Memoirs

Episodes of my life in Africa.

Turmoil

Following the recommendation of her doctor, Mabel traveled abroad to get checked on her pregnancy. As the work was rather pressing, I did not go with her but remained in Lusaka, still moving daily to and from Chilanga.

One day, while returning from Chilanga with a colleague from Tanzania called John, a few kilometres before getting to the Kafue roundabout (the entrance to Lusaka city at that time), we started seeing a few cars doing U-turns in total disregard of the traffic. I was still surprised when we also noted a lot of cars with their windscreens smashed and waving their arms at us, and the cars before and after us, to stop and turn back. Then we heard explosions. It took us a few seconds to realize that there were gunshots! Something very odd was happening but we could not know what!

Without a second of hesitation, I turned the pick-up around and started to retreat back to where we were coming from. It was then that we saw a large of crowd of people blocking the road ahead of us and throwing stones at the cars that tried to break through. Clearly, we were trapped between rioters. The area we were in was quarried for stones and there were usually many piles of rocks while people waited to sell them. We knew that there was plenty of ammo to smash our car so, unable to move through the road, I engaged 4WD and headed for the bush, hoping to be able to avoid the trouble and rejoin the road further on. It was not to be so we decided to abandone the car somehow hidden, hoping that the rioters would ignore it, being stationary and unoccupied.

We hatched a plan B that was to walk through the bush, attempting to get to the house of Des, my mechanic that was a few kilometres away. However, we had not yet walked more than a dozen paces when we heard a voice that, through a megaphone, asked the rioters to stop. We saw a couple of pick-ups loaded with soldiers and a convoy that was forming behind them. Without thinking twice, we run back to our pick-up, did another turn to now face Lusaka again and joined the convoy. Clearly, the intention was to attempt reaching Lusaka and we were prepared to take the risk rather than to remain where we were.

Soon the convoy started to move towards the city while the megaphone continously asked the rioters to clear the road. Many did but others would continue to attempt to block the road while still throwing stones to them. Then the soldiers replied by shooting above their heads and a stampede of riotrs ensued and, in a few seconds, the way was cleared!

We had a window of opportunity and we took it without thinking. I drove fast with my adrenline flowing, trying not to lose contact with our “protectors” regardless of the serious rock piles that were placed to block the traffic. It was a bumpy ride, but I managed to keep up while John held on to any available handle inside the car to avoid being knocked about by my rough driving. Luckily, we avoided injuries and damage to the car.

Once we entered the city, the soldiers continued through the main road while we deviated towards the East as I took John to his house. The air was heavy with tear gas and helicopters were flying above our heads when I dropped John and finally headed for home.

I got to our house and when I stopped the car I could still hear shooting and a far off murmur that clearly indicated that people were still revolting, despite the Government attempting to control the situation. The minute or so that Lemek, our gardener, took to open the gate felt like an hour and, as soon as the gate was opened, I rushed in and parked the car. I stayed a while re-gaining some degree of calm after what we had gone through. I felt as exhausted as if I would have driven hundreds of kilometres! I then made sure that the front gate was securely locked and told our employees to stay inside as I was not sure of the extent of the revolt and how it would end!

I then went inside and phoned Mabel to tell her that I was well so for her not to worry as I was sure that the BBC would be reporting on the events already. I got in touch with the project personnel and told them not to move from their houses until further notice. Luckily, Bruno was in Lutale, far away from the problems.

I locked the house and switched on the SW radio tuned to the BBC as the local radio was of not much use and got the UN VHF radio to participate in any security checks that they may do as well as getting information on the situation in the different areas of the city. What I heard was quite worrying as it seemed that the riots were spreading and luting was rampant.

It was Monday the 26th. of June 1990. Earlier, President Kaunda had announced an increase of more than double in the price of maize meal, the staple food of the country. The people were answering to these measures.

The night was reasonably quiet although sporadic shooting was heard. The following day we heard shouting outside the house. It was our turn for the rioters to visit us, probably on their way to the nearby shops and the supermarkets. Quite a few stones were thrown towards the house, but the house was quite far from the road and nothing was broken. To my relief, the crowd continued moving along.

The riots intensified over the next three days. A curfew was imposed, and I stayed home. Luckily, we had sufficient food in the house to last me for a few days. To my relief, on the 28th., the UN VHF radio announced that calm had been restored and essential personnel could go back to work.

The central and some of the commercial areas of Lusaka were severely damaged and most shops showed signs of having suffered a total loss. An estimated twenty-four people died and about one hundred and fifty were injured, many by gunfire. It was the most severe crisis that President Kaunda had suffered during his twenty-six-year rule and his power was severely weakened. When he addressed the Nation later, he repeated his offer of holding a referendum on the introduction of multi-party rule that he had mentioned the previous May.

A charged calm was restored but another surprise laid in waiting. On Sunday 1 July Lieutenant Mwamba Luchembe of the Zambian Army staged a coup d’état attempt [1]. At 3 am the coup’s leader announced via the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation that the military had taken over the government and he cited riots of the previous week as reasons for his action.

The move only lasted about six hours. However, when people learnt that the military had overthrown Kaunda, hundreds of people demonstrated celebrating the event and, in the confusion that followed, there were rumours of some other military joining the coup.

At 9am, the Army loyal to Kaunda crashed his attempt and Luchembe was arrested although I do not recall that he was put on trial. The coup attempt added to the increasingly fragile situation of the President who, a week later, announced that a national referendum on whether to restore multi-party government would be held on 17 October 1990. We will go through these events later on.

[1] See: https://www.zambianobserver.com/mwamba-luchembe-and-his-failed-coup-of-1990-on-kenneth-kaunda/

Bad motoring start…

We settled down in our house and gradually started to discover Lusaka and its ways. Of course, walking in the city was not advised as there was a high risk of getting mugged. In view of the situation, a car was a must and we needed it fast. Renting a car was not common those days so we relied on “borrowing” a small project vehicle to do our necessary errands.

Northmead, a small shopping centre was quite close to our house and there we did most of our shopping at first. Although safe, we learnt to be very alert of our surroundings while parking at shopping malls as we heard a lot of stories about robbers lurking about. Soon, Mabel discovered other shopping options in both Woodlands and Kabulonga that we started to frequent as well.

At first, goods supply was erratic and poor. Although amusing in retrospect, it was not so when you faced it. A supermarket would have half of its shelves full of one make of toilet paper and the other half with rice while another one will be full of salt, toothpaste and cooking fat and so on. Sugar was impossible to get and people would drive to Mazabuka (Southern Province) to buy it in bulk from the sugar factory located there and then sell it at a high price in the open market or pass it on to friends.  

Because of the situation people were organized in groups whose members placed orders and took turns to do the shopping for the various items and then they would meet at a house and distributed the shopping. A cumbersome but effective system that also worked for meat and its sub-products such as ham and bacon that were obtained at a farm in Chilanga.

Fruits and vegetables were on offer at markets where people from different farms would be offering all sorts of produce, including milk and eggs that complemented the production from the small livestock kept in the houses. These markets were mostly operating on Saturdays and they were a great source of information about what was going on in the city.

So, although with more difficulties than usual, we managed to get by and, luckily, the situation started to get more normal after a few months of being in the country.

Clearly, a car was essential. After having a Land Cruiser in Ethiopia, we decided to go for a larger version: a long-wheel base hardtop, economic and resilient as well as roomy to carry our rubber dinghy, its engine and other needed items for our planned camping and fishing. A large car was a great decision as our family would start growing that same year and we planned to take our children with us at all times, regardless of their age.

Our new car on safari. Mabel and Florencia riding on the roofrack and Annie (our nanny) inside the car while Giuseppe looks on.

Buying a car in Zambia was not as simple as you may think. There was no internet and faxes were the new thing at the time, so you did not have the present-day advantage of buying online! At the time, although there were a few places that offered cars to be delivered fast, these were either of the wrong make or very expensive, so we did not pursue these options.

As in Ethiopia, we decided to place an order through the United Nations (UN) goods procurement agency. This process had advantages and disadvantages. Drawbacks included a three-month waiting time and the limited model choice together with the rather austere specifications of the UN vehicles [1]. This did not bother us but the low price that the UN was able to negotiate was too good to be ignored.

Zambia was still not trading with South Africa, so Durban was out of bounds. The same applied to Walvis Bay as negotiations for the independence of Namibia, that finally got its independence in March 1990, were not yet completed. Mozambique was still undergoing its civil war so both Maputo and Beira were not available! So, the car would arrive in Dar es Salaam, over 1,900 km North-east, a journey of about three days. Luckily, the system for such purchases was already in place as most vehicles imported into Lusaka (both official and private) would come through there.

After the three long months had passed, I got a fax announcing the date the car was due in Dar and from that time things started to move fast. I contacted the FAO Office where I was put in contact with Mr. Victor, the Senior driver, who would be in charge of bringing our car to Lusaka. He would fly to Dar with all the necessary documents, the needed cash and a hotel booking to be able to clear the car and drive it all the way back. Of course, I was to meet all expenses.

I took Victor to the airport and we agreed that he would let me know his arrival time in Lusaka so that I could meet him at home without stopping in Lusaka. This was an added precaution in view of the recent disappearance of a number of new vehicles from various international agencies.

The vehicles were somehow placed in containers and shipped by road to South Africa through what was some organized system that the Zambian authorities of the time could not (or wish not) stop. Interestingly, periodically, the South African police would recover some vehicles and the lists would be distributed among the various international agencies based in Lusaka, but I do not remember of any vehicle listed in them ever returned!

The day of the arrival of the car I stayed home to meet Victor, excited to be getting a new car. I heard the hooting at the entrance, and I was at the gate before Mr. Lemek (the gardener) could open it! It looked like a great car, so I followed it to the house parking area where I met a tired looking Victor and saw that the windscreen was cracked!

Trying to dissimulate my disappointment, I greeted him warmly but I could see that he was very worried and immediately started to apologize. I cut him short and told him that the journey had been very long, and he could not control where the loose stones present on the road would hit the car. Despite my remarks, he still looked very worried. It was then that I heard Mr. Victor saying “Sir, it also has a knock in the engine”. “What?”, I muttered, as if hit on the head with a hammer! He explained that he heard the noise from the first time that the engine started but he did not know what caused it. Again, aware that it was not his fault, I tried to minimize the problem while helping him to collect his belongings. I took Victor home and, honestly, my mind was racing on what to do next!

As soon as I came back, I started the car but I could not hear anything, so I tried to convince myself that it was not a serious issue. However, I phoned Toyota Zambia and they told me to bring it the following morning for them to inspect it. They also warned me that it would be difficult that they would accept liability for the problem as it had happened to a car that was not purchased through them. Additionally, they stated that the issue started in another country! A guarded reply that left me quite worried!

The following day I was at Toyota Zambia before it opened! Eventually I met Phillip (Phil), the Workshop Manager to who I explained my predicament. Luckily, he was a very reasonable man, so I started to feel better. He immediately brought the car to the workshop and tested the engine confirming that there was some abnormal engine noise. More checks made him suspicious of piston damage that would require opening the engine. My mood was somber again.

He must have seen my disappointment as he was quick to add that, after repairs the engine would still be as good as new adding that that engine was among the best engines Toyota ever made. He added that, before opening it, he would report the issue to his boss, the Toyota representative, and hoped that he would agree to do the work under the guarantee. However, Phil could not give me a positive answer until then.

I left the car at the workshop and waited for news while continuing with my project activities but still worried about the car. I waited for two days before Phil called and said that he had bad and good news. The latter was that the representative had agreed to cover all needed repairs under the guarantee. The bad news were that he had already opened the engine and the repair involved replacing a piston and other parts that I did not get. He also asked me to go to the workshop when I had time.

I dropped everything and went straight there. Phil showed me and explained what had happened. Trying to simplify things, the top ring in one of the pistons was “gapped too small”. Then, the heat of the engine caused its expansion and its ends run into each other. The ring pressure became too much for the cylinder and, with more heat, cooling was not sufficient and the piston head broke! Luckily, Phil said, he could find no damage to the inside of the cylinder. It was, he said, “a clear manufacturer error”.

The needed cylinders, valves and other smaller bits and pieces were ordered that same day and, amazingly, these were in Lusaka a few days later and the car was soon repaired and it run well for as long as we had it.

The phrase “every cloud has a silver lining” was true in this occasion as in many others. I got to know Phil and, later on, his wife Rosemary.  Phil retired a few months after I got my car back, but we kept our friendship alive until we left Zambia in 1993.

They lived in a lovely house in Woodlands extension, a leafy suburb a few kilometres from us where we spent a couple of afternoons watching his lovely fishpond that snaked through the garden adding a touch of colour from the koi and gold fish it had, an attractive feature for humans and cats alike. Rosemary and Phil kept several cats that were the children they did not have.

Depending on the weather we would sit in the verandah or on the lawn having a cup of tea with the traditional British scones. Rosemary served the tea and then sat at the piano to play classical music in a very British setting. The only difference was the good weather of Lusaka that, for me, made all the difference.

During his spare time with Toyota and more fully after retiring Phil repaired firearms, mainly from hunter friends and he had a well-equipped workshop. While visiting it Phil proudly showed me his patented invention: an ingenious adjustable chain wrench to remove any kind of oil and diesel filters. He was pleased that these were selling well.

He had also fitted his “bakkie” (pick-up) with another of his creations, a strong metal plate that would lock over the three pedals covering them completely making driving the vehicle impossible without removing it. I found the contraption an overkill and I teased him about it but he swore by it so, still learning about security in Zambia my jokes stopped!

Their kindness to cats was such that they were delighted to accept our offer of leaving the now quite elderlyTigger with them when we we left our elderly Tigger with them when we departed from Zambia [2]. We got frequent updates of our cat’s life until it died a couple of years later.

Rosemary and Phil moved back to the UK a few years after our own departure. Sadly, Rosemary passed away soon afterwards, but Phil managed to somehow adjust to the loss and to England. We kept in touch and we had the great pleasure of hosting him a few years later while we were living in Rome when we reminisced of our time in Zambia like two members of the “Whenwe” ethnic group [3].

[1] As an example, to get an air-conditioned car you required a strong justification endorsed by your country representative!

[2] Inky, our Siamese, had died earlier of kidney failure despite my efforts to keep her alive.

[3] People often start talking saying “When we were in Africa…” so, jokingly they (us included) are referred as “Whenwes”.

Reinforcements arrive

I do not recall the date, but it must have been March or April 1990 when I got up very early to go to the Lusaka airport for an important mission: to meet the first of the colleagues that would join the project. He was an Associate Professional Officer (APO) [1], called Bruno, a Belgian. He was arriving from his country on a Union de Transports Aériens (UTA) flight with a morning arrival time.

The day before I had managed to borrow one of the airport’s passes from FAO to enter into the luggage handling area, before the passengers entered Zambia. I also borrowed one of the FAO arrival signs, normally used by the drivers to collect visitors. I wanted to be absolutely sure to meet him, remembering my early Kenya arrival experience [2].

I was rather anxious because I was meeting a newcomer that would be critical for the project work and I did not know how we would get on. It would also be the first time in my career that I would have someone working with me in a project. He would also be bringing news from the FAO Headquarters, always useful information to get.

I arrived at the airport about one hour before the estimated arrival time, the pass worked and I went through security and stationed myself in what I thought was the most strategic place and I was sure not to be missed and I prepared to wait. The loud noise the “Jumbo” (Boeing 747) made landing at a relatively small airport clearly announced the arrival of the flight and soon the passengers started trickling in until the place was crowded as usual with people looking tired around the conveyor belt that, after a few minutes, jolted into life.

As usual, people started to get their suitcases and bags and walking towards the customs and exit. I waited, watching the flow while trying to spot my visitor before he spotted me! I had a few candidates in mind, and I kept watching. Conveyor belts are monotonous and often frustrating. This was the situation that day until two truly fluorescent bags, one rabid pink and another lemon yellow appeared and, for a while, distracted me but soon they were collected and it was back to the usual boring suitcase parade.

After about forty minutes the crowd thinned and, a few minutes later the hall was empty, the belt stopped, and the airport luggage handlers picked up the few suitcases that remained on the belt and took them away. No Bruno!

I had a good look around before leaving and confirmed that I was alone. Rather baffled I walked out, thinking what could have happened for him not to arrive. I walked outside the terminal heading for the car when I heard a voice behind me saying “ah, FAO!” Taken by surprise, I looked and saw a tall guy with a luggage trolley with the two fluorescent bags I had seen before: Bruno had spotted my FAO arrival sign. He was there after all and I was relieved!

He was not expecting me in the luggage hall but in the arrival hall, he explained and, not finding anyone in the latter, he thought that no one was meeting him and he was looking for a taxi to get to town. I took him to his hotel while talking about the country and the work that was expected from the project and from him as he would be in charge of the tick trial in Lutale, but more about that later.

Aware of the existence of the Zambezi River (although I had not seen it) I had purchased a Zodiac rubber dinghy (a very safe boat I was told) to be able to enjoy some river exploring and fishing. Convinced already that Bruno and us would get on, I invited him to go fishing in the Kafue river, close to Lusaka, the following day that happened to be a Sunday. Although it was not a good fishing day the outing was a good way to strengthen our connection, a very useful thing.

With Mabel, testing our new rubber dinghy at the Kafue Marina.

While Bruno was overlooking the trial in Lutale and settling in, I was devoting most of my efforts to keep the immunization work going in Southern Province, working with the Government personnel. I was rather stretched and trying to “push” FAO to recruit a Protozoologist that would take care of this work so that I could supervise the whole project. A month later FAO informed me of the candidate selected for the job and I agreed. Giuseppe, an Italian I knew briefly from Ethiopia was confirmed.

I also went to the airport when he arrived. This time, as we knew each other, the welcoming was easier and my confidence on the project success was boosted! I knew that Giuseppe was hard working and practical and capable of doing the job that he would in charge of. In addition, he brought more good news: another APO was being selected to work with him on the immunization against theileriosis.

Giuseppe got himself to Monze in Southern Province after a few days and stayed at the New Monze hotel for a few days until his personal effects arrived and he was able to rent one of the few houses available there.

The last member of the project arrived about a month afterwards. It was Anders, a young Danish veterinarian that went straight to Monze to join Giuseppe. The latter hosted him until he found his own place, something easier said than done. After a few weeks, he was lucky to find a house in the outskirts of the city. There we enjoyed the rural setting and having a few domestic animals around. I recall that he missed having fresh milk in the mornings and that he would get up very early to go to the local market to get it!

Bruno started his Lutale tour of duty staying at a small Government guest house used by visiting Government officials. So, he could only stay there for a short while. It had been agreed in his FAO briefing that, with project funding, he would build his own house and, after the work was completed, the future of the building would be decided with the Government. Chief Chibuluma, our host had agreed to this rather unusual solution so he started the building work.

In record time he had built a rather comfortable thatched-roofed house close to the village’s dam. The house had two bedrooms, an office and a comfortable sitting room. Electricity was provided by a generator until 22hs and he built a “Tanganyika boiler” that supplied ample hot water. He then announced that he was ready to bring his wife Dominique.

Tanganyika, Donkey or Rhodesian boiler. Credit to Kim Hannah Pearse, downloaded from Pinterest.

Very soon with Giuseppe and Anders we negotiated with George, the Director of Veterinary Services, that the expansion of the immunization programme would take place at an area known as Hufwa. Farmers there were requesting for assistance as they almost did not have calves surviving because of the heavy mortality due to theileriosis. They welcomed our proposal with open arms and the various villages agreed to build cattle holding facilities for the project to do its work. Soon we were flooded us with cattle beyond our capacity to immunize so we needed to improve our vaccine supply to cope with the demand!

The project had two drivers, Mr. Mutale and Mr. Chewe (not their real names) from the earlier project. The former was a city driver, used to move people within Lusaka. Although not noted for his fast thinking, he was an extremely careful driver that I enjoyed being driven by. Mr. Chewe, conversely, was very sharp and a true bush driver. He would not mind sleeping in the car if necessary and was able to make common repairs naturally. Eventually he was posted to Monze to help Giuseppe and Anders while Mr. Mutale remained in Lusaka supporting the project administration with limited field work.

Unlike the drivers, the former project secretary, seeing that no one was coming to continue the work, had moved to another FAO project. We needed to recruit a Secretary and we found Euphemia. She had experience working in a sister tsetse and trypanosomiasis project as the “second” secretary and immediately got going. Apart from efficient, she was also a very kind and good-natured person that brought her cheerfulness to our activities.

To me, she became invaluable as, not being maths person, I had difficulties closing the project accounts every quarter. I always had a difference that resisted my efforts to balance them for many hours and a couple of times, fed-up of fruitlessly looking for my error, I decided to send a driver to fill the tank with (for example) Kwacha 25.45 of diesel so as to get things right, something that the accountants in FAO kindly overlooked!

Seeing me struggling with the accounts Euphemia volunteered and immediately got the hand to it and at the right time she presented me with the draft accounts that, for some miracle, matched perfectly, a great help at the time! She got herself a new line in her terms of reference!

After a while traveling to and from Lusaka to the Veterinary laboratory in Chilanga, it became clear that there was no added advantage for the project to be there as we were occupying a driver and punishing a vehicle to get to a place that was difficult to reach and to communicate with. I talked to John, the manager of our sister project working on tsetse and trypanosomiasis that were also responsible for the Lutale training camp next to our project and he kindly agreed to also share his offices in town with us. This was a great move that facilitated the work and brought us close to colleagues that were also commuting to Lutale.

In the new office we had many project meetings and usually at lunch time we would order pizzas. Although these were acceptable to us, Giuseppe refused to eat them and always chose something else. The situation became untenable for him the day Euphemia ordered a “Tropical” pizza. When it came, the chunks of pinneaple were almost offensive for Giuseppe that made a great (good humoured) fuss and even moved to a different table to have his lunch! Aware of this, we sometimes ordered such a pizza just to watch his reaction! [3]

During the more than two years the project lasted, we also held periodic meetings outside Lusaka, close to the work areas of Lutale and Monze. As we had a good relationship, sometimes we chose a place at a nearby National Park at our expense to make the work more amenable by doing a bit of game viewing. During the meetings we would review progress, discuss options to solve difficulties and plan for the future activities. Our favourite places were Kafue National Park (close to Lutale) and Lochinvar National Park (close to Monze).

With Bruno (left) and Anders (right) at Lochinvar National Park.

As a neutral participant, I tried to moderate, often with little impact, the discussions between the three Europeans on European Union policies. However, the differences of approach between the Italians, Belgium and Denmark were such that it was difficult to find an agreement!

The game of French boules (Petanque) [4], promoted by Bruno, became the highlight of the meetings.The teams were the “Old” (Giuseppe and me) and the “Young” (Anders and Bruno). The game’s popularity was not because it was very exciting but because the reward for the winners of each round was a sip of a rather good Italian grappa, courtesy of Giuseppe. Of course, this was a double-edged sword as the more you won, the more you drank and the worse you played, making the game evenly matched at the end! DEspite this, the youngsters beat us at both the game and the grappa resilience!

While in Monze, we used the Monze Hotel as our base. Although it was clean, it had no water during the day and very often, no electricity. The water shortage was such that I would leave the tap open when I left in the morning and by the end of the day there was probably 15 cm of water for my daily wash! It had a restaurant that offered a choice of grilled t-bone steak or chicken and, frankly, I do not recall what dessert there was if any!

Monze Hotel. Credit John Y. Mvula. Screenshot from Google maps.

Zambia had a lager beer called Mosi and it is interesting that the manufactureer defines it as “Named after the mighty Mosi oa Tunya (Victoria Falls) Mosi Lager is the iconic Zambian beer. Brewed for over 30 years it’s Zambia’s number one thirst quencher. Mosi is a clean, crisp and refreshing lager with a characteristic pleasant bitterness, and a delicate hop aroma”. What they do not say is that in the days we were in Zambia there was a joke going round that spoke about its poor quality control. The story went like this:

A customer asked for a beer at a bar and finds a fly inside the bottle. He calls the waiter, complains, and gets another bottle. As he keeps finding flies, eventually the fly is removed and the beer drunk to avoid time wasting. One day, a flyless beer is delivered and the customer calls the waiter and asks “where is my fly?”.

This well known joke did not deter the Zambian customers at the Monze hotel that, on weekends, would sit outside and buy a whole crate of twelve bottles that they would place under their chairs and drink away the whole night! Of, course, they could not see the flies as it was dark and they drank from the bottles!

Sometimes we would dine at the New Monze, usually grilled chicken with rice or chips. As Giuseppe with the tropical pizza, Bruno would not touch the local fries, used to the amazing double-fried Belgian chips!

One of these occasions was rather memorable.

While having a forced candle lit dinner, we decided to risk the flies and ordered four Mosi, aware that they would be rather warm as fridges did not like the electricity interruptions and mostly died of a power surge. Although we were talking away, after waiting an inordinate amount of time, one of us went to the bar to remind the waiter about our drinks order.

Eventually the waiter, who was also the barman and cashier, came and brought eight beers and not the four we had ordered. We looked at each other in surprise and asked him for the reason why he had brought double the amount we had asked. Looking rather confused he said “sorry” and took the four extra away.

While eating, we noted that the waiter was really accelerated and that other customers (that we could not see but heard) were complaining about the service. As this was not unusual, we finished our meal and asked for the bill. Again we waited a very long time and, as it did not come, rather fed-up, we all got up and walked to the small table where the waiter sat calculating the bills.

When he saw us, clearly absent-minded he started to add up our consumption when we noted that the candle fell over and a stream of burning wax spread over the table. Oblivious to this, the waiter continued writing while the tablecloth caught fire and surrounded a paraffin lamp that was also on the table.

Seeing that a conflagration that could destroy the hotel was likely, we took action while the waiter still did not seem to be aware of his surroundings! As no fire extinguishers were at hand we grabbed another table cloth and tried to suffocate the fire while removing the lamp. Water was brought up from the kitchen and poured on the table. It was only when splashed by the water that the waiter oake up from his trance and reacted to join us (and other customers) in our fire control efforts.

The smoke attracted the Manager who got furious with the waiter and strongly reprimanded him. We learnt that he had indulged in the rather common practice of smoking “uluwangula”, known to us as marijuana! [5] Luckily for him, he was not sacked although after that night he behaved like a normal waiter!

[1] The Associate Professional Officer’s programme would fund young graduates through FAO with funds from a number of European countries such as The Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Italy, etc.

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2014/09/30/africa

[3] Afterwards, after eating in Italy for a few years, I understood his views fully!

[4] The idea of French boules is to throw a metal ball close to a smaller one called “cochonnet” in French and you score by the number you get closer to it. When two vs. two play you get three balls each and one member of a team throws first, then a member of the other team throws, etc. until all twelve balls are played and the round ends. Then you count how many points you scored and add to the tally of each team. The first team reaching thirteen points after as many rounds as necessary wins the game. More details: https://frenchyourway.com.au/how-to-play-petanque-rules-of-petanque

[5] Also known as “dobo”, the local weed strain is considered of very poor quality and although illegal at the time, it was very common in the local markets. Zambians preferred to smoke marijuana imported from the Democratic Republic of Congo that they called “Congo poison”.

The bowtie country

Landlocked Zambia got its independence from the UK in 1964 and for a number of reasons it got its shape that reminds me of a bowtie (a “Club round” type one for the specialists!). The knot squeezes and splits the Lusaka and Central Provinces while the left bow (Northern, Eastern, Luapula and Muchinga Provinces with small parts of Central and Lusaka Provinces) slightly smaller than the right one (Southern, Copperbelt, North-western, and Western with the largest portions of Central and Lusaka Provinces).

This rather special shape means that it is much closer to travel from Mansa, the capital of the Luapula Province to Kitwe in the Copperbelt through the Democratic Republic of the Congo, if that trip would be possible!

Although, if interested, you can search for Zambia in the internet and find lots of information, I will give you a few facts that should help to put our life there in context.

Among the twenty largest countries in Africa with 752,618 km2, Zambia has borders with eight other countries, quite a record! To the north there is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania to the north-east, Malawi to the east, Mozambique to the southeast, Zimbabwe and Botswana to the south, Namibia to the southwest, and Angola to the west. It is truly at the junction of Central, Southern and Eastern Africa.

In 1953, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland that grouped together Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and Nyasaland (now Malawi) was created despite a large majority of the population opposing it. Kenneth Kaunda led this opposition that ended in its dissolution in December 1963. Zambia was born and Kaunda became its first President.

Kaunda was still there when we arrived, after 26 years. He did not have long to go but more about that in future posts. His party, the United National Independence Party (UNIP) ruled the country as a one-party state with the motto “One Zambia, One Nation”. Although there were about 73 ethnic groups, most of which Bantu-speaking, nine were the main ones, the Nyanja-Chewa, Bemba, Tonga, Tumbuka, Lunda, Luvale, Kaonde, Nkoya and Lozi. Although the tribal groups were important, rivalries as we had seen in both Kenya and Ethiopia were not evident, something I attributed to Kaunda’s “humanistic” ideas.

pic

Tribal and linguistic map of Zambia. Credit: Collection African Studies Centre, Leiden (The Netherlands). Author Unknown. Public domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

My first blunder seeing many vehicles with the UNIP logo was that I thought that they belonged to one of the United Nations peace keeping organizations operating in the country. Luckily, after a couple of days of living in Lusaka, someone corrected me, not without some amusement.

Agriculture was important for the rather underpopulated country of 8 million (now 18 million) but mining, particularly copper extraction was the overwhelming driver of the economy and that was evident seeing the hundreds of lorries loaded with copper ingots moving through the country aiming for the ports in Mozambique and Tanzania.

Zambia had a difficult start as an independent country as, naturally, Kaunda supported the guerrilla war against the white-ruled Southern Rhodesia. This led to the militarization of the country and the closure of their border in 1973. The war escalated and in 1978 it reached Zambia’s territory when, after the shooting down of an Air Rhodesia passenger plane by the guerrilla, Southern Rhodesia retaliated with an attack to their enclaves throughout the country, including their military headquarters outside Lusaka.

Later, Kaunda played a key role in the resolution not only the conflict in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) but also in Angola, and Namibia and, while we were there, supported the anti-apartheid movements in South Africa that culminated in the liberation of Nelson Mandela in February 1990 and the restoration of black rule in the country.

In 1990, there was still tension, not with Southern Rhodesia that was already Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe but with South Africa. Zambia was supporting the various organizations fighting against apartheid and South Africa retaliated striking at dissident targets so, there were strict restrictions on taking pictures not only of the airport or any military facilities but also of bridges that were guarded by camouflaged anti-aircraft guns and controlled by army roadblocks.

Apart from the developments with South Africa, to make matters worse, the security situation was also bad and armed robberies were very common, particularly in Lusaka.

And then we arrived! It was late January 1990 during the rainy season to a rather steamy Lusaka. We stayed at the Andrews Motel, located a few kilometres beyond the “Kafue roundabout”, then the end of the city while we searched for a house. I do not recall much of the place as I was out most of the time but Mabel had to put up with it for a couple of months until we found a house.

While looking for a house we received lots of advice on where to live and what kind of house would be safe. “Get large dogs”, “it should have a good wall with razor wire”, “you must get a gun”, “do not rent a house without bars in all openings” and “your house must have an inner protected area” were some of the phrases we heard repeatedly, apart from recommendations on which suburb to pick!

Rather edgy we embarked in house-hunting and looked at a few houses within our rent bracket and settled for one in the Roma suburb, close to the city showgrounds (where the Annual Agricultural Show was held). More exactly we were at Nyoka road. Njoka meant Snake in Nyanja [1] and we hoped that it was only the name! This was confirmed a few months later when we became aware of the abundant rat population in the area as observed feeding on the fruits of the guava trees.

Although Mabel disagreed, I wished that a njoka would appear to take care of a few! Although Inky, our Siamese cat, caught some, Tigger, the marmalade was utterly useless, so we resorted to traps and shooting them with the pellet gun while feeding on the guavas!

The house fulfilled all the necessary security features that were apparently needed, particularly that, as a project manager, all project cars would be parked at my house every night as the stealing of cars was almost as frequent as the house robberies.

A poor picture showing the garden and the perimetral wall from one of the windows.

The house’s bedrooms were higher than the rest of the house and their windows looked down on the garden, a good vantage position to be. It also had, as repeatedly recommended, a strong “rape gate” (a rather straight but commonly used terminology to indicate the gate that isolates you and your family in the bedrooms while thieves steal your electronic stuff) fitted with two enormous padlocks housed inside steel tubing, very difficult to reach from the outside of the gate.

The house came with a caretaker called Mr. Phiri (not his real name) [2], highly recommended by Mrs. Wilson (not her real name), a former stewardess of the Union de Transports Aériens (UTA) [3], and the owner of the house.

As it was common those days, the house had a good vegetable garden that also came with a gardener called Mr. Lemek as well as an ample enclosure where we found a few hens and ducks as well as a number of rabbits housed in cages. Luckily, Mr. Lemek took care of both vegetables and animals and soon we added four Rhode Island Reds that produced lots of eggs all over our stay while the rabbit meat was mainly consumed by our house staff.

We installed “panic buttons” that, if pressed, would bring a contingent of guards that would enter the property to deal with the problem. We also recruited our own security guard, Mr. Nelson, an elderly gentleman that mostly sat in his guard house reading the Bible from his arrival at 18hs until he fell sleep, as most security guards do, until his shift was over at 6hs. There were also two resident dogs, Nero and Ginger, that we decided to keep as we were told that they were good guard dogs and they got on well with Mr. Nelson. In addition, we also were provided with a United Nations VHF radio to be used in emergencies.

Aware that security guards were usually the ones suffering injuries during armed robberies in Lusaka, we gave Mr. Nelson a whistle and instructed him to blow it if he saw something unusual and to run towards the staff houses at the back where he could seek refuge among the other people staying there, our gardener and the caretaker. Despite my objections, he insisted on keeping his catapult for which he made perfectly rounded clay balls to use as ammo.

The recommendation of getting a fire arm seemed very reasonable to us hearing of all incidents that were taking place in the city so I got a shotgun and a few cartridges that I was meant to use as a final line of defense in case the robbers attempted to break our final gate. Although I had shot partridge and hares in Uruguay during my youth, I am not a fan of firearms so, I disassembled, packed it carefully and hid it inside a trapdoor in the ceiling of our bedroom where I expected it to be for all the time we would be there.

So, we moved in although we only had very few personal effects for the reasons named in my earlier post and that took five months in arriving! It soon became clear that all we had been told about the insecurity was true and shooting was heard almost every night and we knew of several neighbours that would come out at night and shoot in the air in an effort to deter would be robbers! In addition, there was a “neighbourhood watch” formed by some neighbours accompanied by the police that would patrol the various neighbourhoods. I declined the invitation to join but, for a while, contributed financially to its operation.

Clearly Zambia was wild, and we had not yet seen the bush!

[1] Nyanja or Chewa is a Bantu language spoken in Malawi and Zambia, where it is an official language.

[2] People in Zambia were always referred as Mr. or Mrs., I believe this was due to Kaunda’s humanism emphasis on respect.

[3] UTA flew weekly to Lusaka until 1992 when it was taken over by Air France.

Zambia. The real Africa [1]

Victoria Falls. Eastern cataract and rainbows.

Luckily for me after Ethiopia FAO had a vacancy in a regional tick and tickborne disease control programme in Zambia as the former Project Manager became the coordinator of the whole programme and was moving off to Harare.

I had visited the country in the early eighties to see the work that the tick component of the FAO programme in Zambia was doing as it was similar to what I was starting in Kenya. So, I knew one of the areas where I was going to work. Luckily, I also knew George, the Director of Veterinary Services and I was aware that he was a good man and committed to the work that FAO was doing in the country. So, I did not expect a difficult start.

I would be in charge of two earlier projects that were now combined into one. These had been part of a rather large programme that, for several years, had supported the veterinary department in several aspects of animal disease control. One component was the study of the impact of tick infestation on cattle in Central Province, both weight gain and milk production while the other involved the immunization of cattle against theileriosis in Southern Province.

The tick project was based at Lutale, a locality near Mumbwa, a town 160 km from Lusaka, in the Central Province of Zambia, on the Great West Road that runs 590 km from Lusaka to Mongu, capital of Western Province. Originally the place was devoted to research and training on the control tsetse and trypanosomiasis but activities, although still going, had shrunk to training of medium level technical personnel, also run by FAO.

At Lutale we had an agreement with Chief Chibuluma to have our own herd of native Sanga (Bos taurus africanus) cattle that were the subjects of the study. Our job was to continue the work for about two additional years, introducing a new group of cattle to which a new “strategic” [2] tick control method would be applied, and their performance compared with undipped and dipped cattle to obtain figures on the economics of tick control under the conditions of the trial.

The project office at Lutale.

Theileriosis was endemic in Southern Province and successful immunization against this disease had been going on for several years by the earlier programme, on the lines developed by FAO in Muguga (under the leadership of my ex boss Matt). By request of the Government, FAO was tasked with the expansion of this procedure to a larger number of animals in an effort to reduce the heavy losses that were being experienced there.

Gathering cattle for immunization against theileriosis.

As I needed to commute between Lutale and Monze, a town located 196 km south from Lusaka (in Southern Province) and in the direction of Livingstone and the Victoria Falls [3], I would be based in Lusaka, more exactly at the Central Veterinary Research Institute (CVRI) located in Chilanga District, 25km southwest of Lusaka, off the Kafue road in an area known as Balmoral. As we would reside in Lusaka, that meant a daily drive through a rather rough road. I realized that it was not the ideal place to be but I was in no condition to change anythingat the timeapart from getting on with the work.

It was an ambitious project that gave me the responsibility for work that had been done earlier by two specialists and I was stretched to the limit. Luckily, after discussions with FAO and the Government, I managed to persuade them that I needed help, particularly with the immunization part of the project and the post of Protozoologist was created for Southern Province. This was a relief but it would still take some time to find and recruit a suitable candidate. In addition, I applied to FAO to be allocated a couple of Associate Professional Officers [4], one for each component of the project. In the meantime and for a few months I was alone to do and/or supervise all the work.

Mabel and I arrived at Lusaka via Nairobi and stayed at Andrews Motel for a few days until we managed to find a suitable house in town. We moved there as soon as our first shipment with essential household stuff arrived, hoping that the rest of our personal effects would come from Ethiopia in a couple of weeks. So we camped at another house, again.

A view of our Lusaka house and Emmanuel, our cook,unblocking the gutters.

As usual, we were wrong estimating that our belongings would arrive soon. Well, some of them did but they were not very useful as, for example, the bed boards arrived but not the rest of the bed or the top of my desk came but not its drawers or legs! When we complained to the shipping agency they apologized profusely and promised to follow up the issue. In the meantime, we needed to buy a number of items for the house that we already had but we had no other choice.

Our first consignment of personal effects.

A couple of weeks later the shipping agency informed us that there was a problem with our shipment (oh surprise!): it had been crated in boxes larger than the door of the plane that flew between Addis and Lusaka! But they told us that they would be a larger plane coming soon and that they would place the remaining of our items on it. So it was that another part of our consignment came two weeks later and we waited for about a month for the final third with which we could finally assemble all our furniture and appliances! By that time we had succeeded in buying almost everything again!

It was during that agitated time that Mabel got pregnant so our life changed as we went through gestation to the birth of our children. As medical facilities were very basic in Lusaka, we needed to travel to Harare for periodic check-ups and the eventual birth of our first child: Florencia. Our son Julio Junior followed 15 months later so we had little time for safaris, apart from those we could accommodate with the on going work.

Searching for pictures to illustrate the Zambia posts I found that most of the ones I could find include our children so my Zambia posts would be rather poor in that respect, made even worse by not being able to move towards my picture “bank” in Harare because of the Covid 19 pandemic! So I will do with what I have and prepare a picture library for the various posts later if I find the relevant pictures. I hope that you still enjoy reading them!

[1] This was Zambia’s motto at the time to promote tourism.

[2] The application of acaricides was done according to tick infestation levels and seasonality to reduce its cost without losses.

[3] At the time, different donors operated in different areas of Zambia, the Dutch in Western Province, the Belgians in Eastern Province, etc.

[4] The Associate Professional Officer’s programme would fund young graduates through FAO with funds from a number of European countries such as The Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Italy, etc

The plague

I thought that my earlier post on Ethiopia was the last but I was wrong.

Something that happened two days ago at our farm in Salta reminded me of an incident at Bedele worth mentioning and that somehow seeped through the cracks of my memory (oh surprise!).

While de-weeding one of the fields I saw a swarm of immature locusts. These were nymphs of the soldier locusts (Chromacris speciosa), unmistakable with the shiny black and red markings. They are widely distributed in Brazil and Northern and Central Argentina.

Nymphs of Chromacris speciosa, rather striking insects.
Adult of Chromacris speciosa.

The first memory that came to mind was of my father, an Agronomist in charge of pest control in Uruguay, who told me about locusts for the first time. He described the enormous clouds that would obscure the sun and that his Jeep (Willys) would skid on the mass of insects and needed to engage 4WD to be able to move!

Then I remembered the day in Bedele when, although it dawned with a clear sky, suddenly, as it happens during the sun eclipses, light faded for no apparent reason. This lasted for a few minutes until the locust swarm arrived and landed on us! They covered the ground and landed on trees stressing branches to the point of breaking. Most of the green matter available was consumed within hours and they moved on as a wave, leaving scorched earth behind.

A desert locust swarm. Credit: FAO (http://www.fao.org/locusts/resources/photos/en/).

The invasion only lasted for a couple of days until they moved off. During this time we were the target of a very unpleasant experience when, without warning they would land on your back and prick you with their spiny legs!

We were suffering the impact of a periodic swarm of the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria), found mainly in Africa. Interestingly, this insect can change its body in response to changes in the environment. Although this takes several generations, a solitary, shorter-winged (non-migratory form) can turn into a social locust that, because of being long-winged can travel really long distances in search of food.

When this happens, they can cause severe and extensive damage to food crops and fodder as a classic swarm can be as numerous as 150 million individuals, capable of covering hundreds of km in one day when on the go. Because of their transboundary nature, its spread must be monitored in various countries to control them while they are still not able to fly, usually in dry areas. This activity requires collaboration between countries through specialized bodies such as FAO and the Desert Locust Control Organization for Eastern Africa (DLCO-EA).

Finally, the rather nice grasshoppers we get in our gardens in Zimbabwe, known as Green Milkweed Locust or African Bush Grasshopper (Phymateus viridipes), are also capable of long migrations but they are not a pest although, to our annoyance, they are capable of eating our flowering plants.

Leaving Ethiopia

As all things come to an end, the same happened with our stay at Bedele. Although we completed the study despite the difficulties we faced, as expected, the UNDP would not release further funding to expand the activities countrywide as we proposed. However, we managed to get some funding from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) to continue the search for theileriosis in refugee cattle. This did not include international personnel, so I was no longer employed and I needed another job somewhere else. We will see about that later.

Although I have described a number of events that merited a separate description, there were a few others that, although minor, I believe are worth revealing. I will end this post with details of our departure from Ethiopia in December 1989, hence the title.

I have mentioned earlier that it rained lots at Bedele and that its dirt roads became a quagmire at that time to the point that to reach the butchery we needed to engage 4WD! Hygiene was not an issue in the place as, before you could get to the open window behind which the dark meat was hanged, you needed to tread carefully to avoid the cow bits and pieces that were strewn around the adjacent field as I have already described. However, there was a time when we did not need to make this journey.

Sheep and red-billed oxpecker walking through the laboratory compound.

Livestock grazed everyday inside our laboratory enclosure as the front gate was always open. The animals often walked between our houses and a clever goat used to climb on one of our project cars to get to the bananas that grew across the road from our house. I remember that I made the mistake of chasing it off and the brute jumped from the roof to the bonnet and left a nice dent that remained for posterity!

The clever goat browsing on bananas before it jumped!

A day that was bucketing down I was returning to our house after negotiating for fuel for the next study trip with the political authorities, not an easy job. I entered our compound and saw a herd of sheep and goats lying down on the road, resisting the heavy downpour as well as their woolly coats allowed. I reduced my speed to the minimum to allow them to move off as one usually does in these occasions.

That day maybe this sheep was sleep or the bad visibility affected both of us. Whatever the reason(s) I noted that the left front wheel suddenly went over a bump. Fearing the worst, after it came down, I stopped and got out of the car to investigate. I had indeed driven over the head of the sheep killing it instantly, a most unfortunate incident!  Before a minute had passed the upset owner came and started talking to me in Oromo language that I did not understand but it was clear that he was demanding compensation for his loss.

I tried to explain that it was an unfortunate accident caused by his animals parking in the middle of the road but I could see that we were not getting anywhere! Luckily, one of the laboratory workers was also returning on foot and I asked him to interpret what he was saying. As expected, the herder was demanding a very high price for his sheep and, to stop getting soaked, I offered to buy a “new” sheep the next day as compensation. He would not have it so, the discussion continued and it was only after a few offers and counter offers that we reached a reasonable settlement as I was considered the guilty party.

After getting the money, the owner picked up the sheep and started to move off with it. Seeing this, through my interpreter I told him that I had paid for it and that it was now my dead sheep! He abandoned his attempt so I collected my forced purchase and, after giving a lift to the accidental interpreter, I arrived home, wet and with a dead sheep that I proceeded to skin and quarter, still under the relentless rain.

Slaughtering the unfortunate sheep under the rain.

While I was working on the sheep I could not help recalling that in the past in some areas of Ethiopia people would cut chunks of beef to eat from their live animals, a rather dreadful procedure, that I believe I learnt while reading the late Richard Pankhurst’s book “Ethiopia Engraved”, a beautiful work by the main historian of the country.

Unfortunately, the sheep was a fit animal, used to long distance running and rather thin and tough. For a few days we consumed expensive meat but its ex owner (that still grazed the animals inside the compound) greeted me warmly!

Mabel’s garden included most of the common vegetables that, because of the combination of good temperature and abundant rain grew at an astonishing rate. Unfortunately, the garden was a temptation that a few animals could not resist.

We kept lots of insects at bay by home-made control methods such as planting marigolds around the garden, spraying with water and pepper and others, but these would do nothing to deter the monkeys.

Although the lovely black and white colobus just watched enjoying their tree leaves diet, the grivets were always lurking somewhere close to jump at the opportunity to snatch a tomato or uproot a carrot. This was a challenge that, after a while, was cleverly resolved by Mabel by sharing the produce of the garden with our neighbours who assisted gratefully in chasing the monkeys away!

Although we produced vegetables, fruits were a different story. Although we had banana and mango trees in the compound, the monkeys would always get at them before us and we could only get them at the Bedele market on Saturdays. Something of a breakthrough was the discovery that cooked green mangoes were a great substitute for apples and from then on, we collected them green, before the monkeys, boiled them and froze them to be used as filling for pies. Mabel’s green mango strudel became well known in the compound!

Although at home we could “control” what we ate, the situation was different when traveling or when invited to a restaurant by our Ethiopian colleagues as the food needed some getting used to because it was rather different from what we were used to. I can only remember eating out at only one place in Bedele and this was only on special occasions. It was a family house with red velvet-like armchairs surrounding a low table where the food was served.

A very popular dish in Ethiopia is Doro Wat, chicken stewed with plenty of chilli and one egg. In Bedele the chicken (too rare and expensive) was replaced by mutton, but most of the time the egg stayed. This was known as “Doro Fänta” that meant “instead of chicken”! The latter is what we mostly ate. [1]

Attempts at changing our eating place were not successful and I cannot forget one particular eating house we went where we were offered the usual Doro Fänta but, when we asked to see the cooking, we were confronted with a pot where among the boiling bit and pieces of mutton, there were a couple of eyes coming now and then to the surface! We moved on and ended up in the place of the red velvet armchairs.

I mentioned that we bought honey from a farmer near Bedele. What I forgot was that the first time we went to purchase honey (that eventually came inside a sewn goat skin) we were invited to taste the product before purchasing it. We sat with the farmer around a polished concave stool where the honey was poured for us to taste it. It looked and tasted very good, except for the white grubs that were in it and that we were offered as a delicacy! I must confess that I thanked the farmer profusely but refused to eat them while Mabel, being a beekeeper herself, tasted a few and declared that they had a rather pleasant “nutty flavour”. Luckily, at least for me, the goat held enough honey to last us for a long while and we did not need to visit the farmer very often.

Driving from Addis to Bedele, the revolution propaganda weakened as the distance from the former increased. The arches that spanned the road were hefty and colourful near Addis and Marx, Engels and Mengistu depicted in them with the ubiquitous AK47s and revolutionary slogans written in Amharic. After Jimma, the propaganda disappeared almost completely except at the entrance/exit from the major towns. In Gambela, I only saw one rather insignificant sign by the road leading to the hotel that said: “We move forward with the revolution”.

Apart from the rather newly installed revolutionary signs, we could not fail to notice the existence of the abundant yellow Meskel flowers (Bidens macroptera) that were very abundant along the road and had been there since time immemorial. These flowers, known as Adey Abeba, bloom in September, after the rains. Their appearance coincides with the Meskel festival, one of the main Ethiopian festivals, that takes place on 27th September and commemorates the finding of the true cross. The festival, celebrated with abundant food and drink, has been going for over 1600 years.

Meskel flowers surround teff fields on the way to Addis.

Life in Bedele was rather quiet but there were a few good moments. One of the highlights was the arrival of the mail from Addis that was brought to the laboratory by anyone traveling there. Apart from the shortwave radio tuned to the BBC World Service, this was our lifeline with the world and to open the mail was always a treat as we got news from home as well as books and developed films, to name a few items.

A great moment. Mabel opening the mail.

One day, while opening our letters I hatched a plan for a Christmas joke to our neighbour Jan. While he was in one of his extended bush stays I needed to go to Addis and be back just before Christmas. I knew that he would be alone as his wife was in The Netherlands and the idea was to lighten his time in Bedele.

When in Addis, we did our shopping and I took the opportunity to buy a few items for my plan such as Christmas crackers from the Victory duty free shop, chocolates and other usual Christmas presents, including stockings and nougat as well as a suitable box, the right wrapping papers and ribbons. Once back in Bedele I prepared a parcel where I put all these goodies and addressed it to Jan as if it had come by the FAO’s pouch. I put our organization’s Director General as the sender and I faked an appropriate card to add credibility to a most unbelievable and silly joke!

I now needed to wait for Jan to get back to hand him the parcel at Christmas. I waited for Christmas Eve when I knew he would be missing his wife to hand over to him all the genuine correspondence I had brought to him from Addis as well as my fake parcel, thinking that he would immediately discover the ruse. When the time came, rather naively, he showed surprise when saw the parcel, and he proceeded to open it. He was as delighted as incredulous that our Director General had remembered the loyal field staff and equally happy to receive the goodies that the parcel contained. He asked me, of course, if I also got one and I replied “yes, of course”. I could not believe that he had taken my joke seriously and, later on, it took some talking to convince him that it was just an innocent joke to brighten his Christmas!

As our departure became imminent, a number of activities took place. Again, a lorry came to collect our personal effects and we remained for about a week only with the basic stuff (most borrowed from the laboratory and/or neighbours) and the two cats. During that time the arrangement for our farewell “celebrations” started.

Our belongings being loaded.

We were taken almost daily to the Bedele tailor where our measurements were taken so that our “ceremonial” garments could be made so that we would be sent off properly. The latter were fortunately ready for the day of the farewell ceremony and we were both dressed for the occasion in the Ethiopian traditional clothing.

The official ceremony was a rather formal affair where speeches were given by the Director of the laboratory and project colleagues to which we both replied, mainly thanking them all for our time spent there. Then we exchanged presents and we had a traditional lunch. Things were going well up to this point but then the much feared dancing was announced!

I must say that we were (and still are) not dancers, not even tango! Even if we would have been, it would not had helped us much when confronted with the Eskista. Wikipedia [2] defines it as “… a traditional Ethiopian Amhara cultural dance performed by both men and women even children, that is known for its unique emphasis on intense shoulder movement. The dance is characterized by rolling the shoulder blades, bouncing the shoulders, and jilting the chest… The complex nature of Eskista makes it one of the most highly technical forms of traditional dance”.

A short video to show the movements involved in the Eskista dance.

We had failed at dancing Eskista a few times earlier and we knew we could not do it but we gave it our best try nevertheless, but still without any improvement. Luckily, soon enough, other colleagues that new what to do joined in and we managed to hide within the shaking crowd and, in this way, saved our joints from collapse.

After such a nice but demanding party we rested while organizing our own farewell party at our now empty house to take place a couple of days later, the day before departure. We invited everybody in the laboratory. A few invitees from outside the campus were also included, the Director of the Bedele clinic, the political administrator and the recently arrived Czech engineer that was building the beer factory (that today makes the Bedele beer).

We calculated that we would have about sixty people attending so we borrowed most of the needed items from the laboratory, including plates, glasses and cutlery. We also managed to get tables but there were not enough chairs, so we got the long benches used for the Wednesday political meetings! We arranged them against the wall where we were to accommodate most of our guests. The ladies took care of the cooking and a few close colleagues and I organized the drinks that mainly consisted of soft drinks and beer.

The party was extremely well attended and after about an hour, nothing had happened, despite the guests having eaten and drank well. Something was missing and then we decided to enliven things by serving some clericot (a punch in English) that we prepared by mixing a few of the spirits that I was going to leave behind. The effect was amazing and the party really came to life and then it would not stop! Eventually, at about 3 am people started to leave gradually and we were able to retire to bed. The following morning I found a few people sleeping on the grass around the house. Clearly we had overdone it in the clericot department!

So it was that a day later we drove to Addis where, after formally closing the project and spendng a few days in a friends’ house, we departed Ethiopia.

Luckily, before we left I had already offered a job to continue working on ticks and tickborne diseases in Zambia and we headed there after stopping in Nairobi for some shopping and a few days rest (including the camel safari I had mentioned) with our very good friend Susan that we knew from our Kenya days.

[1] I was surprised to see that this was the subject of a study (that I have not read)! If interested, see: McCann, J.C. (2006). A response: Doro Fänta: Creativity vs. Adaptation in the Ethiopian Diaspora. Diaspora 15, 381-388.

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eskista

A naive vet

In 1988-89 Sudan, the same as Ethiopia, was undergoing a civil war between the predominantly black south (now South Sudan) and the mainly Arab north (now Sudan). That was the environment in which I was running a development project dealing with ticks and tickborne diseases!

I will briefly refresh your memories on the situation in Sudan at the time.

During the First Sudanese Civil War (1955-1972) [1] Gambela received many refugees but it was when the Second Sudanese Civil War began in 1983 that the number of refugees increased dramatically, and it was then that several refugee camps were established.

The Second Civil War, between the central Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) lasted until 2005. It was basically an extension of the First Sudanese Civil War and it lasted for twenty-two long years with a human live cost estimated at two million! It is believed that war was basically over the oil fields located in the border between Sudan and South Sudan and eventually the latter became an independent country.

After three years of conflict, the Sudan government started negotiating peace with the SPLA, led by Col. John Garang [2]. There was eventually a constitutional conference and in 1988, a peace plan was developed. It called for the ending of military pacts with Egypt and Libya, the freezing of Sharia law and an end to the state of emergency among other issues. A cease-fire was reached but, unfortunately, the then ruler of Sudan, Sadiq al-Mahdi refused to approve it. He was soon deposed by Omar Hassan al-Bashir and the war re-started. This was the time we were there.

As usual, a number of refugee camps were established in Ethiopia to hold the people displaced by the war and Itang, the main camp, grew in size to reach officially 200,000 people displaced in 1988 although later, in 1991 the official estimate came to 280,000 making it the largest refugee camp in the world.

In mid 1988 we were informed that there was a significant movement of Dinka and Nuer refugees and their livestock mainly from the Upper Nile and the provinces of Bahr and Ghazal and that they were crossing into Ethiopia. It was also possible that some refugees would also be coming from further South, nearer to Uganda. This would not have been relevant for our tick and tickborne disease project except that it was just possible that the cattle could be carriers of theileriosis, a deadly disease caused by a protozoan parasite of the Theileria spp., transmitted by Rhipicephalus appendiculatus, the Brown ear tick.

Theileria schizonts inside white blood cells and “bursting” into the lymph/blood.

Ethiopia’s geography and the fighting spirit of their inhabitants kept the country unconquered throughout the colonization of Africa. This, and the absence of the Brown ear tick, also helped to stop theileriosis from establishing there although the environmental conditions were suitable for it. As usual, Nature filled the Brown ear tick’s niche with a very similar tick species (R. bergeoni) that was not able to transmit theileriosis because of its different life cycle.

Heavy infestation with Rhipicephalus appendiculatus in a heifer.

Despite this apparent long-term stability, a mathematical model had just been developed that indicated that the Brown ear tick (and Theileria) could get established in parts of Ethiopia if they were introduced. This was of concern to the animal health authorities of the country. Up to that point, the possible entry point was through imported cattle flown to Addis but now the refugee influx opened up another possibility.

The results of the prediction model that indicated good suitability for R. appendiculatus in Ethiopia.

Because we were working on the subject in South-west Ethiopia, we were asked to do some “detective” work to see if the disease and/or the vector were indeed moving in. That is how I found myself traveling to the Sudan border in the Gambela area in search for theileriosis and its vector.

After studying our options, we decided that the large refugee camp at Itang could be a good place to start our work, provided that we would be allowed to get to the incoming refugees and their cattle and to bleed them and check them for ticks. We would then send the serum samples collected to International Livestock Research for Animal Diseases (ILRAD), now the International Livestock Research Institute, where they would be tested (free of charge) for antibodies against theileriosis.

We planned our trip as well as we could. Luckily, we managed to get the needed supplies for blood collection and I found a couple of large United Nations car stickers that I placed on the doors of our Land Rover as to be easily identified, just in case. We were not so lucky with the trip arrangements, always the bottleneck of our work, but this was expected with civil wars in both countries!

The trip, we were told, was difficult and even dangerous and a special travel permit from the Political Chief was required to leave Bedele and this took some justification, particularly to go to work at a refugee camp. After a couple of days, the permit was eventually granted and the negotiation for the acquisition of the necessary fuel, although protracted as usual, was also successfully and we were ready to go. A team of technicians would accompany me, including one that was the political delegate of the ruling party in our project. This was very good –I thought- as I would get the Government support if needed.

To get to Gambela, we followed the “food relief route” that I already described and needed to go through a large number of movement control barriers that existed along the way while swallowing the dust of the lorry convoys loaded with food and supplies for the refugees.

Dusty and tired we arrived at Gambela where we spent the night. The following morning, we spent a long time getting the next travel permits. Traveling from Gambela to Itang required a special safe-conduct as it was regarded as a politically sensitive area. In addition there was a need of a local delegate of the Communist Party to accompany us as well as a military escort in the form of a couple of soldiers who joined us in a now full Land Rover. Things were shaping up and I was happy not to have come in a smaller vehicle.

We started the journey later than I wished as we needed to wait for the various members of the group that now numbered six and I was getting rather anxious to get going. So it was that while reversing after collecting the Government’s political delegate, I hit a tree and bent the back door in with the consequence that the large window literally exploded. While cleaning the glass shards that were still attached to the door, a large one got embedded in the back of my leg and this needed some first aid but it was soon under control and we managed to clear all the glass.

There was no hope of panel beating the door in Gambela within the short time available so we needed an emergency repair to keep going until we could do it once we could take the car to Addis. The trip was off for now and we started to consider ways of repairing it. Eventually we found a carpenter that cut a plywood “glass” that, after a few tests, perfectly covered the hole and it was secured well. After sending a message to the camp for the cattle to be released, it was back to our hotel. After a wash I did an inspection of my leg and noticed that the glass had buried quite deeply into my calf but I could see or feel no glass inside. So, I washed the wound as well as I could and left it at that.

Next morning, we managed to gather all members of the party in time and we departed much earlier and arrived at the camp an hour later after driving the 47 km non-stop but swallowing lots of dust from a great number of relief lorries. I was happy to see that, although opaque, that the “back plywood window” held most of the dust out. More importantly, our soldier escort was not needed…

The camp was much larger than I had imagined and looked like a town with lots of people moving about. Although there were rows of tents, I noticed that there were also buildings that seemed to have been there for a long time. We drove to one of those to meet the Camp Director and discuss our work. Meanwhile, the soldiers parted company to get back to Gambela on another escort job.

The Director was pleased to receive us, and he listened to our brief attentively. He had clearly been informed of our arrival, and we were soon taken to a makeshift enclosure full of cattle. Clearly, it was going to be quite a job to bleed animals with no crush pen, but we would not let the opportunity pass. The cattle pen was rather chaotic. In a cloud of dust, apart from the rather tame cattle, there were the usual retinue of herders and other people attracted by the animals and their mooing.

We decided that before the work could start, we needed a meeting with the owners to explain the purpose of what we were doing and also for them to leave their AK47s under a tree so that they could work more freely with the animals. In fact, their guns were almost an extension of their bodies so leaving them aside was mainly for our own safety! They agreed and we soon had gun stacks all over the place! I was somehow surprised to see that almost all of the cattle owners had guns but did not think much about it and focused on the work.

We worked hard as the animals needed to be roped and held by the owners while we recorded their origin, took blood samples, numbered them and collected any ticks we saw on their ears. The work progressed well as there were many willing cattle owners. At some stage I noted that my leg was bleeding again but I decided to ignore it and continue with the work.

At some stage I felt my shirt being pulled from behind. When I turned around, I found myself looking up to a young, leggy and half-naked Dinka boy grey with dust that was pointing at my leg. I looked at it and I saw dry blood that has gone down from my wound to the sock and shoe and, I must admit, looked quite dramatic. I looked again at the boy and shrug my shoulders, but he extended his hand and then I saw that he was pointing at my leg and offering me a plaster to cover my wound! I looked at him and he was smiling at me.

I stopped the work and walked with the boy to a water tap where I washed my leg and applied the plaster while the tall boy, only wearing a pair of green shorts, watched me attentively. Once I applied the plaster, he made a thumb up sign and departed. Maybe I am making too much of this gesture, but it became one of the most memorable moments of my vet career!

By early afternoon we had examined well over one hundred animals and we called it “a day” as we were planning to return for more in a few weeks. We packed and went to thank the Camp Director and to get our army escort. While driving towards the Director’s office we stopped for a drink and a bite in the more established area of Itang. Then, I saw a small group of truly beautiful cattle walking past and I took a couple of pictures of them.

An example of a zebu animal like the ones I photographed at Itang.

Unfortunately, my picture-taking was a bad move! Instantly, four armed men in green uniform surrounded the car and asked for my camera that I handed over to one of them. He knew how to open it to remove the film ignoring my protests! My Ethiopian companions, including the Gambela political delegate, looked as confused as I and they kept quiet. I imitated them expecting that my camera would be returned, and this would end the incident.

I was wrong! The door of the car was opened, and, in sign language, they told me to go with them, together with one of my technicians as an interpreter. A large wooden gate was opened, and we entered into the first army base I have ever visited. Apart from lots of armed soldiers carrying the ubiquitous AK47s there were also other heavier military hardware such as trucks and large guns to name what I could see walking past.

The moment I saw where I was, I knew I was in trouble. I was correct!

In the centre of the compound stood a very large tent that had been white when new and it was clear that there it was where we were being taken by our captors. We were roughly and thoroughly searched at the entrance and told to wait outside while some entered and others stayed with us, looking rather serious. I could see the face of my technician/interpreter and that did not improve my moral! We did not talk and waited for a few minutes until we were brought inside.

The large tent was very well lit and carpeted, with chairs on both sides of the entrance. There were people already seated there and we were also told to sit down and wait. To the right there were some desks or tables where what looked like clerks sat. At the back, towards the other end of the tent my eyes fell on an imposing seated figure, probably in his forties, dressed in a white robe with a leopard skin swung on his shoulders and clearly the Commander of the place. He was busy listening to some people discussing something in a rather agitated way that were dismissed shortly.

When our time came, the Commander was given an account of our incident by one of the soldiers that captured us. I could tell that it was my case because they were brandishing my camera and pointing towards us. My concerned augmented and I could now feel the sweat starting to trickle down through my back and it was not because of the heat! My leg was also throbbing but that was the least of my worries.

The talking continued and then the strip of film was produced and shown trophy-like to the Commander who still sat impassive. Then, looking at me, he said “You are being accused of espionage by my soldiers” and then added “they saw you taking pictures of our compound”. “This is forbidden, and you should have known that!” he added. I waited until he finished and requested to be allowed to explain what had happened.

I told him that we were a team from the United Nations, but this failed to make an impression. I then explained our mission in great detail, informing him of the risk of the cattle disease we were searching for and, suddenly, his expression softened when I said that I was a veterinarian. Clearly, he was a pastoralist as well as a Commander!

He became more interested and asked a few questions on the disease and its impact on cattle and then he spoke to his people for a while. Afterwards he told us that we could go and that we were welcome to come back to continue with the work. My camera was returned to me, we shook hands, and we were out of there much faster than when we came in!

Once in the safety of the car and when we were all more relaxed, my technician/interpreter said “do you know who this man was?” As I did not know, he went on “he was William Nyuon, the SPLA Field Commander, only second to John Garang! Although I did not know his biographical information at the time, I was aware that I had been in a tight spot and that I was lucky to had got off so lightly.

William Nyuon. Credit: Taken from https://paanluelwel.com/2014/10/31/thankful-to-cdr-william-nyuoon-bany-a-eulogy/ (No credit for the picture given).

Years later I learnt that Itang was the site of the founding of the SPLA in 1983 by Garang, a graduate in economics from the University of Iowa. Other founders of the SPLA were Salva Kiir Mayardit, Kerubino Kuanyin Bol and William Nyuon. The regime of Mengistu allowed the SPLA the management of refugee camps and gave them logistical support. In fact, it is believed that without the support of Mengistu and supplies for refugees, the SPLA could not have maintained the war with northern Sudan.

The refugee camps in Ethiopia stopped functioning as SPLA camps in 1991 after the fall of Mengistu and William Nyuon, the commander of the SPLA in the field continued to fight against the Government of Sudan and was finally killed in 1996 -ironically- by the army of South Sudan Independence, a dissident branch of the SPLA.

After our return to Gambela, the following day we drove back to Bedele without any further problems and our conversation throughout the journey focused on the incident at Itang although the throbbing in my leg reminded me of the kindness of the herdboy.

Regarding the blood samples, we found a small percentage of animals positive for T. parva but we did not find the vector neither during that trip, our first, nor in the ones that we did afterwards.

Unfortunately, the infection in my leg deteriorated in such a way that I need to spend a week in bed in Bedele undergoing antibiotic treatment until it finally healed.

[1] The war lasted seventeen years (1955 to 1972) and about half a million people perished. It demanded regional autonomy for the South that the British decolonization failed to implement. One of its consequences was the appearance of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the political wing of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Garang

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Nyuon_Bany

A dot in a map

As I have already mentioned the Didessa valley, between Bedele and Arjo, was one of our favourite exploring spots over the weekends. After a few visits, during one of our walks along one of the smaller tributaries of the Didessa river, the Legedema, we saw a kingfisher flying fast as usual along the semi-dry riverbed.

Curious, we followed it and watched it for a few seconds before it flew away to an area where we could not find it. We thought it to be one of the tree species belonging to the Halcyon genus, probably the Woodland kingfisher (H. senegalensis). However, we believed that we caught a shade of blue on its breast and we kept our options open for it to be a Blue-breasted kingfisher (H. malimbica). We had watched both species while in Kenya, so we had some idea about kingfishers.

Once at home in Bedele, as usual, we checked the birds we had seen with the Checklist of the birds of Ethiopia [1]. We noted that, although the Woodland kingfisher was included, the Blue-breasted was absent. So, things started to look interesting and the situation required follow-up and we decided to go back at the next opportunity to have another look.

Although work postponed the visit, we eventually made it and looked for the bird, now alert to detect the salient features of the different species. We found it but it was not easy to approach because of the terrain. Despite this, after watching it for a while, we both agreed that we were looking at the unlisted, Blue-breasted kingfisher, its bright blue breast unmistakable.

Aware of the importance of a new species for the country, the next time we were in Addis, I contacted the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (EWNHS) to inform them of our find and to confirm that there was no other record of the bird that we did not know. They did not know of any other observation and they suggested that I should bring the bird to be examined, something I explained I would not do! I realized that I needed to break through their scepticism, and we returned to Bedele determined to get pictures that would prove our “discovery” without the need of collecting the bird.

At the next opportunity, we travelled to the Legedema river area and we spent hours following the bird from one end to the other of the riverbed, often crawling through sand, rocks, water and vegetation, only to find that it was either too far for my zoom lens or watching it taking off to the other end of the river before being able to take its picture. Then it was back to crawling towards the place it had flown to!

After a couple of days of walking/crawling along the river, under the amused watch of Mabel, I managed to take a few pictures that I thought could be decent enough to prove the identity of the bird and eventually convince the EWNHS that the bird was what I said.

A few “mates” to regain energy during the tough bird chase!

Although I had taken pictures the films still needed to be developed as in 1989 there were no electronic cameras. Because of the kind of film I used, the rolls needed to go outside Ethiopia to get developed and printed so I was not yet sure of the fruits of my work!

In comes our good friend Ranjini (from our Kenya days) that kindly agreed to receive the film in the UK, get it developed and choose what she considered as the best shots to get them enlarged to show the bird as clearly as possible.

A few weeks passed until we got a large envelope that contained the print negatives and a few enlargements that, although very bad from a photographer’s viewpoint, showed beyond doubt that the bird had indeed enough blue in its breast to qualify for a kingfisher of the Blue-breasted kind, a new record for Ethiopia!

I immediately sent the pictures to the EWNHS and they accepted the find. They also invited us to one of their meetings to present our finding. The latter was well attended by an interested crowd and they gave me a nice green tie with the EWNHS logo to recognize the find!

We wrote a Short Communication that was accepted for publication by Scopus in September 1989, a couple of months before leaving Ethiopia. It was published in May 1990 [2]. In it we explained the circumstances of our find and gave details of its approximate location, speculating that it could be also present in the Didessa river itself and/or its tributaries.

Our move to Zambia towards the end of 1989 took all our efforts and we soon forgot the kingfisher to focus on more important issues related to our new posting and the arrival of our children that left very little time for birdwatching or even thinking about it! Then, in October 1991 we received a letter from the late John S. Ash [3] that referred to our publication. I quote:

“…After living in Ethiopia for 8 1/2 years … It was … extremely interested to see your very interesting observations of Blue-breasted Kingfishers. I have to admit that at first I was sceptical but on looking into it further was able to convince myself that I had also come across the species not far from your locality, and then re-found an even older Italian record [4] which I had relegated to an “improbable” file many years ago.”

“… In commiserating with you on your loss of an addition to the Ethiopian list I congratulate you on rediscovering it and being instrumental in putting it on the map… I enclose a draft of a note I have prepared for Scopus and shall be most grateful for any comments you have on it…”

So it was that our belief of having “discovered” a new bird species for Ethiopia was dashed and it became a “re-discovery” of a bird that had been seen first in 1959 and subsequently misidentified as the Woodland kingfisher by Mr. Ash.

However, in the light of our finding, in his paper [5] Mr. Ash revised his earlier observations and, luckily, he was able to contact Professor C.H. Fry that accepted our record for inclusion in a monograph of the kingfishers where a small green dot in Ethiopia is all we achieved after all our efforts! [6]

A dot in the map! The Blue-breasted kingfisher in Ethiopia. Credit: Print screen from BirdLife.org (Accessed on 6 January 2021). http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/blue-breasted-kingfisher-halcyon-malimbica?gclid=Cj0KCQiA3NX_BRDQARIsALA3fIJHYxNCgl8BCtJoFkA4Z6wvIrYQS6M4Vhm_2CNWE_gSzcX48yh8stoaAvHFEALw_wcB

[1] Urban K. and Brown, L.H. (1971). A Checklist of the Birds of Ethiopia. Haile Sellassie I University Press. pp. 143.

[2] de Castro, J.J. and de Castro, M. (1990). The Blue-breasted Kingfisher (Alcyon malimbica) in South-West Ethiopia. Scopus 14: 22.

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ash_(ornithologist) and https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2014/feb/09/john-ash-obituary

[4] Toschi, A. (1959). Contributo alla Ornitofauna d’Etiopia. Ricerche di Zoologia Applicata alla Caccia 2: 301-412.

[5] Ash, J.S. (1992). An apparently isolated population of blue-breasted kingfishers Halcyon malimbica in Ethiopia. Scopus 16: 14-17.

[6] Fry, C. H.; Fry, K.; Harris, A. (1992). Kingfishers Bee-Eaters and Rollers. Editorial: Russel Friedman Books CC, Halfway House, South Africa Editors.

Nuer’s oxytocin

As I mentioned earlier in this blog, the Nuer people are strongly linked to cattle in complex ways that are not always understandable to us. What I will describe here is part of this people-cattle interaction that ensures the survival of both in rather harsh conditions.

As with most cattle belonging to African pastoralists, they are of a placid nature and used to constant handling from an early age and milk is probably the most important commodity they produce although sales of oxen are also practiced by the Nuer.

As it is common practice the world over, Nuer cattle are milked after the milk let-down have been stimulated by allowing the calf to suckle briefly and then withdrawn. This action stimulates nerve receptors in the cow teats which induce oxytocin release within a few minutes. This compound, a, hormone causes the cells around the milk-producing alveoli to contract and squeeze out the milk, pushing it down the ducts towards the teat as well as dilating the milk ducts making it easier for the milk to flow down them.

On a visit to a Nuer cattle kraal we came across a very unusual sight, even for a veterinarian that had worked with cattle most of the time. A Nuer woman was blowing strongly, rhythmically and repeatedly into the vagina of a cow for about five minutes, taking rests in between as the effort needed was evidently great.

After the operation, she proceeded to milk the animal, obtaining about one litre of milk. After a while, the process was repeated an more milk obtained.

Enquiries about the practice revealed that the cow had aborted recently but that it was also performed on those cows which have lost their calves or are giving poor milk yields. I took pictures to document the practice and these are presented in a slideshow at the bottom as they are strong pictures that show the operation in great detail.

Later, at the laboratory I checked the literature for this phenomenon and did not find any records of it among the books I had at my disposal. However, I learnt that stretching of the cervix induces oxytocin secretion, increasing uterine motility and probably it also induces milk let-down, probably explaining how the curious practice works.

Years later, in 2010, checking through old papers and pictures I found the notes and prints of the oxytocin observation in Gambela and looked for it on the internet. I found several interesting references to the practice, including one by Wilfred Thesiger during his travels through Sudan [1] and several references to the practice of “cow blowing” in Wikipedia [2] where I learnt that it was quite an ancient and widespread practice throughout the world and that Gandhi stopped drinking cow milk after he came to know about the process known as “phooka” or “doom dev” in India that he considered cruel.

It was the comprehensive work of LeQuellec [3] on the evidence of the practice in ancient cultures that called my attention and prompted me to get in touch with him to discuss my observation. He was interested and encouraged me to publish the observations and so I did [4].

Although the physiological aspects of the practice can be explained, it still leaves unclear in my mind how early “milkers” linked the insufflations with milk let down and started to use it to their advantage. Is it that they have seen milk dripping at calving time? Or is it that they believed the udder to be the end of a continuous system which starts in the vagina and blowing through it will expel the milk? I still do not know.

[1] Thesiger, W. (1983). Arabian Sands. Collins. p.48.

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cow_blowing

[3] Le Quellec, Jean-Loic (2011). Provoking lactation by the insufflation technique as documented by the rock images of the Sahara. Anthropozoologica 46, 65-125. See: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232693395_Provoking_lactation_by_the_insufflation_technique_as_documented_by_the_rock_images_of_the_Sahara

[4] de Castro, J. J. (2011). Nuer’s oxytocin. Cahiers de l’AARS — N° 15, 27-28.