Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

A Short Story

The Toad Experiment

By Tehtey

From the onset, let me confess a scientific error. The amphibians which were the subject of the experiment were frogs and not toads. There may be many who may care less be the subjects frogs or toads so long as they cook a good story. But to pacify the more fussy lot and satisfy a scientific (zoological to be precise) conscience, I confess once again that the subject of my experiment (story if one insists) were frogs and not toads.

The project title as posted on the notice board of the Zoology Department of the University of Cape Coast was simple and straightforward. “... Investigate response to stress in Xenopus laevis at the tadpole stage…" Response I rightly defined as death or survival insofar as stress was explained as variation in salinity, temperature, pH, and oxygen concentration of their aquatic habitat. Without a second hesitation, I opted for it pretending not to hear my friend Cobi's warning about animal behaviour in such experiments. "The animals always misbehave."

Of course only God's own prophet can safely use the word 'always' to any degree of accuracy. In this investigation into response to stress in Xenopus laevis, it was the unlikely species which misbehaved. Misbehaviour of course meant putting up a behaviour which deviated from the normal. The laboratory technicians on whose heads the success of the experiment rested, went on strike. Dr. Johnson, my supervisor, did not go on strike, nor did I. But I assumed that he went because every lab, office, and lecture hall was locked up indefinitely two days after I had begun my experiment. Explanatory rumours had it that the Trade Union Congress (TUC) had called a nation-wide strike to protest against inadequate wages (what else?). For six days, I didn't think it worthwhile to throw a glance anywhere near the Faculty of Science which was as far removed from my hall of residence as my father's cocoa farm from his mansion in Kumasi. It was Cobi my friend and coursemate who came to inform me that Dr. Johnson was looking for me at the faculty.

"Are the workers back to work?" I asked.

"They aren't. But Doc. is in his office."

Well, I didn't see the urgency. I took my time to get out of bed shared with Ami, my second-year Graeco student girlfriend. I also took my time to walk the one-and-a- half-kilometre distance to the faculty and face Dr. Johnson.

"Now Tehtey, what's happening?"

"Aah there's a strike…”

"Your project I mean. Don't be silly. When was the last time you worked on it?"

He did not tell me he was in a furious rage. He had already made it clear that this project work was one he was vitally interested in; that even though the clawed frog Xenopus laevis was indigenous to South Africa, it was a potential biological control agent of an unruly West African insect pest - which pest he didn't specify except to say that it was of the order Lepidoptera.

I could not see, however, how his fury was justified. Who hadn't heard about the workers strike in Ghana? And wasn't he, Dr. Johnson, a worker? Only that morning, BBC announced government's "Persuasive (sic) measures to get workers in certain sensitive areas of the economy to go back to work." Who says there's a more insensitive sector of the economy than a University lecture room? More particularly, a Zoology laboratory?

"What sort of scientists are we training here?" he fumed "There! Go and look at your rotting tadpoles." Then he threw the bunch of keys at me.

Certainly, there were rotting tadpoles. Even those in water of oxygen concentration peaked at 5% were rotting. There was no electric power to bubble oxygen in the bath. I didn't go to the doc's office again but he came to the lab.

"Those were the only specimens of Xenopus laevis I could give out. You'll have to get your own specimens. Whether you go to South Africa, wherever, I don't care. Just get the specimens and get on with the project." He stormed out of the lab.

That afternoon saw me on the way to Legon (University of Ghana) where Professor Wilson was supposed to be working on one endocrine gland or the other in this all-important toad.

It was a trip with mixed results. I saw the bald, almost sixty years old, Prof. as soon as I landed on the campus. The man had nothing in his appearance to exude academic dignity, contrary to what one imagined on hearing his name. He was too short and was too copper (really copper I mean) coloured. He told me rather snobbishly that he had not enough Xenopus laevis tadpoles to spare. Yet I could see he had a lab-full. I was more annoyed than disappointed because I knew by hook or crook I would get those baby toads from Professor Wilson's lab.

The rest of the day, I spent in imperfect bliss with Diana the crafty faithless drama student at Legon.

At the Zoology Department (Legon) next morning, I met the dour, burly lab- technician responsible for Professor Wilson's lab. Everything about him was unsavoury except that crop of neatness - his moustache. I talked to him. He snapped that he could not do what I was suggesting. For all he knew, Professor Wilson might have counted the thousands of the toads in the lab.

"Look, here's another fifty cedis. Only a score of tadpoles."

"I can't. Professor Wilson would know."

By the glint in his eye, I could tell he was bent on squeezing more money from me. Indeed, he named his price. Four hundred cedis.

"What: What do you think you are selling? Goats?" I folded my money into my pocket and walked away, Diana at my heels.

"But Tehtey," that was Diana, "don't you want the tadpoles?"

"Tadpoles at four hundred cedis? Bullshit!"

"But what is four hundred cedis these days!"

"Unlike you, Diana, my mother hasn't got a Makola market stall." it was her turn to say bullshit. I assured her I would get my (of course my) tapoles any way I can. I didn't even wait till it was night before I sneaked into the lab. and laddled out into a stolen jar scores of Xenopus laevis tadpoles. There is a point of correction here. Professor Wilson was working on a melanotrophin gene inheritance in this toad. Not on any endocrine gland. That perhaps explains why there were hundreds of these croaking creatures at all stages of their life cycle making merry disgustedly in half a dozen voluminous baths in the lab. making it all the easier for me to be a tadpole thief.

My woes began in the bus. There was a teenage girl beside me whom I decided was too pretty not to deserve serious attention. For her sake I relegated from my lap and to under the seat, my precious jar of tadpoles. Disaster struck almost at once. The driver's mate knocked the jar over with a dirty luggage he threw under the seat. I could save no more than half the tadpole population. Shamefacedly, I brought the jar back onto my lap and held it with both hands. Why did I ever think it would disturb my conversation with this teenage girl? Silly of me.

Then we reached the first road barrier outside the capital. It was a barrier serving other purposes besides checking smuggling and dissidence. They (policemen and soldiers all) made us get down and line up for a search. Obviously, the driver hadn't given cheerfully enough. God loves a cheerful giver and so does the police - even the army. I got down and joined the queue. Tina the teenage girl was right behind me.

It was a trip with mixed results. I saw the bald almost sixty years old Prof. as soon as I landed on the campus. The man had nothing in his appearance to exude academic dignity contrary to what one imagined on hearing his name.

When my turn came, the soldier wanted to know what the tadpoles were (what the tadpoles were?!) If he had asked what organisms (or animals) they were, I would have known how to answer his query. but he rightly pointed out they were tadpoles and yet wanted to know what they were.

"Xenopus laevis." I answered.

"What?" contorting his face in some confusion I could well understand.

"Xenopus laevis." I repeated.

"What language be dat?"

Tina couldn't help giggling. It was a dangerous humour. It set off everybody laughing and shot the NCC into an irrational temper.

"Look, you tink you go fit waste my time?" Angrily, he grabbed the jar of tadpoles and hurled it at the regimented heap of sandbags some ten metres from the road block. I was not the only person to gasp "oh!" at this atrocious attack on the lives of mere tadpoles.

I rushed over, picked up my unbroken (thank God) jar, and redeemed as many of the tadpoles as I could into it. Meanwhile, the soldier's vituperation was loud and clear. "Fucking boy! You tink say I no go the school some? Come on hully up. ... next open bag ..." He searched the bag (Tina's) throwing everything out with one hand and clutching his rifle with the other.

I also searched my jar. Many of the tadpoles were lost in the grass destined to be burnt up in the glare of the late morning sun. There was a little water and at least a dozen of the poor creatures were swimming freely. Even this number would not make the ultimate journey into my project work.

When I went back to the vehicle, the soldier marched on me again and "Fucking boy I say throw that tin away."

"Look officer, this is my load."

I say throw that tin away."

“Don't I have freedom to carry my own load?"

We were both in a cantankerous mood now. It was a credit to the soldier that he kept his finger off the trigger. Still, he knocked down the 'tin' and stamped on the split contents. I pushed him back and picked the largest of the broken jar pieces. Then I climbed into the bus. It was apparent that he could not stop me from taking along some tadpoles short of shooting me dead.

His colleagues came to take him away. A kind jolly lady presented me with a bottle like a trophy! Tina found me water. As we drove off from the barrier, two obstinate Xenopus laevis tadpoles were swimming healthily and freely, evincing in no uncertain terms their specific response to the stress of the argument for freedom.

talking drums 1985-12-02 The spy swap Sousoudis for 8 Ghanaians and families