Joe [1]

The trip to Intona ranch with Alan described in the post “Intona Ranch” put me in contact for the first time with Joseph (Joe) Murumbi and his wife Sheila. After this first encounter I shared many evenings with them at their beautiful if rather outlandish house. They had built it after retirement following the style of the houses found at the Kenya coast. It was a large house with many bedrooms, a large and complete kitchen and a sitting room bigger than a basketball field!

Although I stayed at the house several times, because of the work I was doing I normally camped at the ranch, as I preferred to keep my independence. Work started early and my timetable was rather different to their retired pace.

When we met, Joe had already suffered a stroke. He was recovering but still maintained the fire in his eyes and remembered a lot of stories of his life that he shared with Alan and me. They were very fond of Alan and they also got to like me. It helped that I was a veterinarian. They had a few dogs (5 or 6) that always had something wrong with them, despite the efforts of Kiza, their Ugandan resident veterinarian. Joe was always very supportive of our research and took a keen interest in our trials and their results! He could not wait to apply them on his cattle and those of his Maasai neighbours.

Although I will tell you more of my relationship with Joe and Sheila in future posts, I have a few reminiscences of our relationship that I will mention here.

Joe loved his cattle and he experienced great joy in going to the kraal in the evening to see them coming in. He was fair but tough with his employees and, as expected, he was feared by them on account of being a mzee[2] who had held power but also because of his short temper! I am sure his eyes had something to do with it as well, as he had a powerful look when fired up by anger or enthusiasm.

Sheila, conversely, did not care about cattle much. She loved plants and was a keen gardener. She kept a lovely greenhouse, which housed a collection of the orchids found at Intona and served as a nursery for the already beautiful garden and internal patios of the house.

The "Dutch Masters" paintings in the background, the picture was taken from the place Joe used to sit.

The “Dutch Masters” paintings in the background, the picture was taken from the place Joe used to sit.

They both shared an incredible passion for culture and art and the house was a true museum of African art although there were several large paintings that I attributed to “Dutch Classic painters”. The sitting room I mentioned above was literally filled with art. Wood and metal carvings, masks, ancient trunks, antique chairs, oriental rugs, and large paintings decorated the place.

murumbi mask 1

murumbi mask 2

murumbi lamu chair

murumbi mask

murumbi chest

And then there was his library! A large room with bookshelves all round and where all his diplomas, decorations and memorable photographs were kept. A young Joe could be seen in the company of Kenyatta, Nkurumah, Kaunda and Nyerere to name but a few. There was a large one of Joe with Haile Selassie and several more with other European leaders that he rubbed shoulders with during his political life. Clearly he had kept selected items after all his donations of books and documents to the Kenya Government.[3]

Although Joe was very enthusiastic about showing some of his unique books (he had all the first editions of the works by most African explorers, to name what I recall today!) his real joy was to open the many drawers that hosted his immense, comprehensive and very valuable stamp collection. He was very proud to show me some of the “specials” he possessed, including most of the first African stamps and even some of the earliest British ones that -apparently- were extremely rare and dear! Not being a collector myself, I listened and enjoyed his keenness more than anything else.

As if being shown the library by Joe himself would not have been enough, I was given the green light to roam free through his still vast book collection. This I did and spent long hours browsing through the many special books and documents that it housed. Among several, I particularly recall opening a proofreading specimen of Peter Beard’s “The End of the Game”[4] and finding inside it an exchange of letters between Joe and Peter about the book and its presentation! This was one surprise I remember but I have forgotten many, I am afraid!

Intona hosted a number of wild animals that intermingled with the cattle. Impala, Zebra and Topi were very common and herds of buffalo resided in the ranch. Lion were often heard but rarely seen (probably scared of the Maasai around us!) but a family of Cheetah resided at the ranch and were often seen. Spotted Hyenas were heard every evening and I was surprised if they did not visit my camp at night!

Buffalo herds often grazed in the meadows and frequently mixed with the cattle. Surprisingly they did not trouble the herdsmen, behaving like cattle but keeping their distance. The solitary males were a different issue and walking about Intona required great care as these rogues would seek shelter inside the clumps of forest that dotted the green grasslands at the ranch and come at you with anything but good intentions!

Buffalo were the main danger to watch out for while orchid collecting, an event that Robin -my good colleague from ICIPE- used to perform. As this involved entering the clumps of forest, it was a rather dangerous hobby. Luckily Joe had a hand-operated fire siren that a helper carried and used to scare the buffalo by sounding it before we entered the thicket. We were lucky not to encounter any buffalo, as I was doubtful of the effectiveness of the siren! Or maybe they ran away in the opposite direction? We did have a few scares when warthogs would crash out of their previously quiet resting areas because of our racket. We got a few adrenaline highs but fortunately they never came straight at us!

Alan’s closeness to Joe and Sheila meant that they relied on him for help at all times. I believe they saw Alan as the son they did not have! Their friendship was so close that once when Joe needed to go for an operation in the UK, Alan travelled with him! Alan did not travel alone, he had a most unusual companion: a nail-studded power figure[5] which was apparently rather expensive and Joe needed to sell it in the UK to cover the expenses of his medical intervention. So Alan was entrusted to fly with the sculpture for which I believe they booked a seat next to Alan! I do not know more details other than that Joe came back in better shape!

Joe greatly enjoyed having us for a drink in the evenings to talk about our work and tell us some of his stories. So we were often invited. Sheila was a great hostess and looked after us as if we would have been her newly discovered relatives! One of those occasions coincided with a rare and probably one of the last trips to Intona by road in his Range Rover. He mostly travelled by plane with the dogs!

On that occasion Joe was really upset about the condition of the road. The latter was really bad during normal times but at that particular occasion was impossible and -almost- impassable! Joe had a temper and that was the first time I saw him losing it! He was so upset that, after telling us about it, he picked the phone and started to call. At the time, Telephone calls from Intona were “difficult” to put it mildly so he insisted a few times until he managed to get through.

Despite his speech difficulties he managed to gather sufficient strength to speak in clearly strong terms and in Swahili. After a while his tone changed and, before he hung up, he burst into a hearty laugh. Still laughing and while shaking his head he said “That was Daniel[6] on the phone” and added “I was complaining to him on the conditions of the road and do you know what he replied?” he said looking amused “Joe, you know that I travel by helicopter!” I will keep Joe’s comments to myself!


[1] Follows Intona Ranch

[2] An elder in Swahili

[3] Ref. to details of his donation to the GoK

[4] Full title of the book

[5] See:

[6] Daniel arap Moi was President of Kenya from 1978 to 2002. He succeeded Joe as Vice-President after Joe’s resignation in 1967.


  1. Dear Bushsnob, It is so nice to read you and see all these objects and lanscapes again… and I remember going in the thickets with Robin to collect wild orchids… no Buffalo neither, pffffffffff !


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