Maasai

Picnic in the Rift Valley

For months Paul mentioned the idea of going for a picnic to the Rift Valley. He claimed that along the Narok road there were a number of large acacias that would offer the necessary shade while we could not only enjoy watching game but also looking across this vast depression presided by the Longonot and Suswa volcanoes.

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The Great Rift Valley seen from the Kinangop area.

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Mout Longonot.

Eventually we were convinced and one Sunday morning we gathered at Paul’s house to travel to the chosen picnic area. Apart from Paul and us other participants were Timothy and his fiancée Jill and a few other friends that filled Paul’s long-wheel base Land Rover. We were not only humans in it as Timothy (the egg cleaner of my earlier post! [1]) decided to take along his red setter called Bitch despite our advice to the contrary!

So, we took the rather dangerous old Naivasha Rd. down the Kikuyu escarpment and eventually branched off towards Narok. Once at the bottom of the Great Rift Valley we started looking for the appropriate spot.

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An accident along the Kikuyu escarpment near the bottom of the Great Rift Valley. A frequent occurrence then.

After a few km we spotted the “selected” trees and headed for them across the dry savannah where a few Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles stopped browsing to briefly watch us and try -unsuccessfully- to determine our intentions (we were not entirely clear either!) but soon decided to ignore us. As we got closer to the special trees we noted -with some concern- that they had already been booked: flocks of sheep and goats were stationed under all trees we saw!

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The occupied trees…

Aware that coexistence with small ruminants over a picnic would be rather difficult we set off to find the owners of the animals to negotiate with them for one tree. We soon found them nearby as they left one of the trees to meet us. A small committee left the car to meet with them and then, the unexpected struck!

The moment we open the car doors, Bitch took off at full speed! And behind her Timothy also departed trying to stop her shouting “Bitch, stop! Bitch, stop!” to no avail. Bitch had spotted game animals and she would not miss the opportunity to get one!

As we stopped hearing Timothy’s shouting first and then watched his silhouette disappear in the horizon, we decided to focus on our negotiations with a pair of Maasai boys that felt rather intimidated by us!

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After a while the herdboys could not resist their curiosity and the flocks also came in!

Despite our language barrier they soon understood our request and agreed to release one of the trees for us to have our picnic.

Bitch and Timothy quickly forgotten we started to get ourselves comfortable and assembled our temporary “al fresco” banqueting area. As the tree had been used for generations of Maasai livestock it did not only reeked livestock but also its soil was composed by tons of compacted dung! So much for the idea of the shady tree!

Luckily we noted that the shade was starting to cover some of the adjacent grassy area so we placed our table and chairs where we calculated the shade would be as time went by and we were prepared to follow it.

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The picnic area being moved following the shade.

After an exploratory walk in the surrounding area we finally settled down to drinks and some food. The chat was animated and we did wonder about Bitch and Timothy’s whereabouts (for a few seconds!). Luckily, about an hour after lunch we saw a speck on the horizon and a debate started of whether it was Timothy or some other Maasai people. After a while, through the binoculars, we identified Timothy. He eventually arrived, walking slowly and carrying the dog on his arms (not because of love for the dog or because it was injured but because he did not have a leash and he was fed-up with the dog running away every time she spotted a moving animal!)

While we waited for Timothy to recover and while he locked Bitch inside the car, we decided to engage ourselves into some target shooting (some of us still believed then to be “white hunters”!!!). Paul kindly sacrificed an old white enamel plate that we placed on the tree as our target. Then we lined up all chairs so that we would shoot from a similar distance.

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The Bushsnob failing to ht the target watched by female participants already chuckling.

As good gentlemen (?) we started shooting from a short distance to give the ladies an opportunity to hit the plate before we moved farther away and things became more difficult. So, the shooting started. Surprisingly, all the men missed the target and most women except my wife that had rarely handled a gun in her life (but has good eyesight!).

After declaring her winner of the first round -with badly hidden embarrassment- the men took the decision of moving further back in the belief that they would recover from the earlier setback. We all missed again but, when the turn of my wife came, we all heard the “ping” of the lead shot hitting the plate! Beginning to feel uncomfortable with the state of affairs we moved back quite a long distance for the final round.

Do I need to tell you that the only “ping” we heard again came from my wife’s shot? After that the men suddenly lost interest on the shooting and developed a sudden curiosity for birds. The ladies had a good laugh and celebrated among themselves.

So a great picnic day ended leaving us with the memories of Timothy chasing his dog and my wife hitting the bull’s eye every time! The latter event is still remembered today by the participants, almost forty years later!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camping in Kenya. Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

We “learnt” lots of the secrets of camping in Africa from our friend Paul, another veterinarian working at Muguga, Kenya. Soon we had broken the barrier of “camping among the beasts” as most campsites in Kenya were unfenced. We often visited Paul during his long spells residing in the bush while working in the various national parks and/or in the fringes of parks and game reserves.

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One of Paul’s camp sites in the Maasai Mara. His camp hand Tobias is on the left.

It was great fun and we soon started to go at it alone. Preparations included the procurement of a few second hand camping items that, apart from a small tent, a couple of chairs and a foldable table, included a large frying pan with an extremely long handle, as my wife did not and still does not enjoy cooking at the fire. For working purposes, I could use a large ICIPE tent that added great comfort to our outdoor lives.

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While in Kenya we practiced “basic” camping!

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Working camping was still basic but we had the advantage of a large tent.

Our most frequent camping destination was the Maasai Mara where not only Paul often worked but it was an area I needed to drive through on my way to Intona ranch in the Transmara where I was working with ticks and tick-borne diseases as explained earlier[1]. Luckily my work took us there regularly as I needed to supervise the on-going observations as as well as to bring new personnel to be stationed at the ranch.

Camping in the Maasai Mara very often involved close encounters with different animals and you needed to be alert at all times as elephants and buffalo were present in large numbers, in addition to the normal and harmless savanna dwellers such as giraffe and the various antelopes. Although leopards were quite rare, the place was a predators’ playground.

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Near Kichwa Tembo Camp, Maasai Mara.

The Mara-Serengeti area is world famous for the annual migration of wildebeest and zebra and luckily we witnessed this unique event several years (in fact we watched it every year while in Kenya!). The richness of easy prey is matched by an equal abundance of predators. Lions were a common find and spotted hyenas were really plentiful. So, our camping regularly had some exciting moments, particularly after dark!

From the start we learnt that we were safe (well, as safe as we could be) while inside our tents and we were always extremely careful when moving around camp, particularly when light started to fade. Although some friends preferred to keep fires burning all night, we did not but whether this has an effect on nocturnal visitors I do not know. All I know is that rhinos are believed to stamp out campfires, a fact I could not corroborate as rhinos were already few in the 80’s[2].

Helen was the daughter of a well-known veterinarian from the UK that had come to spend some time in Kenya[3]. We met her at a social event and, as she was looking for opportunities to travel around, I invited her to join my wife and I on one of our regular trips to the Transmara. She immediately accepted the offer.

So, as arranged, we picked Helen up one early morning as the journey was a long one over rough roads and we wanted to arrive to the shores of the Mara River, adjacent to the Maasai Mara, early as this would enable us to go for a short game drive with Helen.

I had an agreement with the Mara Buffalo Camp to stay close to them and I was also kindly allowed to use their facilities. Usually we would arrive at our Mara margin campsite with just enough light left to set-up camp, dine and go to bed. Sometimes our departure from Muguga would get delayed and we would arrive after dark and needed to set up our tent with the car lights!

We would then spend the following day driving to Intona where we would usually camp in the ranch for two or three nights while the work was done and return without stopping all the way back to Nairobi because I had another on-going trial in Muguga and time was quite short.

The journey with Helen went as planned and we arrived in good time. After setting up camp, by mid afternoon we went for a game drive to show some of the beautiful Maasai Mara and its animals to her. We saw most of the usual plains game but failed to find any predators, apart from the ubiquitous spotted hyenas that were extremely common in the area.

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A spotted hyena dealing with a wildebeest carcass.

Tired from the long journey and the additional game drive, our dinner was a quick affair and we were in our tents rather early as we had another journey the following day whose duration was difficult to predict as we needed to negotiate some bad roads that were often muddy and slippery.

While laying on our camp beds, as usual, the lions started to roar far away and we called Helen’s attention towards them. She was very excited to hear them but soon our exchanges got interrupted by sleep.

I am not sure at what time the lions’ roars woke us up but probably it was midnight or perhaps later. We could hear several lions getting closer as their growls gradually got louder. We estimated that they were probably coming along the river although we could not be sure. I did not wish to open the tent door to have a look for fear of attracting unwanted attention so we could only imagine the lions approaching our camp!

After a few more minutes of stillness during which my wife and I waited with bated breath, the visitors arrived, preceded by loud roaring a few seconds earlier and followed by the noise of “flying hooves”. The rumpus did not last more than a couple of minutes as, apparently, the lions were -we also assumed- going for a herd of zebra and/or wildebeest although we did not hear them calling. We did hear a few items being knocked over in the process and then the animals left, luckily.

Only then we remembered Helen! We shouted at her telling her not to move from her tent but, although we tried to get an answer from her, we failed. Concerned, I shone the torch in the direction of her tent and I was relieved to see that it was still intact although I could confirm that some of our belongings had indeed suffered the consequences of the tresspasers!

As the animals moved off, we gradually relaxed and decided to leave things for the morrow as Helen was surely fine and tidying up the camp could wait. I only hoped that she would not decide to go to the toilet before daylight. So it was back to a rather fitful sleep but nothing else disturbed us that night.

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The Oloololo escarpment as a spectacular backdrop for a zebra herd, Maasai Mara.

The following morning, while water was on the fire, we gathered table, chairs, towels and a few other minor items while we checked the abundant footprints in an attempt to unravel the events of the night. The conclusion was that several lions had been there chasing zebras through our camp as we failed to find wildebeest prints. The kill, if any, had taken place somewhere else and we decided to look for it afterwards on our way to Intona.

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One of the prides resident near our camping area in the Maasai Mara.

While we were busy around camp, we heard “Good morning” and we saw Helen emerging from her small tent. Only at that point I paid attention to her tent and felt relieved that it was still intact. It was one of these mountaineering jobs, low on the ground and of a bright blue colour! Helen looked well rested and asked us what we were doing. “We are looking at the spoor, trying to understand what happened last night” I replied. Helen gave me a look of confusion and said: “why, what happened? I slept all night and even did not go to the toilet!”

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A male lion feeding on a topi kill at the Maasai Mara.

I was quite relieved by her ignorance of the facts and felt tempted not to say anything but I thought the truth should be voiced so I told her the whole story. Her eyes got larger as I talked and at first she had doubts about my story so I had to show her the footprints of the various animals and, eventually, she believed me and she was both concerned but also disappointed to have missed the action!

Although we took a detour looking for a possible kill nearby, we failed to find any traces of neither prey nor predators, although we knew they were watching us!

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A zebra kill at the Maasai Mara.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/07/08/life-and-work-in-kenya-intona-2/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/intona-ranch1/

[2] I leave the research about whether this is true or not to you as Google does not seem to give a straight answer.

[3] Years later, her father was the External examiner of my PhD Thesis.

Black tea in Maasailand

There are incidents in life that have a strong influence in the future and although the improper use of a microhaematocrit centrifuge may not be the commonest of examples, it had an impact on mine.

In short, while working at a colleague’s laboratory in Muguga, I forgot to place the inner lid over the blood-filled capillaries. The result of a short spin -I switched the machine off immediately- was a bloodstain at tummy height all around, including the people present! Basil, the Head of the Laboratory while watching his own red mark at waist level, made only one comment in the best British understated style: “Julio, you need a PhD” and abandoned the room leaving me alone to clean up the mess!

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My usual “laboratory”, quite far from Basil’s!

Basil’s words sunk in my mind and I decided to attempt a PhD as, clearly, I needed more scientific training, in addition to learn how to properly use a microhaematocrit centrifuge! Through a Muguga colleague I managed to get in touch with Cambridge University in the UK where I was -to my surprise- accepted. Unfortunately my initial enthusiasm got quickly dampened when I learnt about the university fees and the option was quickly discarded.

After more enquiries I learnt that I could do a PhD as an external student at my former Department of Applied Zoology of the University of Wales. So, very soon, I had organized the study at a small fraction of the cost. Luckily Ian, a Lecturer and friend from the Department, agreed to be my external supervisor while my ICIPE colleague Robin kindly agreed -apart from being my tick ecology teacher- to take on the day-to-day supervision of my work.

The rules of the PhD were very strict and they included a visit by the external supervisor to Kenya. Fortunately, Ian planned to present a scientific paper at an International Protozoology Conference[1] held in Nairobi in 1985 and the time was very suitable for the review of my work.

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Ian, right, and a smart Bushsnob attending the Conference.

Most of my fieldwork was carried out at Intona ranch[2] in the Transmara. So, when the time for Ian to come to oversee my work, apart from the more routine visits to the main ICIPE office in Nairobi and to our Muguga laboratory, the exciting part was a trip to Intona itself. In those days, the Transmara area was an uncommon and rather exciting destination in Kenya.

As usual, the trip required some organizing, particularly as I did not wish to give a bad impression to my Supervisor during his only review of my work! I got authorization from the always kind Murumbis to stay at the main house at the ranch and to get their staff to look after us.

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The main house at Intona ranch.

The one-day journey to Intona was an enjoyable one as we drove by the Maasai Mara Game Reserve where animales were always very abundant and then crossed the bridge over the Mara river to climb the Oloololo escarpment through Lolgorian to, finally, get to the ranch where we settled down and spent the next three days looking at our trials and analyzing my data.

Images of the journey, above and, below, some of the work we reviewed at Intona ranch.

The afternoon of the day after arriving, knowing that Ian was a great tea drinker[3], I decided to treat him to some five o’clock tea at the house’s back verandah where there was not only a beautiful view of the parkland and wildlife surrounding the house but also some very snug chairs.

I asked the cook to use some good Kenya tea I had brought for the occasion and we sat to chat, waiting for the fresh brew to arrive. We did not wait for long before the teapot came with the necessary milk and sugar. Tea was served while we contemplated the various art objects that decorated the verandah while the cook -trained by Sheila- discreetly withdrew.

I poured the tea and the milk and drank it while enjoying the both the taste as well as the view while Ian drank his. We talked about the journey and the animals we had seen, particularly during our stopover at the Maasai Mara but also during our trip when close to Intona. Seeing that Ian had finished his cup, I offered him more. To my great surprise, he politely declined!

When I insisted, making a comment about the tea being good, Ian mentioned that he found it with smoky flavour that he found rather unusual and too strong to his liking. Then I realized that our milk supplier was a Maasai lady from a manyatta nearby and, when I had a look at the milk, I confirmed that I had overlooked a detail: the milk was grey with a rim of dark froth!

With my apologies, I confessed to Ian that, in my enthusiasm to treat him to a proper “cuppa”, I had overlooked that our milk came from the Maasai who added a few pieces of charcoal to the milk gourd! Although Ian did not change his mind regarding drinking a second cup, he was very amused about the reason for the smoky flavour.

Although I knew that a few drops of cow urine were also added as a preservative to the milk, I did not mention it to Ian!

 

 

[1] The VII International Congress of Protozoology Held at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, Nairobi, Kenya, 22-29 June 1985.

[2] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/07/08/life-and-work-in-kenya-intona-2/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/intona-ranch1/

[3] His favourite saying was: “Whenever there is a crisis, have a cup of tea. Many times the problem goes away after that”.

Memories – A fishing trip

Thomas was one of our Maasai askaris[1] at Intona ranch. He liked cattle so, in addition to his guard duties, he often volunteered to take them for grazing. This was welcome as he was fearless when it came to walk in the bush and dealing with the buffalo herd that often intermingled with our cattle. It was rather amazing to see the herdsmen and Thomas separating our cattle from the buffalo herd!

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Intona cattle kraal

Thomas was a very friendly young man and he got on very well with the other workers so, when I proposed to the workers to join me in a fishing trip, Thomas was very keen on the idea and he came along.

During the time of the fieldwork I often travelled to Intona ranch over the weekends, as I also needed to spend time working in Muguga on the laboratory trial during the week so time was short. Although there was some work to be done on Sundays, we tried to keep this to a minimum so that we had time off to rest and relax. Being rather restless I was always looking for some activity to do during this free hours. For this visit I had brought some fishing gear as I wished to try my luck in the Migori river, one of the boundaries of Intona ranch.

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The Migori in flood. We fished from these banks.

The Migori river water ends in lake Victoria after it joins the Gucha river forming the Gucha-Migori river basin. During every trip that we came to Intona via the Maasai Mara we crossed the Migori river bridge about 10 km before we arrived to Intona ranch. The area was well forested and there were a number of large fig trees in its vecinity making it a very attractive area as the shore of the river before the bridge was open grassland and seemed safe from the presence of buffalo, the main danger in the area.

It was in this bend by the river that we often saw a sounder of Giant Forest hogs[2] (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) grazing in this clearing. As these dark grey animals were a rare sight, it was a highlight of the journey for me whenever we spotted them, as they were quite tolerant of our presence with their impressive size, the males being about 100cm high and up to 190cm long with a mass ranging from 180 to 275 kg. Their name honours Richard Meinertzhagen who shot the type specimen in Kenya and had it shipped to the Natural History Museum in England in the early 1900s.

This “hog spot” is what I chose for our fishing expedition as, apart from catching fish, I also hoped to get a glimpse of these animals towards the evening. Our fishing targets were Clarias gariepinus or African sharptooth catfish. We had fish them earlier in the Mara river just outside of the game reserve and I saw no reason for them not to be in the Migori.

After fruitlessly digging for earthworms at various places in the bush I remembered Mrs. Murumbi’s greenhouse and garden at the main house and, after a short commando sortie we managed to get a handful from the large compost kept there.

The final preparation for the fishing trip was to run a tutorial on the basics of fishing as none of my companions had done this before, as they did not come from fish-eating ethnic groups. Aware that it had taken me some time before I could master the proper use of rod and reel, I decided that I would handle these equipment and prepared a couple of hand lines for my companions to use. We chose an open field and, after a while I judged that the team was as good at fishing as it could be so we went.

We left before lunch and took some food and non-alcoholic drinks for lunch and my companions were quite excited at the prospect of trying a new activity. Thomas in particular could hardly control his excitement and this somehow dented my understanding that the Maasai did not care for fish. Maybe Thomas was the exception?

After a quick lunch under the shade it was time to try our luck. I gave hand lines to Thomas and Joseph, I kept one rod and gave the other one to Mark. As expected, the earthworms were attractive as I felt them biting as soon as my hook landed.

Somehow, Thomas got lucky and hooked something that after a short struggle with a rather thick hand line happened to be a reasonable catfish. After a short squabble he soon had it out of the water and his happiness at his feat was incredible. It held the fish with both hands looking at it and laughing while talking to it. He said that he would eat it, something I found strange but, busy with my own fishing, I did not pay much attention. So, Thomas departed to clean his fish. We continued fishing and had some bites that, regrettably, resulted in clean hooks.

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Thomas and the fish!

After a while we noted Thomas’ absence but, distracted by our own fishing, did not think much of it. After a while longer of not seeing him and knowing that many dangerous animals were present, we stopped fishing and went searching for him. Joseph went one way and I took another path thinking that like that we increased our chances of success.

After walking perhaps 100 m following the river I saw Thomas seating down against a tree and I called him but did not reply. I called him again but still no reply so I assumed him to be sleeping and got closer to wake him up and then I saw his unsheathed simi[3] and the pool of blood. He had a bad cut in the palm of his right hand that was bleeding profusely and he was very pale.

I shook him and he opened his eyes and, still smiling, looked at me. He was weak but alive and, lifting his wounded hand above his head, I helped him to walk towards the car, calling Joseph to come and help. He appeared and, between both of us, we took him to the car and drove him with his hand bandaged and up outside the car towards the Lolgorian seeking medical assistance.

Maasai lived rather dangerous lives. Not only they fought often among themselves with serious consequences but also, as I described in an earlier post, they were constant skirmishes taking place at the time with the Kisii ethnical group that was moving into the Transmara. As if this would not be enough, they walked through the bush where many dangerous animals dwell. Although they do not fear them, they often suffer the consequences of encounters with wild animals, in particular with African buffaloes as these animals camouflage well and attack by surprise and without notice.

This way of life explained why the Lolgorian clinic was very busy that Sunday afternoon. Concerned about Thomas’ condition, I entered the hospital running and went straight to the emergency room asking for a doctor. A nurse pointed me to an European young guy in white that I assumed – correctly as it turned out – that he was a doctor.

I hastily mentioned that I had an injured person that needed his help and he gave me a rather tired look and motioned to me to look around. In my haste I had not paid attention to the “waiting room”! There were at least five people waiting before Thomas. A couple looked sick with malaria but the others were suffering from various traumatic accidents. I remember one that was holding his bloodied abdomen and another that had almost severed his large toe. It was clear that Thomas would need to wait.

Without much ado the doctor asked me to help him and I spent that Sunday afternoon cleaning wounds and helping him to stitch the severed toe and to close an abdominal wound caused by a buffalo horn! I was shocked by how stoic people were throughout the proceeds and this included Thomas’ stitching, comparatively a minor affair.

After finishing with Thomas, we thanked the doctor and left. During the return journey with a much more recovered Thomas, we learnt that while gutting the fish he had tripped and fell. During the fall his right hand had slipped over the length of the simi’s blade and had cut his hand very deeply.

With a much-recovered Thomas we arrived to the fishing spot at dusk where, before we collected all our fishing gear abandoned earlier, we had the privilege of watching the gian forest hogs! Thomas, now feeling strong again, collected his fish and, laughing again, assured us that he was going to eat it!

 

[1] An askari (from Arabic) was a local soldier serving in the armies of the European colonial powers in Africa. The term is still used today to informally describe security guards.

[2]  Listed as of “Least Concern” as they are relatively widespread, it is acknowledged that there is a general decreasing trend for the species across its range. In Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan Giant Forest hogs live also in very fragmented populations.

[3] A short sword used by the Maasai people with a leaf-shaped blade. It is kept in a scabbard made of wood and covered with rawhide.

Upset Maasai

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Tommi checking the cattle at Intona ranch.

As I mentioned in earlier posts about my work in Kenya, Tommi was one of the herdsmen working with me. Regrettably he passed away in a car accident a couple of years after I left Kenya, the sad consequence of a very common event in that country where unsafe public transport claims an excessive number of innocent lives.

Tommi frequently accompanied me to Intona ranch with great pleasure as for him it meant “going home”. He was not exactly from the Transmara area as he came from Narok but he was close enough to the Maasai around Intona to feel well among them.

This was a great contrast to herdsmen belonging to other ethnic groups, such as Benson above, that did not relish spending time in Maasailand. This was particularly obvious among the Kikuyu workers that could not wait for me to relieve them from their duties and take them back to their homeland. I still remember their voices getting louder as soon as the Kikuyu escarpment came into view after Narok! We, outsiders, do not often realize how foreign parts of a country can be to other nationals, product of some arbitrary divisions decided by their colonizers.

In the case of the Maasai people, their territory got split between Kenya and Tanzania when the straight line from lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean coast was drawn as the border between these two countries. Eventually the line did not end as a straight one. This was not the consequence of Queen Victoria giving Kilimanjaro to her grandson Wilhelm to meet his complaints of not having a high mountain in Tanzania as it is often believed, but part of the treaty of Heligoland through which Germany abandoned some places in the Kenya coast, receiving in compensation the Island of Heligoland in the North Sea.

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The herdsmen and cattle guards. Benson in blue and Tommi in white.

The herdsmen lived at a tented camp at Intona and their presence attracted both vervet monkeys and baboons. Over the years that the camp was there the monkeys gradually became more cheeky as they got used to taking food from the camp. This was an annoyance to the herdsmen and Tommi in particular took exception to the primates’ shenanigans.

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Mwizi’s relatives.

There was one particular individual that Tommi identified and called Mwizi that in Swahili means thief. He was able to recognize that particular animal and he maintained a long feud with it. The baboon seemed to know this and kept a wide berth from the man! For a few months a truce seemed to have been worked out but one day Mwizi overstepped the mark. (!!The baboon took advantage of a distraction and broke open Tommi’s bag of maize meal spilling its contents all over the tent.!!) This was the proverbial straw and the last act of misbehaviour that would be would tolerated.

Tommi decided to take exemplary action against the intruder. Before I tell you what happened, let me tell you that the Maasai social structure is based on a system of age-sets. This applies primarily to men, as women become members of the age-set of their husbands. Successive age sets, at about five year intervals, are initiated into adult life during the same period forming a cohesive and permanent grouping that lasts throughout the life of its members.

The age sets go through successive milestones that are celebrated as ceremonies. Among these are, to name a few, Emuratta (circumcision), Enkiama (marriage) and Eunoto (warrior-shaving ceremony)[1].

Tommi, like all Maasai boys had undergone their circumcision and became Sipolio (recluse). This is an important step into manhood (and warrior-hood) and, after this somehow dreaded event, the newly circumcised boys roam around the countryside dressed with dark garments and armed with bows and arrows. They shoot blunt arrows at girls as part of their social interaction. They also use the same arrows to kill small birds that they skin and place around their heads, together with ostrich feathers. During this time they acquire excellent skills with the various weapons.

In view of the above it is not difficult to imagine that Mwizi’s fate did not look good. I was not aware of the development of this feud at the time so its finale took me by surprise. After a day’s work, I was getting ready for a wash and tidying up my own camp when I heard the commotion, or rather Mwizi’s screams. It is not normal to hear a baboon screaming unless there is some kind of danger, so, expecting some leopard-mobbing, I rushed to the place where the screams where coming from.

There was no leopard but another kind of drama was unfolding. Tommi, looking upset, was circling a tree near the cattle kraal. Once closer, I realized that he had managed to tree the baboon and he was about to execute his revenge. He carried a few stones and he was trying to get the best angle from where to throw them at Mwizi! I felt sorry for the beast but the events moved too fast and the adrenalin was flowing on both sides so I could only watch from a distance, keeping my own head down!

I imagine that some stones had flown before I arrived and this explained the baboon’s alarm calls. The first stone I saw Tommis’s throw at the terrified beast missed it by a few inches and, Mwizi moved to the top of the tree. At that time Tommi said “I got it now” and threw another stone that must have passed a couple of cm from the baboon that now offered a clear view. This was too much for the monkey that was now in a serious panic with the consequence that it emptied its bladder first and soon afterwards the rest followed.

I have mentioned earlier that I do not like baboons while camping but I could not help feeling sorry for the poor creature so I did the unthinkable: I negotiated with Tommi on behalf of the victim! I managed to calm Tommi down and he agreed to leave the terrified animal alone. Seeing that the siege had relaxed, Mwizi climbed down in a flash and disappeared into the bush.

Vervet monkeys and baboons continued to visit our tents and behave in their usual opportunistic ways taking food items from us so we really needed to take care at all times. As I could not recognize individual baboons, I took Tommi’s word that Mwizi was not among them and that it had migrated to another troop in the Transmara, away from its deadly enemy.

 

 

[1] Among the many books describing the Maasai culture I would like to recommend “Maasai”, written by Tepilit Ole Saitoti and illustrated by Carol Beckwith.

Not just dinner

Kenya became independent on 12 December 1963 when Kenyatta became its first President and Odinga the Vice President. Not surprisingly, in 1965 Kenyatta and Odinga fell out, and Murumbi (Joe) was named Kenya’s second Vice-President for a few months until he resigned in December 1966[1].

As described before, I became involved with Joe through the work we did with Alan Young on tick and tick-borne diseases. He wholeheartedly supported our work. As with all scientific work, a substantial amount of time was spent writing research proposals in order to get the funds to continue with the research. Once the funding is secured, donors visit your field sites to see for themselves the activities being performed with their funds, the conditions of work, applications, progress, etc. These visits are critical for the future of your investigations and that was the way that they were also understood at the institute I was with. This meant that all should go smoothly and a good performance was expected.

I had several such visits but none as important as the final evaluation of our tick programme in the mid 80’s. Laboratory and field work came under the magnifying glass and, as it is quite normal our results were mixed. My part of the bargain was going well as we had good collaborators and achievable goals. Our partner with the highest profile was of course Joe and, in addition, nature was a great partner. Soon the donors knew that Intona ranch and its surrounding area -including the Maasai Mara- were beautiful areas worth a visit and this was good for us and we used it to our advantage!

The organization of a “high level” visit needed lot of work as guests would usually fly to the Maasai Mara where I would meet them and look after them until the following morning when we would climb the Oloololo escarpment and drive about three hours to Intona, hoping that the rains were light and we did not get stuck in the various tricky spots we needed to cross and spoil our trip! Usually our journey would take us to the manyatta (Maasai dwelling) of the Maasai Chief to inform him of our visit and to our GTZ collaborators, if applicable. The visit would last two days during which our work was shown and presented and future prospects discussed in detail. We were of course very fortunate that Joe and Sheila (his wife) allowed us to put them up in their magnificent house.

t mara intona ranch j murumbi 1

Joe and Sheila’s house at Intona ranch, Transmara, Kenya

During this particular visit Joe and Sheila were at Intona. They normally flew directly to the ranch, together with their dogs! Aware of the importance of the occasion they kindly offered to organize a dinner for our guests. This was not an everyday event, but I had joined them for dinner a few times before and I knew that it would be a formal occasion with excellent hospitality and very good food.

The day of the visit arrived and I collected our visitors from Kichwa Tembo Camp, located close to the Oloololo escarpment and, after a game drive that they thoroughly enjoyed in the surrounding area of the Maasai Mara

m mara small cropped

The Wildebeest moving through the reserve.

-that I knew very well- we spent the night there to leave early morning for Intona. The road was good and, once there, we devoted the rest of the day to visit our field activities. They seemed pleased with what they saw. I was also pleased and looking forward to the dinner to close a long day.

The Intona area is under the influence of the near lake Victoria and it frequently rains for a short spell in the afternoons. As a consequence the sun sets in a cloudy sky resulting in the most glorious and colourful sunsets. Aware of this Joe positioned the house in such a way to be able to make the most of them by having a wide west veranda where we congregated often to talk and have a drink before dinner. That day it was no exception and we joined Sheila and Joe for sun downers and polite conversation until Sheila, the perfect hostess and a very experienced one, announced that dinner was ready. While walking to the dining room she came close and whispered: “Julio, we have a new cook that came with us from Nairobi, I hope it will perform as he has excellent recommendations”. Knowing her standards I had no doubts and told her so.

trans mara

A view of Intona ranch in the Transmara parkland.

The dining room had a door to the kitchen and another one to the enormous and beautifully decorated sitting room. It had the most exquisite antique wooden table and chairs and antique rugs, most probably of Afghan origin, covered its floor. I knew from past dinners that under the rags at the place where Sheila sat there was a bell that she will press in order to call for assistance from the staff. This was her “secret weapon” that enabled her to coordinate things so perfectly that the guests would be amazed. Needless to say that it was a candlelight affair with lots of silverware and crystal!

When the first course came, brought by staff dressed in white with purple fezzes, it was a brownish coloured soup that looked rather disappointing. Trying it did not improve its look: it had a strong curry flavour and it was chilled! “I hope you like our Mulligatawny soup” said Sheila while she gave an approving look to the new cook that was overseeing the dinner from a discreet distance. Your concerns about the soup dissipated the moment your spoon found some submerged resistance that transformed itself in a spoon tip full of cranberry jam. The combination was simply amazing!

After our praise of the soup ended, the staff came back to collect our plates and this time the new cook looked happy and smiley, “the success with the soap was a boost for him” I thought while noting a serious-looking Sheila. By the time the roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes was brought in, the cook was definitely too happy and talking loudly to the visible embarrassment of our hosts. Sheila, used to deal with the highest-ranking world figures, ask to be excused and went to the kitchen, an unusual event. In the meantime, we enjoyed our roast that was really excellent.

Soon, Sheila came back announcing that all was well although she could not hide her concerned expression. We understood her fears the moment the cook opened the door of the kitchen when the staff came to collect the plates. The cook proffered, rather loudly, his hopes that we enjoyed the main course while trying to keep steady. By then we could not help noticing the strong alcohol whiff and knew that the worse had taken place! The spirit meant to go into the cooking had been “diverted”!

Although the guests and Joe were rather amused, Sheila was visibly upset! She excused herself again and went to the kitchen. We could not help overhearing a loud argument or rather Sheila’s shouts! There was a door banged and the sounds of a scuffle. She came back; her usual cool almost lost and red on her face. As an experienced host, she re-gained her composure fast and invited us to move next door to the sitting room for coffee and liquor. I stayed back with her as the guests and Joe moved out and Sheila -unseen by the guests- looked at me as if asking for support and understanding. I made my best “do not worry” gesture and moved to the sitting room together with the guests. She remained behind.

Intona sitting room copy

We all sat in the ornate sitting room and overlooked the cook’s episode, listening to Joe. Although soft spoken, he was a great host and a very engaging story teller with great tales and anecdotes from his many years in politics. We listened for quite a while until more noises coming from the kitchen area hinted that all was still not well and then Sheila reappeared –now with a grimace- to announce that the cook would like to say good bye to the guests! “Oh, no”, I thought, “is the situation that bad!”

The cook appeared escorted by the night watchman and a couple of staff and boisterously said “bye-bye!!!” but did not move and tried to say something but what came was a rather loud burp followed by another “bye-bye!!!” After this performance he was immediately manhandled out of the room, still saying “bye-bye!!!” and waving at us until the door was closed behind the group. I still vividly remember his final wave just before the door was shut! Confronted with this final act, even Joe was briefly embarrassed while the guests and I were quite amused!

The following morning Sheila and Joe were leaving for Nairobi and, as usual, I escorted them to the plane to assist them with their luggage, dogs and other items that they needed to take with them. They were sorry for what had happened. I felt very bad to have put them in this situation and explained them that I was very grateful for their hospitality and, to their obvious relief, I also told them that the donors were very pleased with the work and also very proud to have had the opportunity to have met them and enjoyed their hospitality, including the cook incident.

Before closing the door of the plane I spotted the cook. He was seated at the very back, looking penitent. I could not decide if his rather sombre looks were a consequence of his hangover, Sheila’s morning sermons or a combination of both!

The next time I was invited for dinner at Intona there was a new cook!

 

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/joseph-zuzarte-murumbi-1911-1990/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/06/22/joe-1/ in this blog.

Javelin throwing (almost Olympic games)

The view of the Mara triangle on the Maasai Mara from the Oloololo escarpment on the way to Intona ranch.

The view of the Mara triangle in the Maasai Mara from the Oloololo escarpment on the way to Intona ranch.

Despite our busy work schedule we did not work on Sundays. We took the morning to explore Intona and its surrounds as there were always interesting sightings, particularly in the area towards the Migori river forest.

A flooded Migori river at the back of Intona ranch.

A flooded Migori river at the back of Intona ranch.

A notable tree in the Migori river forest.

A notable tree in the Migori river forest.

After lunch and seeing that there was not much to do I hatched the idea of a spear-throwing contest and mentioned it to Ernest. “What about an international spear throwing competition this afternoon?” “We can have participants from Africa, América and Europe, almost like the Olympic games”, I added. Ernest happily agreed and I got on with the organizing.

Apart from Ernest and myself there were also a Ugandan veterinarian and Kikuyu and Maasai assistants, admittedly both Kenyans but from different ethnic groups. “After all, we are in Maasailand” I thought and we should find a suitable javelin” “Let’s find a good spear and get the throwing field organized,” I said as I was already walking towards the herdsmen camp to arrange the details. “Tommi, I need to find a good spear” I said before I said good morning, and added, “I have an idea”.

He and the other herdsmen knew me by now and they smiled in anticipation. Tommi assured me that he could easily find the right tool as there were Maasai nearby that he knew. Good news!

A similar spear to the one used in our competition.

A similar spear to the one used in our competition.

While Tommi strolled through the bush in search for the spear we walked about to find a suitable field where the competition could take place. We found a good site and placed some distance marks while we waited for Tommi’s return. I also went around the farm inviting participants to the event. I managed to engage Joseph (Kikuyu, Kenyan) and Kiza (Ugandan) in addition to Tommi (Maasai, Kenyan), Ernest (Swiss) and myself (Uruguay). We had an international field!

By the time Tommi returned after lunch we were all ready and waiting. He brought a sturdy looking spear that we judged suitable for the task although it was rather long and heavy. It had a long metal blade, a wooden middle part and along steel rod at the end. It was time to start to get done before the daily 17:00 hours shower!

Ernest and helpers examining an animal for ticks.

Ernest and helpers examining an animal for ticks. The herdsmen tent can be seen in the background.

Av copy

A heavy Bont tick infestation on a heifer at Intona ranch.

All participants agreed at the onset that measurements would be done in paces. It was thought that equal throws were unlikely and the need for laser-aided technology[1] was thought not to be required. No bets were allowed, as just by looking at the competitors, an inexperienced observer should have been able to guess who the favourites were! This did not come to our minds while we warmed-up.

As the start of the competition approached, the tension increased and, by the time we drew our throwing terms, it was almost unbearable… For some reason Uruguay went first, followed by Joseph the Kikuyu representative, Switzerland was third, Kiza, the Ugandan fourth and, a fitting finale, the last to throw was Tommi, Maasai. It may as well as he was the “host country”.

Aware that I would not win I argued in favour of some try throws to get the right balance of both body and javelin but, regrettably for me, the other competitors (unkindly in my opinion) refused arguing that this was not in the rules (?). So, resigned to my fate I grabbed the spear and got ready to do my best. It felt heavy and rigid. I threw it and, the second it left me I knew that there were problems with both direction and distance. It was a rather poor show that landed a long way from the cattle boma and far from my possible personal best. “I have never had any strength in my arms” I said, trying to feel better. “about 20 paces is not too bad for my age”.

Joseph was quite fit although he was from a relatively well off Kikuyu family and this was beginning to show around his midriff. His throw was better than mine but stopped at 26 paces. Ernest, the Swiss researcher turned athlete improved my mark by a couple of paces and Kiza, the man from Uganda, despite his relatively small size, did much better than all at about 30 paces. A big smile lit his face, as usual and a lesson to us all that size is not that important but good technique is!

It was the turn of the Maasailand representative, the final competitor. He was perhaps the most relaxed participant and the one that was enjoying the tournament the most! From the moment he picked the spear we all new that the competition was over! We exchanged resigned glances and head shakes and got ready for an Olympic humiliation! We tried our best to disrupt his throw by talking to him but, he just smiled and replied to our remarks without losing his composure.

He held the spear naturally, balancing its weight by instinct. Almost without running and with a fast and wide arm movement he threw it, almost unexpectedly and even casually. The spear flew high vibrating with a “swiiiiiiisshhhh”. It went beyond our throwing field and over the cattle boma. We lost sight of it but run in the general direction where we last saw it to see how far it had gone. Behind the cattle boma it was the herdsmen camp so, when we fail to find it inside the boma we got more worried and started looking around the camp. There was no trace of the spear anywhere and the camp looked normal. For this we were reassured as at least there were no casualties!

We looked around the tent, near the fireplace, chairs, table, up the trees and all over: no spear! Nothing stuck on the ground, nothing visible up the trees or stuck anywhere. “Another mystery of the African bush”, I thought, or some Maasai magic I was not aware of?

As there was no point in arguing in favour of declaring the throw void on account of it having gone beyond the throwing field or even worse, on account of the disappearance of the instrument, we declared our Maasai warrior the undisputed winner. The absence of the spear meant that there was no possible revenge. This came as a relief as a change of the result would have been unlikely!

I apologized to Tommi for having had the idea that has led to the losing of his borrowed spear and offered financial compensation for his loss. He said that he had thrown it and lost it so I did not need to worry. He will eventually find it he said. I expressed serious doubts but gave him the benefit of the doubt and, as the rain was starting, I moved to our tent.

That night, while we were having our dinner we herd loud talking and laughing at the workers camp next door and went to have a look. The spear had been found! In its wild trajectory it had gone through both the flysheet and the tent and it was embedded in one of the herdsmen’s camp beds, luckily empty at the time of the event! I felt great relief that nothing had happened and a lesser one that the spear could now be returned to its owner!

I cannot remember how I explained the tent holes to my senior managers. Maybe I did not and it just remained as normal “wear and tear”!

Transmara, Kenya circa 1986.

[1] I do not think it was available at the time, anyway!

Back to Nairobi[1]

The return trip from Intona ranch took us through the attractive Transmara parkland where its green natural grasslands were splattered with islands of forest, usually associated with large termite mounds. These forest patches coalesced at times to form larger wooded areas, particularly when linked with a river. Talking about rivers, we crossed the Migori where Alan said a group of Giant Forest Hogs (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) -a Transmara “special”- could be seen grazing in a forest clearing next to the road[2]. Other common game was plentiful, crisscrossing the road almost continuously. Alan informed me that the wildebeest had crossed the Mara River and were grazing in the area of the Mara triangle and some would climb the escarpment towards the Transmara. I was happy to know that we were heading in that direction!

Migori river in flood.

Migori river in flood.

A large tree near the Migori river.

A large tree near the Migori river.

The dirt road took us through Lolgorian where two GTZ German animal health specialists were supporting the Government of Kenya by giving veterinary assistance to the Maasai. We stopped to greet them as Alan had some ground-breaking collaboration going on with them, as mentioned in the earlier post. It was the first time I saw a small field laboratory that could deal with most relevant diseases while keeping work simple and straightforward. It was known as “ILRAD II”[3], an irony that Alan found very funny although it took me longer to understand the humour behind it!

Maasai working with their animals at Kilae, near Lolgorien.

Maasai working with their animals at Kilae, near Lolgorien.

A Maasai heifer. Note the heavy branding.

A Maasai heifer. Note the heavy branding.

ILRAD II (outside).

ILRAD II (outside).

ILRAD II (inside).

ILRAD II (inside).

After that enlightening visit we continued and passed a religious mission where Father Frans Mol lived and worked. Although we did not stop, I met him on other occasions and learnt of his erudition when it came to the Maasai people.[4]

Moving on and still in the Transmara we came to the “red hill” an infamous stretch of road. “When it rains, it is like driving on a bar of soap” said Alan and added, “I hope it is dry today”. He went on: “Because of the proximity with Lake Victoria, it rains almost everyday here so it is tricky at the best of times!” “That is why you should leave in the morning as to avoid the afternoon rain”. Alan continued: “You should engage 4WD and advance slowly in second gear. If the car starts sliding off the road all you can do is to stop and hope that the car stops and that you can straighten it again”. And then laughing: “I know people that have spent the night here!”

A common occurrence at the Transmara!

A common occurrence at the Transmara!

Luckily we managed it without problems and then we came to a stretch of black cotton soil that looked menacing to me as it was fairly water-logged. However, we slowly moved forward and even gathered some speed, as the wheel ruts were deep enough to prevent us from going off the road and our only option was to go straight. The road became better and then we found large wheat and barley plantations where the Maasai had leased their land to commercial farmers.

Soon we got to the edge of the Oloololo Escarpment. I can claim to be many things but a poet is not one of them, so I am not able to describe the view that unfolded below us. It was a green sea that extended as far as you could see. In it you could just make out vast numbers of animals; those forming long lines were wildebeest and zebra while the small specks were Thomson’s gazelles. A few elephants could also be seen together with an almost black and compact herd of buffalo. This sight will be with me until I die![5] I asked Alan to stop for a while so that I could take in the view a bit longer while stretching our legs. While watching the green marvel, Alan explained that we were looking at the “Mara Triangle”. He pointed out the Mara River to me as well as where Tanzania and the mythic Serengeti were.

We started our descent and eventually crossed the Mara River at the bottom of the Escarpment. We passed Kichwa Tembo Camp and then deviated into the Maasai Mara Game Reserve to have a look at the animals before continuing on the way to Aitong, Narok and Nairobi. The place was magnificent and we saw vast numbers of wildebeest and zebra grazing as well as other animals roaming around. A special mention to the Thomson’s Gazelles that are ubiquitous in the Maasai Mara; they are an integral part of the ecosystem. The best description I have heard about these gazelles came from Paul, my Mentor in FAO, who visiting the place for the first time, told me that they look like shoals of tropical fish!

Zebra with the Oloololo Escarpment in the background (I will remove the dirt from the ski when I learn to do it!)

Zebra with the Oloololo Escarpment in the background (I will remove the dirt from the sky when I learn to do it!)

Maasai cattle at the Mara river bridge.

Maasai cattle at the Mara river bridge.

Cattle drinking at Narok dam. Note cars used at the time: VW Kombi, Land Rover Series III and Land Cruiser 50 series!

Cattle drinking at Narok dam. Note cars used at the time: VW Kombi, Land Rover Series III and Land Cruiser 50 Series!

As detailed at the Intona ranch post the return journey only served to strengthen my conviction that I should work at Intona ranch, something that with the help of Alan, Matt could be persuaded to accept, thus allowing me the privilege of driving through the Maasai Mara Game Reserve on the way!

 

[1] Follows “Joe”.

[2] I did see them very often in this spot where they were quite tolerant of my presence and could watch them during long spells.

[3] The International Laboratory for Research in Animal Diseases was a state of the art large facility located at Kabete, near Nairobi. Today is known as the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

[4] Fr. Frans Mol MHM, affectionately known as the ‘Apostle to the Maasai’ worked at the Ngong Diocese covering most of Maasailand. He authored several books such as: Lessons in Maa: a grammar of Maasai language (1995) and Maasai Dictionary: Language & Culture (1996).

[5] We were at the very spot where Out of Africa’s famous final scene was filmed! Watch the movie and you will get the idea of what I saw in 1981!

The Cattle Are Gone!

Tongai came to see me today. Before he spoke I knew that there was something amiss so I braced myself for bad news. Information had come from his rural area that his cattle have disappeared. About one month ago, as the best possible saving strategy, through a loan from his employer i.e. me, he purchased four cows to start a herd in his home area.

Apparently the animals were taken to the dip tank, together with the family herd, for their periodic anti-tick treatment. This time they became very itchy and restless after the procedure which resulted in them breaking out of the holding pen. This means that they are now “bush-borne”. My immediate question, coming from someone that has spent his life in Africa, was “Why did only your cattle disappear?” The reply was convincing enough: “They are the new ones and they may have gone to their previous homes”. This sounded logical to me and we are still waiting (and hoping) for news that they have been found.

While talking to Tongai, memories of earlier cattle feats came rushing to my mind and I am now sitting at the breakfast table -the only sunny place on this Harare winter morning- writing this post to the detriment of the planned shopping that will need to wait until tomorrow.

The evergreen and beautiful Transmara area where Intona Ranch was located.

The evergreen and beautiful Transmara area where Intona Ranch was located.

In the page “The Blogger” I mentioned that my work in Kenya took me to Maasailand. I travelled there at monthly intervals for several years, crossing the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, up the Oloololo escarpment, into the Transmara District, pass Lolgorian and into Intona ranch where collaboration between the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology and the Overseas Development Agency of the British Government (now the Department for International Development) was taking place on ticks and tick-borne diseases.

A calf ear showing a heavy infestation of Rhipicephalus appendiculatus, the Brown Ear Tick, vector of Theileriosis.

A calf ear showing a heavy infestation of Rhipicephalus appendiculatus, the Brown Ear Tick, vector of Theileriosis.

Please note that I will be referring to the Transmara and Intona ranch in future posts and I will satisfy your curiosity with further details as a lot of what I will tell you took place there or on the way there (see future posts under Memories). For the subject of this post it is enough to mention that I was in charge of a trial that involved the comparison of cattle with different levels of resistance to ticks. To this effect I had four groups of five cattle each in four adjacent paddocks, protected from large animals by an electric fence and from the many predators prevalent in the area by watchmen.

An "antique" blue slide to show the paddock design. There were five cattle in each of the sub-units 1 to 4.

An “antique” blue slide to show the paddock design. There were five cattle in each of the sub-units 1 to 4.

The Transmara District of Kenya is home to the Maasai of various clans (Uasin Gishu, Moitanik and Siria). Intona ranch was -and although now rather derelict- is located in Maasailand and people on foot moved freely through it. This meant that we were constantly being visited by our neighbouring Maasai who came to offer us milk and other produce.

More background is needed here before I continue with the story.

Cattle are the centre of Maasai life and cattle owners have a colossal wealth of information about their animals stored in their memories. They know not only the parents of a particular animal but also its grand parents and a couple of generations before that at least! They can tell you their colour, whether they were of good stock or not, how they died and other information on their cattle that they consider relevant. They are very proud of their animals and their aim is to get as many as possible as this gives them a better social status. One of the first things I learnt about them is their belief that God gave them all the cattle on earth and therefore rustling cattle from other people will just be recovering what is theirs.

Clearly then, being a veterinarian -able to treat their animals- meant that I was held in high esteem. This often resulted in them bringing their sick animals to me for check ups and treatments! It was a community service that I provided with great pleasure.

Now back to the story.

Try to picture me arriving at Intona one late afternoon with a large lorry full of young cattle and you start to get the picture. If to that you add that the animals were of the beautiful Boran breed, you get the full picture! The news of this Gods’ send spread like bushfire in the area so visitors trickled in to watch the animals for hours at the time for many days and participated in endless conversations about them. I am sure that I was providing the equivalent of a cinema premier!

The young Boran cattle at Intona Ranch being prepared for the trial. Please note that they have bags in their ears to test them for tick resistance.

The young Boran cattle at Intona Ranch being prepared for the trial. Please note that they have bags in their ears to test them for tick resistance.

 

The Maasai kept coming to watch our cattle.

The Maasai kept coming to watch our cattle.

Aware that I was bringing part of their cattle back home -as they I am convinced

believed- I needed to make sure that the animals would stay with us for science’s sake so I stayed while I took some measures that I thought would consolidate my situation as a “legitimate borrower” of their cattle! So, the holding kraal -already looking like a fortress because of feline predators- was reinforced with fresh thorn bushes secured with barbed wire and armed watchmen placed on 24 hour watch rather than the usual night watch. I am not exaggerating!

As if it would have been weak, the night enclosure was further reinforced...

As if it would have been weak, the night enclosure was further reinforced…

One of the night watchmen and co-workers.

One of the night watchmen and co-workers.

These security arrangements done, the animals were prepared and -as per the two-treatment groups- randomly allocated to their pens, five in each of the four enclosures. We were finally underway with our work! After a few days, when I judged that things had settled down, I returned to Nairobi as I had other duties to perform. A couple of months passed and interesting data were beginning to emerge so we were very pleased and already thinking of scientific glory!

A phone call from the owners of Intona ranch on a Sunday afternoon brought me back to reality. This was very unusual so I braced for something serious, thinking on an accident of the personnel stationed there, my ever-present main cause of concern. “A radio message had come from the ranch telling us that all your cattle are gone!” the voice said. I gulped and only managed to utter “Oh my word, the trial is ruined! And then asked: “When did it happen?” “Saturday night”, came the curt reply. I knew that over the weekends our vigilance would be more relaxed but I was not really prepared for such a blow! “OK”, I managed, “I will go there first thing tomorrow and deal with the situation, thank you”. I was at a loss as I had no plan for such an event! That night I counted cows to go to sleep… Despite this, I spent hours thinking about how I was going to recover the 20 cattle and if not, trying to prepare a good explanation for our donors! I hardly slept and I was up at dawn to travel as soon as I could!

It normally took me one day to travel from Nairobi to Intona. It was not the distance that mattered but the condition of the road. It was rough from Narok to Aitong and it could be very muddy once on the Oloololo escarpment, particularly crossing the swamps and then the cherry on the cake: the infamous red hill, the nearest description would be to try and climb over a gigantic bar of red wet soap, stay on and come down on the right side!!! As in the Transmara it rained almost daily, I knew that was always waiting. None of this came to mind that day and I cannot recall the travel details. I pushed the faithful Land Rover -Series III panel van- slow but reliable, and I am sure that it was in this trip that I broke its chassis (something the mechanic discovered on the next service!).

On the way to Intona Ranch with co-workers.

On the way to Intona Ranch with co-workers.

As expected, a reception committee was waiting for me with worried looks. They had not slept well either. I was given full details of the disappearance, their conclusions, and recommendations. We inspected where the fence was cut and the animals removed. We needed to report the theft to a special branch of the Police known as the Anti Stock Theft Unit (ASTU). This required us to travel about 40 km towards Lake Victoria to Kilgoris, the capital of the Transmara District.

Without further delay we went there, accompanied by the ranch manager and Sami, the Maasai herdsman working in the trial. He had been with me for the last couple of years and he was trustworthy and, most importantly he could speak Maa (the Maasai language). He had already done some tracking and had an idea of the manyattas that could be involved. A manyatta is a Maasai settlement or compound, normally surrounded by thorn bushes where a family or group lives, either temporarily or permanently. Inside the fence are the houses and enclosures where cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys are kept during the night.

The Officers at the ASTU listened and logged our case and -as usual- were ready to assist us. As expected they needed transport. We agreed and immediately four hardy-looking Officers carrying their full gear, including the ubiquitous AK47s, boarded the car. Our cattle tracking had started!

While on the way back, Sami took over the communication with the ASTU contingent and I was given only scanty information as translating from Maa to English was the only way I could learn what was happening. I learnt that the fact that the ranch where we kept the cattle belonged to a very important -now retired- statesman worked in our favor! After a while I was informed that we would visit a few manyattas. I knew, from past experience, that this meant cross-country driving in heavily wooded land which would result in getting totally lost without the assistance of some local person. I trusted that Sami would be able to be such a person.

I did not need to worry as the ASTU guys knew the area very well, suggesting that what had happened to us had -perhaps- taken place earlier? It was a long field day. I drove to the various manyattas. Unable to understand the exchanges I limited my job to drive and to watch the various “interviews” that took place. At nightfall, after all manyattas had been visited, I took the people back to Kilgoris and got back to Intona very late at night, totally exhausted and looking forward to a good night sleep.

When I opened my eyes, after been shaken, I realized that I needed more sleep but I was able to recognize the ranch manager, his grin almost blinding. “The cattle are back!” he said and added, “They were returned to the paddock last night!” I jumped from the bed, all tiredness and lack of sleep instantly forgotten. We immediately went to the paddock and, effectively, the animals were back! Further, they were not just back, they were returned to the same places they were removed, five in each of the paddocks, no errors committed! They looked fine if a bit empty and thirsty. The only apparent damage was that the identification numbers had been burnt over to remove them and their plastic identification tags cut off. All things considered, this was a minor issue and they promptly healed and grazed their fill.

Greatly relieved we immediately travelled back to Kilgoris to report the resolution of the case to the ASTU and to close it. We also thanked them profusely as they had saved us (me!) from a potentially embarrassing situation.

After all formalities and acknowledgments were over, a question still burnt in my mind: How did they manage to have an almost instant response from the rustlers? I asked them as my curiosity needed to be satisfied! A matter of fact reply solved the puzzle: “We told them that if the cattle were not returned, we would shoot all their animals” Whether this threat would have been carried out or not, I will never know but it served its purpose and that was what I cared about at the time.

I hope that I will not need to resort to similar actions to recover Tongai’s cattle!