theileriosis

Traveling to Intona

While in Kenya in the 80s, periodic trips to the Transmara were required to run the tick and tick-borne disease fieldwork. At the beginning we took turns with Alan (Alan Sidney Young) for visiting the area but gradually -as I learnt the ropes- he delegated the work to me. As a consequence -not at all undesirable- my trips became more frequent and I found myself driving to Intona every two or three weeks, depending on my other commitments at Muguga.

We needed to personally check the on-going field work and to collect the data gathered on a daily basis by our herdsmen that we would later analyse when back at Muguga. Luckily we also had a veterinarian on the ranch that Joe [1] had employed before I arrived. His name was Kiza and he was a refugee from Uganda that really helped a great deal with our work and he would radio us if there were any issues that needed our presence and, in that case, either Alan or myself would travel to the ranch to deal with them.

Equally important was to replace our field workers as we had a roster that we needed to maintain. In particular the Kikuyu workers found their stay among the Maasai rather trying and they were always ready to go home! After a while I realised that the trip to Maasailand was almost taken as a trip to a foreign country by them, used to stay in the highlands and to cultivate their land. As the trip to Intona progressed, their conversation became less animated! The reverse was also true, they became happier as we got closer to their home area, particularly the moment the Kikuyu escarpment came into view on the eastern wall of the Rift valley.

The trip would start in the early morning from Tigoni (later on from Nairobi) via Muguga where I would collect the herdsmen on duty for the period. Then there were two obligatory stops: at the local market near Muguga for them to buy vegetables, mainly humongous cabbages to prepare the ugale “relish” [1]. Cabbages would keep well and they were very popular. The next stop would be to load fuel at the junction with the main road (Nairobi-Kampala). Only then we were ready to go.

During the rainy season we would follow the tarmac through Nakuru, Kericho and Kisii to Kilgoris and then to Intona. Only the last 40km were dirt but passable most of the time. This way would offer superb views of the Rift Valley and its lakes (Naivasha, Elementaita and Nakuru) as well as its volcanoes (Longonot and Suswa).

We would also cross the large and tidy tea plantations of Kericho where we would normally brake the journey to stay at the colonial Kericho Tea Hotel. Need I say that the tea was probably the best I have ever drunk.

The dry weather route to Intona would take us North through Uplands and then we would start winding down the Kikuyu escarpment, pass the small Catholic church built by the Italian prisoners of WWII to continue until we branched off towards Narok. We then traversed the Great Rift Valley from East to West. In those days the savanna was dotted with antelopes and the only signs of human presence were a few small shambas [2] at the start of the road and, a few km further on, a satellite station with its giant white mushrooms.

The road skirted the lava flows from the dormant Longonot and Suswa volcanic cones and then we would climb the opposite wall of the valley where, a few km later we would get into Narok. The latter was, as expected, a predominantly Maasai town and it was the last large town on the way to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve and beyond, where we were going. We usually re-fuelled and bought the last needed items there before continuing our journey

narok town and maasai cattle copy

Going out of Narok. Maasai cattle drinks at the dam while the traffic goes by. Note the red VW kombi, the dominant minibus at the time.

Out of Narok we would follow the road past Aitong –where the early trials against theileriosis were carried out by Matt and co-workers before my arrival- and continue skirting the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, effectively the northern continuation of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, until we reached the Mara River bridge. If time allowed we would go on, otherwise there was a nice camping spot by the Mara River, next to the Mara Buffalo Camp (prior to the bridge)  where we would spend the night under canvas.

While I camped, the workers would stay at the Drivers’ accommodation at the Camp, courtesy of its Swiss Manager that would let us use it. I usually invited the workers to come to my camp in the evening for a drink and noted that there were always an extra pair of people that would come with them.

The first time this happened I thought that they were taking advantage of my hospitality and I was surprised as I did not expect this from them. I was immediately proven wrong when, as soon as they arrived to my camp, the two “escorts” would turn around and return to the lodge only to return to fetch the workers one hour later. When I asked why two people came I was told that they feared the animals too much so that they would not walk alone in the dark under any circumstances!

The Mara River is the main natural barrier for the migration of wildebeest and zebra in the Maasai Mara/Serengeti ecological system. It ends its course at Lake Victoria with an approximate length of 400km after its origin in the Mau Escarpment in Kenya.

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Mara river in the Maasai Mara and inhabitants.

The river is the main water source for the large population of grazing animals both wild and domestic as it always carries water, despite its flow getting reduced in the dry season. More recently (after our departure) changes in land use that have caused decreased vegetation cover are triggering a faster run-off of rainwater and flooding has become more common, particularly in large parts of the Tanzanian Mara basin.

For the journey I never drove anything but a Series III Long Wheel Base Land Rover (the two door van type) and these were hard to ride but truly unbreakable. Despite traveling alone most of the time, I never broke down over the many years I did this trip. After a few journeys, I got to know the people at Kichwa Tembo Camp (Elephant’s Head in Ki-Swahili), one of the camps close to the Mara River bridge, and they were very kind repairing the occasional punctures that were my only concern!

After crossing the Mara River where there was usually a Maasai cattle traffic jam and, during the wildebeest season quite a number of wildebeest as well (both alive and drowned at the river), we climbed the Oloololo escarpment and, once at the top, we had a compulsory stop to take in the magnificent view.

Below us was the Mara triangle where the green ribbon of the Mara River could be clearly seen snaking its way towards lake Victoria. When the wildebeest were in the Mara the savannah was dotted with thousands of wildebeests and zebras walking in long lines as far as the eye could see. The scene of the poster of “Out of Africa” was filmed from the Oloololo escarpment, looking at the Mara Triangle below.

m mara and olooloolo cropped

The Mara river with the Oloololo escarpment at the back, seen from the air.

As we still had some way to go, we moved on on the now flat top of the Oloololo escarpment. After a few km the road would pass through wheat fields. This unexpected sight was the result of some Maasai communities that had leased their land to commercial farmers. Once we passed the wheat the road became a track that with great luck it would be dry and rough but more often wet.

mara wheat harvesting

Harvesting wheat in land leased from the Maasai.

The area was waterlogged and driving was through sticky mud. The car wheels would get into two parallel from where you could not deviate! So, while you kept the car crawling in second gear you hoped that no one would be coming from the opposite direction as the crossing would invariably end with one (or both) stuck!

stuck going to intona from kilgoris copy

Stuck on the way to the red hill on a Land Rover station wagon that I rarely used and about to use the spare to lift the car from the muddy hole.

It was on one of these wet drives that we met a Peugeot 504 [3] buried and, after lots of digging, pushing and pulling, we managed to get it going. Unfortunately while doing this we got stuck! I looked at the occupants of the Peugeot for their solidarity but all I saw was their backs and, oblivious to our requests of help, they ignored us and drove off leaving us to dig ourselves out for quite some time and therefore to arrive very late to Nairobi.

Further on the road had another infamous section: the red hill. As its name indicates it was a steep climb over a red muddy hill with a smooth and innocent-looking surface that when you were on it it was like driving on a gigantic soap. The car, despite the 4×4 would skid the way it felt like and all you could do was to hope that it would stop before going down over the side that looked like the end not only of that journeys but of all journeys! To go very slowly and to stop as soon as the car started to skid was the only way to negotiate it but it was not easy and required total focus.

If you were successful over the swamps and the red hill then you were almost there as, from then on, the road would be firm and you would arrive to Lolgorien. This was a small village where the German Technical Cooperation Agency (GTZ) had its veterinary project in support of the Government of Kenya. It was there that Gerhardt, a veterinarian, and Anne Marie, a laboratory technician, worked.

Past collaboration between them and Alan on the epidemiology of the cattle diseases in the Kilae area nearby, that gave Alan the idea of immunise cattle against theileriosis and brought him to Intona ranch.

moll kilai lab t mara showing changaa cans! copy 2

Gerhardt and Anne Marie bush lab. An amazing place in its simplicity and efficiency.

Gerhardt and Anne Marie successfully ran several interesting activities in support to the Maasai communities and they had an amazing field laboratory where they had all essential equipment, operated by generator and or batteries, as there was no electricity there at the time. It was a revelation for me to see how advanced work could be done under really basic conditions [4].

After passing Lolgorien the road did not offer great challenges but it was important to arrive at Intona before dark. Wild and domestic animals were very numerous while driving through the Maasai Mara and still plentiful once you travel through the Transmara and it was still common to find both Maasai livestock and herds of zebra, wildebeest and gazelles on the road! As the area was wooded, their presence was more hazardous as they would appear suddenly in front of the car!

It was during one of these occasions that we came across a herd of sheep and goats that suddenly decided that the grass was greener across the road. As much as I tried to avoid them, I knocked the last sheep when, suddenly it changed its small mind and decided to turn back! The herdboy in charge run away fast before we could talk to him. Tommi (himself a Maasai) laughed and said that he must have been truly scared and run to inform his father so we waited while the animal laid motionless in the  middle of the road.

As predicted, Soon his father appeared with a grave expression, followed by the boy a distance behind. A discussion between Tommi and the sheep owner followed and I was eventually informed that I was asked to pay a large sum to compensate for the loss while Tommi advised me not to accept it. I shook my head vigorously and the negotiations continued and things were heating up when, as suddenly as unexpectedly, the sheep moved, stood up, shook his head and run into the bushes to join its mates! We were all taken aback by the development and we burst out laughing at the situation to the clear relief of the boy, the responsible of the sheep! We agreed to only compensate the owner for small injuries and left fast in case the animal fell again not to get up!

The area around Intona had a high number of people injured in encounters with wild animals. Although the rivalry between the Maasai and lions may have accounted for some, buffalo caused the great majority. It was therefore not uncommon that, having motorised transport, we would be asked to take some injured person to the nearest hospital. In addition, cattle rustling was quite common and the Police (Anti Stock Theft Unit) were a tough lot and two or three times I needed to carry prisoners and even dead rustlers (corpses).

Back to the trip. After Lolgorien we would eventually cross the Migori River that flows in a south-westerly direction from south-west Mau joining the Kuja River in Central Kadem and ends in lake Victoria. On a lucky day, turning the bend before the bridge you could watch a family of the rare Giant Forest Hogs (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) grazing in the meadows by the water edge. They were mostly indifferent to the car and allowed us to have a good look before they slowly retreated into the riverine bush.

A few km further we would get to the large fig tree that indicated the entrance to Intona Ranch and soon cross the one plough furrow that was all that indicated its boundary! It was a full day drive but not all was over as I still needed to set up camp, have a shower, dinner and then get good sleep to recover from the long journey to be up the following morning at the crack of dawn to work with our cattle.

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The Intona fig tree.

Intona was under the influence of Lake Victoria and it usually rained in late afternoon. This was preceded by the most spectacular cloud formations and amazingly beautiful sunsets when the sun would go down through the cracks of enormous cloud formations. The drama would even increase when the burning of the land, prior to the rains, would take place. This would stain the sky with a red tinge that would give the landscape an eerie appearance, as the reddish sun rays would filter through the forest. If you were lucky, you could spot a flock of the large Silvery-cheeked hornbills returning to their roosting places by the Migori River.

The return journey would start as early as possible, after finishing the work with the cattle, always done during the early morning to enable them to go out grazing with the rest of the herd. There were two reasons for an early departure: avoid the afternoon rains while still on the dirt roads, either in the Transmara or in the Maasai Mara as well as to arrive in Kikuyuland before dark.

Coming back intona with Benson and J Ndungu copy

Coming back from Intona we take a rest after reaching the Oloololo escarpment. The muddy waterbag hanging from the mirror tells the story of the journey.

The herdsmen that were due to go home did not need to be reminded and they were ready well before departure time as they missed their places and families. The ones that remained looked rather gloomy and, although I reassured them that I will return in two weeks, their moods remained somber until our leaving.

Mid afternoon would normally find us refuelling at Narok and, without wasting time, go on and cross the Rift valley. As the trip progressed the herdsmen would become more talkative and the moment that the Kikuyu escarpment came into view, they became excited and happy and they would start talking and laughing among themselves, no doubts planning their stay with their families.

Eventually we would climb the escarpment and enter in what was then still known as the “Kikuyu Reserve” to deliver the herdsmen to their homes. This was a long and tortuous drive through dirt roads to find their houses and, eventually when I was alone, the way out! As I am not too good at bearings, this would often take the wrong turn and get lost in the increasing darkness, delaying my return even more!

Although I never had a problem driving through the area, I recall an opportunity when I was driven by one of the ICIPE drivers that refused to drive inside it. He was from the Luo ethnic group, traditional enemies of the Kikuyus. He asked me to leave him at a shop on the main road and I drove, delivered the herdsmen and fetch him for him to drive me back!

 

[1] Ugali, a polenta-like dish-  is the main food in Kenya and other African countries. Maize flour is used and prepared using boiling water to form a semi-solid paste, served with a meat stew and/or vegetables known as relish.

[2] Shamba in East Africa is any field used for growing crops. (https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/shamba)

[3] At the time, a 504 was “the car” to have in Africa and it was commonly known as “Simba” (lion in Ki-Swahili) for its symbol in the front grille.

[4] Known sarcastically among us as “ILRAD 2” comparing it with the International Laboratory for Animal Diseases of those days, a multi-million USD state of the art institute based in Kabete, Kenya.

 

 

 

 

 

Anecdotes with a friend

I will not tire repeating that Alan Young was the principal driving force behind the research on Theileriosis in Africa and I still regret its untimely passing in 1995 that resulted in a crippling blow to our progress in the understanding and controlling the disease in Africa.

Apart from being very intelligent, Alan was a “hands on” researcher that enjoyed fieldwork and a good laugh. During the few years we shared in Kenya there were a number of great working moments and achievements as well as some amusing ones. As this is not a scientific blog, I will share with you some of the latter that I still remember.

Although he was always writing and publishing scientific papers and work was his passion, Alan still managed field trips and he loved to visit Intona. As I described before it was Alan who brought me to the ranch in the Transmara for the first time after my first trip to Mbita Point with Matt [1].

Alan inspecting the cattle at Intona ranch.

I needed his expertise to protect cattle against Theileriosis so I could stop applying acaricides to them for my trial. He was always busy following up immunized animals, a procedure that required many hours behind a microscope checking lymph and blood smears to detect early signs of the disease and take appropriate action.

Luckily, we had a cohort of well-drilled KEVRI and ICIPE technicians that would stay at Intona monitoring the cattle as well as the tick work I was involved. Some of them were the protagonists of some incidents that I believe are worth narrating.

During one of my first trips from Muguga to Intona with Alan and the herdsmen, in particular a very funny one called Ben, we left Muguga at about 09:00hs. Not a very early start but the herdsmen needed to wait for the Government’s cashier to give them their per diem for the days they would be in the bush. This meant that we needed to stop on the way to get their provisions for the entire spell that they would be out.

So, after getting cooking oil, ugali [2] and cabbages, we stopped to fill-up the car at the main Nairobi to Kampala road. Alan dealt with the fuel, I did nothing but walk about while the herdsmen went off to get paraffin for cooking.

After a while we were ready to depart. While Alan waited for the change from the cashier I got in the car and noted a rather overwhelming paraffin smell. Thinking that one of the herdsmen containers was still dirty in the outside I kept quiet thinking that it would soon dry up and the smell would stop.

Alan came in and he immediately detected the strong fumes and asked the herdsmen at the back of the Land Rover to check their paraffin containers. They both replied that all was in order so we moved on with our windows open. However, as the stink continued, Alan decided to stop about a kilometer further to have a look. He was not amused when he found that Ben was clinging to his plastic paraffin can. Alan noted that he was trying to block a leak with his finger! It was necessary to return to the petrol station to get a new container before the journey resumed! Luckily, over the long journey we shared a great laugh with Ben over the issue.

Once my work started at Intona I was there often and regularly to manage the tick trials I was running. Kiza, the resident veterinarian at the ranch, supervised Alan’s work but also looked after the numerous Murumbi’s pet dogs that kept him very busy. The arrangement with the cattle was that Kiza would radio Alan in case of any complication was detected.

So, during one of my stays at Intona, Alan turned up to deal with some abnormal cattle temperature readings. I was at a particular busy time and did not know what was taking place so here I reconstruct the story from the various participants.

The monitoring of cattle immunized against Theileriosis included recording daily body temperatures and taking blood and lymph node smears to check for parasites in both tissues. There was a book where these findings were recorded daily.

At that particular time, John, one of the hard working KEVRI staff, was in charge of monitoring the cattle. Immediately upon arrival Alan asked for the book where the daily cattle temperatures were recorded and started to go through it with Kiza and John himself. The issue was that, for the last four or five days there were some unusual temperature readings, different from the earlier trend. The experienced Alan smelled a rat so he asked John to repeat the temperature checking for that day to compare with those in the book and see if he could detect anything.

After the request, an inordinate amount of time elapsed before John started checking the animals and, eventually, he came to reveal that all the thermometers had broken and that, over the days in question, he had taken “temperature estimates” of the animals based on how they felt to the touch under the tail area!

Later on, when things settled down, over a beer Alan narrated the event to me and he was very amused to the point that he coined the term “John’s finger test” to describe what had happened! Although we never quite knew about the real procedure employed by John, we had a good laugh and both his working mates and us forever teased John about this incident.

This anecdote of a time when we were applying identification ear tags to cattle at Muguga confirms that I was not the only one that had difficulties to understand Alan. We were using new ear tags and noted that we had forgotten the special pen to write on them known as the Magic marker as it would write on plastic and the paint would last long.

So, Alan asked one of the older workers called Ernest to bring it. After about twenty minutes Ernest had not yet returned although the office was quite near. Alan and I were getting anxious and wondering what happened as this was a routine procedure and we needed to get on with more important work.

When I was about to go and check we saw Ernest walking very slowly towards us trying not to spill the water from a plastic washbowl. We looked at each other fearing some “cock-up”; the term we normally used for these eventualities. Alan echoed my thoughts when he asked Ernest “why did you bring this if we asked you for the magic marker?” “Oh”, Ernest replied, “I thought you wanted “maji moto”, KiSwahili for hot water. The delay was now clear and he rushed to get the pen while we both burst out laughing.

After a few years I completed my FAO assignment but remained in Kenya as a scientist with the ICIPE and my collaboration with Alan continued although my work had shifted to cattle resistance to tick infestations. I continued visiting Intona with a new experiment that required the building of a special paddock.

It was very important that the wild animals were kept out and the cattle inside the paddock for the trial to succeed. We were not only dealing with African buffalo that were common at the ranch but also with elephants that at times would literally walk through Intona and we knew that they would not be stopped by a normal fence!

Building the paddock.

paddock

The paddock being used.

So, Alan had the idea of setting up a strong paddock with an electric fence. Alan was traveling frequently to the USA at the time and brought a couple of solar powered electric fence units capable of delivering 11,000 Volts pulses of very low amperage (safe as high Amps are the ones that could kill you) but the high Voltage will “only” hurt you!

solar units paddock expt intona

The Solar-powered units for the fencing.

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The solar powered electric fence unit installed in a protective box.

 

The day came to connect the fence so that the trial could start. We needed to confirm that the solar-charged batteries were delivering the correct electricity current according to the manual. For that purpose the equipment came with a very fancy tester that Alan would use. We had left the unit charging from the day before as advised by the makers.

Although it rained most afternoons, because of the influence of Lake Victoria, there was sunshine from sunrise to about 17:00 hs, enough for charging the batteries. So, Alan, the herdsmen and myself, after listening to the pulse clicks at the unit, went to the fence to finally test its power.

Alan applied the terminals to the wire and, before I go on, I must tell you that what took place happened very fast so I may have missed some details as I was looking at the reading in the tester. I believe that first there were some sparks but in any case, the tester disappeared from my field of vision together with Alan that proffered a rude epithet while being thrown back from the fence and falling on his bump!

“Pole sana”[3] said the herdsman and I also muttered a rather useless “oh, sorry!” Alan sat on the ground, rubbing his right hand that was still holding the charred remains of the tester! Our concern about his wellbeing evaporated the moment that Alan burst out laughing and we all relaxed learning that he was still his usual self even after the shock!

Probably the rain that fell the day before had had some impact in the transmission of the electricity pulses that, somehow, got to Alan and not to the tester. From that day on we assumed that the fence was powerful enough and no further checks were ever performed again for lack of volunteers and a tester!

While performing field trips with Alan he kindly lent me his Land Rover as part of our collaboration until some years later ICIPE finally decided to buy a similar one for our work.

Alan’s car was heavily used, as we not only traveled to Intona but also Busia and Laikipia to name the most common ones. Although I never noticed it, years later during a visit while I was already out of Kenya, I managed to meet with some of our former herdsmen who as one of the events they remembered was that we had been carrying Chang’aa, an illegal drink! I was astonished when they explained me how it happened.

Alan’s Series III Land Rover had two jerry cans fitted at the front of the car. As we considered carrying petrol there too dangerous in case of an accident we kept the cans empty and, frankly, we forgot about them.

Chang’aa, also known in various languages as kali, kill-me-quick, Kisumu whisky, maai-matheru, machozi-ya-simba and others, was (and still is) the name given to distilled spirits in Kenya and the manufacture, commerce, consumption or possession of it was, at the time, illegal and punishable with heavy fines and even up to two years in prison! [4].

So it resulted that the guilty herdsmen would buy Chang’aa in the field, place it in the jerry cans and “import it” under the cover of our work to Nairobi where they would, I imagine, sell it for a handsome profit!

So, without our knowledge, our Land Rover (and us!) was used as a “mule” in the rather clever operation! I never had the chance to comment this with Alan as I learnt about it after his passing so I am not sure that he ever found out about it.

Alan and I shared the passion for soccer. While this should not surprise you in my case, as I come from Uruguay but for someone from Northern Ireland, not a great soccer nation, it was remarkable at least in my book. We shared our soccer interest with Walter, the then Director of KEVRI, Muguga, and this was a frequent topic during our many morning tea breaks at the Institute. Walter was the Chairman of one of the main teams in Kenya, AFC Leopards, but also followed football worldwide.

In 1989, living and working in Ethiopia, I attended one of the FAO Expert Consultations on Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases in Rome where I met Alan and, during the meeting, we learnt that there was a football match the coming Sunday. The meeting was ending on Friday so we agreed that, return flights to Africa permitting, a soccer match of the Serie A League was a must.

Because I could speak some Italian I dealt with the organization of the outing once both checked that our flights would leave on the Sunday night. So, I confirmed that Lazio, one of the two teams from Rome, was playing Fiorentina (from Florence). The game would take place at the Stadio Olimpico, the main arena in Roma built for the 1960 Summer Olympic Games.

I still remember that it was Sunday 21 May 1989 when, before lunchtime we left the Sant’ Anselmo hotel in the Aventino area of Rome and walked to the bus stop as advised by my Roman contacts. The bus was empty as the stop was the start of the line and, seated, we were soon on our way. About half way a crowd of Lazio tifosi (fans) dressed for the occasion and carrying lots of flags and banners filled the bus. They were many and about half of them were left behind when the doors were closed!

We were really packed, almost worse than in a Kenya minibus! Surrounded by people dressed in their team’s pale blue shirts I felt like going to a match where the “celeste” (pale blue) of Uruguay was playing! After a while the tifosi started to jump all together and to move sideways… We look at each other in disbelief and grabbed whatever handle we could, as the danger of the bus toppling sideways was a real one!

Feeling like survivors, we were the last leaving the bus. It was about an hour earlier and it was filling fast. We approached the usual ticket sale points and they were all closed, except for the really expensive ones. We were in trouble, as we had not planned for such expenditure! Far from giving up, we looked for a quiet corner and counted our cash realizing that it would be either soccer or lunch! Luckily we already had the return bus tickets.

Without hesitating we agreed to skip lunch so two starved and penniless people entered the grand stand that afternoon! The attraction for me was that Rubén Sosa, a Uruguayan that had a distinguished career as a fast attacker with a great goal scoring ability and exact passing. He is considered by many as one of the best soccer players Uruguay has produced in the second half of the 20th Century!

The match was even and entertaining until early in the second half Lazio was awarded a penalty that Sosa converted into a goal and Lazio won. The people in the stadium went wild and, when he was replaced at the 89th minute, got a standing ovation (that included us!). We were really happy and the occasion gave me good ammo to tease Alan in the future about my South American origins!

 

[1] https://bushsnob.com/2015/06/01/intona-ranch1/

[2] KiSwahili for white maize flower, the staple food in Kenya.

[3] “Sorry” or “very sorry” in KiSwahili means

[4] Kenyalaw.org/kl/fileadmin/pdfdownloads/…/Changaa_Prohibition__Cap_70_.doc Consulted on 25/11/2018.

Chicken “A la Rusinga”[1]

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

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

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

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

Towards Mbita Point.

Towards Mbita Point.

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

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

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

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

Rusinga island, across the channel.

Rusinga island, across the channel.

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

The entrance to the research station.

The entrance to the research station.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Follows Kenya: Friends and Foes.

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

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

[4] Swahili for chicken.

[5] Swahili for handless saucepans.

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

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

[8] Swahili for Hello!

Kenya: the Beginnings[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theiler's condecorations for his outstanding work.

Theiler’s condecorations for his outstanding work.

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

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

Cattle being dipped with acaricides.

Cattle being dipped with acaricides.

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

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

Heavy tick infestation, mainly Amblyomma spp.

Heavy tick infestation, mainly Amblyomma spp.

Brown Ear ticks

Brown Ear ticks

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

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

The size of a tick!

The size of a tick!

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

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

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

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

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

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

My first giraffe at Nairobi National Park.

My first giraffe at Nairobi National Park.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Similar role to the mosquito in malaria.

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

[6] Theileria parasites vary in different areas.

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

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

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

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

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

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