ICIPE

Life and work in Kenya: Muguga[1]

The next time I met Matt, after my return from Intona Ranch, he was very positive about my collaboration with Alan at Intona ranch. That was good news as I did not need to present to him all the arguments I had prepared. However he tersely informed me that there was still one more hurdle: a final meeting with all institutions to settle the issue. Apparently, a new idea had come to the fore that needed discussion. The Director of KEVRI from Western Kenya had proposed an alternative area of work in Busia, his home area, of course. “You would live at a former leprosy hospice there”, said Matt just managing to suppress a chuckle! I was not amused at his Scottish sense of humour.

The meeting was large and long and then it was closed. I was dismayed as for me, nothing was decided and I felt like holding the participants in place until they reached a decision. As clearly this was not possible, I also left rather crestfallen at the apparent lack of agreement. Matt came to me and said “We are fine, it will be Muguga and Intona!” I looked at him totally perplexed. He saw my expression and said “Julio, you should be happy as things went your way!” I accepted his words in amazement and learnt that meetings in the Kenya environment did not involve heated discussions as they did in Latin America, but rather polite exchanges where things are often left unsaid but at the end decisions are taken. I learnt another valuable lesson!

A view of the Isolation Unit showing the flat top acacias under which I spent long hours writing.

A view of the Isolation Unit showing the flat top acacias under which I spent long hours writing.

Believing Matt and having confirmation from Alan, the agreement was that I would use a two-pronged approach to tackle my goal of evaluating the impact of ticks on cattle live weight gain: a controlled trial where I would infest three groups of young cattle with a known number of adult ticks and therefore attempt a finer quantification of their impact under controlled conditions and a field trial where I would compare cattle with and without tick control. This was possible as Alan had a reliable method to engender immunity against Theileriosis, enabling us to stop chemically treating the cattle against ticks[2].

The controlled experiment would take place at the then empty Isolation Unit in KEVRI (Muguga) itself while the field trial would take place at Intona ranch. I set to work immediately as time was short and there were many issues to settle before the work would start. I needed herdsmen, ticks, cattle, housing, feed, drugs and transport to name only the basic needs. The FAO funding was a modest USD 20,000 so I needed to collaborate with others to achieve my goal in the two years I had left!

Tommi preparing an animal for tick infestation.

Tommi preparing an animal for tick infestation.

With my colleagues’ assistance I recruited two herdsmen for the Muguga trial (Chegue and Karanja) and two for the Intona ranch work, Kimondo and Tommi. The latter was a Maasai and this would prove to be an immense advantage working in Maasailand! The others were of Kikuyu origin, very hard working although rather fixated with money!

An animal with an artificial tick infestation applied by means of an ear bag.

An animal with an artificial tick infestation applied by means of an ear bag.

For the Muguga experiment I needed to purchase cattle and feed as well as secure a weekly supply of adult Brown Ear ticks to infest the cattle. A constant supply of ticks needs a “tick breeding colony” where you could breed them and, after planning ahead, you “harvest” them weekly to infest your animals. As the trial would last for six months, this meant 24 tick installments to be applied weekly on the animals. One of the reasons ICIPE had accepted my fellowship was that they maintained such a colony, managed by Fred, a very smart guy that became an essential clog in my machinery! Together with Robin we planned our needs and, luckily, it worked very well.

I bought the calves for the Muguga trial locally and randomly placed them into two groups with different levels of tick challenge and a control tick-free group. I needed to measure the feed given to them and I would weigh them weekly and take blood samples and other measurements to check them for other possible clinical signs associated with tick infestations.

The Isolation Unit accommodation was suitable and I had a storeroom where all consumables such as cattle feed and drugs were kept as well as a scale to weigh the cattle. Although I spent long spells at the Isolation Unit, I did not have an office apart from a table and chair under a beautiful flat top acacia that was only good for the dry season! I did have a place at the ICIPE laboratory. The latter was a Spartan contraption built of cement blocks and surrounded by a water moat (to avoid ticks walking away) where a large number of guppies (Poecilia reticulata) introduced to control mosquito larvae, also lived.

The “laboratory” consisted of a front area with a long bench under a window of the same length. There were also two windowless rooms where the tick colony was housed. The back of the building had cattle pens used for tick feeding as well as other experiments being carried out, mainly looking at cattle resistance to ticks. In addition to Matt and Robin there were a number of Kenyan scientists and PhD students working there as well as about ten technicians and herdsmen.

I occupied a slot on the bench between Matt on my right and near the entrance door and Robin, near the other end of the bench. Matt (a Scottish Vet from Glasgow) and Robin (an English PhD from Oxford) could not be more different but somehow they endured each other. In between these opposite characters I sat and worked. In retrospect I had a privileged location, as from my left came thorough knowledge of tick ecology and from my right a veterinary insight including vast experience as well as all sort of ideas for future projects! Work would start at 08:00hs, break for lunch at 13:00hs and resume at 14:00hs until 17:00hs where it was back to Muguga House. This timetable had been established years back during the FAO project and it was maintained until that time.

Matt was very punctual when he was at Muguga. At 13:00hs sharp he would announce that it was lunchtime, leave the building to go to his car to fetch a litre of milk and a book. He would come back, drink the milk, place his feet up (on my part of the bench!) and start reading his book (a Western paperback novel from the back pocket of his trousers!). Soon his by now familiar snoring invaded the laboratory! I was surprised the first time it happened and was going to object when I saw Robin’s resigned look, which led me to understand that any effort in that direction would be futile so I learnt to live with Matt’s antics as I did earlier at Mbita Point!

Luckily for my work Matt was not always at Muguga as he was the Tick Programme Leader and needed to be at several places such as the central ICIPE HQs at Chiromo and another place being built at the moment known as “Duduville”. For this reason his car was his office and he kept all documents on the back seat. In fact Matt was a shrewd operator that was difficult to find as he “rotated” between offices (no cell phones then).

I suspect that he spent some time fishing for trout as well! I often found him parked on the road from his house at Tigoni to Muguga reading “The Standard” newspaper and enjoying his Sportsman cigarettes.

While working at Muguga I learnt that Joseph was in charge of all workers at the laboratory and instructions should be passed on through him only. His authority did not include my newly recruited workers with whom I had a “direct” working relationship. The staff feared both Matt and Robin. As I was a temporary addition to the group, somehow I kept a closer relationship with them, despite Matt’s advice to the contrary!

The Muguga House garden.

The Muguga House garden.

Time after work during the first few months was mostly spent at Muguga House, a place we shared with other lodgers of several nationalities: Kenyans, Tanzanians and Ugandans were the majority but there were also a few British and now two Uruguayans, probably the first and possibly the last! It was clear that the place had seen better days during the colonial time and when the East Africa Community was functional. It had a large area where the bungalows were scattered and it offered its lodgers a couple of tennis courts and bowling greens. It also had a bar where darts were a popular pastime, only second to talking about Kenyan politics!

I took this picture of President's Moi motorcade. Later I learnt that this was not allowed!

I took this picture of President’s Moi motorcade. Later I learnt that this was not allowed!

Joyce did not or could not manage Muguga House very well. Despite this the place was still reasonable and although the bungalows were basic, they were kept clean. Food, however, was another story and the daily topic of conversation. The British-style breakfast was good and I skipped lunch as I remained at work. Dinner was another matter. It consisted of dishes such as egg curries (with no yolks!) twice a week, very tough and overcooked meat with ugali and sukuma wiki[3] (twice a week) and other bland dishes during the remaining three days.

Desert did not shine either and we were given artificial egg custard and rice pudding (both made with water), jelly (orange and red) and bread pudding with “flies” (tiny raisins). Cape gooseberries either boiled or as part of a crumble were there permanently and you could -if you dared- consumed them “ad lib“. We did get five o’clock Kenya tea and biscuits. Food would greatly improve whenever important visitors came for lunch or dinner!

Our first camping experience at the Maasai Mara. From left to right: Ranjini, Kevin and my wife.

Our first camping experience at the Maasai Mara. From left to right: Ranjini, Kevin and my wife.

Our first lions. Exciting despite doing what they do most of the time: rest and sleep!

Our first lions. Exciting despite doing what they do most of the time: rest and sleep!

After dinner conversations were well attended and, again, Kenyan politics was the main topic. I participated with stories of South America that generally horrified our British colleagues. I do recall my stories of pest control in Uruguay, in particular the elimination of the enormous numbers of damaging parrots that left one of them, a Cambridge graduate called Richard, speechless. Only much later was I to discover that he owned an African Grey parrot and suffered for the cruel fate undergone by its relatives!

Richard's parrot.

Richard’s parrot.

Through Richard we learnt of the existence of a house for rent at Tigoni in the outskirts of Nairobi, where many British lived, including Matt, Paul and Alan. We rented a house next to Richard’s, from a former Game Warden of the Serengeti National Park called Gordon. It was a superb location with tea plantations and remaining patches of virgin forest where many animals lived such as bushbabies and our favourite, the Colobus monkeys, surrounded us!

Our house at Tigoni.

Our house at Tigoni.

[1] Follows “Back to Nairobi”

[2] Ticks are killed by means of a toxic chemical known as an acaricide. The animals are normally “washed” with it but the chemical can also be applied by injection or poured on the back of the animal.

[3] In Swahili: maize meal and kale. The term “Sukuma wiki” means “push the week” in the sense that being a cheap dish, it helps to keep going.

Chicken “A la Rusinga”[1]

Matt, driven in a Range Rover, came to fetch me early in the morning for our rather long trip to Western Kenya. We would travel northwest, first following the Great Rift Valley then Kericho, Kisii and afterwards to Homa Bay. From the latter, already on the shores of Lake Victoria, we would proceed to Mbita Point. Rusinga Island was just across, separated by a narrow channel.

Matt enjoyed travelling. He was very cheerful while constantly giving me details of the route, Kenya, his work and other interesting facts. While going down the dramatic Kikuyu escarpment he pointed at a little chapel and said in his heavy Glaswegian accent “This road and this wee church were built by the Italian prisoners during the war” and he added “and you know, one of the guys that came from the Italian Alps longed to climb Mount Kenya, poor bugger”. He continued: “You know what he did? He organized other prisoners and secretly prepared the climb, including all necessary gear that they secretly made, escaped, climbed it and returned!” “That was good,” he said with amusement and respect for his enemy[2].

Going further down we saw Longonot, my first volcanic cone, then Suswa in the distance with its much larger caldera. As the Range Rover continued descending we spotted the blue waters of lake Naivasha with its freshwater, later lake Elementaita and finally lake Nakuru with their soda-charged waters, harbouring prolific birdlife. I made a mental note to return to this magnificent pink lake that on a more careful look revealed its secret: hundreds of thousands of flamingoes feeding on its blue green algae-rich soup. An ornithological sight difficult to match and to forget![3]

From there we continued to Kericho through extensive and manicured tea plantations that slowly became smaller areas as we moved through smallholder owned tea plots that somehow interrupted the large extensions of the commercial plantations. The area offered a great contrast between the tea and the clumps of forest that still remained, adding shady green to the yellowish green of the tea bushes. People, mainly women, were busy picking tea leaves, placing them in their back baskets while lorries were seen at points where the bulk of the tea was collected to be taken to the processing plants. We stopped at the Kericho hotel for lunch and then moved on past Kisii. Finally we entered the final dirt road towards our destination. The going was tough as the road was dusty and rough. I noted that the area got gradually more arid as we drove on towards lower altitude.

Towards Mbita Point.

Towards Mbita Point.

After a while, suddenly, Lake Victoria came into view. The sight did not match my expectations. It was framed by fairly bare and brownish rolling hills in a rather dry landscape that contrasted nicely with its blue water. It was humongous, a true inland sea! I thought on how the early explorers would have felt at finding the main suspect for the Nile source!

We stopped to enjoy the view of Lake Victoria in the distance.

We stopped to enjoy the view of Lake Victoria in the distance.

Eventually by mid afternoon we passed Homa Bay and after dustier travelling we got to Mbita Point and, just across, before my very eyes was the now “mythical” Rusinga Island! It looked beautiful by twilight and it suddenly hit me that I had come a long way from Uruguay! However, there was no time for soppiness as we needed to focus on practical issues: to find accommodation and dinner.

Rusinga island, across the channel.

Rusinga island, across the channel.

During the trip I had learnt -rather to my shock- that this was also Matt´s first trip to Mbita Point so he was as keen as me to see the place. The Head of the station, warned in advance of our coming, was there to welcome us. He apologized for the absence of accommodation and recommended a place for us to camp within the perimeter of the station. We agreed to meet again in the morning and got ourselves to put the tent up and unpack our belongings. While we organized the camp, Matt dispatched the Driver to find a kuku[4] and to bring it ready for cooking.

The entrance to the research station.

The entrance to the research station.

Matt had organized the food for the two nights we would spend there. I saw potatoes in the car and we had also acquired a large cabbage, bananas and charcoal on the road, as it is routine in Kenya. He had also brought a couple of sufurias[5], cooking oil, salt and pepper. Evidently food was not Matt’s main goal in life!

The tent job done, we opened the ubiquitous Tusker beers and proceeded to sit and wait for our soon-to-be dinner to arrive while contemplating the lake, peeling a few potatoes and boiling water. We spent some time discussing whether the Schistosoma[6] parasite would be present in the tap water of the station as we knew of its high prevalence in the area. As this parasite enters a person through the skin, we evaluated the risks of showering with lake water. After some discussion we agreed that we did not know but, more importantly, there was no shower on sight so the discussion ended with a hearty laugh while agreeing to continue in our dirty condition just in case. We left it at that and then changed the subject to the late Tom Mboya, a famous young politician that lived in Rusinga Island[7]. Matt told me that his house would be a good place for me to live. “Typical Matt” I though, “He has never been on the Island but he has already found me a house” but I refrained from making a comment!

We heard the return of the car and we looked at each other as we also heard a chicken! Dinner would be delayed as the Driver had difficulties to persuade farmers to part from one! Eventually, through the old trick of adding more Kenyan Schillings, had managed to buy one. It was a tough-looking country cock and, judging by the size of its talons, an elderly one! Matt was not impressed with the price paid but supervised its killing and cleaning by the Driver and myself. He then placed the whole animal in a sufuria of boiling water adding salt and pepper. The peeled potatoes were placed to boil in a separate one.

Our camp at Mbita Point. The chicken and potatoes boil while Matt relaxes.

Our camp at Mbita Point. The chicken and potatoes boil while Matt relaxes.

While we waited, time was passing when we heard “Jambo[8] pronounced in the way foreigners speak. It was a crop protection specialist from Ghana -resident at Mbita Point- that learning of our arrival had come to greet us. He knew Matt from Nairobi and he was pleased to see him again. He politely declined Matt’s invitation for dinner but he did accept a Tusker beer and stayed a while.

From him we learnt that at that time the station consisted of temporary prefabricated facilities to house staff and carry out basic laboratory work while the definitive laboratories, staff quarters, school and hostel were slowly being built. We joined him in a short walk by the lakeshore while he explained that he was there with his Dutch wife and that they had two girls aged four and six. He was a specialist on integrated crop insect control and was working on cassava, an abundant crop in the lake region.

The walk by the shore of the lake was very pleasant; the sun had already disappeared behind the hilly Rusinga Island leaving its trail of red –smoke-fed- haze with an amazing cloud frame, product of the high humidity that prevails around the lake. More basic needs suddenly interrupted our inspiring walk when Matt remembered our chicken! We rushed to our camp while our visitor, laughing at Matt’s panic, hastily departed not without inviting us for dinner on the morrow. We shouted our acceptance over our shoulders and kept running to attempt to save our dinner.

Not a chance! The water -clearly not enough in the first place- had evaporated for a while now and our dinner looked black and crusty on the bottom side and raw and very juicy on the top. The potatoes were also dried and rather burnt but had feared slightly better.

As dinner looked rather inedible and there was no way of preparing something else I braced myself for a hungry night. Conversely, Matt found the whole thing very amusing and, oblivious to its apparent inedibility, pulled bits of chicken apart and placed them on our plates together with pieces of the burnt potatoes. He passed me a plate with a Tusker and said: “Julio, welcome to Mbita” and then added with a sardonic smile: “Enjoy our Chiken a la Rusinga!” Unknown to me then, this event became our connection from then on and the anecdote came up in many conversations afterwards, helping us to connect. I must confess that I was so tired and hungry that I actually found the contrast between burnt and raw chicken meat tasty… but I think it was probably the beer that did the trick.

Dinner over, Matt got his whisky bottle from the car and, diluting it with water, started enjoying it. He cheerfully said: “Julio, I know you will be all right!” and, after a few more minutes of night contemplation, he stood up and, after wishing me good night entered the tent. I decided to follow him after brushing my teeth, still thinking of the lake water and its risks! He was already asleep when I finished undressing. Like him I passed out instantly and slept soundly until the morning, no doubt assisted by the Tuskers I have had but also by a belly filled with our newly created delicacy…

Somehow we survived the potentially severe Salmonella challenge and we were both alive in the morning. After coffee and bananas, we went to meet the Head of the station for a tour of the facilities. The fresh foundations showed the layout of the future buildings and the walls of the more advanced constructions had reached about one metre high. Clearly things were far from ready and I could detect some concern from the Head.

Despite the glaring unsuitability of the place Matt -to my surprise and growing irritation- kept insisting that I would be based here! This was music for the Head’s ears, eager to get new staff to “his” station. I kept quiet but my heart was sinking as to do all that was expected from me under these conditions would have been impossible and I saw myself having to build both house and laboratory to be able to move forward. “We have plans for Julio to stay in Tom Mboya’s house in Rusinga”, Matt repeated and the Head smiled and nodded in agreement. My concern was turning into desperation!

In accordance with what was there to see, the tour lasted a short time and we decided to visit the surrounding rural area, accompanied by a local technician to act as guide and show us the way and interpret for us. I found this much more interesting as it enabled me to have my first exchanges with the local farmers and to get a first hand feeling for their problems that, in regard to their livestock, were blatantly obvious! For the first time I saw dwarf cattle! They were the consequence of surviving trypanosomiasis and theileriosis as well as other diseases and parasites that will dispatch European cattle in days if not hours! To reduce the risk of trypanosomiasis cattle were kept tethered until late morning to protect them from the bites of the tsetse fly vectors and they were only left out to graze for literally half day.

A survivor! An adult steer with my wife and members of the public!.

A survivor! An adult steer with my wife and members of the public!. Please note that this picture was taken during a subsequent trip to the area.

“What do this animals produce” I asked, realizing that it was a rather inept question before I finished asking it! I was told that they gave a calf every 18 to 24 months and that they produced meat and little milk. However, I was explained that other factors are also important in Africa as cattle are not valued only by their productivity but by their many other functions: savings, status and as a source of dowry money. I could not fail to note that they were also covered in ticks of different species! I was starting to learn about African cattle!

The field trip took us until mid afternoon as Matt kept asking to see more and spent time telling them that their productivity would increase once ICIPE developed the tick vaccine! I thought of it as a rather far-fetched promise but that was Matt. We got back from our trip dusty and sweaty but there was no chance of swimming in the lake! If you were spared by crocodile and hippos you were still likely to contract schistosomiasis and spend days under treatment with no guarantee of a full recovery. So a bucket-wash with lake water, the less risky option, is what I took. While I was on cleaning duties behind bushes Matt sat and drunk a Tusker with no intention of improving his personal hygiene and still wearing the same clothes from Nairobi!

I was ready when the Ghanaian colleague came to fetch us for dinner. His blond wife and their two lovely dark skinned and blond girls greeted us on arrival to their wooden prefabricated house. Although the house was small it transmitted a warm feeling where you could see a woman’s touch and the children’s influence. Our dinner of Nile perch was excellent and our conversation started with Matt mentioning the Chicken a la Rusinga of the night before! While having our dessert I asked how was life in Mbita Point as I was curious and needed to prepare for it. Suddenly our hostess that had remained mostly silent came to life and said bitterly: “No drinking water, no electricity, no transport and endemic cerebral malaria” and then she added with a grin of dejection: “apart from that, it is fine!”

Sensing trouble her husband tried to change the subject but she continued, getting more upset when she mentioned that they had all been sick with malaria several times, concluding her horror story. Hearing this Matt tried to comfort her saying that things were improving. However, her reaction was not what he expected and she broke down and started to cry saying finally: “Matt, please do not send Julio here with his young wife, this is no life for them!”

After this acme the lady calmed down but the situation had become very awkward and we soon decided that it was time to depart. We thanked them for their kindness and left walking in silence towards our tent, her words “this is no life for them” ringing in my ears while trying to develop a valid strategy to convince Matt -and ICIPE- of the absurd of having to stay in Mbita Point. Matt did not say a word until we got to the tent and then he only said “Good night” and went in. I sat outside for a while, still thinking. Then I decided that sleep, away from mosquitoes, was the best possible course of action and went to bed.

I heard Matt loud snuffles before I entered the tent. Until then I was the one that snored and my wife had put up with it rather stoically. This time the tables changed and I needed to continue my adjustment to Matt’s ways, this time even while he slept! I came in silently, climbed on my camp bed and closed my eyes. Matt was quiet now so I relaxed and waited for the sleep to come. Soon I started to drift off when suddenly I heard a loud grunt followed by a longish silence and then the start of a chained sequence of snorts that became louder and louder to almost be unbearable and then as suddenly as they had started stopped, before Matt breaking apart! He had gone into an apnea that I associated with his passing. I was wrong; he was alive and well and would repeat the whole shenanigans again and again during the whole night!

A tip of Rusinga island in the forefront (right) with Mfangano island in the back.

A tip of Rusinga island in the forefront (right) with Mfangano island in the back.

His snoring beat my most extreme ideas on the subject and I lied there with open eyes in a moral dilemma: I wanted him to stop but I had heard that waking a snoring person suddenly could be fatal. I also wanted -and needed- him to live so I decided to bite the bullet. Gradually my tiredness got the best of me and with a parting thought that it would be easier to handle his dead body in the morning rather than worrying for each of his “deaths” during the night I also joined in with my own snoring contribution. I am confident in assuring you that our combined efforts kept Rusinga Island awake for a while!

Amazingly the following morning Matt was not only alive but had also already brewed some coffee for both by the time I woke up. “Did you rest well?” he asked knowing that I had not. Then he added “Julio, we need to find another place for you to work as this place is shit!” Startled by his change of heart, all I could do was to nod gravely making a supreme effort not to laugh and shout in joy! I did silently thanked the unhappy Dutch lady, my saviour!

It was time to travel to Kilgoris to meet Alan and to decide my fate and, by en large, my future life.

[1] Follows Kenya: Friends and Foes.

[2] See Felice Benuzzi in the “Pages” section of this Blog for more details.

[3] I am told that today the lake is not what it was as the flamingoes are not there in large number anymore.

[4] Swahili for chicken.

[5] Swahili for handless saucepans.

[6] See http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs115/

[7] See Thomas Joseph Mboya under “Pages” for more information on him.

[8] Swahili for Hello!

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.

Kenya: the Beginnings[1]

Recovered from my curry dinner and rested I met Matt, my future supervisor. My first impression was that he did not take much notice of his personal appearance. He was tall with stooped shoulders, going bald and had somewhat bowed legs. He wore khaki gray trousers, a long-sleeved shirt, a green cardigan and Clarks shoes (always the same model that he never changed[2] for the years I was with him!) and, at first sight, he seemed friendly and direct but also demanded respect. He spoke with a strong Glaswegian accent that took a while for me to get used to.

We had a cup of coffee and talked for a while and then he invited me for a tour of Nairobi as he said “Julio, we can talk while we see the city and tomorrow I will take you to Muguga House where you will stay for the time being”. I was delighted, as I had no transport. So we spent most of the day together and I got a valuable briefing on important issues for my future. Most importantly, I liked him and I thought then -I believe correctly- that he also liked me in his own way.

Matt had been born in Scotland 58 years earlier and graduated as a veterinarian in Glasgow. After working in Pakistan (he was very proud of his Urdu), in the 60’s he moved to Tororo in Uganda to work on African Animal Trypanosomosis[3]. His important findings on the epidemiology of this deadly disease placed him in a prestigious place in the parasitology world, particularly in the African context.

His success prompted FAO to hire him in Kenya to spearhead a very large programme to develop a protection method against another cattle scourge in East Africa: Theileriosis [East Coast fever (ECF) or Corridor Disease], caused by a blood parasite -somehow similar to Malaria- known as Theileria. Those were the days of the early East African Community composed by Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The Brown Ear Tick (Rhipicephalus appendiculatus) is ECF’s vector[4] inoculating cattle (and other wild animals) with the Theileria parasites from its salivary glands, and, most of the time killing the susceptible animal. Some wild animals such as African Buffalo survive the infection and become “carriers” of the parasite, a kind of storage for the disease that can jump again to cattle through the ticks as the latter feed on different hosts.

Theileria schizonts (inside cells with nucleai) and infected erythrocytes.

Theileria schizonts (inside cells with nucleai) and infected erythrocytes.

Theiler's condecorations for his outstanding work.

Theiler’s condecorations for his outstanding work.

Clearly, Matt’s main contributions to the programme were to keep a very diverse scientific team working together for years and to achieve its goal. (Later, I learnt that he was a strong leader and heard several stories of rather vehement programme meetings where participants came to blows and chairs flew but I am not able to confirm them).

It was clear that he had managed to successfully “translate” his research in Trypanosomosis to ECF. Success started when the programme managed to reproduce the disease artificially by injecting a known number of ECF infective units extracted from the tick vector[5]. This achievement enabled the programme to develop an efficient system to work with the disease that, after more than ten years of research, culminated in the development of an immunization method: a mix of Theileria types[6] that, when inoculated to an animal together with the right antibiotic (tetracycline), would produce a very mild disease and result in the animal becoming immune practically for life[7].

Cattle being dipped with acaricides.

Cattle being dipped with acaricides.

Until the development of this immunization method, the only way to keep cattle in ECF endemic areas was by “cleaning” the animals with insecticide-like chemicals known as acaricides[8] dissolved in water as often as twice a week! In theory, the new immunization method would remove the need for intense acaricide treatment with beneficial effects for both the animals and environment.

Despite the advances in ECF immunizations, the ticks would still be there and have an impact on the animals as parasites. I was a small cog in this rather complex parasite-vector-host system and my mission was to quantify the effects of the ticks themselves on productivity and their economic impact. I had 30 months to achieve this! Clearly Matt’s over-optimism had permeated the project proposal, as I later discovered was true for most proposals he developed…

Heavy tick infestation, mainly Amblyomma spp.

Heavy tick infestation, mainly Amblyomma spp.

Brown Ear ticks

Brown Ear ticks

Amblyomma cohaerens (gold) and A. variegatum (orange) tick infestation.

Amblyomma cohaerens (gold) and A. variegatum (orange) tick infestation.

The size of a tick!

The size of a tick!

Matt, at the timenow retired from FAO, was the Director of the Tick Programme ofat the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE). The ICIPE would host me as an FAO Fellow attached to the Tick Programme so he was my direct supervisor. . I was seconded by FAO to the latter, hence his role as my boss. The Tick Programme was working on the ecology of the Brown Ear Tick as well as searching for a “vaccine” against the Brown Ear tick vector. “Julio, we have a laboratory in Muguga and good relations with the veterinarians working on ECF there, so we will succeed”, he said. I listened with interest, accumulating questions and anxieties!

He was very excited with my arrival. I recall him saying “Julio, you are at the right place at the right time” while lighting another Sportsman cigarette (he was a heavy smoker), adding “Most of the important work on theileriosis is taking place in Muguga!”. In fact I was a bit too early but I did not know this yet! He explained that the work of the now finished FAO programme still continued and the immunization method was being laboratory and field-tested in various places in Kenya, mainly Muguga[9] and the International Laboratory for Animal Diseases (ILRAD)[10]. “Julio, the key word is collaboration” Luckily, because of his past work he had lots of connections with people working in ECF in Kenya.

Almost immediately he mentioned Alan as one of his main allies. A Northern Irish parasitologist that as Matt put it: “has green fingers with parasites”. You will work closely with him, as he is the man behind ECF immunization. “He is waiting for you at Muguga!” he said. He added, “Robin, our tick ecologist -on leave now- is also there. He knows everything you need to know on the ticks so you will be OK”. I noted that Muguga would be an important place for me!

We drove around Nairobi and he showed me some of the key spots: the FAO Office near Bishops Road, the ICIPE HQs at Chiromo, ILRAD and the Veterinary Laboratory, both located at Kabete and other useful places in town. He never stopped talking about work! We did not drive to Muguga (about 30 km north of Nairobi). He promised to take me there the following day.

I soon realized that Matt was an “ideas man” and that I was part of one of them! He believed that my fieldwork was possible and had agreed with FAO to host my research. I also learnt that there were a number of knots yet to be untied for me to do my job. The place where I would work was the main bone of contention but Rusinga Island was still top of the options. My preoccupation increased!

Lunchtime was approaching and Matt proposed to have lunch at the Nairobi National Park. I happily obliged. So, after stopping at a duka[11] to buy samosas[12] and two packs of milk we drove to the Park. We soon got there and we drove almost straight to the Viewing Platform without stopping to watch anything! Matt had seen all or did not care about wildlife! I took some hurried pictures of what I could during the short stoppages he did or from the moving car. It was the first “real” wildlife I had seen! We stopped for a herd of giraffes and drove past vultures at a kill and had our lunch while taking in the view extending into the Athi plains and beyond. It was my first picnic in the bush at a beautiful location! Matt continued talking about work, his enthusiasm unabated!

My first giraffe at Nairobi National Park.

My first giraffe at Nairobi National Park.

I took this picture of vultures at a carcass while driving past!

I took this picture of vultures at a carcass while driving past!

Occasionally he would digress to his other passion in life: fly-fishing. He loved it and never missed an opportunity to practice it. He explained that he was building dams at his house in Tigoni -an area North of Nairobi where many British lived- so that he could keep his own trout. “Julio, I can catch them from my verandah” he said while mimicking casting his fly towards the plain! I was also a fisherman but knew little about fly-fishing so I limited myself to polite and rather useless comments! He promised to take me to his house to show me the dams and to introduce me to his family. Clearly aware of my rather useless comments regarding fly-fishing he never invited me to join him!

At the end of the day Matt dropped me off at the hotel and we agreed that the following day he would collect me in the morning and take me to Muguga, my future “home”. I was tired, both physically and mentally. Although I had gained valuable information I had also accumulated many questions that I needed answers to. Being young and rather anxious, I needed to rest, relax and think. I had entered a new world with new places, new people and a different working methodology. I was beginning to realize that my work would come with a few trials. Despite this, I never regretted my choice as I loved the Kenya atmosphere and I was hopeful that things would work out in the end, despite my present doubts.

[1] This post follows “Africa – Arrival”.

[2] He may have several pairs of the same model!

[3] At the time Glasgow Veterinary College was strong in East Africa.

[4] Similar role to the mosquito in malaria.

[5] Until then ECF was only caused by applying live ticks.

[6] Theileria parasites vary in different areas.

[7] This method known as “infection and treatment” is still today the only practical method available to us, despite years of high-powered and costly scientific research.

[8] Ticks are acari. Acaricides are very toxic chemicals.

[9] The Kenya Veterinary Research Institute (KEVRI) of the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) was located at Muguga.

[10] Now the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

[11] The local name for a shop that in the “old” days was mostly owned by Indian migrants.

[12] A fried triangular pastry filled with minced meat, mutton or chicken, heavily spiced and chilly-hot.