Memoirs

Episodes of my life in Africa.

The joys of camping

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Mabel with some company while camping in the Transmara.

As my work at Intona ranch in the Transmara took me through the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, I was often taking visitors with me to the bush. There were those related to my work and friends that came for the fun of it. The former included technical colleagues and representatives from our funding agencies. The latter were of great importance and often they flew directly to Intona or to an airstrip near a camp called Kitchwa Tembo in the reserve, a kind of luxury camping. I would then collect them and I was careful to take them at least on one game drive before climbing the Oloololo escarpment towards Intona. I am not sure if the donors appreciated my work or the time spent on safari but the end result was that we were always well funded!

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Traveling through the Amboseli National Park.

Travel to the bush for pleasure is not everyone’s game. Some of our friends never came, others came once and a few repeated the experience. Fear of wild animals and/or creepy crawlies, lack of ablution facilities, sleeping on the hard ground and cooking with smoke were some of the excuses put forward to decline our invitation.

As much as I tried to convince them that a tent was a safe place to spend the night among wild creatures of all sorts, that nearby lodges offered luxurious toilets, that we did have a gas stove that avoided getting smoked out and mattresses to soften the ground, they still did not come.

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A recently moulted puff adder, one of the few snakes that you may encounter while camping.

However, not all my preaching fell on deaf ears and we did find a few good companions. Ranjini, with who we shared our very first camp in the Maasai Mara, often joined us and the same did Luis (Mabel’s boss). Ranjini was very accommodating and enthusiastic. Further, she had an unfounded faith in our skills when it came to negotiate difficulties. However, she enjoyed joining us and we had a few memorable trips to Northern Kenya with her. This included a memorable visit to Mt. Elgon when she inadvertently closed the tap of our car’s second petrol tank, an episode that had me a couple of hours frantically trying to determine why no petrol would reach the carburetor!

Luis was very keen on bird photography and a lover of large campfires “to keep the beasts away” as he put it despite my arguments to the contrary, not based on ecological grounds but rather that the fires advertised our position to both two- and four-legged potential visitors. He was an assiduous companion with who we shared many bush moments, including a lunch break in the Maasai Mara interrupted by a kind tour operator that came to tell us that we were sitting below a cliff from which a leopard was lazily contemplating us! Luckily the wise animal abstained from disturbing three feeding apes!

Later on came Genevieve and François with who we also shared a few adventurous trips (https://bushsnob.com/2019/02/28/a-short-trip-to-ngorongoro-contributed/) and a few other trips in Kenya and beyond. I still laugh when I remember François’ anger with his Isuzu Trooper that would often let him down! It was with them that we had our only experience at -unwisely- camping only under our mosquito nets at Shaba Game Reserve. Although we survived it, we did not repeat it!

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Camping in the Ngorongoro with Francois, Geneviève and Paula (her mother). Picture by G. Mery.

Of course, the very few visitors we had from Uruguay had no option but to come with us whether they liked camping or not. I described one of the experiences already (https://bushsnob.com/2016/04/25/unpredicted-friends-and-unforgettable-dates/) and this was also the case of my father’s cousin Marta and her friend Elcira, both retired, that also came for a visit. Having good retirement conditions they traveled all over the world and, somehow, we managed to convince them to visit us in Kenya! Although they traveled on their own to the Kenya coast, later on they joined us in trips to Nakuru and Tsavo National Parks as well as our frequent detours into the Nairobi National Park.

They were great examples of adaptable people. Marta agreed to travel seated on a camping chair tied with rope and elastic hook ties at the back of our SWB Land Rover as only three people could travel in the front. She braved the trips to both Nakuru and Tsavo sitting on canvas and she enjoyed every minute of them.

I still recall a few moments we shared such as the overt emotion they showed when, on their first morning at the Kitani bandas, they had a surprise crystal clear view of mount Kilimanjaro! Unfortunately their pleasure was offset that same evening by a serious scare when we were seating at the verandah after dinner trying to identify the different night noises while shining our torch at the various visitors such as genets, mongooses and hyenas. All of a sudden we heard a very loud and close elephant scream that made them slide their chairs back, stand up and attempt to run to their bedroom! A rather understandable response to something that also scared us and -eventually- ended in great laughter.

At Nairobi National Park we found a herd of buffalo and, aware of the curiosity of these animals, I stopped the car and told them to keep quiet to allow the buffaloes to approach. When they were almost touching the car, Marta could not hold her excitement anymore and said loudly “you want to kill us!” That caused a buffalo stampede and I started laughing but she was not amused!

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The buffalo herd at Nairobi National Park.

At Nakuru National Park, one of the safest camping places at the time, we set them up in separate tents to spend the night with some privacy only to discover that they emerged from the same tent the following morning saying that they felt safer being together as they heard too many animals outside!

Camping was a strong experience for Sara, Ernesto and their two kids, some of the rare Uruguayans living in Nairobi. We took them to the Maasai Mara for a weekend and stayed at the Mara Research Station, where, being a scientist, you could camp for free. It was the rainy season and the grass was rather long at the camping area so we spent sometime cutting the grass before we could set up our camp.

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This picture from the Kruger National Park reminds me of what I saw at the Mara Research Station!

I noted a large number of elephants grazing and browsing some distance away and hoped that they would not come closer but I did not mention them to avoid alarming our friends. I realized later that I made a mistake. As the trip had been long, we had a quick dinner and retired to our tents early. Unfortunately, the elephants -against my hope- decided to approach us. I could hear them all around us pulling the grass and braking branches while their bellies rumbled.

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Elephant feeding overhead in Mana Pools National Park. A similar situation to that in the Mara Research Station.

After a while of listening to the pachyderms I heard Ernesto asking softly “what is that noise?” My reply was, perhaps, not the best “elephants” I said trying to sound confident to calm them down, something I clearly failed to do and I could hear them talking among themselves and hear movements inside the tent. “We are scared!” they said nervously and asked “can we go to the car?” I explained them that they were safer in the tent and that they must not go out, not even to the toilet! Luckily, the elephants soon walked away and they started to relax although I did not enquiry about their ablution needs.

The following morning, they looked very tired and they were not very happy at first until they saw the lovely place we were in and the elephants in the distance when all was forgotten! However, they never completely forgave me as they were convinced that I did it all intentionally! Despite this initial scare, they repeated the experience with us at Tsavo West, a much more sedated outing as there were not so many animals around the camp there.

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From left to right: Luis, Sara, Ernesto, the bushsnob and Mabel camping at Tsavo West. Clearly Luis built the fire!

Camping did put us in close proximity to wild animals, as none of the campsites we frequented were fenced.

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A cute babbon youngster before becoming a camping menace!

By far the biggest nuisance that awaits the camper in Africa is the monkeys both vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) and baboons (Papio spp.). Although the latter can be rather destructive to tents and other gear, the former can be a real menace when it comes to steal your food. They are the masters of opportunism and surprise and a distraction of a few seconds is enough for them to strike.

We suffered many incidents with monkeys. Most of them were annoying but there were also some that were quite amusing. Unseen to you the vervets would be stalking you from the trees above to descend on you while unpacking your car and snatch any item that looks attractive to them. In this way you risk having an eggless or “butterless” camping experience that could leave you quite frustrated!

I have seen people running after monkeys in anger in a futile attempt at recovering their lost food while the thieves eat their booty well beyond their reach! I have thrown all kinds of objects to them in a rage when they had taken items from me but I have never managed to hit one and I have been personally “assaulted” a couple of times. Although I admit that I deserved both, at the time it was not funny. Vervets snatched our lunch bananas from my very hands in the hippo pools at Nairobi National Park and throw back the peels at me and a rather tall baboon took my packet of chips at the Man-eaters fuel station near Tsavo!

Of course the fault does not lie with the monkeys but with the habit by inexperienced campers and/or tourists of feeding them. After that the animals expect food and if they are not given it, they search for it. This gradually turns them into thieves that eventually will need to be destroyed by the parks’ authorities when they become too much of a nuisance!

Apart from monkeys we often had to deal with other possible dangerous visitors to our camps and the possibility of meeting them was directly proportional to their density. For this reason most of the incidents took place in the savannahs of Amboseli National Park and the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, than in the rather dry Tsavo West or Samburu National Parks.

I will deal with the spotted hyenas in a separate post and I will also tell you some experiences we had or learnt of encounters with elephants, in my opinion, the most intelligent animals that you are likely to encounter while camping.

I will also strike the black rhinos off the list as they were already on a severe decline at that time to be a bother to us. In any case, their reputed fame for putting out campfires is -apparently- not true! I heard of this while in Kenya and then saw it when I watched “The Gods Must Be Crazy” movie [1] but it is not a confirmed fact.

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Some of the few black rhinos we encountered in Kenya. These were at Amboseli National Park.

Although the buffalo have a well-deserved reputation as some of the most dangerous of the wild animals, they rarely approached our camp area. However, they can be deadly if found on foot as, particularly the lone males, will attack you without hesitation. People that had gone through the experience (and survived it!) declare that they had no idea how they managed to climb the tree they did and that often they have great difficulties to climb down once the danger is over!

The experience of hearing lions roaring at dusk and at night is unforgettable as, I believe, it awakens some ancestral fear in us. Near the Mara river area lions were abundant and we got to know the prides that lived there and we were aware that we were camping in their land! One thing is to see lions from the safety of your vehicle and another, rather different, is to know they are “there somewhere” in the dark of the night!

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At night you always think that what is coming is the largest lion you have seen!

We heard lions roaring in various degrees of intensity every night we camped in the Maasai Mara. Sometimes they would roar while there was still daylight, particular when it was over cast. However, most often they called after sunset and we heard their call reverberating loudly against the Oloololo escarpment. The situation often became “interesting” once we had retired to our tent to sleep.

Once in the tent we would hear the lions while reading as we both enjoy this very much. Normally their roaring will be only in the background but at times they would get closer. It was interesting how our feeling of enjoyment at hearing them far off would gradually fade and soon turn into apprehension as they moved near!

At times they would roar real close and we could also hear their breathing! Those were the times when we became really worried but stuck to our belief that the tent would protect us. Despite our apprehension, the lions were walking or running through our camp and paid no attention to us. So, after a few agitated nights we gradually relaxed and became more convinced that we were safe inside the tent and waited for the lions to walk away.

However, it is easy to narrate these experiences now, from the comfort of the armchair but a different thing is to live through them!

Just to illustrate that things can, albeit rarely, go awry, I will narrate a story of what happened to a former wildlife veterinarian that worked in Kenya and left while we were there. He had taken two lady friends camping in the Aberdare National Park. They were already inside the tent, preparing to spend the night when they heard some grunts that were attributed to a duiker. Later, in the early hours of the morning something crashed on their tent and brought part of it down. The vet’s reaction, thinking that an animal had accidentally bumped on their tent was to shout something like “out of here!” while his lady companions were rather terrified. Eventually, through a slit of the tent door he saw a large male lion that, fortunately, got away -roaring- when he shone the torch into its eyes. Although sleeping after such an encounter was difficult, they stuck together and stayed in what remained of the tent until the morning without further ado.

During the evenings we spent together by the campfire Paul told us the story of Hannu (not his real name) a retired and veteran Finnish veterinarian that was studying fluke control in Kenya. Paul had invited him to share his work as he did with me.

Hannu happened to be quite deaf and, because of his age, he needed to pass water a couple of times at night, a hazardous exercise when camping! Aware of the situation Paul kept an eye on him just in case. One night, while Hannu snored, lions started roaring close by. Paul was aware of the fact that Hannu would go out of the tent after midnight so he made an effort to stay awake to stop him if necessary. The lion roaring became quite loud and, suddenly, the veteran sat up in bed and shouted, “that was a lion!” and went back to sleep, forgetting his need to pass water and leaving Paul sleepless for a long while!

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A large hippo enters the water through a well trodden path. Those are the ones to avoid while camping!

Although hippos will normally keep clear of your camp, the fact that many of the camp sites are located near water puts you in close proximity with them and if you sited your tent in the middle of one of their paths you may suffered the nasty experience of one bumping into your tent when walk to their grazing area.

 

[1] See: https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/do-rhinos-put-out-fires.116998/and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gods_Must_Be_Crazy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning to camp among the wildebeest

Sometime after our first enthusiastic attempt at camping in the Maasai Mara [1], I got to know Paul, a virologist working at the Kenya Veterinary Research Institute in Muguga as part of a veterinary team of the then Overseas Development Agency [2]. Paul had been a student of Sir Walter Plowright, one of the discoverers of the vaccine against Rinderpest [3]. Then he was the mainly working with the latter as well as Bovine Malignant Catarrhal fever (BMCF) [4].

At that time he was spending time in the field investigating the epidemiology of BMCF as well as the serious outbreaks of Rinderpest that were still present in East Africa.

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The well known picture of rinderpest in South Africa in 1896. From Wikimedia (Public domain).

Our friendship started by having our lunches together “al fresco” under the Muguga sun and, after a few weeks, he invited me to come with him camping for a few days in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. A while earlier, Paul had received reliable information from the chief game warden that the first few wildebeests -of the hundred of thousands present- were starting to drop their calves. It was early in the year and he needed to get there to get samples of wildebeests’ placentas as part of his studies. As I was still waiting for a decision regarding my work, I readily accepted.

So, we drove to the Maasai Mara in Paul’s series III Land Rover that had a few reinforced parts, including a bulletproof windscreen and a very hard suspension! Paul had permission to camp anywhere in the reserve and he had already selected a spot where he had established his base. During his absences the camp was looked after by his assistant, the do-it-all Tobias, a Kenya Government employee, that always accompanied Paul when camping [5].

I believe the camp was located in the Mara triangle but I do not remember its precise location except that it was a very secluded area in a clump of trees. There were two tents, a smaller one for Tobias and a large one that was where Paul stayed. On one end of the tent there was the “sitting room” and kitchen while the other was the field laboratory. As it was a large tent, we were very comfortable. Paul’s pride and joy was his Australian portable gas fridge that enabled him to keep reagents and veterinary drugs as well as food (and a couple of Tuskers) so that he could stay in the field for a few days!

The fact that we were in the middle of the bush with no fences and no other humans nearby was, at first, rather unsettling for me and I put this to Paul. He explained that he had learnt from his own experience and that of other wildlife veterinarians and field workers that animals will normally stay clear of your camp. He added that exceptions did take place but that serious accidents were extremely rare provided you did not interfere with your the wild inhabitants. “It sounds incredible but the tent will protect you against almost all animals” he said and this has been our camping creed ever since and -so far- it has not failed us.

Our task for the few days we were together was to start the collection of tissue samples from wildebeest placentas to attempt to isolate the BMCF virus. With this in mind, by the end of the first day we had located the vast herd of wildebeest and we had prepared the necessary equipment to be ready to start working the following morning before dawn.

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The wildebeest migration from the Oloololo escarpment.

We started our journey in the dark and in twilight we began to drive cross-country across the plains among the wildebeest until we got to our destination: a vantage position on top of a hillock. Once at the top while daylight improved we prepared our observation post by setting up a small table and chairs as well as our binoculars and a telescope.

After some time the sun emerged and bathed the savanna with its yellowish light. What was revealed had already been announced by the intense noise that we were already hearing as thousands of wildebeest bleating, moaning and snorting.

 

We also heard zebras barking and braying as they were also there mixed with the wildebeests, sharing their grazing.

We immediately started watching the animals looking for arched backs and tails held horizontally, signs of a calving animal. It was not an easy job as we needed to scan thousands of animals that were constantly on the move! We had spent a couple of fruitless hours watching the animals with the only satisfaction of feeling the warmth of the sun on our backs. Then I heard Paul shouting, “there is one starting to calf” and added “let’s go”. I followed him having seen nothing!

We drove down our knoll rather fast. While Paul held to the steering wheel I held tight to every bit of the Land Rover that would resemble a handle as we hit stones and ruts that would have destroyed most cars’ suspensions. It was not a careless race but rather that our attention was fixed on not losing our “patient”.

We drove among a sea of animals and, luckily, Paul kept his bearings and eventually we found the animal. Well, in fact there were two as the calf had been born and it was a steaming miniature of its mother already struggling to stand up, drink the vital colostrum and start running to avoid predators.

We waited at a prudent distance until both animals moved away and then we descended on the placenta that was left on the grass. We have found our first placenta and took the necessary samples. We were very happy and celebrated this by taking pictures of the event as well as burying a long stake with a number to indicate the area of collection so that a GPS reading could be taken later.

We returned to our viewing point and continued watching. We waited for a long time without spotting another calving. At some stage we saw a clearing appear among the sea of wildebeests. It became gradually wider resembling the wave a boat makes when going fast on still water and then we saw that a male lion was walking through the vast herd that -amazingly- simply stared at it and just moved the minimum distance from it. “It is better for the wildebeest to know where the lion is!” Paul explained. A sighting that I will not forget!

It was clearly still early in the calving season and that first day we only got a second sample in the afternoon.

The following day, although we did not get the expected storm of births, more females were calving and the collection of samples did not require so much watching from the hill but rather slow driving among the animals looking for calving signs and then to wait for them to release the placenta to collect what we needed.

The next day our work took a competitive turn. As the calving increased, more predators started to appear, particularly the spotted hyenas that in the Maasai Mara are rather abundant so we needed to move fast to beat them to the placentas and even while one of us collected samples, the other kept an eye on hyenas, just in case!

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One of our ‘competitors”!

Sadly, after a few days we needed to return to Muguga to deal with the samples we had collected so we left that true animal paradise and great work and started our drive back through the vast plains of the Maasai Mara to the Kenya highlands where Mugug and Nairobi are located.

Although I was unaware then, the fact that Paul continued to do field work there and that I (often with Mabel) started to work at Intona ranch and needed to drive past the edge of the reserve, gave us ample possibilities to meet and share lots of time in the bush where we continued learning the ways of the bush and contracted the “bush camping disease” from which we still suffer today!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/08/25/a-brave-camping-attempt/

[2] Today’s Department for International Development (DFID).

[3] Following the break-through finding of J. T. Edwards in the 1920s that the infectivity of the rinderpest virus could be attenuated and used to immunize animals for life, in 1956-7 W. Plowright and R. D. Ferris obtained a stable, attenuated, and non-infectious virus, ideal for a vaccine. This was cheap to produce and safe and its use eventually -after lots of very hard work in the laboratory and in the field- led to the global eradication of rinderpest in 2011.

[4] Wildebeests carry a lifelong infection of BMCF but are not affected by the disease that is passed from mother to offspring and shed mostly in the nasal secretions of wildebeest calves under one year old. Wildebeest-associated BMCF is transmitted from wildebeest to cattle normally following the wildebeest calving period.

[5] See: https://bushsnob.com/2017/02/05/camping-in-kenya-mara-river-fishing/

 

 

A brave camping attempt

Although I had camped once before in Bogoria with Richard and Philip [1] our first attempt at spending a couple of nights under canvas took place at the Sand River campsite in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. This pioneer effort took place way before I knew I would be working at Intona ranch in the Transmara, something that would require lots of driving through the Reserve as well as camping for many years.

We were still staying at Muguga House then and we hatched the idea together with Kevin, a young forester that was had arrived to work a short time at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) a sister organization of the Kenya Veterinary Research Institute, both of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI).

Aware that his time in Kenya was limited, Kevin wished to visit the well-known Maasai Mara before returning to the UK so he was the main promoter of the idea. He managed to convince our friend Ranjini to come as well so we created a four-person team for this rather new undertaking.

Kevin did most of the footwork for the trip, Ranjini borrowed some stuff from other colleagues and I borrowed a large and strong tent from our laboratory in Muguga. We rented the 4WD car we could afford and ended up with a Subaru van. Unfortunately, we could not pack lots of things in it so our safari lacked a few essentials we have learnt to love over the years we have spent camping in comfort.

We did not have a table, chairs or mattresses. Luckily we were able to borrow four sleeping bags, basic cooking utensils, cutlery and crockery and, wisely, the ladies decided to stuff four pillows (borrowed from Muguga House!) at the last minute! The rest, we thought, would be overlooked by our enthusiasm and excitement at camping in the open surrounded by wild animals!

The trip started on a Friday morning traveling about 30 km in the wrong direction as we needed to catch a matatu (packed public minibus) to Nairobi to get the car only to go back to Muguga to load it and start our journey. Kevin drove all the way as I had not driven a right hand drive car yet.

Although he drove rather fast to get to our destination before closing time, the trip went well. We got a bit of a scare when, trying to save petrol, he switched the engine off during a long descent and both the power steering and the brakes stopped working! Luckily this only lasted a few seconds until the engine re-started and all functions returned to normality! After a rather long journey, we arrived to the Maasai Mara rather late but luckily we managed to get in before the closing time and reached the Sand River campsite rather late.

Although we all had assembled tents before, putting up the large tent for the first time in the dark was a bigger challenge than we had anticipated. There was a lot of trial and error and, after our best combined effort we were very pleased when we managed to get something with a V shape erected that served the purpose for us to rest our tired bones after a quick supper.

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From left to right: Ranjini, Kevin and Mabel (kneeling down) and a good tent badly assembled!

That night we herd grunting noises very close to our tent. Although we were sleepy and tired the situation demanded some discussion as, at times, the situation became rather nerve-wrecking with the grunts coming from an animal or animals very close to the tent! After a while we unanimously decided that buffaloes were responsible for the noise, as we had seen them nearby earlier on. Today I believe that we all knew which animal was responsible but that we took the decision for our own peace of mind and refuse to accept that there were lions inspecting our camp!

Lion grunts

Despite the nervous start of the night we slept through and, luckily, we were in a good enough shape in the morning. When we saw the way our tent looked, we had a good laugh and decided that it was worth spending some time reassembling it to manage to close its zips fully! We finally managed to get it more or less in shape and to close it.

We decided that it was time to explore the area searching, as any first comers to the Maasai Mara, for lions. However, before departing we walked to the dry river bed to check for spoor. The overwhelming lion spoor we saw left us in no doubt of the kind of night visitors we had.

We drove many kilometres through the bush, got lost a few times and, finally to our delight, we found a couple of sleeping lions. Although the objects of our desire hardly moved, they made our day!

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Our first lions.

Again, we returned to our camp very late after our drive to prepare supper. Unfortunately, while we were cooking we heard Ranjini saying that she had just lost her contact lenses in the grass, just outside the tent while trying to clean them. We postponed supper and all joined efforts in search of the tiny lenses in twilight. After a while, luckily, Mabel’s eyes came to the rescue and she, miraculously, found both of them stuck to some blade of grass!

That evening we also heard our first hyena call and we could also herd lions roaring in the distance. Our British friends knew both sounds from the BBC documentaries. We believed them.

Hyenas calling.

Lion roar

That night the grunting took place inside the tent and it was equally disturbing to everybody except me, the cause of the noise. My snoring was such that both Ranjini and Kevin were planning to wake me up (or worse!) when we had a partial tent collapse that solved the problem as we all woke up and my roaring, apparently, ceased!

Although this first camping was very basic and limited in what we saw, it wetted our appetite for the bush and showed that there was a lot to explore in Kenya and that you did not need to pay a fortune to do it. We promised ourselves that, as soon as our finances allowed it, we would get camping equipment and start going out to enjoy beautiful Kenya.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/02/22/pink-bogoria/

 

 

 

Uncomfortable tick

Working with certain ticks can be dangerous. As an example, it is possible to contract the severe Crimean-Congo Haemorraghic fever while working with its vector Hyalomma spp. Luckily, most of the work we carried out at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) dealt with the Brown Ear tick (Rhipicephalus appendiculatus), vector of Theileriosis, the most important and deadly cattle tick-borne disease found in Africa but not known to transmit diseases to humans. Over the many years my colleagues and I worked with this tick, we never had an instance of sickness that we could attribute to them.

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Heavy infestation of Rhipicephalus appendiculatus on a calf ear.

Ixodid (hard) ticks such as the Brown Ear tick bite but do not sting. They do not bite like other insects either but rather they attach themselves in a usually painless way so that you do not know about them until sometime later. Argasid (soft) ticks do bite, feed and go away to their resting place to come back and feed again after digesting the blood meal.

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The Argasid ticks (Ornitodhoros, Argas, etc.) shown will bite, feed and detach. Ixodid ticks (Rhipicephalus, Hyalomma, Amblyomma, etc.) need to attach to the host prior to feeding).

Although we did not get any disease signs, we did experience tick bites very often. We got ticks on while walking in the field and during our laboratory work during which we needed to handle them very often.

Although the adult ticks did not attach readily to us, the nymphs and larvae did. Their preferred body regions were areas where there was hair such as neck, armpits and genital area but the larvae picked while walking on the grass would mainly stay on your ankles (pepper ticks). Eventually I became hypersensitive to their bites that produce me intense itching that makes me scratch their bites intensely and often breaking my skin!

 

Counting immature ticks was a normal procedure for our work and -at the time- the procedure consisted in placing them on a white smooth table where immediately they would start moving. Being attracted by CO2 they would aim for you straight away and you needed to work very fast to be able to catch them -with an inverted tube- before they would get at you. Unfortunately and rather inevitably a few would break through your defences, fell on your lap or crawled up your arms with the consequence that later you would find them attached to you in the various places mentioned above!

Although, as I mentioned above, adult ticks generally did not attach to you, there were exceptions with certain species that caused the unfortunate incident that happened to a visiting colleague.

After a day of fieldwork counting and collecting ticks from local domestic animals in the Mbita Point area [1], we came back to our bungalow for a deserved shower before our dinner. I noted that John (not his real name) was walking with his legs slightly separated as if suffering from nappy rash but I attributed to the many hours we spent kneeling down searching for ticks and -with some effort- refrained from making any rude remarks!

It was only after the shower that he came to me and, very seriously, told me that he had a problem. This took me by surprise but nothing prepared me for what would come next. “I have a tick attached to me and I cannot remove it!” and, before I could comment he added, “because it is in a place that I cannot reach” and then added “do you think you can pull it out?”

Having suffered various tick invasions to my privacy, I immediately imagined where the invader was and -albeit unwillingly- agreed to do it. So it was that I ended up with my naked colleague spreadeagled on a bed!

I will omit further details of the intervention except to say that I did lock the door as I suddenly realised that the excuse “I was looking for a tick” if found rummaging my friends privates to a visitor would not be very credible! Fortunately, no one disturbed the procedure!

It was good that the trespasser was an adult female that had already started to engorge and it was easy to find and to remove it intact by turning it upside down before pulling it out. At that time I did not possess my “tick remover” tool that was sent to me as a present from the manufacturers.

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A “tick remover”. Please note that I neither recommend or do not recommend this product that i have never used.

Leaving mouthparts’ fragments embedded in the skin could have still caused further discomfort in such delicate body region! We were both very relieved with the outcome and celebrated the de-ticking with a couple of beers over dinner.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/03/26/kenya-friends-and-foes1/ and https://bushsnob.com/2015/04/04/chicken-a-la-rusinga1/

Apartheid days

The Oxford dictionary defines Apartheid as ” … (in South Africa) a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race [1].

At the time of our arrival in Kenya Apartheid was in full swing in South Africa. As this Afrikaans name suggests, segregation (or literally “separateness”) between races had been official policy from 1948. The system promoted White supremacy over Blacks, Coloured and Asian South Africans the four main racial groups it recognised. Marriages (or sex) between races were forbidden and housing and employment opportunities were for Whites only.

At the time that our experience took place, there was a bitter struggle going on in order to obtain equal rights for black people but the news about this were not widely known and there was no social media in those days.

Before I traveled to Kenya my knowledge of Africa was negligible. As most people I pictured it as a jungle largely influenced by the Tarzan movies! I was aware of Patrick Lumumba’s assassination in the Belgian Congo and we did study the ideology of Jomo Kenyatta and the Mau Mau movement but little else.

My concept of Apartheid was also very limited but I knew that it was the segregation of Black Africans by a White minority in South Africa and that there was some kind of sanctions imposed to South Africa because of this.

Once in the UK in 1979 while studying for my MSc in Wales I followed the negotiations between the UK and Zimbabwe that culminated with the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement that granted independence to Zimbabwe on 18 April 1980. Following the latter I learnt more about Apartheid, particularly that it included an arms and trade embargo as well as serious on-going conflicts of South Africa with neighbouring countries as well as a number of other sanctions that had various degrees of success.

In 1981, when we arrived, Kenya had obtained its independence in 1964 and Jomo Kenyatta had, by then, been succeeded by Daniel arap Moi after his death in 1978. All people were equal in Kenya but it had strong policies against what was then known as “the racist regime” of South Africa.

Very soon we had to deal with the Apartheid complications when Mabel traveled to Kenya as I already described [2] but this was a kind of remote perception of the issue that only became real when we returned to Uruguay after completing my FAO “Andre Mayer” fellowship.

At the time, to get from Nairobi to Montevideo you could not avoid a stopover in Johannesburg, where you needed to spend a night or two, depending of the flight connection. I believe that there were two flights per week between Johannesburg and Rio de Janeiro, operated by Varig [3].

When the time to travel home arrived, we got our tickets from the Varig office in Nairobi. Those were the times of hand-written tickets! Varig informed us that we required a Visa for South Africa, even if we were to spend the night at the airport. This meant a similar procedure to the one undergone at the time of Mabel’s arrival for both of us.

As we were returning to Kenya after our holiday to work at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), they also reminded us that the Kenya Government would refuse entry to visitors with South African stamps in their passports. Again we solved this by getting Visas on a separate sheet of paper through the South Africa Trade Mission[4] in Nairobi after going through a lengthy questionnaire.

Now we only needed to get our money and pack our cases. As we did not have credit cards then, we went to our bank to get travellers cheques (TCs), an instrument rarely used today with the advent of the ATM machines! We preferred to carry TCs as these were safer than cash. Almost immediately regretted our decision when we immediately noted the stamp at the back saying “Valid worldwide except in the Republic of South Africa”!

Although our overnight stay in Johannesburg to connect with the flight to Rio de Janeiro would be paid for by Varig we realised that duty-free shopping would be out of the question!

On arrival at Johannesburg all our attention was focused on avoiding the infamous stamp in our passports as, although we had the paper visa, we needed to hand them over as well. We were relieved to get them back “clean” we tried to memorise the process for our return in a month time.

So, soon afterwards we were back traveling to South Africa on our return trip to Kenya. This time we decided to spend an extra day at Johannesburg to have a look at the city and buy a few essentials that we could not get in Kenya.

We managed to “survive” immigration managing to keep our passports “visa free” and we were taken to our hotel by its courtesy bus. During the whole time at the airport we dealt with whites and, believe me, that the driver of the bus was the first black man we saw!

The following morning we decided to catch a public bus to get to the centre of Johannesburg and the hotel receptionist advised us of the location of the bus stop. So we walked a short distance and found it. After a few minutes we saw a bus approaching and we tried -fruitlessly- to stop it. After a few more buses drove past, one finally stopped only for us to be informed by a kind driver that we needed to wait further for the correct bus. The one for whites!

A few minutes later the bus came and we got in. The drive was through among the cleanest streets we had seen (including those in the UK) and the city centre was no exception! Soon we were walking and being amazed by the number and quality of the shops we saw. We were coming from Uruguay going through bad spell and going to Kenya that did not allow many imports to get into the country and certainly none from South Africa!

It was time for us to change our TCs and we entered in the first bank we found to get some Rand. After some consideration we had decided to ignore the ban stamp at the back and handed them over to the cashier. Without showing any concern he counted them and gave us the equivalent in Rand. Unable to restrain my curiosity I asked if he did not mind the stamp at the back. He shrugged his shoulders and said something in Afrikaans that did not sound nice! “So much for the stamp and the sanctions”, I thought!

There were so many tempting stores that we had difficulties choosing one to enter and, frankly, I do not recall their names. By the end of the our shopping we had managed to get a lot of items that we needed in Kenya [5] and I still have a strong rubberised torch (my “Black Apartheid torch” as I call it) that still survives today! Amazingly, all shop attendants were white and the blacks were nowhere to be seen!

Once in the street, we walked about through streets -again- vastly dominated by white pedestrians with very few Africans on sight, most of them involved in service tasks. Tired and to avoid being left behind by buses, we decided that a taxi would take us to our hotel to get ready to leave the following day after our Apartheid first hand experience!

Many years later, on 10 May 1994, the day Nelson Mandela became President I was in South Africa on a work trip related to my FAO work. While watching the vast African crowds celebrating the event, the memories of our first visit to the “racist regime” in the 80s came vividly to my mind and I really felt joyful at seeing that finally there was equality for all. But more of that later, when I deal with stories from Southern Africa.

 

[1] See: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/apartheid

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/03/26/kenya-friends-and-foes1/

[3] Varig (Viação Aérea Rio-Grandense), formerly the largest airline of Latin America and Brazil’s first airline, stopped flying in 2006. Varig was known and recognized worldwide for its quality. From: http://www.varig-airlines.com/en/

[4] I am not sure of the exact kind of representation that South Africa had in Kenya at the time.

[5] In the 80s imports into Kenya were somehow controlled and most of the stuff in the shops were local or from neighbouring countries.

 

===

Apartheid attracted lots of opposition not only in Africa but worldwide. Arms and trade embargo. During 1970-80s internal resistance to A became strong and several brutal crackdowns followed by the Nat Party government. From 1987 to 1993 the NP entered in negotiations with the ANC. In 1990 prominent ANC figures including Mandela were released from prison and all Apartheid legislation was repealed on 17 June 1991 and multiracial elections held in April 1994.

========

I needed to return to Uruguay for a vacation and later return to Kenya to take up my new appointment as a Research Scientist at the

 

started to notice that all employees at the airport were white, except those dealing with cleaning and other services, although we knew that the majority of the population were not!

 

 

Season’s greetings from Nairobi

Christmas 1986 and the new 1987 were approaching and a group of friends (us included) hatched a novel greeting cards plan. Instead of buying the cards as we did every year, we would make our own. The design was straightforward: we would pose like a bunch of Kenya settlers.

After some discussion on the idea and some other options, we stuck with the original one and we only needed to wait for the cost of the project. Soon we had a couple of quotes from printers and it became clear that our homemade cards would actually be cheaper than buying cards as we used to do in those days. So we decided to go ahead.

To be credible, the project required careful preparation. We needed to look like settlers, not only with the proper clothing and accessories but also ourselves. For the latter the men grew special moustaches, beards and longish hair while the ladies appealed to ancient haircuts!

Initially the costumes were an issue until someone mentioned the Kenya National Theatre. So a delegation got the Director to agree and, after a long selection session we borrowed the necessary items for a few days.

The next issue to be resolved was the location for the shooting. Again, several options were contemplated such as house gardens, Nairobi National Park and the National Railways Museum. As Nairobi was linked to the railways and we all enjoyed steam engines, we decided that we would pose by an old steam engine for two of the cards and at a garden for the remaining one.

When all was ready we realised that we needed a photographer! We found a professional photographer that was happy to take several pictures at each of the chosen locations so that we could select the best pictures. He would also develop them with a sepia tint to give a vintage feeling and add further credibility to the end product.

A Saturday morning, we gathered at one of the friend’s house where we had breakfast and posed for one of the pictures. Afterwards, we all traveled to the Museum. Our appearance created some commotion as it was not usual to have a group of people dressed in old clothes to visit the place! However, once we explained the reason for our weird looks, we were sold tickets and given the go ahead for the pictures to be taken.

A couple of days later the photographer brought a few samples and we agreed on three of them after examining all the pictures taken and ordered the cards. Unfortunately, I only found one of them.

Christmas card circa 1986 copy 3

In the picture a young Bushsnob is seen with a rather abundant beard (second from the left) and his wife Mabel (third from the left) both seated.

We shared the cards and the bill among ourselves and sent them to friends and relatives without giving details about the picture. We expected some rude or funny comments about our looks but we were disappointed as we did not get any!

It was only months later, when we went on home leave and asked our families and friends about the cards, that it became clear that they had not realised that we were on them!

I recall having to use a magnifying glass to confirm to several of them that indeed we were in the pictures!

Life in Nairobi

After a while in Tigoni Mabel decided to look for a job and Nairobi was the obvious place to find it. The idea was to capitalise on her Spanish and English knowledge. She started doing translations for Spanish-speaking embassies and very soon she got a permanent position at the Embassy of Chile. After a while she moved to the Commercial Section of the Embassy of Argentina where she remained for a few years.

Luckily, John, a neighbour at Tigoni gave her lifts to work mornings and afternoons, as I was busy at Muguga and regularly traveling to Intona. Despite John’s kindness and flexibility there were days that the arrangement was not possible and I needed to drive to Nairobi to take her or to collect her. Sometimes I would be delayed so she would be stuck in Nairobi! Although we enjoyed the relaxed and picturesque life at Tigoni we decided that it was time to move to Nairobi.

Although still very manageable at that time, Nairobi had moved on from its origins as an offspring of the Uganda Railways to a vibrant city. It had started around 1899 when the railways work arrived to the then known as mile 327, a treeless swampy area watered by the Ewaso Nairobi river that in Maa (the Maasai language) meant “cold water”. At that spot the railway construction work was delayed while the engineers tackled the steep and difficult climb to the highlands ahead on their way to Uganda and from a railway depot the city grew.

Through the landlord of the building occupied by Mabel’s office we found a suitable flat located on Bishops Road, behind the then Panafric Hotel. Our move was very simple as all our possessions fit in our VW kombi and we negotiated for the flat to be furnished with the essential gear and household appliances. We soon realised, however, that we lacked a few more “essentials”.

We did not have curtains, cushions and other domestic necessities so Mabel went to look for the needed materials to make them herself and this is how she discovered Biashara (Business) Street and its great assortment of cloth shops where she not only managed to find what she wished but also became a frequent visitor returning there again and again in search of materials for her dress-making as well as to get the colourful kangas [1] that she loved and still keeps to date! She was always well treated by their owners, mainly Indian settlers that were tough to bargain with. She kept visiting them to the last day as it was there that she got all needed materials for our move to Ethiopia in 1988.

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One of the first kangas that Mabel bought in Nairobi still with us today! The inscriptions can be translated as “youngsters do not change their character”.

After a while we realised that we also needed a carpet for our sitting room. As new ones were rather dear to us we searched for a second hand one. We found one at an auction place and we managed to outbid the competition rather easily. When we put it in place we realised that it stank of dogs and it would be difficult to keep it at the flat. So smelly it was that our cats would refuse to step on it and would stay well clear of the sitting room! We sprinkled a couple of kilograms of coffee on it to try and neutralise its stench but, eventually, it had to go.

We were now living in a large capital city and we enjoyed the experience. Nairobi had a nice air about it and it was not yet as large and car-choked as I found it to be more recently. The amount of people walking around was, however, staggering. Particularly in the mornings while driving to Muguga I could see the long lines of people that were walking from the outskirts to their jobs in the city and the impression was such that these became imprinted in my mind to the present day!

We had not visited the Nairobi restaurants very often while in Tigoni as we were reluctant to drive back home at night. So, moving to Nairobi meant that we could start dining out. Although we found the Tamarind beyond our reach, there were others we could enjoy such as “El Patio” a place that served some nice dishes including paella. We also gradually started to visit some of the Indian restaurants that were accessible and served excellent food.

We also found a special local restaurant on River Road (not really a safe place at the time) that was opened all the time and where we sometimes dined while returning from safaris. Amazed at it being always open we eventually learnt the reason: its door had been removed!

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A newer kanga from Kenya. It is written “your patience is a worship of god”.

Soon, Mabel also discovered “La Trattoria”, an Italian place that made excellent ice cream and reasonable pizzas and, with Ranjini, she would frequent some of the hotels such as the Hilton and the well-known Norfolk (built in the early 1900’s) that offered good Kenya tea (served English style) accompanied by first class cakes. I also enjoyed the occasional Kenya coffee and the New Stanley hotel with its huge fever tree was my favourite.

After a while Mabel also started a “Cordon Bleu” cookery course. During each of the classes she would return home with the dishes she had prepared so we took this opportunity every Wednesday to invite friends to join us for a meal!

Gradually we got to know good supermarkets and butchers and, again, Mabel began to explore the latter in search of the meat cuts that she preferred from our South American days. She found a “tame” butcher that allowed her to venture into the cold room to choose what she required. That was the way we acquired “matambre” (flank steak)[2].  This is a superficial and thin ventral muscle that -if not care is taken to remove it- it can be damaged or even removed with the hide. Mabel managed to get it and it became known as “Mabel’s cut” among the Latin American consumers that soon were ordering this speciality as well!

Fruit and vegetable markets were really fantastic and it was great fun to shop in them. The Westlands roundabout area offered a great shop run by a Sikh gentleman that had great quality and excellent client service as your shopping would be carried by a “helper” in a “kikapu” basket [3] to your car.

kikapu

A kikapu.

Outside that shop, a gentleman we came to know well constantly shouted “sweet peas madam, sweet peas madam” as he would follow you to the car. It was difficult not to buy his fresh peas as they were the sweetest I remember! The Central Market on Muindi Mbingu Street was also an enjoyable experience as there was an amazing abundance and variety of produce that was staggering for us, some that we had never seen such as mangoes, papayas and other tropical fruits.

Peter, our housekeeper, came with us to Nairobi on loan from our Tigoni landlord until we found a replacement as he was needed back at our former house. He stayed a few months traveling all the way from Uplands and basically helped Mabel with the cleaning of the flat. He insisted on walking with her every morning to her office in the centre of town and back home in the afternoons as a true bodyguard!

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A newer kanga bought in Mozambique in 2012. Its message refers -as far as I could gather- to Valentine’s Day! Things change…

Eventually we found someone to replace him and we sent him back to Tigoni with a heavy heart as he was a good man. So, a Peter left and another one arrived. The new Peter was a “supercharged” one and luckily for us, he only lasted for six months! It happened that he was the cook at the Canadian High Commission but, as there was no Head of Mission at that time, he was idle and wished to earn some extra money until his new boss would arrive.

We took him on the understanding that he would return to his permanent job whenever he was needed while we looked for a permanent worker. Not only Peter could cook well, do the shopping for us and kept our small flat squeaky clean (I am sure he cleaned it about three times a day as it was very small compared with the Ambassador’s residence!). He was constantly walking on “polishing shoes” shining our floors that looked as shiny as slippery to walk on! He brought to our lives the usual colonial custom of waking you up with a tray of tea at 6 am. without hearing anything, we would find the tea tray ready every morning.

The time for spoiling came to an end after about five months when Peter announced that a new High Commissioner was about to arrive. Fortunately, he brought a replacement that was also a Peter! The third Peter was somewhere between the previous two and perfect for us. He could cook well and did not bother with polishing the floor at all times. We liked the early morning tea and we asked him to continue with that tradition! Kenyan tea was very special and we really enjoyed it. He stayed with us until our departure for Ethiopia when we passed him to our good friend Susan.

The move to Nairobi also took us out of the British- and settler-dominated Tigoni into a cosmopolitan city. There were already international organisations based at Gigiri and their number was increasing. It was like this that we got new friends from other parts of the world, including a few from Latin America, of course. In particular we befriended the very few Uruguayans and Argentinians with which we had more affinity.

As some had “proper” houses with BBQ places, we re-encountered some of our culture through weekend gatherings to enjoy good “asados” (wood grilled meat) and some excellent Argentinian wine to go with it, courtesy of a few diplomatic friends we made. Carlos, one of them from Argentina had persuaded one of the main butchers called Gilani to make sausages following his own recipe from Necochea in Argentina. These were “real sausages” unlike the ones we found in the Nairobi shops that were made following the British recipe, something totally different and -for us- inferior.

It was with a group of Argentinian friends (headed by the Ambassador at the time) that we managed to organise ourselves to watch the 1986 World Cup games where Argentina played. Most of them were during the small hours of the morning and we “negotiated” to go an watch them at the studios of the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) where a small crowd of us (as well as some Kenyan employees of KBC) would seat in front of their recording monitors!

Argentina did well and reached the final that was broadcasted live by KBC and that we all watched at the Argentinian Ambassador’s residence after enjoying a great reception at lunchtime. It was a very dramatic final but Maradona helped Argentina to beat Germany and we forgot our regional rivalries to celebrate the title together as a Latin America community far from home.

I also started playing tennis on some weekends at the Nairobi Club and we also discovered learnt the Carnivore restaurant in Langata where, for a fixed amount of money, you could eat as much meat as you wished. The menu included meat from domestic and wild animals and we went there a few times although we found it to be too much meat! However, it was a very popular eating venue for the Latin American community. Eventually, as the winners in the casino, some of them were from entering the restaurant as they consumed too much meat! Being a resourceful bunch they managed to circumvent this problem by booking the place under fake names and continue to visit it!

During our time the National Museum offered a great introductory course to Kenya known as the “Know Kenya” series of lectures. In this was we enjoyed great educational lectures on many aspects of Kenya, including those delivered by Mary and Richard Leakey on the evolution of humankind. Mary’s husband (and Richard’s father) was the famous Louis Leakey that had already died by then. He was a famous anthropologist that was born in Kabete and greatly advanced the study of hominids. He was also responsible for bringing Diane Fossey and Jane Goddall to Africa to study large apes.

Another hitherto unexplored asset of Nairobi was its National Park located a few minutes from our house. We started to frequent it and, after a few visits we bought a year permit for our car to enter the park freely so this became a favourite outing. As the place was on the way from the airport, from that time onwards we started bringing our overseas visitors home by driving them through the park to give them a taste of the bush a few minutes after leaving the airplane! They loved it and helped making their stay even more memorable.

We spent many hours at the park as it offered all desirable wildlife with the exception of elephants. I will tell you a few stories about our visits in future posts.

Before we handed back our beloved kombi to FAO at the end of my FAO Fellowship, we managed to acquire a Land Rover and I described the process in https://bushsnob.com/2017/07/20/buying-a-car/. Later we bought our first new car, a Peugeot 504, together with Paul (see: https://bushsnob.com/2018/01/21/simbas-bush-baptism/). The Peugeot was, at the time, the most sought after car in Africa, known as “Simba” because of the lion of its make. We enjoyed both good and bad times with it.

With the new car we were able to travel faster and longer trips became more feasible, particularly reaching the coast where we managed to explored a few places. I also had a spell of bad luck when I had the only crash I had ever had (see: https://bushsnob.com/2018/04/28/collision/) and also the only robbery we suffered during the years we lived in Kenya: my spare wheel was stolen while the car was parked at our parking place in our flat! So much for the security guard!

The “Drive-In” cinemas, in particular the Fox Drive-In on the way to Thika, were places we frequented often as we did not have a television at home. It was a popular place where you could enjoy a tasty meal while watching a good movie. The food had Indian influence and the potato “bajhias” were fantastic. There was another drive-in cinema on the way to the airport that we also tried but only once. We were very impressed about the Indian food served but did not suspect that the programme was aimed at the Indian community showing Bollywood movies! We left during the first interval after finishing our meal!

So, life was going great for us and I am sure we would still be in Nairobi if it would not have been -again- by FAO. The manager of a project in Ethiopia had suffered a serious heart attack and needed to be evacuated for medical attention and FAO needed a replacement rather urgently to continue with a tick survey and population dynamics study. When the position was offered to me, after a lot of thinking I accepted it.

It was a risky decision as the contract was for an initial period of eighteen months but the salary offered was very good for my standards so, after over seven years in Kenya, we took the short flight to Addis Ababa to re-join FAO, this time as a fully-fledged employee. Little I knew then that I was going to stay with FAO in various capacities for twenty-five years.

 

[1] In Ki-Swahili a kanga is a piece of colourfully printed cotton fabric, about 1.5 m by 1 m, often with a border along all four sides (called pindo and a central part  the mji which differs in design from the borders.

[2] The panniculus adiposus is the fatty layer of the subcutaneous tissues, superficial to a deeper vestigial layer of muscle, the panniculus carnosus. Together they make the cut. It is also known as the “fly shaker”, because it is the muscle used by the animal to twitch to repel insects.

[3] Several kinds of baskets were in use in Nairobi those days. A kikapu was a simple straw-woven open basket.

 

Poor housekeeping

While staying at Muguga House (see: https://bushsnob.com/2015/06/30/life-and-work-in-kenya-muguga1/) I used to upset Richard with my parrot stories from Uruguay. I later regretted having done so when I discovered that he owned an African Grey parrot!

Richard found us a house in Tigoni where we moved after a few months living in Muguga House, once we got our VW kombi to move around. We were neighbours for about one year and we shared time together. So, when Richard’s time to go on annual leave came, we agreed look after his house and, more importantly, its occupants.

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The house in Tigoni and our VW kombi, our all terrain vehicle.

Richard was very proud of his collection of African fresh water fish that he kept in tanks all over his sitting room area and, of course, he kept his parrot! The fish required feeding and cleaning and, in addition, the parrot required some entertainment as it was rather neurotic and pull its feathers! Luckily, his housekeeper would take care of the daily chores and all we needed to do was to get the necessary food and, whenever possible, keep the parrot amused by talking to it. This consisted of exchanging the phrase “silly old parrot” and submit to its loud and almost deafening whistling!

As it is customary in these cases, Richard gave us a briefing about some special details needed and also about a last minute addition to his menagerie: a small terrapin that he had found during a walk that also required attention. Although the new beast occupied its own tank and it should have been easy to keep, he was worried that the housekeeper was not familiar with it and asked us to keep a special eye on its welfare.

We listened patiently to all his recommendations and reassured him that all was going to be well so, the following day he left for one month to visit his family in the UK and we added the monitoring of his house to our ongoing activities.

We kept visiting his house daily at first but when we saw that things were going well, we relaxed our visits as we gained more confidence. Very soon there were only a few days for Richard to come back and we were pleased with ourselves as all was still in order. Clearly, we celebrated too early! Two days before Richard’s return his housekeeper, looking sick with worry, came to see us after we returned from work.

“The parrot is gone”, he said almost crying and not daring looking at us. As these were really bad news, we sprang to action immediately and walked with him to Richard’s house while we interrogated him on the way. Apparently, the parrot was gone since the morning and, as he could not contact us the poor man lived through agony until we returned in the afternoon. He said that he had looked for the feathered one all over but failed to find it!

richard parrot

A bad picture of the parrot!

We fruitlessly searched the house from top to bottom and found no signs that the bird had been there and the investigation gave us no useful clue on where or how it could have gone out of the house. So our search moved to the rather large and bushy garden, open towards the river that run through the valley below, the same valley where I had my earlier encounter with the “siafu” (See: https://bushsnob.com/2016/04/19/fire-down-below/ ).

We were not very optimistic but continued with our search!

mabel peter tigoni

Searching for the missing feathered one. (Sorry for the bad shot but I was shaking with worry…)

That day darkness came faster than we wished and eventually we found ourselves in darkness without finding it or having a reply to our “silly old parrot” calls directed to the apparently empty bushes! I do not wish to know what anyone that heard us saying that with a parrot accent could have thought! But that is only an afterthought of today as the situation then did not allow for these kind of mental exercise!

After searching for about two hours in the dark we gave up and, with a heavy heart, returned to our house. Clearly a hand-reared parrot used to live in a cage had a very slim chance of making it through the night where we knew mongooses, genets, civets and probably other predators inhabited. We had a somber dinner while we discussed the issue and prepared for the worse, particularly how to break the bad news to Richard that was arriving in two days time!

The following morning we did not go to work and we asked Peter -our housekeeper- to join us in the search. We started looking as soon as there was daylight, admittedly more as a token gesture than with a real hope of finding our -hopefully still feathered- fugitive! While walking towards Richard’s garden, I still kept thinking on how I would break the bad news to him!

We decided that our chances of success would be higher if we separated and each one of us took an area to search while shouting “silly old parrot” again and again! At about mid-morning and after a few hours of walking around in the bush, it was Mabel who heard something and called us. We ran towards her and, as we got closer we heard “silly old parrot” in the inimitable voice of the missing parrot. There it was, perched low from the ground on a small bush, preening itself and removing a few more feathers from its already almost bare belly!

It seemed that the parrot had spent the night at about 60cm from the ground and survived! We soon grabbed it and brought it back to its cage where we left it with renewed recommendations to the keeper. We left for our house, quite relaxed and happy about our find.

Finally, the day of Richard’s return arrived. Still pleased with our parrot success, we went to his house to have the last check on his wildlife and wait for his arrival.

Then the last act of this play unfolded…

All fish looked fine but when I checked the terrapin tank, I saw it rather quiet and unresponsive to the touch! It was dead. This was an unexpected blow as we had seen it the afternoon before looking fine! Rather upset I took it out of the water almost at the same time that we heard Richard’s car arriving!

I was in a tight spot with the terrapin in my hand! Those of you who are familiar with these beasts would know how they smell when alive and you can only start to imagine how they stink when dead! So, I moved fast to the toilet to both dispose of the body and the waft from my hands while Mabel greeted and entertained Richard.

I tried to flush the small reptile about three times unsuccessfully and eventually, in desperation, wrapped in toilet paper and stuffed it in my pocket while, and washed my hands hoping that the soap would do its job.

So, with my best possible smile I emerged from the toiled to greet Richard and to break the news of the terrapin’s demise. Luckily, he took it well and, a few minutes later, after leaving him to settle in his house, I managed to bury it in our garden to close our rather poor experience at housekeeping!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Nguruman Escarpment

My earlier post on lake Magadi [1] brought to my memory the only trip I made to the Nguruman escarpment. I traveled there with Robin after a few years in Kenya, on a collaborative work with the Tsetse Programme of the ICIPE that was working on the control of tsetse flies and trypanosomosis [2].

Maasai Magadi causeway.tif

Maasai boys with their sheep and goats on one of the Magadi causeways.

The Nguruman Escarpment forms the western boundary of Kenya’s Rift Valley to the south near the border with Tanzania. The trip from Nairobi to Nguruman went through the green foothills of the Ngong Hills followed by a long descent to the semiarid plains on the floor of the Great Rift Valley, crossing Lake Magadi in a westerly direction.

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Lake Magadi.

After leaving the lake area there was a rather endless drive through dusty, rough and undulated dirt and very dusty tracks crossing very arid terrain.

As you finally approach its foothills about 60km after the lake, the vegetation changed and mango and pawpaw trees and other vegetables and fruits appeared thanks to some water available from the Entasopia and Ewaso Ng’iro Rivers that, coming from the Mau Escarpment, flow along the base of the Nguruman hills to end at Lake Natron in Tanzania.

The Nguruman -as this rather remote area is usually known- was inhabited by the Maasai and, as usual, they shared it with game. The pastoralists understood the benefits of controlling tsetse flies and welcomed the project to their land. As the main principle of the ICIPE was to avoid the use of pesticides, our entomologist colleagues were introducing odour-baited traps to control the population of the tsetse fly (Glossina pallidipes) in an area of 100km sq., groundbreaking work at the time.

The drive to get to the project area required some special arrangements. Because of the heat, it was impossible to drive with closed windows in a non air-conditioned car as our Series III Land Rover was. Very soon the white car bonnet would acquire a shade of gray because of the tsetse flies and very soon they would start getting inside!

So, while the driver focused on avoiding the frequent and challenging road hazards, the passenger in the front seat did not just seat there looking pretty: his/her job was to destroy flies, particularly those landing on the driver! This was a very specialized job. If you were too careful, the fly would survive but hitting too hard could startle the driver with unknown consequences. In addition the victim could start thinking that old scores were being settled by the procedure and retaliate…

The project was also original in that the Maasai themselves made their own tsetse-catching traps with project support. At the time of our visit one hundred of them, baited with acetone and cow urine [3], had been placed in woodland areas where this fly species aggregate during the dry season. The traps were checked monthly for maintenance.

Our visit was during the early stages of the work but towards the end of their intervention they managed a reduction of 98–99% relative to the number 3 km outside the project suppression zone. So, at the time of our visit this was still not known and the work had a feverish intensity and enthusiasm.

Our job was a minor one and consisted in identifying the ticks present on the Maasai livestock in order to complete the parasite spectrum affecting the animals. So, we spent a couple of days collecting ticks from cattle, sheep and goats to later identify them in the laboratory.

Apart from some ICIPE support staff, the project employed and collaborated with a substantial number of Maasai villagers. In particular I recall a young Maasai teenager that has just undergone the “Emuratta” (circumcision) when we visited and he was working still clad in his dark tunic with the accompanying head-dress made of stuffed birds hunted with blunt arrows as it is traditional. He also carried his bow and arrows with him all the time to shoot any unaware birds to add to his collection. He had become the main nexus with the Maasai community as he was good in English.

Over the couple of nights we camped there, we listened to interesting stories. We learnt that traps suffered from animal damage and also from theft so they required frequent checking to make sure that they were operating to their full effect. The “trap rounds” were done by car as much as possible but walking was also involved and, often these resulted in meeting dangerous game.

It was not the lions that were most feared but buffalo. These animals, particularly the old and lone males also known as “Black Death” can be extremely dangerous, and it is believed that they are responsible for killing more big game hunters than any other animal in Africa so extreme care was taken and the Maasai usually accompanied the technicians for protection or at least “early warning” so that a suitable tree to climb could be found! We saw some rather wild-looking buffalo bulls but always -luckily- from the safety of the car.

The soil in the Rift Valley has a great content of volcanic ash and it is common to drive through it in several places in Kenya. However, nothing prepares you for the driving at Nguruman. The abundant and very fine ash behaves like water and in some places it can be over 50cm deep. The car made waves of dust and in deep areas 4WD was needed to go through while the ash splashed the windscreen covering it and impeding vision unless the wipers were full on. You would breath and eat lots of dust while you wished it was raining although this would only bring a different challenge!

We heard lion roaring in the distance every night but we were extra safe camping in the heart of a Maasai community as predators kept their distance. So, to see lions you needed to drive quite a distance towards the Loita hills and then the Maasai Mara but that was not the purpose of our trip.

I do remember a story one of the project drivers told us while seating by the fire enjoying a Tusker beer. Some time back, when the project was still an idea, he was driving through the Nguruman woodlands when he caught a glimpse of red near the road. He went to investigate and found a piece of Shuka, the Maasai traditional tunic. Nearby he spotted its owner, dead and showing signs of having been mauled by a lion.

Wearily moving around he noted that the grass and bushes around the spot showed signs of a great fight. Eventually, a few metres farther he found a speared young male lion, also dead. Two dead braves were all that remained to show for the long-term enmity between Maasai and lions!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/09/10/lake-magadi/

[2] Dransfield, R., Brightwell, R., Kyorku, C. & Williams, B. (1990). Control of tsetse fly (Diptera: Glossinidae) populations using traps at Nguruman, south-west Kenya. Bulletin of Entomological Research 80: 265 – 276.

[3] Buffalo urine was also used if available.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A vet in Maasai land

“… Engai (the Maasai God – Ed) had three children to whom he gave three gifts. The first received an arrow to make his living by hunting, the second a hoe to dig the land and grow crops, and the third a stick to use in herding cattle. This third son, whose name was Natero Kop, was the father of the Maasai, who have since that time been the proud keepers of cattle.” [1]

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When I arrived to work at Intona Ranch, I did not know much about the Maasai, apart from having seen them walking in Nairobi with their unmistakable attire and, later, during my first trip to Intona with Alan. At the time, Billy Konchellah was about twenty years old and getting ready to become a world sport idol by winning the 800 metres world title twice (1987 and 1991) and becoming, I guess, the most famous Kilgoris-born citizen.

Later, as I traveled to and from the Transmara I got to know the Maasai better. As soon as they learnt that I was a “Daktari wa mifugo” [2], my prestige among them instantly improved and, as soon as I arrived to Intona they would bring any sick animal they would have.

As I mentioned before, Intona was given to Joe Murumbi, the son of a Maasai lady, as homage for his distinguished career in Kenya politics. He was a father figure in the area and he had many visitors, many of them Maasai. Most came by foot and on the way to the main house they all stopped to look at the cattle, their main interest. In particular they spend an inordinate amount of time observing the nice-looking Boran cattle a novelty we brought into Intona from Northern Kenya for our trials and I already narrated what happened to some of the latter when some unscrupulous Maasai liked them too much! [3]

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I also visited their dwellings known as manyattas [4] when called to check sick animals and I still feel the dung smoke in my nostrils at entering a dark manyatta for a visit. With no other ventilation than the entrance door, there was dense smoke as we sat down to talk while sharing a gourd of milk with the house owners. Occasionally I also participated in some of their ceremonies when my presence in Intona coincided with them.

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I inherited a strong dislike of flies from my father who fought a lifelong war against flies. He always had a fly swatter at hand but when he did not, he would catch them with one hand by placing it open and about 20cm from the fly and then sweeping it fast to catch it. He would then kill it by throwing it against the floor! I inherited this ability and became as good as him!

As flies bred freely in the cattle dung around the manyattas they were extremely abundant and annoying. As I did not have a swatter I defended myself by catching them with my hand to the amusement of my hosts that just ignored them or used a fly whisk to scare them away. So, on a lighter note I am proud to say that I had ample opportunity to demonstrate my fly-catching skills in Maasailand and once, with one move of my hand, I caught twenty-seven of the pests! This feat, regrettably, did not enter the Guinness and, frankly, it was more a consequence of the amount of flies rather than my skills!

The Maasai are well known for their ancient enmity with lion -that yesteryear they would kill to reach adulthood- as well as for drinking the blood of their cattle on special circumstances. However, what I remember them for was their amazing relationship with their cattle and how much they love them and cared for them. Regardless of the number of animals owned, each one has a name and ancestry and rarely they would part from them.

One of their tales says that at the beginning of time the Maasai did not own any cattle and that one day God called Maasinta, the first Maasai, and asked him to build a large enclosure. One the latter was completed God said that the early the following day he would fill it with something called cattle and Maasinta must stay very silent. In anticipation, Maasinta went to the enclosure and waited. Suddenly there was loud thunder and cattle of all shapes and colours started to descend.

Although Maasinta just managed to keep silent, his Dorobo [5] companion woke up with the commotion and when he saw what was happening he proffered a loud cry. Thinking that Maasinta had shrieked, God stopped the flow of cattle and asked Maasinta if all the cattle that he had given him were not enough so he would stop sending anymore and this is the reason that the Maasai love cattle so much!

As I mentioned before, they brought animals for me to examine. Although sometimes I could get to a diagnostic and recommend a treatment, others they brought animals that, regardless of how much I checked them, I could not find anything wrong with them. When I told them so, usually a discussion ensued during which the owner (through an interpreter, usually Tommi, my Maasai herdsman) would protest bitterly as he claimed that the animal was not well and eventually he would leave shaking its head and rather upset at how little I knew!

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Maasai and JC with Land Rover

The author (centre and starting to loose hair!) with Maasai visitors.

Almost invariably the same farmer would bring the same animal back the following day with a clear clinical case of acute diarrhea, pneumonia or trypanosomosis that required immediate attention. I would then treat the animal and a happy Maasai would leave with his animal after reminding me that it was the same animal of the day before! Luckily not many came and I was not embarrassed very often!

I spent many hours with them just watching our cattle in Intona and through Tommi I got an insight of what they were saying. In short, they would note every detail of each animal and comment about it. Some liked the absence of horns of the Boran animals while others argued against it!

The coat colours were also discussed hotly. Our Boran were predominantly brown and, while some thought that this was a good colour, others preferred others such as white, black or barred. The arguments prolonged for a time I did not have so I needed to excuse myself and continue with my work while they continued arguing for a long while longer, the same way we would do while watching a sports cars show!

The true highlight was to visit their manyattas to look at their cattle. The best time to do this was in the late afternoons when the cattle returned from the day grazing to the safety of the thorny enclosure to spend the night away from four- and two-legged predators.

It will all start by greeting the owners that were usually delighted and proud to host us when they learnt that we had come to see their animals. After a while of talking with the herders you would start hearing bells in the distance that some emblematic member of the herd such as a preferred ox or cow would wear around their necks.

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Maasai children looking after livestock.

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Maasai cattle highway.

The first bellowing indicated that the herd was close and soon you could smell them well before their arrival. They soon appeared among the dust in the dry season or stopping to get the last mouthfuls of juicy grass during the rains. The animals were of many colours but sometimes they reflected the preference of their owner and a colour would predominate. The stripped and grey ones were spectacular, particularly the latter when heavily branded.

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There were also different horn shapes and sizes, from the rather large ox horns to the rather unusual “scurred” horns only attached by the skin that moved loosely as the animal walkscattle magadi... back road ngong copy

Keeping on the side, not to interfere with this daily ritual, I watched as the docile animals entered the enclosure under the careful scrutiny of the owners -both men and women- that apart from the sheer pleasure of seeing their favourite animals- checked for signs of trouble (the same I would miss when consulted!).

They will follow the progress of those that were sick, check for any newly-born calves, usually carried by the herdsmen as they were not able to walk at the speed of the adults. After all was checked the time would come for closing the thorn-bush gate and start with comments and praise of some particular animals that are special to the owners.

Gradually and gently the animals started finding their resting places inside the kraal and soon they would lay down to rest and chew their cud and eventually spend the night protected from lions and other predators that surely would look for a come to have a look for a chink in the manyatta’s armour to snatch the unaware animal.

These were among the best moments I spent in Kenya. I really felt fulfilled, realizing that I had come a long way from my former cattle work in Uruguay. I still long to return!

According to their oral history, the Maasai originated from the lower Nile valley north of Lake Turkana (Northwest Kenya) and began migrating south around the 15th century, arriving in a long trunk of land stretching from what is now northern Kenya to what is now central Tanzania between the 17th and late 18th century.

The Maasai are among the best known Africans internationally due to their residence near the many game parks of the African Great Rift Valley, and their distinctive customs and dress. There is even a theory that because their hair arrangements mimic the Roman helmets and that they wear a “toga-like” attire and a short assegai resembling the Roman sword, they had some Roman influence from some lost legions from Egypt.

While I worked in the Transmara, I met two of the people that were studying several aspects of the Maasai culture.

Fr. Frans Mol used to spend time at his Mission near Lolgorian where I found him and had a chance to talk to him, albeit briefly. I learnt that he had a great liking for the Maasai people and that he had been working as a missionary for the Mill Hill Church(?) for over 20 years at the time I met him [6].

He was fluent in the “Maa” language and got to know their cultural ways. Although he preached Christianity in several Maasai districts (Kajiado, Transmara, Laikipia and Narok), he also devoted his time to put his knowledge on paper and wrote a few books on the Maasai [7].”

Another character I knew that had great experience on the Maasai ways was a lady known in the Maasai Mara as Jacqueline. At the time we met her close to the Oloololo escarpment, in July 1982, she introduced herself as a French anthropologist that had come to the area to study the Maasai, fell in love with one of them and stayed behind.

Later on I learnt that she was Jacqueline Roumeguère-Eberhardt and that she had occupied important positions of research in France and carried out groundbreaking investigations in Southern Africa on the Venda, Tsonga, Shona, Lozi, Bushmen, apart from her on-going studies on the Maasai.

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Before her death in 2006 Jaqueline amassed a wealth of knowledge on the people she studied and she produced many scientific papers, books and films in both English and French and interestingly she was involved in an interesting event when in 1978 she caused lots of excitement among the anthropologist community by claiming that she had found hominid that dwelled in thick Kenyan forests. She called them “X” and documented a number of encounters with them by Kenyans. Although she wrote a book about this discovery [8]. However, her finding was doubted by scientists and she failed to lead an expedition to find them and they were not seen again!

In her obituary [9] published by the … it says: ‘ …Despite their cultural differences – and the presence of eight other wives – Jacqueline Roumeguere-Eberhardt claimed that she and her husband got along famously: “Every time I’m with him I learn something new about human nature and problem solving,” she told an interviewer. All the same, standards had to be maintained, and, while living the life of a tribeswoman, she never went out without applying her red Chanel lipstick and nail polish.’

Although I am not able to say anything about the first issue, I can confirm that she was always elegantly dressed and looking great when we met her in the Maasai Mara bush although I cannot swear about the make of the lipstick!

 

[1] Ole Saitoti, T. and Beckwith, C. (1986). Maasai. Elm Tree Books/Hamish Hamilton Ltd. Eds. 276p.

[2] Veterinarian in Ki-Swahili.

[3] See: https://bushsnob.com/2014/07/19/the-cattle-are-gone/

[4] “Manyatta is the name always used for these Maasai villages, but the correct term is “engang.” Manyattas were built especially for the warriors with their mothers and girl-friends while the engang was the family dwelling.” From: Ole Saitoti, T. and Beckwith, C. (1986..). Maasai. Elm Tree Books/Hamish Hamilton Ltd. Eds. 276p. I use manyatta as this is the word I used at the time of the story.

[5] Hunter-gatherer groups of Kenya and Tanzania associated with the Maasai.

[6] Father Moll retired at 70 on 3 December 2002 after working 44 years in Kenya.

[7] Some of the books are: Maa, a dictionary of the Maasai language and folklore: English-Maasai (1978); Lessons in Maa: a grammar of Maasai language (1995) and Maasai language & culture: Dictionary (1996).

[8] Roumeguère-Eberhardt, J. (1984). Les hominidés non identifiés des forêts d’Afrique. Robert Laffont Ed.

[9] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1518217/Jacqueline-Roumeguere-Eberhardt.html Consulted on 27 May 2019.