Touring conferences for research, with a laptop, scientific brochures, PowerPoints and a baby.

How did I do it?

My work as lead researcher on African fisheries has always required me to travel to countries of Africa. Before I went the first time, my travel clinic made sure I understood that West Africa was the worst place I could ever go. The list of vaccines they wanted me to take was so long that I wondered what would remain of my blood after I took them all. The first time I travelled to Senegal, I almost forgot that I was African too. Malaria pills, yellow fever, Hepatitis B, and a long list of things I do not even remember. I took the overpriced malaria pills with me, the yellow fever vaccine in my blood and assumed I was vaccinated in Algeria against everything else. I hate needles so that was just an excuse for me to avoid more needles. I had my baby, Ilyas, less than 12 hours after I submitted the defense version of my thesis and I didn’t want to travel for some time. First, as a proud mom, I am a breast-feeder. Nothing or nobody would take that away from me. I only took three months maternity leave while Canada allows me to take a year. That was the only thing that allowed me to avoid the guilt many working mothers feel. However, that day was approaching fast. Workshops in November 2015, one year and one month after I had Ilyas. I had planned for a workshop in The Gambia, a Forum in Cape Verde and meetings in Senegal. How to do it without sacrificing a moment with my little one? I was going for at least two weeks. I was not ready to leave him for that long.

  1. The first thing was to take the hard decision. Given all the vaccines and some of them were not proven safe yet, do I want to take him with me? Will he be ok if I don’t? Will I be ok if I do? Will he be ok if I do? How to take care of him and be efficient in my meetings and presentations? Can I afford to take him with me physically, mentally and financially? Can I afford not to take him with me mentally? The answer was very simple. The very idea of leaving him behind was painful. My husband will work, we will put some money aside and my husband will come with me and take care of him. As the primary care taker he is great at doing so. The only thing missing was a few thousand dollars in our bank account. After all, my post-doc salary was only enough to cover for our everyday life costs. While my husband was working outside, I could work from home, one of the good things about being a post-doc. We could put just enough money aside during those few months to allow us to pay for plane tickets, and associated costs. My mind was at ease.
  2. Medical attention to detail. Depending on where you travel to, you have to make sure you are well prepared. We were travelling to Senegal and The Gambia. These countries are both within the high risk zone for Malaria and Yellow Fever. The Yellow Fever vaccine is not recommended for infants under 9 months of age, while the good Malaria pills are not adequate before 24 months of age, at least. The other pills can cause nightmares, bruising and things that were scary enough for me to opt out. As I was talking to the doctor, I had the feeling she wanted to force vaccines into our system, so I chose to go instead for a less drastic solution: Avoiding mosquito bites. We bought a big mosquito net, that fits to beds and also strollers, infant deet, and we used only long sleeve t-shirts and long pants, closed shoes, unscented baby products (shampoo, sun screen, etc.). Ilyas had zero mosquito bites during and until the end of the trip.img
  3. Food and NEW TOYS for baby is very important. A healthy baby is a well fed baby. We took the time to buy baby fruit and vegetable purees, crackers, biscuits, and food to chew on while on the plane, but also snacks for after breakfast and lunch. We stacked an entire 23 kg of baby stuff in one big suitcase alongside his clothes and products. I had never introduced formula, but 2 weeks prior to the trip I decided to go for it to complement my milk, as I was not going to pump during the conference. New toys are a must. My baby was barely old enough to know when to get bored, not knowing colouring and not yet interested in movies for that matter. A colleague of mine gave me the precious advice of getting him all the snacks he loves but also to get him new toys he had never seen before. He would play with them for one hour, maybe less, maybe more and then get interested in another toy… and so on. It was great advice that worked out perfectly for us. I must say, we almost had a heart attack when we thought we lost “the ball”, a ball that moves by itself in all directions, makes animal sounds and an amazingly annoying music with an elephant and a flying monkey.
  4. Getting all the scientific material ready was very important; there is no room for work on the plane or at the airport. I didn’t fool myself into thinking “I will finish this presentation on the plane” as we all do at a certain point. “I will have 24 hours to kill so I can read or work on this and that.” That was clearly impossible for me. A baby wants attention and my baby always prefers to sleep in my arms. I had a side event to chair at the PRCM conference, two big presentations to prepare for, one for 10 minutes and one for 2 hours, along with materials such as workshop questions and questionnaires, brochures, and, some additional readings, as I learned that I would have to go to Gland (Switzerland) for a MAVA strategic workshop. I couldn’t write my papers while on the trip, so I tripled my efforts before I left to finish as many manuscripts as I could. I delegated some of the organization tasks to our focal point in The Gambia, and had to take care of passports, visas, and everything else from here. On the departure day, everything was ready.
  5. Do not hesitate to tell people you are done for the day. As the lead researcher for West Africa, I get solicited during conferences quite often, and I usually take the time, and sometimes stay too long after the end of the day’s events. However, one has to know that the mother’s hat is very important as well. “I am sorry, I am traveling with my baby and I have to go see him” is not unprofessional. I can only love my work if I don’t feel that I am sacrificing my good moments with my baby. Taking people’s contact information and getting back to them by email right away after my baby is sleeping is a nice way to answer questions and maintain contact.
  6. Logistics: Travelling in West Africa requires either a large wallet, as flights are very expensive, or an air conditioned car and a lot of time. We opted for option 2 and hired a driver. First, I wanted to avoid as much flights as possible; it is not easy to go through airport security hassle with a baby, the luggage, the baby food and, the flight itself is never fun. Second, baby can sleep in a spacious air-conditioned car more easily. We can stop whenever we wanted and relax, eat in nice restaurants, show sceneries to baby and play with him. The only thing we didn’t do well, was going early enough. If we had listened to our driver we would have gotten into the hotel in Banjul way earlier. Instead we drove from Dakar at 11 AM, and it took us around 8 hours to get to Banjul, thanks to the traffic, customs, and the ferry to cross The Gambia River.

I must say when I asked Melanie to look at this article and comment on it, she asks: “is the restaurant you refer to the one the driver told us was air condoned?” because it was not. If we mean by air conditioning a fan somehow fixed on the roof, in a completely exposed room where the owner was smoking, then yes, the restaurant was air conditioned and I shouldn’t have trusted the driver with the choice.

I was obviously very tiring to take my baby with me, and I can never be thankful enough to my husband and our research assistant Melanie Ang for her amazing work, however, I do not regret any moment of it. The scientific work we accomplished includes the Engagement of the Gambia government, the negotiation of the MoU agreement between the government of The Gambia and the UBC Sea Around Us, strengthen connections with West African colleagues that assisted in the organization of the upcoming capacity building workshop in July, and the successful side event at the PRCM, alongside with an important contribution to The MAVA foundation workshop, were all worth it.

I need to say that as opposed to what my travel clinic wanted me to understand, the countries of West Africa I had the chance to go to, were all worth the visit. Except for a few border agents (Gambian border, Guinean border) and some police officers in Conakry, everybody is nice and welcoming, and the experience is worth visiting!

If you cannot afford to travel with your partner, or someone to take care of baby while you are working, I have another story for you: my trip to Algeria and back, nightmare on the plane… coming up soon!

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