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Picture Stories

Dreams of Science and Progress Haunt Shuttered Lab

In a postcolonial research station in Tanzania, a photographer sees the promise of the past—and hopes that never quite came true.

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John Mganga, 67, is a former assistant at Tanzania’s Amani Hill Research Station. From 1970 to 1977 he worked with British entomologist John Raybould, using insect nets to snare specimens.
This story appears in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

On a hilltop in northeastern Tanzania, high up in the Usambara Mountains, memories are tangible things. Modernist buildings litter the lush jungle. European trees and medicinal plants, affixed with Latin labels, mingle with local species. Scientific instruments and a fully stocked library are poised for use.

This is what’s left of the Amani Hill Research Station—a past vision of the future, suspended in time. It’s also what brought Siberian photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva to East Africa two years ago. Her aim? To document the nostalgia that lingers here and create images that “bring back the atmosphere of this dark, magical place.”

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Mganga puts a lab shelf in order. “Local people used to think the scientists here were making potions in these bottles,” says photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva. Other science was also deemed supernatural. Researchers were called mumianis—Swahili for “vampires”—because they took blood samples to study malaria.
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Arbugaeva says Mganga loved showing her his memories of Amani—“hidden waterfalls and his favorite spots, the houses where British staff used to live,” and this collection of insects, which he and Raybould spent years gathering and studying.

Arbugaeva worked closely with Wenzel Geissler, an anthropologist at the University of Oslo. For the past several years, he and his team—an international consortium of scientists, historians, and artists—have been studying old research stations in the tropics. Their project examines the memories, perceptions, and expectations of those who used to live and work at these postcolonial scientific sites.

Yet Amani is not a ruin. A staff of 34—elderly watchmen and maintenance workers, a librarian, a few lab attendants—still lives there in the shells of houses, many without water or electricity. Some say they’re waiting for the site to be revived.

“Amani stands for the dreams of science and progress bequeathed upon colonial populations,” says Geissler. “When funding dried up here in the early 1980s, dreams did too. But hypothetically it’s all there to be switched on again. In these buildings—in these people’s memories and dreams—the idea of a potential future lives on.”

Amani was founded in the late 19th century as a German botanical garden and coffee plantation. After World War II it became a British malaria research institute. Since 1979 it’s been operated by Tanzania’s National Institute for Medical Research, which pays the current staff to maintain the site for future use.

To “channel the spirit, motion, and beauty of the place” as it stands today, Arbugaeva spent a lot of time in the past—“in the library, amid all the dusty old books on natural history and diseases, reading by candlelight.” She also shadowed John Mganga, a retired lab assistant.

“He loved to tell me stories,” she says. “And to dream—to imagine what the people who used to work there are doing. He loves the idea of being part of something bigger, part of science. He’s still connected to Amani. And he still misses it.”

Geissler says collaborating with Arbugaeva was invaluable because she was able to turn workers’ memories of old routines and rituals into images. “That helps us read the traces of a once ordered past—this idea of progress in a landscape that seems like it’s only ruins and loss,” he says. Her photos capture a sense of “shared nostalgia for … a modernity we never quite reached.”

Arbugaeva agrees. “I want people to see what I saw: a hidden world that existed before and that still exists in memories. Somebody’s still dreaming about it. I want to bring people there.”

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Unlike some assistants at Amani, the now retired Mganga—here resting in a lab—“really lost something when the whole place folded,” says University of Oslo anthropologist Wenzel Geissler. “He had truly believed in science and the country’s future. He lived that dream. And he suffered from losing it.”
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Mganga walks through a forest of trees planted by German botanists before the First World War. “In the area around the station,” says Geissler, “there’s a common belief that the Germans left treasures in their houses and in the forest. So there’s treasure-hunting going on. Traditional healers provide medicine that’s supposed to help people find treasure.”

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