Cattle feed on wheels

As described in earlier posts on my Kenya days, part of the two-pronged approach to study the impact of ticks on cattle was to take place at the Isolation Unit of the Kenya Veterinary Research Institute (KEVRI) at Muguga. The place, reserved for possible outbreaks of some of the dangerous diseases the place worked on, was unoccupied at the time so it was allocated to my research as there was no other suitable place.

The facility had several pens, water, a storeroom, a weigh bridge and a good crush pen where we could work with the cattle, as the trial would require intensive animal monitoring. I was pleased with the place as it saved me not only the time and effort needed to build something similar but also, as my budget was meagre, spared me valuable funds. Luckily, on the understanding that the animals would be returned at the end of the trial, Matt and I also managed to negotiate the loan of the animals from the Director of KEVRI, saving substantial funds that I could keep for any future contingencies.

muguga isolation unit

With minor improvements, the Isolation Unit became suitable.

Once the facility was settled, I brought in the cattle and formed the three experimental groups. The trial was ready to start but, before this could take place, I needed to find two herdsmen to help me managing the experiment, planned to last for six months.

Experimental cattle Isolation unit copy

Some of the experimental cattle at the start of the trial.

More negotiations, this time internal -with Matt and Robin- yielded Kevin, the lowest ranked herdsmen at the ICIPE laboratory at Muguga. He was considered suitable for the job so I accepted him. The second one, Karungu, was identified almost immediately as he was the brother of another ICIPE herdsman. Karungu was unemployed and willing to join the project. Kevin knew Karungu and agreed that they could work together so I was ready to go!

I had already procured in advance most of the needed supplies for the trial and the store was full of veterinary essentials as well as feed. As the latter was critical, I had procured a large amount of both concentrates and hay. I estimated to have sufficient feed to last for three months and during this time I trusted that I would secure the rest. The rat population at the unit was abundant so I spent lots of time and effort making the place rat-proof until I thought it to be unassailable!

The following morning Kevin and Karungu reported to work in my new “laboratory” and soon they were wearing first hand uniforms and boots and getting on with the work of cleaning and watering the animals. Trying to establish a good rapport with them from the onset, I decided to treat them to a hot cup of tea that I prepared the usual “English” way. Muguga was a cold place, nestled in the Kikuyu highlands so I thought that a hot drink would be welcome in that chilly morning.

Tea in Kenya was cheap and abundant at the time so I prepared a strong black tea and called my new assistants to share it with me. I thought it was strong but drinkable but, to my surprise and disappointment, they took a sip and at unison they asserted that it was too bitter and undrinkable! I tried to convince them otherwise but they flatly refused to have a second sip making animated comments in Kikuyu language that I missed! I later understood that, in general, Kenyans would boil the milk and add the tea directly to it and continue boiling the mixture. The milk gradually acquires a pale brown tinge and it is then judged to be ready. In addition, sugar is added generously making the beverage very sweet. I refrained from offering my kind of tea to them again and I did not like their milk tea so, although we shared tea time, we kept our tea making separate!

In preparation for the work to come I spent long hours explaining the new employees the fundamentals of what we were doing and why and how we needed to work the way I was instructing them. Among other issues, it was essential that the animals were kept separate and the feed was weighed and given to them according to the experimental protocol. From early work done in Australia I knew that I would be dealing with small differences between tick-infested and tick-free animals so I needed to take great care with the way the animals were fed in order to compare them validly.

Cattle grroming copy

Apart from this trial, I was also running a similar field trial at Intona ranch. This meant that I would be absent for some days travelling to Intona so it was essential that the basics of running the experiment were understood as well as the daily tasks of cleaning the pens, watering and other regular jobs.

The trial started by monitoring all the animals for about a month both to get their baseline weight gain and to allow time for the ticks to be bred artificially. The trial needed large numbers of adult ticks and this, in turn, required a boost to the ICIPE tick colony. Despite my impatience to start, to produce the necessary tick amounts took a great deal of work and time. The latter was critical as if applied too young they would still be soft and unable to attach and you would get the same result if too old as they would not have enough energy reserves to attach. Luckily I had Robin to advise me about the right timing!

tick applic

Tommi, my Maasai herdsmen, placing ear bags to one of the animals.

Eventually, the day arrived when we were ready to apply the first batch of ticks and to start the trial. The ticks are known as the Brown Ear ticks for a reason so the use of the normal application method by means of ear bags was chosen over other possible techniques considered. We managed to apply them successfully and the trial “officially” started. It was a great feeling as I was finally working!

I was aware that we needed to repeat the infestations every week for six months and hoped that the tick supply would be well planned. For that to happen, again I trusted Robin’s knowledge and fully depended on him. Luckily, we also had the support and skills of Fred that managed to prepare all ticks needed at the right time with only one exception because of a problem with an incubator that went bonkers and “cooked” all the ticks!

boran heifer with earbags Intona copy

Earbags applied.

R app 3

Ticks attached.

After a couple of weeks of work Karungu and Kevin took the opportunity of a break during the work to come and talk to me. They were requesting “the project” to buy them bicycles on account of the long distance they needed to travel to come to work. Their argument was that the time they saved travelling during mornings and afternoons would be invested in the project. I thought that the request was reasonable and the following day, we went to a bicycle repair shop in Kikuyu town where, after a protracted discussion and the expected bargaining -as they later informed me as it was in Kikuyu- they managed to get a good deal for two good second hand ones. Little I knew at the time that this, regrettably, would be the beginning of the end

It all went well with the work for a couple of months afterwards until one morning that neither Kevin nor Karungu turned up! It had happened that one of them was absent or late but never both of them. Luckily I was there that week as this was a real problem for the continiuity of the work. After feeding and watering the animals myself I went to talk to my ICIPE colleagues to get some assistance and to see if Karungu’s brother knew anything.

I managed to get temporary help but I got no news so, hoping that the double absence was due to chance; I went back to my laboratory to continue with the job. Involved in the work and having others to help me, I soon forgot their absence until I had an unexpected visitor: a KEVRI watchman. He had been sent to notify me that both my employees had been caught stealing cattle feed! Shocked and dismayed I asked for details. He explained that they were caught leaving KEVRI on the bicycles I had agreed to buy for them, carrying a bag of feed each!

I felt a real fool and enraged for what, at the time, I perceived as a betrayal by people I was beginning to trust and shared time with. I also knew that I was in trouble since I had bought the bicycles against Matt’s advice! Despite that, I also somehow admired their planning skills and wicked dexterity! The information given left me in no doubt that the report was true and also that this would bring potentially serious complications, as I urgently needed to find new people to continue the work as these two would not come back.

Before leaving, the guard informed me that the pair was under arrest at the Kikuyu Police Station charged with theft. The trial would take place on the morrow afternoon and I was summoned to appear at the trial to press the charges. He was coming with me so, after making arrangements to travel together, I left for home. I have had a long day and I felt tired and upset at what had taken place.

As usually happens, the following morning things were clearer and I made up my mind on what to do next and how to handle the situation. First, I reported the incident to Matt who, to put it mildly, was unhappy. Although the only comment he made was “Yulio, you should have listened to me when I told you not to buy them the bicycles as you cannot trust these people”, his face spoke much more! I thought about arguing back on poverty and its needs but I knew that it would be futile so I remained silent and accepted his wrath. He told me to sack them immediately and to go to court and deal with the issue severely.

The tough meeting with Matt and the impending drama that expected me in the afternoon kept me unsettled for the rest of the morning. I had never been to a court, as I had not committed any offence anywhere, so it was to be my debut! At the agreed time I picked the security guard and drove to Kikuyu for my “court experience”.

Judging by the number of people outside the court building, this was a busy place and I would be there for a while. I followed the security guard inside the building, his uniform opening us the way through the crowd. The room was really jam-packed with people of all ages and I could just distinguish a judge sitting at the very front of the room. He was a mature judge, and to my surprise, he worn the white and woolly wig that I had seen British British judges wear on movies and that I find funny. “A legacy from the British rule” I thought while waiting to learn what was expected from me.

The security guard had clearly been there before and, after talking to a court employee, he soon returned to tell me that we were the next case. We sat at the back and I instantly became a distracting factor in the proceeds as it was, apparently, not common that a mzungu[1] would be in a Kenyan court! Expecting to be asked to leave the room to avoid disrupting the process of law I took the time available to watch the events that surrounded me.

The room was large, similar to a chapel, with a desk at the front where the judge sat. Next to him there were other smaller desks and tables where defence and prosecution were located. The public sat in long benches and there was little room left. It was cold and, the open windows did not help to save the only source of warmth: the body heat. It may as well as the place was rather stuffy already.

Once I settled down I identified a rather small man looking battered and contrite that I imagined being the accused. However, as I did not understand Kikuyu, I started imagining why he was there and the crime committed. Before long, the security guard, himself from the Akamba ethnic group and able to understand Kikuyu, started to translate for me. I was right about the man being the accused but, instead of my thoughts that placed him at the receiving end of his wife, he was there because he had stolen money from a market lady. He had been caught by the crowd and given a hiding before the Police detained him, saving him from further damage.

A rather plump Kikuyu lady looking fierce and very upset, the victim, was charging him with theft. The guilty verdict came fast and the man was sentenced to spend time in jail, despite his own defence arguments, as he had no defence lawyer. Once that case ended, part of the public moved out and, after a few minutes, Karungu and Kevin, both handcuffed, were brought in. The two bicycles -still with the bags tied up on them- as evidence followed. Both walked looking at the floor and they did not return my gaze.

To my relief, and clearly for my benefit, the clerk in charge of the cases spoke better English than me and so did everybody else! The charges were read and I was then asked if I recognized them, their bicycles and the feed. I replied that I did. The time then came for me to press charges. I did not. I had already thought about the issue at length and decided that sacking them was sufficient punishment. I knew that the Kenya Law was rather harsh on thieves and I did not wish them to spend a long time in jail or worse! They were freed and the case was quickly closed. The security guard was surprised at my decision but he did not say anything. Clearly, he also knew the fate of thieves. We loaded the bicycles and feed on the kombi and returned to the laboratory.

Later that day when Matt came to see me, I explained what I had done. He was livid and proceeded to give me a long lecture on why I had been wrong and that people should be punished for their crimes. I knew that he was probably right and listened in silence and, although I apologized, I did not regret my decision. I also underwent another similar session with the Director of KEVRI. Luckily, the incident was soon forgotten and the work continued. I sold the two bicycles and soon had new herdsmen to help me!

I never saw Karungu or Kevin again.



[1] A common Ki-Swahili term used to call a white person.


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