ticks

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.

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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!

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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.

Ticks growing on trees!

I devoted my scientific life to study ticks in Africa. For this reason, Sterculia africana, the Tick tree or African star-chestnut caught my interest during our recent trip to Zambia.

We had seen this tree at Kariba, Zimbabwe and collected some “ticks” from it. I somehow remember the sight of the tree and driving from lake Kariba to Lusaka I stopped to have a look and managed to collect some of its interesting fruits. Unfortunately, grass burning had taken place and it was difficult to find the nicest seeds (ticks).

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Three fruits of the Tick tree.

A small to medium size tree of dry areas with a smooth silver-white papery bark, it produces bunches of yellowish flowers marked with reddish lines. The fruits are boat shaped of up to 140mm long with tapering ends of a golden velvety appearance. They are loaded with blue-grey seeds that, amazingly, resemble engorged female ticks.

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Two “ticks” collected from the ground and placed inside the dry fruits.

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The fruits and “ticks” with a match for a scale.

The “ticks” are attached among hairs which, I forgot, are extremely thin but able to embed easily in the skin. Once lodged, they are very irritating as I learnt (again) this time. Luckily, I managed to remove them and was able to use my fingers (again) to write this post.

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A close up to show the nasty hairs.

 

 

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.

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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!

Hyenas and planet-gazing

The morning after the Maasai chicken dinner a good breakfast was in order! We prepared bacon and eggs to compensate for our austere meal of the night before. In an attempt at avoiding another fasting episode I offered to take over the next dinner and to roast the beef we had brought from Nairobi.

Camping at Intona ranch.

Camping at Intona ranch.

After breakfast, another day of routine field trials followed, as we needed to do many replicates of our tests in order to confirm the results. We worked without stopping until late afternoon when we decided that we had done enough and it was time for a shower and to prepare dinner. As a South American I am ashamed to confess that I am fearful of horses and prefer to keep a good distance from them. That is not all, I am a real disaster at barbequing! Therefore, on the occasion I struggled through and I made sure that the food was abundant and we ate our fill.

The night was truly spectacular. The relative short distance of Intona ranch from Lake Victoria meant that it rained very often. It poured in late afternoon and then the sky cleared at dusk. The consequence was that the rains cleaned the air and the night sky was always very sharp.

Ernest and I stayed awake until late talking and contemplating the pristine sky. We talked about many issues, occasionally stopping to listen to the night sounds, in particular the spotted hyena calls getting closer to our camp. Getting gradually bolder they moved close to the periphery of the light of our camp fire. I reassured Ernest that this was a normal event when camping at Intona and that “normally” hyenas would not be aggressive.

Despite the good time we were having, we have had a long day and we felt very tired so soon we went to bed. As soon as we were inside the tent we heard something sniffing all around our tent. A white-tailed mongoose was seen scurrying away when we shined our torches. That small mystery solved, it was back to bed, hoping that sleep would come soon.

Not so. This time it was a loud crush outside the tent that also merited investigation. This time a hyena was the culprit! The beast had grabbed a dirty pan and had taken off at speed. We run after the beast but it was a futile effort and came back to bed thinking on resuming the search for the pot in the morning.

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A Brown hyena with wildebeest carcass in the Maasai Mara. Its cousins visited us nightly at Intona.

While thinking and hoping that normality would return, I finally fell sleep. Again, it did not last long. It may have been 03:00 hs when I heard Ernest opening the tent door zip. My first thought was that his gut had finally lost the fight against the filtered water drunk on the way in! In addition, aware of the hyenas I remained awake although without moving, hoping to go back to sleep immediately. No chance! Ernest came back and started to shake me up shouting “Wake up, the sky is perfect to look for planets!” I felt like slaying him but, remembering his partial deafness and on account of his contagious enthusiasm, I made the mistake of getting up!

By the time I managed to go out of the tent, Ernest was already looking through the binoculars, identifying the various noteworthy celestial bodies, accompanying his successive discoveries with shouts of joy! Although I had enjoyed contemplating the night sky both in Uruguay and in Kenya, I have never been that interested in astronomy. However, he convinced me to look at Jupiter (a small orange sphere) and even managed to see Saturn and what I though were its rings! Finally Ernest’s excitement subsided and we managed to hit the camp beds again, this time until the sun was up!

The large ball of crunched aluminium that we found about one hundred metres from our tent was not the remains of a recent asteroid that had narrowly missed us but all that remained from our cooking pan after the hyenas had squished it to get its juice.

Although our cooking options suffered another severe setback we still managed to produce some pan-less and chicken-less dinners during the following days!

Skewered Maasai chicken

When I was there in the 80’s the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Kenya had established various partnerships with universities and research centres outside Africa. I was involved with the collaboration with the University of Neuchâtel on tick pheromones. The idea was to explore ways of attracting ticks to pheromone-baited traps and, with the addition of a tickicide[1], to destroy them.

Bont ticks male (left) and female. A bad picture.

Bont ticks male (left) and female. A bad picture.

The composition of the aggregation pheromone of the Bont tick[2], one of the important cattle ticks, had just been discovered. It was a mixture of three chemicals that were available commercially. This offered us a good opportunity to test this compound in the field. Ernest was the scientist from Neuchâtel that would work with me at Intona ranch where natural populations of the tick occurred.

Ernest was a very enthusiastic and good-humoured Swiss that had a hearing problem as a consequence of firing cannons during his military service in the Swiss Alps, forgetting about wearing earmuffs! Luckily, we got on well from the start. So, armed with the necessary research tools, we departed for Intona to spend a few days doing fieldwork.

As a precaution, we did take a few ticks from the tick colony in case the bush ones would not cooperate! Crossing the Maasai Mara Game Reserve was never disappointing and, as usual, we spent a night there on the way to the Transmara where Intona was located. Ernest was delighted being able to see the plains game and we wee also lucky to spot elephants, lions and hyenas.

In the morning, as usual, we laboriously climbed the Oloololo escarpment and stopped to admire the breath taking view of the Mara triangle from its highpoint. The almost aerial view that it offered was really thrilling, even for me, a regular visitor to the area. Lines of wildebeest could be seen in the distance as well as dark patches that indicated buffalo herds. As I knew he would, Ernest loved the view. After spending a long while in contemplation, it was time to continue our long journey.

Maasai cattle at the Mara River bridge on the way to the Transmara.

Maasai cattle at the Mara River bridge on the way to the Transmara.

Following the escarpment the road was bad as usual but luckily this time it was dry. However, we needed to stop a few times, not because of getting stuck or having mechanical problems, but because Ernest was amazed at how bad the road was! “Ooohh no, please stop!” he would shout and then get out of the car to photograph it even before I managed to stop. Clearly he was comparing the Transmara tracks with the Swiss roads!

Stuck on the way to Intona on a rainy day.

Stuck on the way to Intona on a rainy day.

Eventually, after a few halts, he got used to the rough road but, being a very active person, his attention drifted to other things. As all first time visitors to the Transmara he took a great interest on the Maasai people and their cattle, a normal sight in the area for me but quite so for guests. As the Maasai were not keen on pictures, we did not stop.

Maasai herdsman on the way to Intona.

Maasai herdsman on the way to Intona.

Maasai Manyatta (dwelling).

Maasai Manyatta (dwelling).

Maasai children looking after livestock.

Maasai children looking after livestock.

After about half an hour of hard going I heard “Stop” coming from Ernest as we approached a large muddy pond by the side of the road. While I stopped the car he rummaged in his rucksack from where he extracted what looked like an over-sized hypodermic syringe and a tumbler. I was not sure of what was going on and limited myself to watch, together with our herdsmen travel companions. “This is a Swiss water filter that will make any water suitable for drinking” he said as we were walking towards the mud and the terrapins swam away in fear! He added “It is recommended by the Swiss Tropical Institute, so it must be good!”

Without further ado he sucked water into the syringe and, once it was full, it poured into the glass. The water was indeed crystal clear! “You see,” he said, showing the glass. I must confess that it was an impressive feat as the puddle was truly a thick chocolate mud and I had not seen such a contraption before! Ernest offered the water to us and, when we all politely declined, he drank it himself before I could stop him, fearing for the consequences on his guts.

After praising the quality of what he had just drunk, he repeated the operation once more. This time one of the herdsmen agreed to try it and he agreed that it was indeed OK if with a bit of a muddy taste. “The filter must be getting clogged,” declared Ernest, “I must clean it when we get to Intona”. I refrain from commenting on the cost-effectiveness of the device and we resumed our trip, clearly ready for innovation.

Eventually we arrived at Intona ranch. It was almost dark so we rushed to assemble our tent, had an early dinner and went to bed as we both felt the long two-day trip.

The following day we started our work early and spent most of the day carrying out several trials that were quite successful. In the afternoon we decided that we would have roasted chicken for dinner so while Ernest continued working I went with Tommi, my Maasai assistant, in search of dinner. Eventually we managed to persuade a Maasai lady to sell us a cockerel.

Our prospective dinner was killed by me and plucked by Ernest. The size of its talons were unequivocal indicators of its seniority and its leanness qualified it as a Maasai chicken long-distance runner! Its muscular condition spoke of speed and endurance at the service of survival! Oblivious to all this, Ernest assembled a boy scout-like contraption with branches where, after impaling the chicken, it would be rotated over the fire. We invited our herdsmen to join us and they prepared their traditional “ugali[3]” to go with it.

The cooking of the chicken took a very long time. Ernest kept stabbing it and declaring that it was cooked but still tough. The lengthy turning process led to inexorable shrinking and darkening until it was declared fit for human consumption. The cockerel had turned into a “toasted baby chicken”. I saw the herdsmen exchanging doubtful glances over their Tusker beers, a bad omen!

Ernest cut it into equal pieces and -luckily- Joseph placed large chunks of ugali to go with it. Tommi bit the first piece and I heard a “Taargh” coming from him that became a clear “tough!” once he managed to swallow it. Bad news coming from a Maasai! Ernest agreed on its toughness but declared that it tasted like real chickens did a long time ago in Switzerland so he was happy! As for the rest of us, we could have done with a second runner Maasai chicken!

Transmara, Kenya, circa 1986.

 

[1] Also known as an acaricide, a substance that kills ticks.

[2] Amblyomma variegatum (the Bont tick) transmits Cowdria ruminantum that causes a deadly disease of ruminants known as Heartwater.

[3] From Swahili, maize flour cooked with water to a thick porridge. It is the staple food in Kenya.

Harvesting from the effort[1]

The following is a concise account of my working life. More details can be found in the “Pages” section of this blog. The intention of this short account is to set the seen for the next historical posts that will deal only with episodes that took place during these years and that I consider to offer some interesting aspect worth mentioning.

A Boran young bull at Mutara ranch, Kenya.

A Boran young bull at Mutara ranch, Kenya.

Boran young bulls at Mutara ranch, Kenya.

The work at Muguga and Intona described earlier (give link) yielded fruit and I was able to publish the results in good scientific journals, together with my co-workers, Matt, Alan and Robin included. My research added some knowledge to a large regional programme on ticks and tickborne diseases that FAO had initiated at the time of my arrival in Kenya and that covered several countries in East, Central and Southern Africa.

Mutara tick selection work.

Mutara tick selection work.

Once my fellowship ended, although I had a lot to learn yet, I had somehow found a niche for my work at ICIPE and, with Matt’s blessing, I joined the Tick Programme as a scientist. My work on tick impact had ended and now my work would have to fall within the Tick Programme’s goals and funding. The main target was to control ticks using the cattle resistance to them. I had come across this fact while doing my research as some animals showed resistance while others not.

At that time I also decided to start my PhD studies as an external student with my former Department of Applied Zoology at the University of Wales. Four years of hard work were in front of me, as I needed to work and study, not an easy feat! I was lucky to be surrounded by knowledgeable colleagues and to find a great supervisor, the late Ian Herbert from the Department.

While working on my PhD I got involved with the work on ticks and tickborne diseases on-going at Muguga and I also continued with field work at Intona. Later on we started more work at Mutara Ranch, then the Boran cattle stud for Kenya, where we started work on selection of cattle for tick resistance that sadly needed to be abandoned for lack of resources. The initial study got published and this added to my growing reputation in the tick world. I completed the PhD in 1986 while still in Kenya.

The laboratory at Bedele, Ethiopia.

The laboratory at Bedele, Ethiopia.

In 1988 FAO offered me a position as a Leader of the Ethiopian component of their regional tick and tickborne disease programme I mentioned above. I accepted the offer as it had very favourable conditions but left ICIPE and Kenya with a heavy heart after so many years of enjoying life and work there.

Villagers at Gambela, West Ethiopia.

Villagers at Gambela, West Ethiopia.

Ethiopia was a big change as we arrived in a country at war with Eritrea and under a comunist regime led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, a ruthless leader. My duty station was Bedele in West Ethiopia, still green and wooded with a rainfall of about two thousand mm per year! It was a remote place where FAO has assisted the Government in building a Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. Bedele’s main claim to worldwide fame is ob being the place where coffee originated from.

The work was more routine than challenging and it required the collection of ticks from cattle at different locations both to get to know the species and to understand their population dynamics. My assignment there lasted under two years as I was replacing another tick officer that needed to be evacuated with a severe heart condition. Despite the political and economical difficulties the country was going through, the work was completed and, as the possibilities of continuing the work were not there, it was tie to move on.

The project site at Lutale, Central Province of Zambia.

The project site at Lutale, Central Province of Zambia.

I was transferred to Zambia where I was to continue a long-term trial on the effects of ticks on traditional cattle productivity both of milk and beef under different tick control regimes: no control, intensive control and “strategic” control. The latter meant to treat only to prevent tick numbers from building up. The trial run for three years and it was completed successfully. It was during this time that our children were born and our lives changed!

Cattle work in Southern Province, Zambia.

Cattle work in Southern Province, Zambia.

After three busy and productive years in Zambia the regional programme was going through important changes. Its coordinator based at FAO HQs in Rome was about to retire and more funding was coming in to continue the work for another phase of four years. Somehow I landed the coordinator’s job and moved to Rome in a move that removed me from scientific work and converted me into an international bureaucrat!

FAO in the 90s. Please note the Axum stele that was returned in 2005.

FAO in the 90s. Please note the Axum stele that was returned in 2005.

After a few months in Rome, once the “glamour” of the job waned, I realized that I needed to get back to the field as the work I was doing did not appeal to me.

Mudanza a Hre copy 2

Moving again! This time to Zimbabwe.

The opportunity to move to the field -again to Africa- presented itself in 1997 and I did not hesitate! We moved to Harare, Zimbabwe where I took up the role of sub-regional animal production and health officer, an even broader professional role as it also involved animal production. As compensation, however, the job was restricted to Southern and Eastern Africa. Although it was not “hands on” scientific work, it was closer to the action than what I was doing from Rome!

Great Zimbabwe ruins, Zimbabwe, 1998.

Great Zimbabwe ruins, Zimbabwe, 1998.

After four years in Harare I realized with regret that I needed to move to get a career improvement. At the end of 2000 I put my name for a FAO Representative job and succeeded getting designated FAOR in Bolivia so in mid 2001 we left for La Paz, Bolivia. This would be my first assignment in a Spanish-speaking country and it also meant becoming the head of an office with a large multi-sectorial programme and several employees both in the office and in the field. In addition, as the representative of the organization in the country I also carried a political role having to develop strong links with the host government.

Sewing in Bolivia.

Sewing in Bolivia.

Market street of La Paz, Bolivia.

Market street of La Paz, Bolivia.

I worked in Bolivia for five incredible years and, in 2005 I returned to Rome, again as a technical expert to continue working on animal diseases, in particular I returned to ticks and TBD. Again I did not find this assignment enjoyable and, after four years I had had enough of desk work and it was either another field post or retirement!

The Appia Antica road, Rome.

The Appia Antica road, Rome.

Rome, 2009!

Rome, 2009!

Fortunately I was selected for the position of FAO Representative in Mozambique where I worked until my retirement, from mid 2010 to the end of June 2013 when I reached 62 years, the mandatory retirement age of the United Nations.

Time to move to Mozambique.

Time to move to Mozambique.

Speaking on World Food Day in Mozambique.

Speaking on World Food Day in Mozambique.

Interviewed by the press.

Being interviewed by the press.

Maputo's beach in Mozambique.

Maputo’s beach.

Needless to say that I write in first person but my life has been shared with my wife and later my children. She has been a main support throughout and the kids added their part!

I hope you enjoy reading what I have to say.

 

[1] This post follows “Life and work in Kenya: Intona”.

Life and work in Kenya: Intona

The work at Intona Ranch involved the organization of a six-month field trial, a first for me. Luckily Alan had a system in place for his own trials and I just “piggybacked” on what he had created. As he was the Head of the project he kindly supported my work very generously and enthusiastically. He lent me his work Land Rover, herdsmen and the routine disease monitoring system. I needed to add the tick burden evaluation part by bringing in my own people to carry it out. Visits were required for monitoring purposes and to replace personnel every two weeks. As mentioned earlier, I had employed two people: Kimondo and Tommi. The latter was a Maasai who was no stranger to the Transmara and although he was not as hardworking as Kimondo his local knowledge would prove of immense usefulness. We were a good team!

Routine monitoring of experimental cattle is key.

The team. At the time doing routine monitoring of experimental cattle. From left to right: Chege, Kimondo, Tommi and Benson.

The work would consist in the creation of two groups of cattle immunized against Theileriosis by Alan and his group. This would enable me to stop applying tick-killing chemicals (acaricides) to one group while the other would be maintained with strict tick control. The comparison on their live weight gain and the tick species and burdens observed would enable me to estimate the expected losses that the ticks themselves would cause to the cattle. Clearly it was only a start but something that had not been possible to assess before.

Cattle being dipped.

Cattle being dipped.

Liveweight gains were an important parameter in the trials.

Live weight gains were an important parameter in the trials.

Now I needed to find the right cattle for the trial and get them to Intona. This required some planning and involved travelling to Laikipia in Northern Kenya. I was searching for Boran, a Bos indicus breed as these would remain at Intona ranch once the trial ended and we knew that Joe would be very keen on them.

The cattle of Intona Ranch.

The cattle of Intona Ranch.

We did not take any chances...

We did not take any chances…

Gilfrid[1] had his ranch beyond the slopes of Mt. Kenya in Laikipia and he had the cattle we needed. I organized a “cattle-buying” trip. Luckily in Alan’s Land Rover, I departed for Laikipia with Kimondo and Tommi to assist me on the journey. A large lorry followed us to carry the animals. We drove past Murang’a with its amazing vegetable offer, Nyeri and Nanyuki on the slopes of Mt. Kenya. The views beyond Mt. Kenya into the very dry Northern Frontier District were worth stopping to take in. At Nanyuki we went West towards Rumuruti, gradually descending from the mountain into nomadic grazing land to finally arrive at the ranch. Gilfrid was waiting with the cattle on display for us to choose what we needed. The selection done, over a cup of tea we agreed on the final price and payment and then loaded the animals on the lorry. As the latter was slower than us, we agreed on the route to follow and told them to depart before us, as we were hoping to arrive at Nakuru to spend the night there.

We lingered a bit longer talking to Gilfrid while he showed me his ranch. He was clearly an interesting “character” and drove a “Hang over”, due to a modification he made to the back badge of the Range Rover! Returning to the house I saw three or four skulls on the roof of the verandah. I realized that they were lions’. Gilfrid explained that they had been “cattle-eaters” that needed to be shot, as they killed far more animals than they needed to eat. “I tolerate losing a few cattle but not that one lion needlessly kills ten cattle in one night!” he asserted. However, he reassured me that lions were still plentiful in the area and that he loved to hear them roaring in the evening, provided that they kept away from his cattle! I could not help asking for one and he promised to remember me the next time a lion overstepped the mark[2]. He agreed and after a while we said our farewells, as I needed to catch up with the lorry. I liked Gilfrid and would return to him for more cattle in the future.

After about an hour, the cloud of volcanic dust in front of us indicated that we were approaching our truck. As I positioned the car to overtake it and its dust plume, I saw a grid on the road that I just managed to avoid by braking and swerving to one side. Recovered from the sudden jolt we came close to the lorry again. “What on earth is going on!” I muttered while I tried to make sense of what I saw. The back door of the lorry was missing and a line of cattle were looking at me! The sudden appearance of the grid on the road suddenly became clear, it was in fact its back gate! I started hooting and flashing my lights hoping that the driver would stop. He ignored us or did no hear us so I took the risky decision of overtaking it to stop it from the front. The maneuver was not easy as it was a narrow dirt road but somehow I managed, probably helped by my stress!

We agreed that as soon as the lorry stopped we would jump out to stop the animals from jumping off and scampering into the endless savannah, as there are no fences in that part of Kenya! Luckily we managed to stop the lorry before any of the animals jumped and, while the herdsmen held the animals in check, I rushed back to collect the back gate that, luckily, somehow fit inside the Land Rover! I mentally thanked the cattle for being wise and verbally the herdsmen for keeping them at bay. The gate fixed, we resumed our journey with our car in the lead.

We managed to get as far as Kericho where we watered the animals and made sure that all was tightly secured before we retired for a fully deserved rest. As the lorry was much slower than us, we also agreed that it would depart at dawn towards Kisii and onwards until Kilgoris and eventually to Intona Ranch. I was really exhausted both physically and mentally and managed to count about three cattle jumping before I crashed into sound sleep!

When we were ready to go the next day, the lorry had already left as arranged. We headed for Kisii following the tarmac, expecting to find our lorry on the way. We got there and didn’t find it so I assumed that they must have continued towards Sotik, the next town so I proceeded to that destination. Still no lorry! I could not believe that they had already passed Sotik so I retraced my steps looking for it, as it was likely that they had stopped on the way and I had missed them. This proved to be a mistake as we still found nothing on the way back and by this stage I had lost too much time to catch up to it on the road!

My first and rather distressing thought was that my cattle had been stolen! There were lots of stories of cattle rustling taking place in that region of Kenya at the time and I had been warned about them prior to our departure. Not sure about which Police station to report the theft to, I decided to leave that as a last resort and instead pushed on to get to Kilgoris as this was our final meeting point before we took the rougher road to Intona Ranch.

We drove silently all the way and arrived at Kilgoris in the late afternoon, rather crestfallen and upset with myself for having been so careless. As Kilgoris is a small place, if the truck was there we would be able to see it, so we entered the town with a glimmer of hope. “There it is” exclaimed Kimondo and there it was, our lorry was almost the first vehicle we saw, parked at the prearranged meeting point in the town square. As expected, the lorry was totally surrounded by Maasai that were keenly watching our cattle. Through Tommi I learnt that they were really excited and very complimentary about our rather lovely and fat Boran yearlings! My worries increased again with the knowledge that Maasai believe that all cattle belong to them!

We finally found the driver at a nearby shop and told him of our adventure. Happy to see us again, he laughed at our obvious travel miscalculation. He had left Kericho earlier than we thought, as he was not sure of the condition of the road and got to Kisii and then Sotik with ease. Seeing this, he decided to push on to Kilgoris to save time and to arrive there before nightfall as I had recommended to him. He got to Kilgoris early, parked the lorry and waited! He shared my wariness about the curiosity shown by the Maasai crowd and we agreed that his “tout” would sleep on the lorry to avoid any nocturnal mishaps!

I was relieved to see that things were back to normal and I treated everyone to some “Nyama choma[3] and “ugali[4] and then went to the hotel to sleep. The place was rather basic, prepared for a Maasai clientele but I did not mind and slept soundly as we were reunited with our “lost” cattle!

The following morning we drove in front and, luckily, the road was dry. We reached Intona ranch without further disasters. The field trial could now start!

[1] See: http://suyiantrust.wildlifedirect.org/author/gilfrid-powys/

[2] See “Lion Skull” later in this blog.

[3] Barbequed beef.

[4] Maize meal.

Life and work in Kenya: Muguga[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tommi preparing an animal for tick infestation.

Tommi preparing an animal for tick infestation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Muguga House garden.

The Muguga House garden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard's parrot.

Richard’s parrot.

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

Our house at Tigoni.

Our house at Tigoni.

[1] Follows “Back to Nairobi”

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

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

Chicken “A la Rusinga”[1]

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

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

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

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

Towards Mbita Point.

Towards Mbita Point.

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

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

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

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

Rusinga island, across the channel.

Rusinga island, across the channel.

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

The entrance to the research station.

The entrance to the research station.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Follows Kenya: Friends and Foes.

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

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

[4] Swahili for chicken.

[5] Swahili for handless saucepans.

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

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

[8] Swahili for Hello!

Kenya: 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.