Sacramento State professor Ruth Ballard is helping the Tanzanian government learn to use DNA samples to solve crimes
If you watch crime dramas, you know the original CSI series is set in Las Vegas, and its spin-offs are set in New York and Miami. Coming soon however, is CSI: Tanzania featuring Sacramento State professor Ruth Ballard as the tough, but plucky scientist in charge of her team.
While the other CSIs are television dramas, Ballard and her team are reality, and they are helping Tanzanian authorities catch criminals through the use of DNA.
It began in 2001 while Ballard and a graduate student were in Tanzania on a climbing trip to Kilimanjaro. During a discussion on DNA marking, it occurred to them that Maasai tribes in Tanzania are reproductively isolated, and most likely, no one had ever looked at the frequency of forensic markers in these populations.
Ballard contacted scientists at Muhimbili College of Health Sciences in Dar es Salaam and offered to put together a modest DNA database for the Maasai tribe. They agreed, but with one stipulation. She had to put together a database for the whole country and train their staff on how to do it.
“It really mushroomed,” she says. “You’re talking about a country of about 31 million people.”
To begin the process, Ballard and her team of nine Sacramento State students randomly sampled more than 1,000 people from about 200 different tribes over three summers to determine what the frequency of the DNA markers were.
“We called them saliva safaris,” she says, “The least invasive way to get DNA is to have people you are collecting samples from spit into a tube.”
Permission forms were in Swahili, and Ballard brought along translators who could explain what they were doing. However, she knew members of some tribes, including the Maasai, have no formal education and only a tribal understanding of the world. “So, we had to use videotape and a translator who understood how to approach them. In their culture, you don’t get permission from each person. The men give consent for everyone. The elders get together and decide if it should be done.”
The heart of any crime drama is a crime that needs to be solved, and the Maasai are not exempt from criminal activity.
“There’s actually quite a bit,” Ballard says. “The young men in society used to have a role as warriors. Now, because of government intervention and other things, they are no longer protecting the tribe, so they get in a lot of trouble raiding cattle and committing murders.”
But, the use of DNA in crime fighting may take a backseat to what is becoming a more common problem amongst the Tanzanian population -- paternity.
“Because of urbanization and the lure of jobs, men are leaving their rural villages,” Ballard says. “The wife and children stay home while the man goes to the city to make money to send home. Many never send any money home, and the next thing you know, they have another wife and child in the city. The women are all after me for this because they want to go after their husbands for support. The only way to resolve that unequivocally is through DNA testing.”
Ballard has finished the building the database and continues to work with Tanzanian scientists and government officials encouraging them to build a lab so testing can be conducted in country. Her work in Africa is far from finished, though. Scientists in Kenya recently contacted her and would like her to do a database for them. Stay tuned.
For more information on the DNA marking project, contact Ballard at (916) 278-6244. For media assistance, contact Sacramento State’s Public Affairs office at (916) 278-6156.