Rusinga Island

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!

Caput Mundi

Foro Romano cropped

Roman Forum.

It was July 1979. I was getting ready to travel to Armidale in Australia to join a team of scientists working on internal parasites of sheep to study for a PhD. My medical clearance, visa application and travel bookings for September were all advanced. I had been in Uruguay for a few months after getting an MSc in animal parasitology at the University of North Wales, UK and the PhD opportunity was the logical next step in my mind. I was very excited and looking forward to the challenge.

That is why the message from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Montevideo informing me of the arrival of an urgent Foodagram (FAO telegrams then) addressed to me was a jolt. It was not unexpected, as months back while ending my studies -and still in the UK- I had applied to an FAO Andre Mayer Fellowship to study ticks in Africa. However, it was inopportune!

I returned the call as soon as I could and they confirmed that they were trying to contact me urgently. As there were no faxes or e-mail attachments in those days, we agreed that they could send the -still unopened- telegramme to me by the local bus. I arrived the following day and I read it with some trepidation. It said:

URGENT STOP TO MR. J. DE CASTRO, TEL CARMELO 567, C/O FAO URUGUAY STOP PLEASED TO OFFER AN ANDRE MAYER RESEARCH FELLOWSHIP STOP YOU WILL TRAVEL TO KENYA AND JOIN THE INTERNATIONAL CENTRE FOR INSECT PHYSIOLOGY AND ECOLOGY TO STUDY THE ECONOMIC IMPACT OF TICKS ON CATTLE STOP MORE INFORMATION FOLLOWS BY POUCH STOP URGENTLY REPLY TO MS. IRENE FIELD, FELLOWSHIPS DIVISION STOP KIND REGARDS STOP EDOUARD SAOUMA, FAO DG

After digesting the contents of the telegram and its potential implications, I contacted FAO in Montevideo again and we agreed that we would wait for the information that would come by pouch. It was easier said than done and I immediately started to think on the decision I needed to take as, although Australia was attractive, Africa -being totally exotic- possessed a strong allure.

Some days passed and, in view of the absence of news, I continued with the Australia arrangements, just in case.

A couple of weeks later, however, I got an envelope with the promised information and the written offer that awaited an urgent response. Through the enclosed documents I learnt that Professor Andre Mayer had been Chairman of the FAO Executive Committee in the early days of the organization and left a donation to FAO for young scientists to conduct research projects in relevant development issues. I also learnt that I was going to be based at Rusinga island and joining a team of tick and tick-borne disease experts in Kenya. Images of an Indian Ocean island with palm trees came to mind!

My interest in animals led to me becoming a veterinarian and what little information about the African continent that was available did nothing to discourage my interest. During my childhood my mother -a devout catholic- subscribed to “El Africanito”, a monthly publication from the work of the Catholic Church in Africa. I used to read this every month. Later on, the series “Daktari” with Clarence the cross-eyed lion and the movie “Hatari” with John Wayne were fascinating to me.

Later in life and while already working as a veterinarian, I read a publication on African cattle in the Hoechst Veterinary Blue Book which highlighted the enormous numbers of cattle per veterinarian in Africa as compared with Latin America and other continents. More recently, my appetite had been further wetted by hearing my lecturers in the UK talk of tsetse flies and ticks and related travel tales.

This was my opportunity! However, I was committed to Australia. After a lot of thought and not much sleep I took the bus to Montevideo to find out more from FAO Representative in person. By the time I left his office I had made up my mind and chosen Kenya and, although unaware of it then, our lives would change in a way we could not imagine.

Luckily, the Australians were very pragmatic and they gracefully allowed me to unravel my Australian attachment so that I could accept FAO´s offer. The greatest opposition to the decision came -probably justifiably- from family and friends as it was going against “the norm”. I still remember the reply from an old friend when I told him that I was going to Kenya. “Julio, you are crazy” and then added “You will leave your carcass in Africa!” What reply could I give to what seemed like common sense?

The identity of Rusinga island remained a mystery. The available atlas we checked failed to locate it and it was finally a geography professor who informed me of its location in Lake Victoria, a rather large body of water I had not taken into account until then.

Part of Rusinga Island seen from Mbita Point.

Part of Rusinga Island seen from Mbita Point.

I sent my acceptance and it was agreed that I would travel alone as I needed to pass through Rome for briefing on my way to Nairobi to join the work team. The plan was for my wife to join me later in Nairobi when I already had a clear idea of ​​what it all meant and had gotten my bearings!

I do not remember my departure from Uruguay to Rome, perhaps I was too worried and nervous, or may be my memory fails me now! I do not remember what airline I traveled with or how the trip was. I do recall arriving in Rome and getting to the Lancelot hotel where, by virtue of sharing the dinner table, met other FAO and World Food Programme colleagues that spoke about the wonders of Kenya.

The Trevi Fountain in the 80s. I did throw a coin then and returned!

The Trevi Fountain in the 80s. I did throw a coin then and returned!

I also remember being stunned by Rome’s beauty and being paralyzed in fear of its traffic. The walk to FAO from the Lancelot was memorable as there are a number of monuments nearby such as the Coliseum, the Arch of Titus but also some potentially lethal traffic traps in at least three places. The experience of witnessing a visitor trying to cross the street remains vivid in my mind. Stopping at a red light I noticed a tourist by my side talking to his wife in German. He was obviously agitated seeing that the Italian pedestrians continued to cross the street despite the red light. He waited patiently for the light to change to green and then he stepped onto the pavement. The moment he did so, a car running a red light zoomed past him at very close quarters and he lunged backwards, totally dumbfounded. He was still there, totally lost when I moved on. Welcome to Rome, I thought!

Once inside FAO I had a triumphant feeling and I thought “I am in the world’s cathedral of agricultural knowledge and it is offering me something, well done!” At that time, young and ambitious, I thought I touched the sky with my hands and I even took my picture behind a desk to show my “importance” to family and friends. The people I met and their quality, both human and technical, immediately brought me back to my humble situation of a young person at the very beginning of his career and I focused on my work as it was obvious that I had lots to learn!

jj en FAO cropped and small

At FAO, thinking that I had made it… I was to return to work to this office in the 90s! The telephone had changed by then!

My FAO colleagues prepared me technically but they also gave me lots of well-meaning advice: do not try to do too much, at ICIPE you will have a good boss, everything on ticks and tick-borne diseases is happening in Nairobi now, it is an expensive place but there is an airport bus to town and cheap hotels, be careful with malaria on the coast. These are some of the ones I still remember. After one week, I was ready to travel.

FAO Headquarters from the Palatine Forum.

FAO Headquarters from the Palatine Hill.

Next: AFRICA! – Arrival