Winchell’s assistants who spoke the local language of the area.  Most of them seemed to be young, perhaps because they were selected to participate in the baseline study of river blindness; and based on their age.  The medical team was taking skin biopsy samples to determine the markers for the existence of river blindness in their blood. 

River blindness is unfortunately prevalent in West Africa in rivers that exhibit the riffles of white water where black flies lay their eggs. Hatched eggs then become infected with parasitic Onchocera volvulus worms and henceforth become deadly residents in eddies of rivers where villagers go to bathe and draw water for domestic use.

Although the Footloose Forester always thought of fast-moving river water with small white caps as somehow being cleaner and purer than slow-moving and dark, murky river water; the black fly that carries river blindness actually seeks out white water rapids and its riffles as the preferred habitat for laying its eggs.  River blindness ensues, especially in those villages in proximity to black fly hatching sites.  River blindness is the second most common cause of blindness due to infection, after trachoma.

The sad thing about the formerly colorful village of Kéniékéniéko in Mali, close to the scenic Bafing River, was its preponderance of inhabitants infected with onchocerciasis.  A sure sign of the disease was the bump that appears on the temple area of the victims.  Dr. Winchell explained that once the bump on the temple appeared, blindness was inevitable and there was no cure.  The bumps indicated the presence of adult worms in the body at the infection site. Treatment was possible before the disease progressed too far, but once the signs of advanced infection appeared in the form of a bump on the temple, blindness was inevitable.  There is no vaccine to treat river blindness, and there is no known cure.  About half of the people were already blind, or showed signs of infection.  It was sad to see so many villagers who were afflicted; and so many youngsters who were soon to become blind.      

Thanks to Google Earth and the vastly improved internal editors of social websites, another aspect of the story can now be told.  When the dam on the Bafing River at Manantali, Mali was finally completed in 1987 the present day Lac Manantali was formed.  The first photo below shows the site of the future Mannatali Dam and the site where the village of Kéniekéniéko was located in 1978.  In the second photo, taken after 1978, the reservoir behind the dam had already attained its nearly final contours.  The spot where Kéniekéniéko now underwater.


Bafing River prior to reservoir construction

Reservoir filling started in 1984 and may have taken up to two years, based on close inspection of historical Google satellite photos.  After 1987, the only place to look for Kéniekéniéko is at Latitude 13°12.8′.20″N  and Longitude 10°23′06.33″W. 



Present-day configuration of Lac Manantali, Mali*


*The lake from behind the reservoir was originally called Lac Manantali but was subsequently named Lac Selingue.




















Different Island, Different Story
Wardrobe Wishes

Related Posts



Already Registered? Login Here
No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment