Life and work in Kenya: Muguga[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tommi preparing an animal for tick infestation.

Tommi preparing an animal for tick infestation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Muguga House garden.

The Muguga House garden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard's parrot.

Richard’s parrot.

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

Our house at Tigoni.

Our house at Tigoni.

[1] Follows “Back to Nairobi”

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

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

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