field work

Lutale

As I already mentioned, we worked at two sites in Zambia: Lutale in Central Province where we did our long-term tick impact studies and Monze in Southern Province where we immunized cattle against East Coast fever (theileriosis). Lots of interesting things took place during that time, and I will attempt to describe some of them ones.

I was more involved with the work on ticks at Lutale as this was my field. Luckily, I needed to take care of Lutale on my own for only a few weeks as the new Associate Professional Officer (Bruno) arrived. He gradually took over the activities there leaving me time to coordinate the two components of our project. Then, I could visit both sites if necessary.

However, as it usually happens, once I managed to get things organized and going smoothly, another development emerged to complicate my life again. The FAO Representative (FAOR) suffered severe medical problems and he could not continue performing his duties. I was given this additional responsibility that added another office to manage increasing the time I spent indoors. My time for field work was regrettably reduced until the new FAOR arrived, about one year later.

Lutale was a populated rural area located in Mumbwa District, Central Province. For some reason that I ignore, the area was chosen to establish a field station devoted to the research on tsetse and trypanosomiasis years before my arrival. Later it became a regional training centre for middle-level tsetse and trypanosomiasis control. That was its situation when I arrived and our tick project had been placed there by Rupert, our predecessor, that had started the work about three years earlier.

The Lutale field station. The steps to the left of the pick-up took you to an open air office on top of a hill!

Lutale was under the authority of Chief Chibuluma that lived nearby, and our project was well integrated into the local rural setting as we employed people from the village to help with our activities. Although we sold the milk our cows produced milk in Mumbwa, the villagers had priority and got milk every day. The village also had meat when we slaughtered our surplus animals.

Chief Chibuluma at one of the parties.

The aim of the work was to determine the impact of cattle under local conditions. Fortunately, water was not a problem as there was a dam that had water all year round. Grazing was another issue as it was very poor during the dry season, particularly towards the end. The scarcity of grass, even straw, forced the cattle to eat the thatched roofs of our office buildings. Although this is amusing now, it was an issue at the time as we always feared that our animals would starve. A lesser problem was that re-thatching was needed every year!

We had a very good rapport with Chief Chibuluma and his family and we even employed a couple of his sons to work with us. The Chief had a very good rapport with Bruno and he also enjoyed my visits as I would sometimes bring some whisky that we enjoyed together sitting under the thick shade of a mango tree at his house while his family went about their business.

Unfortunately, he had some problem with his legs and could not walk very well. However, this did not stop him from moving as he had developed an inventive but also amusing way to overcome this difficulty. As the rugged terrain was not suited for a wheelchair (that would surely have ended up stuck in a culvert during the dry season or in the mud during the rains), he moved about by bicycle. However, he did not pedal but was pushed around by one of his teenage sons while he happily drove to his destination!

Bruno was a hands-on person and he built his own house at the station, close to the dam. The building progressed fast and soon he had a very good house, complete with a living area (sitting room, bedrooms, kitchen, and toilet) as well as an office/laboratory. The place had plenty of hot water virtue of a Tanganyika boiler as well.

Soon his wife Dominique arrived and, like us, they also had their children born in Zambia, the very blond Tiffany and Collette that had an African village early childhood that unfortunately they do not remember! As soon as they were able to walk, they intermingled with the local children, and it was nice to see them playing, totally oblivious of any racial hang-ups.

There was a lot of work at Lutale to keep our observations going. We were comparing three different tick control methods on cattle liveweight gain and milk production as well as keeping records of the tick burdens of each animal. Milking and weighing the animals was rather straightforward but tick counts demanded intensive work that usually lasted a whole morning or even the entire day, depending on the number of ticks present.

All cows were milked daily, and the production recorded for each cow. Further, once a month all cows were inoculated with the hormone oxytocin. This produced milk let-down and a measurement of total daily milk production was hence achieved. Milk and surplus meat and live cattle sales made a profit that we re-invested in the project (paying salaries, repairing the project facilities and other expenses).

Our main way of disposing our surplus cattle was not slaughtering them but selling them live through a yearly auction. This had gone on for a few years and it had become an event that the farmers around the area waited to happen. Apart from the Lutale people, farmers as far as Mumbwa and Namwala would come to get animals as our auctions were based on the weight of the animals sold. In addition, as none of us were auctioneers, we decided to do it through secret bidding by issuing the buyers with “bidding papers” for them to place their offers.

Auction days were busy but also fun as they allowed us to meet with the local farmers and listen to their experiences and challenges. People would arrive early, and we were kept active making sure that the cattle were displayed in order. We invited the administrator of the Ministry of Agriculture to audit the procedure and to help us handling the money and depositing it in the bank.

Once the sales were completed it was time to open the bids and call the “winning” farmers to pay so that we issued them with a receipt so that they could take the animal(s) away. As the Kwacha was rather devalued at the time, we usually ended up with an inordinate amount of paper notes that were eventually spread on a table and painstakingly (but as fast as we could) counted. The work usually ended after sunset!

Not all was tick work at Lutale, there was some medical and detective activities as well as fun. Because we had vehicles, we often functioned as improvised ambulances taken patients to the Mumbwa hospital. Although most women had their babies at home, there were difficult births that required our help, almost always late at night!

A large herd of cattle is tempting, and we had a few incidents of rustling. I recalled one where we lost six of our experimental cows, a fact that could have seriously affected the results of our study. Hoping that they had not yet been slaughtered, we launched a rather desperate search, together with the police.

We drove many kilometres around Lutale without any luck and then we decided to extend our search towards Namwala through a very bad road looking for them until we eventually spotted them in a field. As usual the culprits were not found but we did not care as we had “saved”!

As for the fun, once a year we would organize a large party for the whole village for which we would slaughter a steer (we had a few reserved for such occasions) and brought chibuku [1] for the people to “refresh” themselves. We would get the brew in Lusaka and carry several hundred litres in the back of a truck from where it would be dispensed in rather large “glasses” [2]. This usually ended up with quite a number of invitees getting drunk and falling sleep around the bush as it happens in these kinds of occasions.

Mabel and I participated in a couple of parties where, together with Chief Chibuluma, Bruno and other project staff we were the “guests of honour”. In one occasion we took our daughter Flori and she stole the show. It is well known that Africans are extremely kind to children and a white baby was a novelty and people were extremely curious about her. Before we realized they took her away from Mabel! She was then passed around so that everybody could see and touch her. She seemed to enjoy the process that lasted for quite a while!

[1] Chibuku is a beer made of sorghum with an alcohol content that when fresh is low (0.5%) but that increases as the brew ferments reaching 3-4.5%. Brownish in colour, it is not filtered and therefore it contains quite a bit of solid stuff, and it needs to be shaken before drinking.

[2] Two to five-litre containers cut across the top keeping the handles.