work

Bedele, the work

Although my work was the reason for us to have come to Bedele, I will try not to bore you with descriptions of technical issues that are beyond the scope of this blog. However, some general background information is relevant to place the stories that will follow in context. After all, all anecdotes I will describe took place as spin offs of the project.

FAO had technically supported the building and equipping of the laboratory through earlier projects that, unfortunately, were not able to complete the work as could be seen by a number of large crates at the entrance of the laboratory as well as the parts of an incinerator that were scattered in the field surrounded the buildings.

At the time of my arrival, FAO was still supporting the laboratory implementing two projects with UNDP funding, a tsetse and trypanosomiasis and a tick and tick-borne disease project, ours. Both projects worked towards the control of these parasites and there was good collaboration between us all along. Jan, my Dutch colleague and neighbour headed the tsetse project and he spent most of his time in the bush while I travelled to our field sites but also had work to do at the laboratory.

The tick and tick-borne disease project had a number of veterinarians and technicians that would work with me. Among the vets there were Sileshi (my main counterpart), Solomon and, later Assefa. There were also a number of able and devoted technicians that supported the work that I will not mention as some names escape me now.

It did not take long for surprises to start to pop-up. As in any project hand over, I had a thorough inventory of the project’s equipment. This included a list of the project vehicles, regarded as “hot items” by the FAO and UNDP administrations. In the list there were five vehicles but I only found four in Bedele and I was informed that the provincial Administrator in Jimma has taken possession of one of them for his use.

As this was unacceptable, I planned a visit with the Director of the Bedele Laboratory and my counterpart to meet the Administrator, all of us determined to recover it. Eventually we were given an “audience” by the Governor of the Kaffa province in Jimma to present our case. We were made to wait for a while before the meeting with an Administrator as the Governor was too busy to see us.

To my surprise, things went very smoothly, and in a few minutes, we had the assurances of the car’s return. Unfortunately, it could not be done the same day as the car needed to be serviced but the following week. Of course, I never saw the car again despite repeated assurances that it would be returned a few “next weeks”!

I duly reported its “disappearance” in the project inventory, something that failed to create any queries neither in FAO nor UNDP! We still had four 4WD to do our work and we believed that they would be enough, provided that we managed to get them in good working order. I soon learnt that this was not as straightforward as it sounds as we will see below!

The Ethiopian Government worked on Saturday mornings, something I had not realized until I arrived in Ethiopia the second time. However, to compensate for this extra half a day, there were “political meetings” every Wednesday afternoon. As myself was not expected to participate I cannot say what was discussed there. So it was that on Wednesday after lunch I was alone in the laboratory.

Our project’s working area were the three south-western provinces of the country namely Kaffa, Illubabor and Welega. Apart from capacity building on tick and tick-borne diseases we had two main objectives: (i) to collect and identify tick species from domestic animals from as many locations as possible (tick survey) and (ii) to monthly monitor the number of ticks on groups of cattle (that had been selected and identified by the project) to assess the numbers of the various species of ticks present and get an idea of their seasonal abundance (population dynamics).

Tick counting.
We were very popular, particularly with the children!
Tick work often took place in wet conditions!

From the start it was clear that the project staff were devoted to the work and they -to my relief- had kept the population dynamics work going and the data collection had been kept as scheduled by my predecessor. This was great news. Unfortunately, the same could not be said about the tick survey that had suffered as it was more difficult to justify getting the needed inputs to carry it out.

A practical training session on tick taxonomy
A lecture to animal health personnel from the three provinces.

So, we needed reinforce our tick survey while keeping our monthly observations going as we needed as much data as possible to draw meaningful conclusions. For that we needed fuel to visit the various places and this was one of our major problems as it was severely rationed.

Often, I needed to visit the Bedele Administrator to persuade him to let me have the needed fuel to carry out the work and I remembered feeling “victorious” walking away with a 20 litre coupon of petrol! Luckily, after a few months Total introduced their own petrol coupons and these helped a great deal to get the needed fuel.

For about one year, things run smoothly, and it was time for us to go on home leave as, because of the UN duty station hardship classification, we were entitled to go out of the country once per year. We had a very good break but, on return, I faced a bit of a crisis when I was tersely informed by the laboratory’s administrator that one of our vehicles had been “borrowed” by President Mengistu and his entourage while touring the west of Ethiopia.

While to stop this would have been impossible for anybody, the fact that the car never came back was very worrisome. The situation was indeed delicate as it involved the highest authority of the country and one that had a rather ruthless reputation, so I decided to let it rest for a while. This was a good decision as, eventually we learnt that the car had hit a buffalo and overturned on the way to Gambela and that it had been abandoned but that we were allowed to recover it!

As there were no car workshops in Bedele, to service or repair our cars, we needed to find the car, towed it back to Bedele and then to Addis, a journey of several hundred kilometres. A rescue party was sent, and the car was brought to the laboratory. It was our best Land Cruiser and it looked like a “banana”, rather twisted after it roll. Luckily it could still be towed had been badly damaged, and it had a banana shape although it could still be towed.

We decided to invest some of our meagre project resources to repair it and it was eventually taken to Addis on a lorry and we got it back a couple of months later when I went to collect it and immediately detected that it would never ride as well as before and that it gained a new trait, its inability to stop dust from entering all over the place!

After two years of work we managed to complete the work expected from us both on tick identification and population dynamics. Despite our efforts, UNDP stopped funding projects by implementing agencies like FAO and our effort was not continued despite the need for it that still remained. Luckily, we did manage to get some limited funding from the Danish Government to look at tick-borne diseases but not enough to keep international personnel so we departed after a very interesting spell in Ethiopia that I will go through in the next few posts.

To Ethiopia!

As mentioned earlier [1] it was 1987 and we were still enjoying our work and life in Kenya. However, it was becoming evident that our modest savings would never secure our future, so we started looking for better opportunities. Regrettably, we could not find suitable work in Kenya, otherwise we would probably still be residing there today!

In mid 1988 a great opportunity with FAO appeared in Ethiopia at a place called Bedele of which neither we nor most of our friends had ever heard of before. Most but not all. Jim [2] however, had and immediately told me that Bedele was in western Ethiopia and also that it was “out in the sticks”, not a very encouraging start!

Later on I learnt that Andy, a tick expert from Zimbabwe -working in Nairobi- had just been in Ethiopia for a consultancy that included a short visit to Bedele itself. He confirmed that it was far from Addis Ababa and rather remote, but an interesting place where not much work on ticks and tickborne diseases had been done although the need for it was there.

When I asked him about the living conditions, he mentioned that he had stayed at the station where I was going to live -if I accepted the offer- for two years and mentioned that the area was very beautiful. “Do the bungalows have a garden” I asked, “the whole of Ethiopia will be your back garden!” was his reply. That left me rather concerned!

As the need for my services was rather urgent, before accepting the long-term position and while we prepared to leave Kenya, I offered to travel to Bedele to familiarize myself and to supervise the on-going work. I also carried the “Family terms of reference” that included the evaluation of our future accommodation, availability of supplies and other critical issues to survive in a remote place. Regarding the house, I was to draw a plan that, back in Nairobi, would be submitted to an architect friend so that we could take the relevant furniture and appliances.

So it was that I arrived at Bole airport in Addis Ababa on a two-week consultancy mission. The change between Kenya and Ethiopia was very dramatic as I was entering a country where a civil war had been raging from September 1974 when the Marxist Derg removed Emperor Haile Selassie from power and Eritrea had started fighting for its independence.

Bole looked like a military airport being used by civilian flights, mainly Ethiopian Airlines. There was no “yambo” welcome or smiling faces anywhere but armed soldiers with surly faces! I had arrived to my first communist dictatorship led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, a ruthless leader.

Realizing that things would be different I was very happy to be greeted by people from FAO. They took me to the Ghion hotel where I would stay until I traveled to Bedele, a small town in Western Ethiopia where FAO had built a Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory with a focus on trypanosomiasis and tickborne diseases.

So it was that, after the necessary protocol meetings that took a couple of days, I had the necessary travel permit that would allow me to travel to Bedele. The letter was written in Amharic and I could only hope that it gave the right information about my trip as the only thing that I could understand was my name! However, when I realized that the country’s Chief Veterinary Officer and the Director of the Bedele Laboratory were traveling with me, I relaxed.

We left early in the morning and traveled very slowly in a westerly direction. Getting out of Addis Ababa was indeed a complex operation as there was no clear exit road and people used the tarmac to walk to their destinations with their livestock, sharing the road with the motor vehicles. Our speed increased somehow once we left the city as the people numbers decreased for a while (only to increase near every populated area!). Despite this, almost permanent hooting was required in order to advance.

Driving from Addis Ababa to Bedele on a Sunday required patience!
There is a donkey somewhere under the leaves!

The trip took us through rather barren land dominated by teff fields [3] and the occasional trees, very occasional. The latter were really what remained of them after most of their branches had been chopped for fuel and only a green tuft remained, something I had not seen before.

Teff with yellow meskel flowers (Bidens macroptera or pachyloma?) in the forefront of the picture.

Near Jimma, the capital of the large Kaffa province and about 350 km from Addis Ababa, the landscape became greener and trees became more abundant. That coincided with the end of the tarmac and the start of a consolidated but very rough and dusty road, from where we continued towards Bedele, located in the province of Illubabor. We reached Bedele after a long 140 km journey from Jimma and, by the time we got there, presented our travel credentials for clearance by the local member of the Government and found food and accommodation, we were really tired and we slept soundly!

The following morning was cool and sunny and this enabled me to appreciate that Bedele was mainly a one street town set up in a rather well forested area. Bedele, also known and “Buno Bedele” was reputed to be the origin of the coffee and you could easily see the beautiful flat-top acacias with the coffee bushes growing under their shade.

During my visit I learnt that the work was mainly following an already on-going routine that required the collection of ticks from cattle at different locations both to get to know the species and to understand their population dynamics. The study was led by a scientist that had suffered a severe health problem and needed to be evacuated and unfortunately was unable to return.

I realized that I could handle the proposed work and hoped to stimulate other research activities and, hopefully, attract more funding to continue the work beyond the two years planned.

During the visit I met the Ethiopians that would work with me and I was impressed about their dedication as they had kept the work going despite having remained on their own for a few months by now. I accompanied them when they went to their study sites and I realized that Ethiopia was a really special place, difficult but full of new things for me that I judged we would enjoy.

During that time, I also leant that Jan and Janni, a couple from The Netherlands working on trypanosomiasis also lived at the station and we would share our time there although they were on holiday during the time of my visit. Our house was next to theirs and when I saw it I understood fully Andy’s remarks that my garden would be “the whole of Ethiopia”!

Our two-bedroom bungalow, the same as the remaining seven others, had a small kitchen, a sitting area and a toilet that included a shower two bedrooms. I duly measured all rooms and made a floor plan that hoped it would be useful to plan our future house. Supplies, however, looked a more complicated affair. Petrol was rationed and, apart from good coffee, food was available at a basic butchery and the Saturday market. Clearly we needed to prepare for “importing” our foodstuff from Addis Ababa at regular intervals.

Although the work offered both positive and negative aspects, after the visit I judged that the former outweighed the latter and I decided that we should give this new adventure, both professional and personal, a try and our adventures there will be the subject of the following posts.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/09/29/harvesting-from-the-effort1/

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/11/13/pythons-and-social-life/),

[3] Eragrostis tef, native of the Horn of Africa, is a cereal grass with tiny seeds of less than one millimeter of diameter. It is cultivated for its tiny seeds “injera“, a sourdough-risen flatbread is made and also for its straw to feed livestock.

Wild rodeo

I mentioned earlier that our friend Paul was working on animal diseases at various places, including the Maasai Mara Game Reserve where he was investigating the epidemiology of Malignant Catarrh fever. Apart from collecting placentas [1] he was also collecting blood samples to ascertain the presence of antibodies against this disease among the wildebeest population.

When I had time on my way to Intona ranch via the Maasai Mara or over weekends we joined him to spend time together enjoying the bush, which also included enjoying helping him with his work!

Taking a blood sample while Mabel looks on.

Clearly, to bleed the animals there was the need to immobilize them and this was done by firing a dart that in fact was a flying metal syringe that, on impact with the animal, would have a tiny detonation that would push the anesthetic into the animal. Although interesting, the procedure had risks as an accidental inoculation to a human was life-threatening and a syringe loaded with the antidote was prepared every time we went out.

The effect of the immobilizing drug was very fast and the animal would lie down within a few minutes. During that time, we needed to follow the animal until it started to slow down and finally stopped and became recumbent. Then, there was no need for much holding, as it did not struggle.

After finishing the work and removing the dart, we would apply a gentian violet spray to help with the healing of the small wound as well as to alert us that the animal had already been captured. Then we would inject the antidote intravenously and we literally jumped back as the animal will immediately recover, stand-up and move off as if nothing had happened! This was essential when darting animals in a place notorious for its large predators that were always on the prowl.

Although I had a chance to dart a few animals, I mostly drove as the work needed a two-person team to be performed. I needed to learn how to drive in order to come within “shooting” distance of the animals. You needed to come obliquely as not to start them and then stop the car to allow the shooter to do the job. Breaking a branch or even a twig was sufficient to have to start all over again!

A dart placed at the right spot.

The shoulder was your target. Being in the centre of the animal you would still hit the neck if it went back or the flank if it happened to go forward. Although this sounds simple, sometimes the dart would go over or under the animal or it would jump and the dart would miss it. A missed shot meant an interruption of the work until the dart -usually half-buried in the grass- was recovered. Project resources were limited and a dart was costly. Luckily they had a coloured flight stabilizers that helped locating them.

Although the work proceeded smoothly, there was one instance when things did not go as planned.

At a time that most of the wildebeest had traveled to the Serengeti, there was a need to get some samples despite the low number of animals present. The work involved a lot of searching until individual animals were found and then approached for them to be darted.

After a lot of hard work we managed to dart one adult male that we processed fast to continue looking for others. We covered a lot of bush but found that the animals were particularly jittery and difficult to approach. Eventually we got a female and continued trying to the last one for the day.

During mid-afternoon we found another male, we darted it and started to follow it waiting for it to go down. After a while -surprised- we saw that it would not go down as expected. We followed it and then when it turned we saw the gentian violet spray we had left on it when we had darted earlier!

Clearly, the animal was still under the influence of the antidote and the new dose of tranquilizer would only slow it down but it was not enough for it to lie down. We were in a fix as we could not leave it in that condition and more tranquilizing drug was not advisable.

Desperate situations demand desperate solutions so I volunteer to ambush it by hiding behind a bush while Paul drove it towards me. I thought it would require the same effort as holding a young steer, something I had done this before so I estimated it doable. After all, I only needed to hold it for a sufficiently long time to allow Paul to come and help me, overpower it and remove the dart.

We found a suitable area with woodlands on both sides and I hid behind some bushes with some rocks behind me (to prevent unwanted visitors surprising me) and waited. Although I did not see the car, I heard it coming closer so I got ready for the animal to walk in front of me and then jump to get it.

To my surprise, before I could move, quite a large head (much larger than I expected) was sniffing me! Despite my surprise I reacted by grabbing the animal’s neck hoping to keep it still. As I started being dragged over the plains of the Maasai Mara I realized that I had underestimated the strength of a male wildebeest, even a drugged one!

I soon lost my footing and remained hanging from my embrace of its rather muscular neck. The neck of a wildebeest from a car window is one thing but to actually try to span it with your arms while the creature runs, although groggy, is another one.  

After about three leaps, my grip slackened and I ended up grabbing one of its front legs. My hold was rather short-lived as I was now under the beast being dragged, stepped on and knocking me against all ground irregularities. I let it go and stayedlying on the ground recovering from the ill treatment received.

I was not really hurt but a bit knocked and soon recovered and sat-up to wait for Paul while removing a few thorns from my arms and legs. Paul took a while to come as he was laughing so much at the scene! I understood his mirth as it must have been quite a funny act to watch!

Despite what I thought it was a brave attempt, the problem remained. The wildebeest was still groggy and vulnerable and it carried a valuable dart! We needed another plan as the animal was trotting just a few metres from us. So, plan B was hatched that would involve my cattle-lassoing skills I had acquired in Uruguay.

With the car’s towing rope I improvised my lasso and placed myself between the front of the car and the bull bar where I could keep in place while I could use both hands as I could not use a lasso with only one. I was a bit unstable on my perch but decided that it will have to do. As a precaution I tied the end of the improvised lasso to the bull bar.

As soon as the car approached the beast I threw my improvised lasso until, after the third or fourth try, I managed to get it from the horns. That was not my idea as I aimed for the neck but it will have to do. Seen that the lasso was firm I signalled Paul to slow down and stop. The animal continued trotting as far as the rope allowed it and then, gradually, we pulled it to bring it close and finally managed to extricate the dart, spray it again (this time on the other side as well) and, with some difficulty but with the aid of a wire, remove the lasso from its horns.

A rather dishevelled bushsnob posing with the exhausted wildebeest, waiting until it recovered fully.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/09/01/learning-to-camp-among-the-wildebeest/

Working in the Northern Fontier District

After my FAO Fellowship ended and I joined the ICIPE and my work shifted towards the understanding of the resistance that some cattle have against ticks. Some colleagues there were working on a tick vaccine while I was given the task of exploring the natural resistance that is observed among cattle in the field.

At the time there were reports of animals that were refractory to ticks while the opposite also happened, a few animals in the herd carried most of the ticks and culling them was recommended to reduce tick populations in the long term. We needed tp prove this in Kenya, in an area free of Theileriosis as the work demanded to stop the application of chemicals to kill the ticks.

Boran bull Mutara copy

Beautiful Boran bull.

After discussions with colleagues and with the agreement of the Government of Kenya’s veterinary authorities it was agreed that we would focused our work on Mutara Ranch in Laikipia District where the Agricultural Development Corporation had the National Boran Stud. They were prepared to let us work on a group of one hundred young bulls to determine their resistance status.

After the trial preparation period we started with the work that lasted for six months. We got a number of interesting results that confirmed the hypothesis that tick distribution in the herd was normally distributed with a few bulls carrying few and lots of ticks while most were somewhere in between.

mutara

Working. From left to right Mark, Henry, Joseph, Bushsnob, Gitau and the other Henry.

So, we decided to compare our list of best ranked bulls for tick resistance with those of the Farm Manager for physical quality and body built. Our best animals for tick resistance did not match those regarded as best by the Manager! Although this was not what we expected and a disappointment as it was clear that selection would take a longer route than anticipated, the geneticists and statisticians unanimously agreed that the consistency of the results merited continuation[1].

We then entered in collaboration discussions with geneticists from Texas’ A&M University in the United States to expand the work and, with them, planned a series of follow-up trials. Unfortunately, the research group dispersed and myself and another of the collaborators departed from Kenya and the work stopped there.

In addition to doing very interesting work, my regular visits to Mutara gave me a great opportunity to explore some areas of the Northern Frontier District, a fascinating area that I mentioned in my previous post. These safaris follow next!

 

[1] Results of the work are published and those of you with a scientific mind can access the publication. See:https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337857245_Towards_the_selection_of_cattle_for_tick_resistance_in_Africa

 

Uncomfortable tick

Working with certain ticks can be dangerous. As an example, it is possible to contract the severe Crimean-Congo Haemorraghic fever while working with its vector Hyalomma spp. Luckily, most of the work we carried out at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) dealt with the Brown Ear tick (Rhipicephalus appendiculatus), vector of Theileriosis, the most important and deadly cattle tick-borne disease found in Africa but not known to transmit diseases to humans. Over the many years my colleagues and I worked with this tick, we never had an instance of sickness that we could attribute to them.

R a on ear high resol

Heavy infestation of Rhipicephalus appendiculatus on a calf ear.

Ixodid (hard) ticks such as the Brown Ear tick bite but do not sting. They do not bite like other insects either but rather they attach themselves in a usually painless way so that you do not know about them until sometime later. Argasid (soft) ticks do bite, feed and go away to their resting place to come back and feed again after digesting the blood meal.

Argasids' lesions copy

The Argasid ticks (Ornitodhoros, Argas, etc.) shown will bite, feed and detach. Ixodid ticks (Rhipicephalus, Hyalomma, Amblyomma, etc.) need to attach to the host prior to feeding).

Although we did not get any disease signs, we did experience tick bites very often. We got ticks on while walking in the field and during our laboratory work during which we needed to handle them very often.

Although the adult ticks did not attach readily to us, the nymphs and larvae did. Their preferred body regions were areas where there was hair such as neck, armpits and genital area but the larvae picked while walking on the grass would mainly stay on your ankles (pepper ticks). Eventually I became hypersensitive to their bites that produce me intense itching that makes me scratch their bites intensely and often breaking my skin!

 

Counting immature ticks was a normal procedure for our work and -at the time- the procedure consisted in placing them on a white smooth table where immediately they would start moving. Being attracted by CO2 they would aim for you straight away and you needed to work very fast to be able to catch them -with an inverted tube- before they would get at you. Unfortunately and rather inevitably a few would break through your defences, fell on your lap or crawled up your arms with the consequence that later you would find them attached to you in the various places mentioned above!

Although, as I mentioned above, adult ticks generally did not attach to you, there were exceptions with certain species that caused the unfortunate incident that happened to a visiting colleague.

After a day of fieldwork counting and collecting ticks from local domestic animals in the Mbita Point area [1], we came back to our bungalow for a deserved shower before our dinner. I noted that John (not his real name) was walking with his legs slightly separated as if suffering from nappy rash but I attributed to the many hours we spent kneeling down searching for ticks and -with some effort- refrained from making any rude remarks!

It was only after the shower that he came to me and, very seriously, told me that he had a problem. This took me by surprise but nothing prepared me for what would come next. “I have a tick attached to me and I cannot remove it!” and, before I could comment he added, “because it is in a place that I cannot reach” and then added “do you think you can pull it out?”

Having suffered various tick invasions to my privacy, I immediately imagined where the invader was and -albeit unwillingly- agreed to do it. So it was that I ended up with my naked colleague spreadeagled on a bed!

I will omit further details of the intervention except to say that I did lock the door as I suddenly realised that the excuse “I was looking for a tick” if found rummaging my friends privates to a visitor would not be very credible! Fortunately, no one disturbed the procedure!

It was good that the trespasser was an adult female that had already started to engorge and it was easy to find and to remove it intact by turning it upside down before pulling it out. At that time I did not possess my “tick remover” tool that was sent to me as a present from the manufacturers.

IMG_4519 copy 2

A “tick remover”. Please note that I neither recommend or do not recommend this product that i have never used.

Leaving mouthparts’ fragments embedded in the skin could have still caused further discomfort in such delicate body region! We were both very relieved with the outcome and celebrated the de-ticking with a couple of beers over dinner.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/03/26/kenya-friends-and-foes1/ and https://bushsnob.com/2015/04/04/chicken-a-la-rusinga1/

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.

Hippos Mara river copy.jpg

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.

intona fig tree marking entrance to ranch cropped.jpg

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.

Solar powered fence.tif copy

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.

Black tea in Maasailand

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

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

muguga-isolation-unit

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

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

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

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

int-conf-protozoology-nbo-ian-herbert-copy

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

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

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

t-mara-intona-ranch-j-murumbi-1-copy

The main house at Intona ranch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

Bush cats…

While in Kenya, when a couple of friends departed, we inherited two neutered cats. They could not have been more different. One was a marmalade coloured male that went by the name of Tigger. The other one a seal-point Siamese female named Inky. While Tigger was an indoors fat and lazy youngster, Inky was an outside cat and an excellent hunter that forced us to make our bird feeder and bath cat-proof to prevent a disaster.

When our time to leave Kenya came, we were very attached to them and we decided to take them with us. After the needed health certificates and a special double box that would enable them to have eye contact through wire mesh, we were ready to go. The plane trip was not too far as we were going to Addis Ababa.

It was an easy trip and we found no difficulties on arrival at Bole airport. However, negotiating their stay at the Harambee Hotel in Addis Ababa for the days needed to prepare our long trip to Bedele in West Ethiopia was more time-consuming and it required some protracted negotiations. Eventually, permission was granted, provided that they remained inside our room!

After a few days, our travel permits were ready, we had a vehicle, petrol and petrol coupons as well as a stockpile of food to last us for a couple of weeks. We were ready to set off, at last. The journey from Addis Ababa to Bedele via Jimma was about 420 km in terms of physical distance but because of the traffic -particularly people and livestock walking on the road- it took the whole day to complete, with a bit of luck!

finchaa-tick-count-2-copy

On the way to Bedele.

Auspiciously, our maiden voyage went well and we eventually arrived in Bedele in late evening. We managed to get the keys of our cottage from the Administrator of the Veterinary Laboratory and moved into the house we would live in during the following two years. That night we camped in the house as we were only able to travel with the few possessions that we could carry in the pick-up. Our furniture and other household items would arrive later via an FAO lorry as, at that time, there were no moving companies operating in Ethiopia’s countryside.

bedele-packing-fao-lorry

The arrival of our personal effects.

Immediately after arrival our cats got on with their job: Tigger found a place to sleep and Inky started to inspect the house and its environs while calling for attention, before settling down with us to spend the first night in the Ethiopian bush. Starting the following morning, our interaction with our Ethiopian and foreign colleagues assisted us greatly to settle in and, with the arrival of our belongings a few weeks later, we managed to make the place quite comfortable. Eventually we developed a very good vegetable garden and, while Tigger relaxed, Inky was active keeping garden enemies at bay.

Unexpectedly Tigger started to follow Inky during her sorties to the outside world, cautiously at first but eventually accompanying her on her hunting expeditions although we did not think much of his contribution!

It was during an evening that we were involved in book-reading while listening to some opera music, our favourite evening activity in Bedele, that Tigger stunned us. It all started when we heard a kind of meowing that was new to us. Fearing some cat tragedy we immediately went to investigate its origin. We did not need to go too far as we met Tigger while entering the house carrying something in his mouth, followed by Inky.

As soon as he was under the entrance lamp we could see that he was triumphantly carrying in his mouth the most humongous rat I have ever seen. While I was amazed to see this my wife was consternated as she has a problem with rodents, particularly rats and mice. It was not a Giant rat or a Cane rat but one of the grey rats that are a pest the world over. But it was a “super rat”!

I failed to calm things down by saying: “he brought the rat to us to show off…” Before I finished my sentence, I noticed that the rat was alive and, sooner than I could say anything else Tigger let the rat go inside the house! I expected that he was just playing with it as normal cats do but, to my dismay, not only Tigger but also Inky (the huntress) were looking the other way while the rat made frantic efforts to escape from the house!

The situation was a bad one and I will never know why he opened his mouth! My theory is that, as soon as he saw his catch under the house light, he got so terrified that preferred to forget the possible glory and cut his losses! Although I failed to see it at the time, today, many years later I can understand the cats’ reaction as the rat was a true monster. However, I am still to forgive them because their indifference meant that it was up to me to sort out the situation!

Mayhem followed the rat’s release! My wife climbed on a chair threatening me with going on a cooking strike if I did not kill it while the guilty cats disappeared with their tails between their legs!  I was alone with Super rat! The first thing I noted was that it had no plans to surrender peacefully. As usual, it was fast and it immediately found a crack in my defenses and it squeezed through a badly closed door and got inside the kitchen, the worst scenario as far as my wife was concerned. My situation deteriorated by the second!

I followed it but when I entered the kitchen and managed to switch the light on, the rat had vanished! Swiftly, my wife slammed the door behind my back, oblivious to the fate of her husband, and then it was Super rat and I in a duel to the death, if I could find the villain.

Although our kitchen was a small affair it was rather packed with goods for us to survive our rather isolated life in a war-thorn country and away from shops! I had a look and realized that the rat could have been anywhere and that to find it would have been a laborious and even dangerous task that could prolong well beyond midnight!

So, I procrastinated -not for the first or last time in my life- and sat there for a while before announcing the rat’s absence to the incredulity and displeasure of my wife. However, she eventually though reluctantly accepted the status quo. Swearing at the cats we went to bed and, luckily, the following morning I opened the door of the kitchen and convinced my wife that the rat had gone. It worked and I was thrilled to be unharmed.

The rat incident forgotten, our cats continued to live regal lives, enjoying the large track of land surrounding our house and stalking the various birds that visited us. Luckily, I did not see them catching any but they did repeatedly ambushed a “rescued” Egyptian goose we kept for a while until it decided to depart, and watched for hours on end a pigmy kingfisher that was brought to us by a boy from the village and eventually released. They also enjoyed playing with a young duiker that outsmarted and outran them all the time.

As they seemed to be well entertained and busy, I cannot understand why they decided to expand their circle of friends and get in touch with some wild neighbours at the back of the garden…

We learnt about the new situation when we started to hear a high pitch barking in the evenings that we attributed to foxes. Eventually we saw them at about one hundred metres from our house, near the perimeter fence of the station. After watching them for a few days we identified them as a pair of side-striped jackals (Canis adustus) not without some surprise. We decided to keep the find to ourselves for fearing of they being chased off or killed.

mc-and-pets-bed

My wife walking in the garden with cats and duiker. At the back is where the jackals were.

We realized that the jackals were residing under some heavy iron pieces that should have been an incinerator that was never assembled. Our sightings became more frequent and then we realized that pups had arrived so we derived good entertainment from them as we saw them often and heard them every night.

One day the cats were nowhere to be found. At first we were not alarmed, as occasionally they would temporarily disappear. However, when they did not turn-up by the afternoon, we decided to search for them before it was too dark. After fruitlessly checking around the houses, we extended our search to the compound, increasingly worried.

Eventually we saw them at the bottom of the garden, in the area where the jackals were! “Gosh”, I thought, “They are dead meat” and run towards the area to see what I could do while cursing them for their stupidity. When I got closer, however, I noticed that not only the cats were unharmed, but that they were engaged in a kind of hide and seek exercise with the wild jackals, both adults and pups!

I then realized that this was not a new development but a relationship that had existed for a while and a kind of “friendship” had developed between our lazy and well-fed cats and the wild canids. I left them alone and the cats returned to our house later unharmed. The cat-jackal interaction continued for a few weeks but they never came close to the houses and eventually, when the pups matured, the jackals moved off.

As for the giant rat, a few days after the jackals’ disappearance, while blindly searching for some cans in the kitchen, I touched a hairy and warm “entity” and realized that this was not what I expected to find. Careful removal of the surrounding cans and jars caused the rat to jump out -almost hitting my face and stopping my heart- and run off into the open, never to be seen again. I believe that Super rat had taken residence there since the time of its arrival.

Luckily my wife was not there while I removed all evidence of the presence of Super rat. It was a tough job that required that I cleaned the nest in which I could identify shreds from some of my working reports and documents that I thought I had misplaced!

 

 

Memories – A fishing trip

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

Intona cattle grazing

Intona cattle kraal

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

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

migori-flooded-cropped

The Migori in flood. We fished from these banks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

maasai-that-got-cut-with-fish-migori-river-copy

Thomas and the fish!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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