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.
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.
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.
After my mission in Bedele I accepted the FAO offer, not without trying, fruitlessly, to negotiate a better contract with my employer, the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), a last ditch attempt to stay in Kenya.
So, it was just a matter of a few weeks before this new life experience would start. I would travel to Rome for a two-week briefing session in order to get information on the technical approaches as well as the more boring administrative procedures as well as to finalize my contractual arrangements.
In Nairobi, I gradually disengaged from my activities with regret as our work in northern Kenya on the selection of cattle for tick resistance was going well. Mabel resigned to her position at the Commercial Office of the Argentinian Embassy and was now in charge of our own administrative arrangements regarding our future life “out in the sticks”. She started by having meetings with our architect friend who, kindly, drew a house plan following which she ordered the needed appliances and the additional and tailor-made furniture to complement what we had bought for our Nairobi flat. She also put together a “camping pack” that would be sent immediately so that we could have the essentials to live in Bedele until our main shipment arrived. Mabel would also organize the latter while I was briefing in Rome.
We decided to take our two cats with us as we were rather attached to them. Both were neutered when we got them, Inky, a talkative Siamese female and Tigger, a lazy and rather fat marmalade. They got on well as long as the latter did not challenge the authority of the smaller but tougher Siamese. They required a number of health certificates to enter Ethiopia and this also took some of Mabel’s time. The animals also needed to be carried in a cage of certain dimensions that needed to be made as the current plastic ones were not available in Kenya at the time.
It all sounds complicated, but we were young and enthusiastic at that time!
The next task was to order a personal vehicle and we chose a short wheelbase Land Cruiser (short ambulance type) that we ordered through the United Nations system. It would arrive in Assab (then still an Ethiopian port in the Red Sea) with an approximate delivery time of three months. Luckily, keeping in touch with the Veterinary and Economics Unit of the University of Reading (where I was a student in 1981), yielded more fruits. I followed their advice and ordered the latest available laptop, the revolutionary Zenith ZWL-183-92 with one 3.5-inch floppy disk drive of 720KB and an amazing hard disk drive with a capacity of 10MB! This was the latest in portable computers at the time and I was very pleased to get one although I paid the equivalent of the best laptop of today!
I already had some experience of briefings in Rome but this time it was more comprehensive and time-consuming. I learnt that the project I would be leading was funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and that I would need to have close contacts with them, apart from the Government of Ethiopia and the FAO. I also learnt about how to keep accounts and how and when to submit them as well as when and how to write the various kinds of reports required.
The briefing done; it was an Alitalia flight that took me to Addis Ababa (Addis). The moment I landed I realized that Mengistu’s communism was much farther from Moi’s capitalism than the physical distance that separated Nairobi from Addis. Bole International airport was really a military base used by civilian planes. Military planes and camouflaged “machinery” parked there were certainly not for agriculture development! There were armed soldiers all over and the natural good natured Kenyan welcome was totally absent. “Not a good start” I thought and had a shade of regret at having left Kenya.
Gratefully, finding people waiting for me at the airport lifted my spirit. The atmosphere was not only tense at the airport but throughout Addis, and I learnt that a curfew was in place in Addis between 23:00 and 06:00 hours. I realized that it would demand considerable adjustment to enjoy our new country. Two years could be a long time if you did not like the place.
The Ethiopian dynasty started in the 2nd century BC and together with Rome, China and Persia, the Aksum Empire was regarded as one of the four great world powers of the 3rd century BC. Additionally, Ethiopia and Liberia were the only African countries that were never colonized and that retained their sovereignty as recognized independent countries. Ethiopia was also one of only four African members of the League of Nations.
This history forged a nation of proud people. Apparently, or so they told me themselves, when God created mankind it prepared its clay model and put it in the oven to bake. Unsure of what he was doing he removed before it was ready and thus the white race was created. Aware of this, when he baked the second model, he left it too long with the consequence that it got over-cooked and created the black race. It was only during his third attempt that God got the timing right and created people of the right colour: the Ethiopians!
Mengistu Haile Mariam had overthrown Haile Selassie in September 1974 and he had masterminded the Ethiopian Red Terror of 1977–1978 that killed hundreds of political opponents and secure him in power. From 1987 he had been the President of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, the country we had arrived to. It was a country undergoing a civil war with the province of Eritrea that had separatist intentions. This would be our first experience at living in a country at war and ruled by a ruthless leader!
I returned to the Ghion hotel to started work while waiting for Mabel that, together with our cats, was arriving from Nairobi in a couple of days. I negotiated with the hotel to be able to keep the cats (in the toilet!) and proceeded with introductory meetings and project reviews to prepare for the work that was expected.
Eventually Mabel arrived and she took over the arrangements for the trip to Bedele as there was pressure for me to move there as early as possible. She also kept the cats under control as agreed and made sure that they did not got lostin Addis. Commercial cat food as we now see all over was non-existent and we had to do with cooking rice and some meat for them, courtesy of the hotel.
We walked in Addis to get a feel for the place and noted a few new things. First, the white and blue taxis most of which were Lada (like the Fiat 124) and very numerous, as well as the shoe-polishers that congregated around the public offices. At that time, we were told that the “Bedele people” meaning Jan and Janni (our Dutch colleagues) always stayed at another hotel called Harambe so we moved there and this hotel became our centre of operations from then on although it had some shortcomings as I will describe later.
Although the name of the hotel meant freedom in Ki-Swahili it did not go well with the atmosphere in the country at the time. However, being a commonly used word in Kenya, at least the name reminded us that we were still in East Africa! The change also meant a repeat of the negotiation of our cats’ stay while we prepared our trip to Bedele. The negotiations were tougher than in the Ghion but eventually we reached an agreement, they could stay for free, provided that they remained inside our room. Although we got the permission, this time without the option of a garden as we were several floors up.
At the Harambe we eventually met Jan, the other FAO worker with who we would be sharing our stay in Bedele. He was coming to Addis at regular intervals to get food and other issues related to his project work. We compared notes and I appreciated his advice but also decided that I would keep an open mind and see by myself how the stay there would be and handle it accordingly.
Although I immediately got a project car, we decided to walk as I needed a few days to “adjust” to driving on the right-hand side of the road. We did walk a lot as it was very safe to do so despite the overwhelming attention we got from the multitude of beggars that will constantly surround you and follow you all the time in the streets, particularly near the hotel areas.
Poverty in Addis at the time was extreme, a lasting consequence of the most severe famine that affected Ethiopia from 1983 to 1985. This sad event took the lives of 1.2 million people, internally displaced 2.5 million and left 0.4 million as refugees and 0.2 million orphans. The beggars were so insistent that, as soon as you were spotted leaving your hotel on foot, they will swarm around you asking for food but also holding you from your arms and clothes.
The situation almost invariably developed in the appearance of a youngster that would take it upon himself to chase beggars off by brandishing a stick, hoping to get a tip from you! At first, we refused such service but soon we noted that it was impossible to stop it so a boy self-appointed himself as our guard and he will wait for us outside the hotel and join us as soon as he spotted us.
Although the majority of the people dressed either in European or traditional Ethiopian clothes, we noted that many men worn kaki or blue uniforms (Kaunda suit type). These were Government workers although, interestingly, women did not wear uniforms or at least we did not see them.
A few men dressed in darker blue suits with a “Mao-style” collar. These were the senior political authorities that were clearly feared. We were always treated with the outmost courtesy, but it was clear that we were dealing with people belonging to a proud nation and proud themselves almost to the point of arrogance.
Looking for sources of food to take to Bedele, we realized that markets were our main hope although private shops were in evidence in the Kazanchis area, near the hotel, where there were private shops, particularly one that we called “Solomon’s” that was a well stocked and expensive store where we could get what we needed.
The humongous “Mercato” was also an option that we explored and immediately realized that it would be a good choice for the future but not for the present as it was an unknown area for us, and hygiene was not top of the agenda. In fact, Mabel made a mental note to return to it wearing rubber boots!
Both, Kazanchis and Mercato offered amazing jewellery shops that never failed to call our attention, particularly the gold and silver trinkets. Among the latter, the variety of crosses to be worn as pendants was incredible. We decided to leave those more superfluous items for later and to focus on accumulating the necessary items to survive in Bedele.
Ethiopians are very proud of their traditions and they like to share them with you. Among these, food, drink and dance are important. So, before too long we were invited to dine at one of the traditional restaurants in Addis Ababa: the Addis Ababa Restaurant, on the road to Sidist Kilo from St. George Church. In Addis the location of places was described as street numbers were not used.
This restaurant was a large and popular place with lots of tables and little light, served by women clad in traditional dress and where our hosts guided us through the menu as it was all new to us.
Ethiopian cuisine  mainly involves spicy vegetable and meat dishes, usually in the form of a stew known as “wot” (or wat) served on “injera“, a large rounded and flat pancake-like sour bread of about half a metre in diameter and accompanied with rolled strips of injera of about 10 cm width. Injera is made of “teff” (Eragrostistef) an annual grass native to the northern Ethiopian Highlands, similar to millet and quinoa but with a tiny seed of less than 1 mm diameter. Teff is thought to have originated in Ethiopia between 4000 and 1000 BC. It grows in harsh environments ranging from very dry to waterlogged soil and its best production takes place at about 2000m altitude. The grain is rich in minerals and has a has a high protein content with an excellent amino acid composition.
We sat around what looked like a small hut replica made of straw, colourful and tightly woven. We were informed that this was a “mesob“, where our food would be placed. I could not help wondering how this would happen with such a shape. Once seated, the appearance of a basin of water and soap for handwashing anticipated the importance of our hands for eating and, watching our hosts, the right hand was the one to be used. If we needed more information to confirm our suspicions, there was no cutlery!
While we waited for the food to arrive, we sought some advice on eating techniques, but, before we got an answer, food arrived on a large tray, a very short time after ordering. The top of the mesob was then removed and the food placed on the flat top that had been hidden below. It was spectacular: a large rounded tray covered in injera with a several mounds of different foods, smelling of spices and steaming. “This is doro wot ” said Ibrahim pointing at a large portion in the centre with some obvious chicken eggs in it.
We learnt that several kinds of “wot” exist, depending on the area, ingredient availability, etc. The most common being the chicken stew we got known as “doro wot“. In poorer places where there are no chickens “doro fanta” (doro: chicken; fanta: instead of) was served. It contains the egg, but the meat is mutton, a cheaper substitute. This, I would learn later, was the staple food in Bedele.
They had also brought “kitfo” and “kocho”. The former is a dish of minced raw beef, marinated in “mitmita” (powdered seasoning mix orange red in colour that generally contains ground African bird’s eye chili peppers, Ethiopian cardamom, cloves, and salt). Kitfo cooked lightly rare is known as “kitfo leb leb“, that became our favourite. Kitfo goes with Kocho a grey paste prepared from chopped and grated Ensete  pulp that I believe is buried for a while to mature.
We were informed that the way food was presented was mainly for tourists as traditionally such dishes would not be served together very often.
We watched the Ethiopians cutting small pieces of injera with which they would envelop the stew and any suitable side dishes and then placed it in their mouths. A simple procedure in the able hands of our hosts but full of failures and accidents in ours, accompanied of some polite remarks on how to improve and even laughter from those Ethiopians that had a Latin influence from Cuba. The best help came in the shape of a “goorsha“, an expression of friendship through which a person would strip off a piece of injera, roll food in it and then place it in the other person’s mouth. Although the procedure took us by surprise, we truly appreciated it.
Food was rather spicy and some of it rather hot, so we needed to drink a lot. Although a number of excellent local beers and some wines existed, local brews were very popular. “Katikala” and “araki” are inexpensive local spirits that are very strong and illegal but that night we tried “Tej“, a rather potent honey wine with an alcohol content that ranges from 7 to 11 %. and another local drink: “Tella“, a home-brewed beer with a smoky flavour due to the addition of bread darkened by baking and the use of a fermentation vessel which has been smoked by inversion over smouldering wood. Tella had a lower alcohol content, between 2-4%. Both tej and tella were good, provided that clean water was used in their preparation. Later on, during our stay we would, sometimes, suffer the consequences of the use of unclean water…
Regarding the work, I attended several meetings with my organization’s representative, UNDP and the Veterinary Department. It was clear that the work was behind schedule and very urgent reporting was essential in order for UNDP to release the funds needed for the work to continue. This meant that my work baptism was to spend long days with Ibrahim, the Director of the Bedele Laboratory writing various reports on a project I did not yet know! The assistance of the Director was invaluable, so we managed to persuade UNDP to release the funds. Despite this, it was evident that the project was already considered as a “problem” by UNDP, a fame that remained till the end!
After a week in the Harambe hotel we learnt that our accelerated shipment including camp beds, bedding, crockery and other essential stuff had arrived so we could now travel to Bedele carrying not only the cats but all the gear that would enable us to camp in our bungalow until our larger consignment arrived.
Enquiries on our main shipment with the rest of our personal effects (also handled by the government’s cargo company) revealed an undetermined delay and, worse news, I was informed that I needed my own arrangements to take the stuff to Bedele as they did not offer that service. Luckily, another FAO project had a lorry that was authorized to take it all the way to Bedele.
Finally the time for our journey to Bedele arrived but I noted that the planned date did not match the one my colleagues referred to. Eventually I understood that the Ethiopian (Ge’ez) calendar was based on the older Alexandrian or Coptic calendar and it was about seven years behind ours. The year had twelve months of 30 days each plus five days (six days on leap years), which comprise a thirteenth month. Finally, we agreed on a departure date and agreed to get a conversion calendar. This was, fortunately, easy to buy and it became indispensable as also all official correspondence was not only in Amharic but dated following the Ge’ez calendar!
Before leaving, we got our Government petrol coupons (as petrol was rationed) and our travel permit that I was (again) unable to read, started with the title የጉዞ ፈቃድ (Tavel Permit) and all the rest! We loaded the car with our camping gear, food to last us for a month, our two cats and the following morning we headed west where, if all went well, we would spend two years of our lives.
As mentioned earlier  it was 1987 and we were still enjoying our work and life in Kenya. However, it was becoming evident that our modest savings would never secure our future, so we started looking for better opportunities. Regrettably, we could not find suitable work in Kenya, otherwise we would probably still be residing there today!
In mid 1988 a great opportunity with FAO appeared in Ethiopia at a place called Bedele of which neither we nor most of our friends had ever heard of before. Most but not all. Jim  however, had and immediately told me that Bedele was in western Ethiopia and also that it was “out in the sticks”, not a very encouraging start!
Later on I learnt that Andy, a tick expert from Zimbabwe -working in Nairobi- had just been in Ethiopia for a consultancy that included a short visit to Bedele itself. He confirmed that it was far from Addis Ababa and rather remote, but an interesting place where not much work on ticks and tickborne diseases had been done although the need for it was there.
When I asked him about the living conditions, he mentioned that he had stayed at the station where I was going to live -if I accepted the offer- for two years and mentioned that the area was very beautiful. “Do the bungalows have a garden” I asked, “the whole of Ethiopia will be your back garden!” was his reply. That left me rather concerned!
As the need for my services was rather urgent, before accepting the long-term position and while we prepared to leave Kenya, I offered to travel to Bedele to familiarize myself and to supervise the on-going work. I also carried the “Family terms of reference” that included the evaluation of our future accommodation, availability of supplies and other critical issues to survive in a remote place. Regarding the house, I was to draw a plan that, back in Nairobi, would be submitted to an architect friend so that we could take the relevant furniture and appliances.
So it was that I arrived at Bole airport in Addis Ababa on a two-week consultancy mission. The change between Kenya and Ethiopia was very dramatic as I was entering a country where a civil war had been raging from September 1974 when the Marxist Derg removed Emperor Haile Selassie from power and Eritrea had started fighting for its independence.
Bole looked like a military airport being used by civilian flights, mainly Ethiopian Airlines. There was no “yambo” welcome or smiling faces anywhere but armed soldiers with surly faces! I had arrived to my first communist dictatorship led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, a ruthless leader.
Realizing that things would be different I was very happy to be greeted by people from FAO. They took me to the Ghion hotel where I would stay until I traveled to Bedele, a small town in Western Ethiopia where FAO had built a Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory with a focus on trypanosomiasis and tickborne diseases.
So it was that, after the necessary protocol meetings that took a couple of days, I had the necessary travel permit that would allow me to travel to Bedele. The letter was written in Amharic and I could only hope that it gave the right information about my trip as the only thing that I could understand was my name! However, when I realized that the country’s Chief Veterinary Officer and the Director of the Bedele Laboratory were traveling with me, I relaxed.
We left early in the morning and traveled very slowly in a westerly direction. Getting out of Addis Ababa was indeed a complex operation as there was no clear exit road and people used the tarmac to walk to their destinations with their livestock, sharing the road with the motor vehicles. Our speed increased somehow once we left the city as the people numbers decreased for a while (only to increase near every populated area!). Despite this, almost permanent hooting was required in order to advance.
The trip took us through rather barren land dominated by teff fields  and the occasional trees, very occasional. The latter were really what remained of them after most of their branches had been chopped for fuel and only a green tuft remained, something I had not seen before.
Near Jimma, the capital of the large Kaffa province and about 350 km from Addis Ababa, the landscape became greener and trees became more abundant. That coincided with the end of the tarmac and the start of a consolidated but very rough and dusty road, from where we continued towards Bedele, located in the province of Illubabor. We reached Bedele after a long 140 km journey from Jimma and, by the time we got there, presented our travel credentials for clearance by the local member of the Government and found food and accommodation, we were really tired and we slept soundly!
The following morning was cool and sunny and this enabled me to appreciate that Bedele was mainly a one street town set up in a rather well forested area. Bedele, also known and “Buno Bedele” was reputed to be the origin of the coffee and you could easily see the beautiful flat-top acacias with the coffee bushes growing under their shade.
During my visit I learnt that the work was mainly following an already on-going routine that required the collection of ticks from cattle at different locations both to get to know the species and to understand their population dynamics. The study was led by a scientist that had suffered a severe health problem and needed to be evacuated and unfortunately was unable to return.
I realized that I could handle the proposed work and hoped to stimulate other research activities and, hopefully, attract more funding to continue the work beyond the two years planned.
During the visit I met the Ethiopians that would work with me and I was impressed about their dedication as they had kept the work going despite having remained on their own for a few months by now. I accompanied them when they went to their study sites and I realized that Ethiopia was a really special place, difficult but full of new things for me that I judged we would enjoy.
During that time, I also leant that Jan and Janni, a couple from The Netherlands working on trypanosomiasis also lived at the station and we would share our time there although they were on holiday during the time of my visit. Our house was next to theirs and when I saw it I understood fully Andy’s remarks that my garden would be “the whole of Ethiopia”!
Our two-bedroom bungalow, the same as the remaining seven others, had a small kitchen, a sitting area and a toilet that included a shower two bedrooms. I duly measured all rooms and made a floor plan that hoped it would be useful to plan our future house. Supplies, however, looked a more complicated affair. Petrol was rationed and, apart from good coffee, food was available at a basic butchery and the Saturday market. Clearly we needed to prepare for “importing” our foodstuff from Addis Ababa at regular intervals.
Although the work offered both positive and negative aspects, after the visit I judged that the former outweighed the latter and I decided that we should give this new adventure, both professional and personal, a try and our adventures there will be the subject of the following posts.
 Eragrostis tef, native of the Horn of Africa, is a cereal grass with tiny seeds of less than one millimeter of diameter. It is cultivated for its tiny seeds “injera“, a sourdough-risen flatbread is made and also for its straw to feed livestock.
The following is a concise account of my working life. More details can be found in the “Pages” section of this blog. The intention of this short account is to set the seen for the next historical posts that will deal only with episodes that took place during these years and that I consider to offer some interesting aspect worth mentioning.
Boran young bulls at Mutara ranch, Kenya.
The work at Muguga and Intona described earlier (give link) yielded fruit and I was able to publish the results in good scientific journals, together with my co-workers, Matt, Alan and Robin included. My research added some knowledge to a large regional programme on ticks and tickborne diseases that FAO had initiated at the time of my arrival in Kenya and that covered several countries in East, Central and Southern Africa.
Mutara tick selection work.
Once my fellowship ended, although I had a lot to learn yet, I had somehow found a niche for my work at ICIPE and, with Matt’s blessing, I joined the Tick Programme as a scientist. My work on tick impact had ended and now my work would have to fall within the Tick Programme’s goals and funding. The main target was to control ticks using the cattle resistance to them. I had come across this fact while doing my research as some animals showed resistance while others not.
At that time I also decided to start my PhD studies as an external student with my former Department of Applied Zoology at the University of Wales. Four years of hard work were in front of me, as I needed to work and study, not an easy feat! I was lucky to be surrounded by knowledgeable colleagues and to find a great supervisor, the late Ian Herbert from the Department.
While working on my PhD I got involved with the work on ticks and tickborne diseases on-going at Muguga and I also continued with field work at Intona. Later on we started more work at Mutara Ranch, then the Boran cattle stud for Kenya, where we started work on selection of cattle for tick resistance that sadly needed to be abandoned for lack of resources. The initial study got published and this added to my growing reputation in the tick world. I completed the PhD in 1986 while still in Kenya.
The laboratory at Bedele, Ethiopia.
In 1988 FAO offered me a position as a Leader of the Ethiopian component of their regional tick and tickborne disease programme I mentioned above. I accepted the offer as it had very favourable conditions but left ICIPE and Kenya with a heavy heart after so many years of enjoying life and work there.
Villagers at Gambela, West Ethiopia.
Ethiopia was a big change as we arrived in a country at war with Eritrea and under a comunist regime led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, a ruthless leader. My duty station was Bedele in West Ethiopia, still green and wooded with a rainfall of about two thousand mm per year! It was a remote place where FAO has assisted the Government in building a Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. Bedele’s main claim to worldwide fame is ob being the place where coffee originated from.
The work was more routine than challenging and it required the collection of ticks from cattle at different locations both to get to know the species and to understand their population dynamics. My assignment there lasted under two years as I was replacing another tick officer that needed to be evacuated with a severe heart condition. Despite the political and economical difficulties the country was going through, the work was completed and, as the possibilities of continuing the work were not there, it was tie to move on.
The project site at Lutale, Central Province of Zambia.
I was transferred to Zambia where I was to continue a long-term trial on the effects of ticks on traditional cattle productivity both of milk and beef under different tick control regimes: no control, intensive control and “strategic” control. The latter meant to treat only to prevent tick numbers from building up. The trial run for three years and it was completed successfully. It was during this time that our children were born and our lives changed!
Cattle work in Southern Province, Zambia.
After three busy and productive years in Zambia the regional programme was going through important changes. Its coordinator based at FAO HQs in Rome was about to retire and more funding was coming in to continue the work for another phase of four years. Somehow I landed the coordinator’s job and moved to Rome in a move that removed me from scientific work and converted me into an international bureaucrat!
FAO in the 90s. Please note the Axum stele that was returned in 2005.
After a few months in Rome, once the “glamour” of the job waned, I realized that I needed to get back to the field as the work I was doing did not appeal to me.
Moving again! This time to Zimbabwe.
The opportunity to move to the field -again to Africa- presented itself in 1997 and I did not hesitate! We moved to Harare, Zimbabwe where I took up the role of sub-regional animal production and health officer, an even broader professional role as it also involved animal production. As compensation, however, the job was restricted to Southern and Eastern Africa. Although it was not “hands on” scientific work, it was closer to the action than what I was doing from Rome!
Great Zimbabwe ruins, Zimbabwe, 1998.
After four years in Harare I realized with regret that I needed to move to get a career improvement. At the end of 2000 I put my name for a FAO Representative job and succeeded getting designated FAOR in Bolivia so in mid 2001 we left for La Paz, Bolivia. This would be my first assignment in a Spanish-speaking country and it also meant becoming the head of an office with a large multi-sectorial programme and several employees both in the office and in the field. In addition, as the representative of the organization in the country I also carried a political role having to develop strong links with the host government.
Sewing in Bolivia.
Market street of La Paz, Bolivia.
I worked in Bolivia for five incredible years and, in 2005 I returned to Rome, again as a technical expert to continue working on animal diseases, in particular I returned to ticks and TBD. Again I did not find this assignment enjoyable and, after four years I had had enough of desk work and it was either another field post or retirement!
The Appia Antica road, Rome.
Fortunately I was selected for the position of FAO Representative in Mozambique where I worked until my retirement, from mid 2010 to the end of June 2013 when I reached 62 years, the mandatory retirement age of the United Nations.
Time to move to Mozambique.
Speaking on World Food Day in Mozambique.
Being interviewed by the press.
Needless to say that I write in first person but my life has been shared with my wife and later my children. She has been a main support throughout and the kids added their part!
I hope you enjoy reading what I have to say.
 This post follows “Life and work in Kenya: Intona”.
Although we have visited Rome several times and lived there during 1993-1997 and 2006-2010 we are never bored when we are here as it is the city of exploration and discovery as well as surprise! The advantage of both having time and knowing the city quite well enable us to get lost in it with pleasure.
This visit was no exception and we walked in the general direction of the historical centre, with a quick detour at FAO to address pending minor administrative issues. As usual a number of monuments were being restored and were therefore totally or partially covered and invisible to the normal visitor. Seeing them reminded me of the difficulties the Roman authorities must face in order to preserve the city as well as the costs this incurs!
This time a section of the Colosseum was being repaired but we could still enjoy part of it.
The Colosseum never fails to amaze.
What about a “selfie” with a “Colosseum background”? Even if it means stopping on the busy road…
As the weather was very pleasant, our walk continued and took us to the great views of the Roman Forum. Although we have entered it before, we realized that in order to appreciate it as a whole, the best place to see it is from above. Not being archeologists, our interest in ruins goes as far as admiring their present beauty while trying to imagine what the place must have looked like a couple of thousand years before (an impossible task unless they are whole!).
Anyway, in front of our eyes were the Temples of Saturn, Vespasian and Titus, Cesar, Castor and Pollux as well as the Temple of Vesta; the Arch of Septimius Severus and other remarkable surviving ruins of what once was the centre of Roman public life.
Our contemplation over, our walk continued downwards until we reached the Trajan forum, built in 106 by, not surprisingly, Trajan! The spoils of the conquest of Dacia, with which the forum was built in 106 must have been lean as it is built in bricks (maybe the marble had run out…). Trajan’s Column is next but it was built later (113), quite new for Roman standards!
The flag of the Order of Malta adds a touch of colour.
Once we reached the end of our legs’ strength (there was still an infinite Rome waiting!) we decided to return to base for a well earned shower and rest. We chose a short walk down “memory lane” that followed my first-ever walk in Rome: from Via Capo D’Africa, 47 to FAO via the church San Gregorio Magno al Celio. Little did we know that a final Roman act waited us!
The FAO Headquarters.
The smell of acrid smoke hit us near the church and we saw a small leaf mound on fire, probably the result of the work of a Roma City Council gardener. We did not think much of it and walked past noting a flock of police (women and men) nearby chatting animatedly. Nothing wrong there either. Suddenly though, we heard a siren and, lo and behold, a fire engine came rushing in to control the on-going conflagration!
Italy is the cradle of Opera and clearly Rome’s inhabitants have a flair for drama, even when dealing with really mundane occurences!
 The Hotel Penzione Lancelot (now Hotel Lancelot, still under Mrs. Khan’s management) is located there.
After the initial rather intensive contact with Matt, a time of waiting followed while settling down at Muguga House. I saw Matt less often as he was busy running the Tick Programme. It was time for waiting, he had said earlier, as possible collaborators needed to return from their home leave when the European summer ended.
I was still busy! My attention was fully dedicated to my wife’s arrival as this offered some logistical issues both locally but also en route. The local issues were easier: obtaining a more comfortable bungalow at Muguga House and persuading a colleague to provide us with night transportation to and from the airport as her arrival was late at night. The issue of her Visa was a serious concern, though. For some reason better known to the intricate recesses of international diplomacy, Uruguayans get a Visa at the airport in both Kenya and South Africa, a rather convenient procedure. All very well then. Not so: my wife needed an overnight stopover in Johannesburg and needed a Visa for South Africa.
Flight connections were not as frequent as today. Nothing wrong with that you may think. However, I had learnt while in Kenya that, because of South Africa’s apartheid being in full swing at the time (1981), passengers arriving in Kenya with their passports stamped by the “racist regime” would be denied entrance and sent back! This was part of the blockade being imposed by all African countries to South Africa at the time.
I could expect no assistance from the Embassy of Uruguay in Kenya as there wasn’t one! There were only three Uruguayan embassies in Africa: Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa. Aware of that there was no South African High Commission in Kenya I decided to first see the airline and then, if all else failed, to call the Uruguayan Embassy in South Africa seeking help. Cellphones did not exist and landlines between Muguga and Nairobi did not work very well so the best thing to do was to go to Nairobi to meet the airline, Varig at the time.
As her arrival was imminent I decided to travel to Nairobi the following day using public transport, no doubt encouraged by the experience I had on arrival. The trip consisted in finding a way from Muguga to the main road and then another one to Nairobi, both ways.
The trip started well as I was lucky to find transport straightaway and got to the main road in good time. I joined a crowd of waiting passengers and, soon enough, a matatu was waved down. It was a VW minibus, the brand that at the time dominated the minibus world in Kenya.
My hopes of a good ride in the front evaporated fast as this was apparently reserved for women and friends and currently overflowing. With moderate pushing and shuffling I entered, after paying the tout the necessary fare. “Not too bad” I thought while finding a seat in the back. “At least I will learn the dynamics of public transportation”. I also thought that the trip would have been fast as the bus was pretty full -by my standards- already. Nothing could have been more wrong! People needed to get out but many more got in until there were over twenty people in the back (I cannot say how many there were in the front seat as visibility was severely impaired!). Amazingly, we still accommodated a few more before we reached the Post Office stop at Nairobi city centre.
I literally popped out of the jam-packed bus and walked to the Varig office, almost on a “high” due to the sudden increase in oxygen levels, despite Nairobi’s high altitude! I hasten to add that, despite the large number of people and the scarcity of water in the rural areas, there was no more human body smell in the bus than in any minibus or lift in my country or the UK for that matter!
The Varig representative, fortunately, was not at all concerned by my predicament. “All you need to do is to ask your wife to get her Visa on a separate paper” she said. And she added, “She gets that paper stamped, makes sure that her passport is clean when she presents it to Immigration here”. Those were the tricks of countries under UN sanctions! The rather fast resolution of the Visa issue left me with time in my hands so I decided to look for Matt at ICIPE and I was lucky to get a most welcome return ride all the way to Muguga with him. He was rather surprised that I was so grateful and, after explaining the reasons, luckily he agreed to approach FAO in Nairobi to get me a vehicle. A rather good outcome from the matatu ride!
My wife’s travel went without hitches and I soon had her with me at Muguga House. Her arrival coincided with the return of most of the potential collaborators and I had the chance to meet some of them as well as do a lot of reading about tick and tick-borne diseases, working at the KARI library, an excellent source of historical research documents on the subject. I prepared a new work plan everyday, only to abandon it as my knowledge augmented!
Over the following days Matt took me for a round of official meetings to meet several people relevant to my future stay in Kenya. We had a rather difficult and cold meeting with the Government Veterinary Department and I could detect negative vibrations. In the end I was given the green light. Matt did not enjoy the meeting and he was rather short-tempered for the rest of the day. I, conversely, was happy that I was in Kenya to stay!
We also met the FAO Representative to update him on my plans as well as to plead for transport. Luckily, his response was positive and he asked the Administrator to identify a suitable vehicle for my use. This produced a VW Kombi, redundant from an earlier project, that was allocated to me for private as well as official use! An added advantage was that it had one of the most coveted items: a red -diplomatic- plate, a road opener. So we were finally mobile. The new car was ideal for us. Although it did not have 4WD, it had the necessary road clearance to take us all over Kenya.
Returning from a muddy Maasai Mara Game Reserve in the VW Kombi.
At Muguga we met the Director of KEVRI, a highly qualified, very friendly and smooth Kenyan that was very welcoming. He was the Chairman of one of the two most popular soccer teams of Kenya and very involved with soccer in the country. We connected immediately when he learnt that I was coming from a country with such a good soccer pedigree and, although we talked about my future work and how collaboration could be strengthened, the main topic of our first meeting was soccer! Among the issues we covered was the possibility of me getting a Latin American coach for his team! This was the beginning of a friendly relationship through which I got very good support at work and also shared a few soccer matches with him.
The final of the “obligatory” meetings was with the Director of ICIPE. He was a highly educated and suave Kenyan Professor that was difficult to meet as he was constantly in meetings, running the Centre and meeting Donors and partners. He was pleased to see me and gave me valuable directions on what my situation as a Fellow within ICIPE would be and, of course, directed me to his Deputy for further issues. During the meeting he was very clear that I was awaited at Rusinga Island as ICIPE’s new research station at Mbita Point needed scientists settling down there. After the meeting was over, I learnt from Matt that the Director’s home area was precisely Western Kenya and that was the reason for his keenness for me to get there. Apparently the die was cast!
After these meetings I saw Matt less frequently for a while. Luckily Robin, the ICIPE ecologist, returned and I started going to the ICIPE laboratory at Muguga to be with him and learn. He was a very kind man, graduated in Oxford, who never refused to answer my questions and be of help. I was really lucky to find him and with him I learnt most of what I know about ticks and their ecology!
I had been in Kenya for about two months by now and I still did not know about what I would be doing so, concerned, I decided to ask Matt what was happening. The opportunity presented itself when he came to Muguga for a meeting. I managed to get a moment alone with him and asked him about the situation. Matt’s reply left me cold: “Julio, if you are not happy with the situation you tell me now and we cancel all arrangements and you go back to Uruguay and nothing happens”. I was shocked and worried but perhaps I had insisted a trifle too much or perhaps he was having a bad day as his mood sometimes seemed to swing. However, as the FAO Fellowship was all I had, I replied that I trusted him and would wait. I said: “Matt, the idea is not to leave but to let you know that I am worried for the delays”, I answered. “I understand your problem but this is Kenya and things work differently and at a slower pace. This should be clear to you from the start, otherwise you will not be able to work here” he said, in a way that was meant to close this uncomfortable encounter. I got his message and began my adjustment process to Kenya, Africa and to Matt’s ways and moods!
A few days later Matt came to see me at Muguga. He was in a jovial disposition. “Julio, Alan is back and we are meeting him now” he said. The meeting was timely and good. Alan was aware of my arrival and very keen to work with me as he saw the collaboration as very promising. The various work options were discussed and it also transpired that Matt had been under great pressure from the Government regarding my work as the latter had different ideas. There had also been some administrative difficulties between FAO and ICIPE regarding the administration of the Fellowship’s funds. However, it had all been solved by now and we were, apparently, ready to go.
Matt was as idealistic as Alan was practical so they were a good combination: ideas and execution. I liked Alan from the start. During the meeting it was agreed that I would do some work at Muguga itself as well as field work. We would therefore visit Mbita Point and Rusinga Island with Matt. On the way back to Nairobi, we would take the opportunity to visit the ranch in the Transmara where Alan had his research on immunization. Finally, the return would be across the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, an added bonus.
It was agreed that, after that visit we would be in a better situation to take a decision on my future research work. In a way they kicked the ball forward! Nevertheless, I was happy to see movement at last. We agreed to leave as soon as possible.
It was July 1979. I was getting ready to travel to Armidale in Australia to join a team of scientists working on internal parasites of sheep to study for a PhD. My medical clearance, visa application and travel bookings for September were all advanced. I had been in Uruguay for a few months after getting an MSc in animal parasitology at the University of North Wales, UK and the PhD opportunity was the logical next step in my mind. I was very excited and looking forward to the challenge.
That is why the message from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Montevideo informing me of the arrival of an urgent Foodagram (FAO telegrams then) addressed to me was a jolt. It was not unexpected, as months back while ending my studies -and still in the UK- I had applied to an FAO Andre Mayer Fellowship to study ticks in Africa. However, it was inopportune!
I returned the call as soon as I could and they confirmed that they were trying to contact me urgently. As there were no faxes or e-mail attachments in those days, we agreed that they could send the -still unopened- telegramme to me by the local bus. I arrived the following day and I read it with some trepidation. It said:
URGENT STOP TO MR. J. DE CASTRO, TEL CARMELO 567, C/O FAO URUGUAY STOP PLEASED TO OFFER AN ANDRE MAYER RESEARCH FELLOWSHIP STOP YOU WILL TRAVEL TO KENYA AND JOIN THE INTERNATIONAL CENTRE FOR INSECT PHYSIOLOGY AND ECOLOGY TO STUDY THE ECONOMIC IMPACT OF TICKS ON CATTLE STOP MORE INFORMATION FOLLOWS BY POUCH STOP URGENTLY REPLY TO MS. IRENE FIELD, FELLOWSHIPS DIVISION STOP KIND REGARDS STOP EDOUARD SAOUMA, FAO DG
After digesting the contents of the telegram and its potential implications, I contacted FAO in Montevideo again and we agreed that we would wait for the information that would come by pouch. It was easier said than done and I immediately started to think on the decision I needed to take as, although Australia was attractive, Africa -being totally exotic- possessed a strong allure.
Some days passed and, in view of the absence of news, I continued with the Australia arrangements, just in case.
A couple of weeks later, however, I got an envelope with the promised information and the written offer that awaited an urgent response. Through the enclosed documents I learnt that Professor Andre Mayer had been Chairman of the FAO Executive Committee in the early days of the organization and left a donation to FAO for young scientists to conduct research projects in relevant development issues. I also learnt that I was going to be based at Rusinga island and joining a team of tick and tick-borne disease experts in Kenya. Images of an Indian Ocean island with palm trees came to mind!
My interest in animals led to me becoming a veterinarian and what little information about the African continent that was available did nothing to discourage my interest. During my childhood my mother -a devout catholic- subscribed to “El Africanito”, a monthly publication from the work of the Catholic Church in Africa. I used to read this every month. Later on, the series “Daktari” with Clarence the cross-eyed lion and the movie “Hatari” with John Wayne were fascinating to me.
Later in life and while already working as a veterinarian, I read a publication on African cattle in the Hoechst Veterinary Blue Book which highlighted the enormous numbers of cattle per veterinarian in Africa as compared with Latin America and other continents. More recently, my appetite had been further wetted by hearing my lecturers in the UK talk of tsetse flies and ticks and related travel tales.
This was my opportunity! However, I was committed to Australia. After a lot of thought and not much sleep I took the bus to Montevideo to find out more from FAO Representative in person. By the time I left his office I had made up my mind and chosen Kenya and, although unaware of it then, our lives would change in a way we could not imagine.
Luckily, the Australians were very pragmatic and they gracefully allowed me to unravel my Australian attachment so that I could accept FAO´s offer. The greatest opposition to the decision came -probably justifiably- from family and friends as it was going against “the norm”. I still remember the reply from an old friend when I told him that I was going to Kenya. “Julio, you are crazy” and then added “You will leave your carcass in Africa!” What reply could I give to what seemed like common sense?
The identity of Rusinga island remained a mystery. The available atlas we checked failed to locate it and it was finally a geography professor who informed me of its location in Lake Victoria, a rather large body of water I had not taken into account until then.
Part of Rusinga Island seen from Mbita Point.
I sent my acceptance and it was agreed that I would travel alone as I needed to pass through Rome for briefing on my way to Nairobi to join the work team. The plan was for my wife to join me later in Nairobi when I already had a clear idea of what it all meant and had gotten my bearings!
I do not remember my departure from Uruguay to Rome, perhaps I was too worried and nervous, or may be my memory fails me now! I do not remember what airline I traveled with or how the trip was. I do recall arriving in Rome and getting to the Lancelot hotel where, by virtue of sharing the dinner table, met other FAO and World Food Programme colleagues that spoke about the wonders of Kenya.
The Trevi Fountain in the 80s. I did throw a coin then and returned!
I also remember being stunned by Rome’s beauty and being paralyzed in fear of its traffic. The walk to FAO from the Lancelot was memorable as there are a number of monuments nearby such as the Coliseum, the Arch of Titus but also some potentially lethal traffic traps in at least three places. The experience of witnessing a visitor trying to cross the street remains vivid in my mind. Stopping at a red light I noticed a tourist by my side talking to his wife in German. He was obviously agitated seeing that the Italian pedestrians continued to cross the street despite the red light. He waited patiently for the light to change to green and then he stepped onto the pavement. The moment he did so, a car running a red light zoomed past him at very close quarters and he lunged backwards, totally dumbfounded. He was still there, totally lost when I moved on. Welcome to Rome, I thought!
Once inside FAO I had a triumphant feeling and I thought “I am in the world’s cathedral of agricultural knowledge and it is offering me something, well done!” At that time, young and ambitious, I thought I touched the sky with my hands and I even took my picture behind a desk to show my “importance” to family and friends. The people I met and their quality, both human and technical, immediately brought me back to my humble situation of a young person at the very beginning of his career and I focused on my work as it was obvious that I had lots to learn!
At FAO, thinking that I had made it… I was to return to work to this office in the 90s! The telephone had changed by then!
My FAO colleagues prepared me technically but they also gave me lots of well-meaning advice: do not try to do too much, at ICIPE you will have a good boss, everything on ticks and tick-borne diseases is happening in Nairobi now, it is an expensive place but there is an airport bus to town and cheap hotels, be careful with malaria on the coast. These are some of the ones I still remember. After one week, I was ready to travel.