Harvesting from the effort[1]

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.

A Boran young bull at Mutara ranch, Kenya.

A Boran young bull at Mutara ranch, Kenya.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

Sewing in Bolivia.

Market street of La Paz, 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.

The Appia Antica road, Rome.

Rome, 2009!

Rome, 2009!

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.

Time to move to Mozambique.

Speaking on World Food Day in Mozambique.

Speaking on World Food Day in Mozambique.

Interviewed by the press.

Being interviewed by the press.

Maputo's beach in Mozambique.

Maputo’s beach.

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.


[1] This post follows “Life and work in Kenya: Intona”.

Caput Mundi – Romeing

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.

The Colosseum never fails to amaze.

What about a

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!).

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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.

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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!

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The flag of the Order of Malta adds a touch of colour.

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[1] 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 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!

[1] The Hotel Penzione Lancelot (now Hotel Lancelot, still under Mrs. Khan’s management) is located there.

Kenya: Friends and foes[1]

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![2] 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[3]. 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[4] 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.

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[5]. 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.

[1] Follows “Kenya: Muguga”

[2] A complication that affected our lives and I will refer to in a future post.

[3] See “Africa – Arrival” in this blog.

[4] In Swahili, passenger minibuses or closed pick-ups.

[5] A couple of years later I learnt that the Kenyan Government had their own candidate for the FAO Fellowship that I got and my appointment did not go down well.

Caput Mundi

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Roman Forum.

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:


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.

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!

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!

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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.

FAO Headquarters from the Palatine Forum.

FAO Headquarters from the Palatine Hill.

Next: AFRICA! – Arrival