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.

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