Mozambique

Place of many elephants

It is clear that the more places you see, the more you learn and the more you realize the little you know! Enough of philosophical exertions and focus of the post, I hear you thinking!

Climbing Wrights’s tower to look at the Mwenezi river below spurred my curiosity about who Mr. Wright was but also about the general area where the Gonarezhou[1] National Park is located. The Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Park and Conservation Area was created on 9 December 2002. It took another four years for parts of the fence separating Limpopo in Mozambique and the Kruger national parks to be removed allowing important movement of game across the hitherto fenced area. Things move slowly in conservation!

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Wright’s tower.

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The sign in Wright’s tower.

Although in April 2014, Mozambique and South Africa signed a memorandum of understanding on biodiversity conservation and management of the area, particularly addressing rhino poaching in the Great Limpopo area, Gonarezhou is lagging behind in this integration. There are, however, fresh hopes that the unique agreement, signed in 2016, between the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority to form the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust may facilitate further integration.

Allan Wright was a district Commissioner in Nuanetsi, the District where Gonarezhou is. He arrived to the area in 1958 and declared himself to be an “ardent conservationist”. After a quick exploration of the topography, soils and plants found in the area he was convinced that it was “…From and agricultural point of view the whole area was in the lowest category, almost a wasteland…”.

So, the plans to divide it into farms for African farmers were gradually scrapped and his intentions made clear when he proclaimed:

Before me, as far as the eye could see, was the vast, empty Gonakudzingwa Purchase Area – ’empty’ only in the human context for it teemed with animal life … the great wilderness looked mysterious, haze blue, inviting. What a heritage! What a wonderful national park this south-east corner of Rhodesia would make.”[2]

So, Mr. Wright managed to persuade the then Government of Rhodesia not only to spare the area from farming but also to give him funds to develop it. He describes his time at Nuanetsi in two books [3]. Mr. Wright’s efforts survived the years to come after his retirement and eventually crystalized in the creation of the Gonarezhou National Park in 1975.

Considering the Gonarezhou in the larger context of the Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Park and Conservation Area, the point where the borders of Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe meet is known as Crook’s Corner. Suspecting that the name had its reasons, I investigate it further and this lead to the unraveling of some interesting facts!

It was because of its “tri-national” characteristic that Crook’s Corner attracted a number of outlaws that found the facility of moving among the three countries very advantageous. Apparently, the exact location of Crook’s Corner is on an island very close to the place where the Luvuvhu River flows into the Limpopo, near to the Pafuri area of the Kruger National Park.

Although there were other brigands, Stephanus Cecil Rutgert Barnard placed it in the world map. Barnard sought refuge there from his illegal activities related to hunting and poaching, two activities very difficult to tell apart in the 1900’s. “The one who swaggers as he walks” that is what his Shangaan nickname Bvekenya meant, arrived there in 1910.

Bvekenya’s derived his living from hunting and or poaching mainly elephants for ivory as well as illegally recruiting labour for the mines (known as blackbirding) as well as trading animal skins. It was a tough life, persecuted by police and exposed to malaria! Bvekenya functioned illegally over vast large tracts of Portuguese East Africa and Rhodesia, successfully running his ivory past the law.

It seems that Bvekenya was a bit of an oddball, to put it mildly and, during the twenty years that he operated in the region, based at Makhuleke, he carried out a number of interesting exploits, from taming a herd of eland for milking to praising lose the beacon indicating the frontier so that he could move it to “migrate” his camp to a different country according to which one was after him! A larger than life character that T.V. Bulpin immortalized in his book “The Ivory Trail” [4].

More amazing still were Bvekenya’s conservation ideas that led him to suggest the creation of a Trans-frontier park at that time (1900!)! It would take over one hundred years before the politicians in the various relevant Governments agreed on the issue and it is still unfinished!

Bvekenya’s hunting ground included the present Gonarezhou National Park. In that general area he shot a number of large elephants for their ivory. It is believed that he was not a careless hunter and that, before killing an animal, he would check the dung with his Shangaan trackers to ascertain the age of their quarry. Only elephants that had passed their prime would be shot and then nothing was wasted as the meat would be consumed by the local people.

Despite his hunting experience Bvekenya was mesmerized by the sight of a particular animal known as “taller than the trees” in the local Zulu language: Dhlulamithi! Bvekenya met this very large tusker while hunting somewhere in Gonarezhou or nearby, at a muddy pan. The bull elephant towered over the large herd he was with. The ivory that Dhlulamithi carried touched the ground while it walked, leaving grooves in the sand behind its path! Bvekenya attempted a shot at the giant but, luckily for Dhlulamithi, a younger bull that walked in front of it at the fatal moment was hit and Dhlulamithi got away unscathed.

Bvekenya never forgot Dhlulamithi and, while still hunting and or poaching other animals, he kept following it. It took Bvekenya many years to find it again and when he did, towards 1929, he had it in his rifle sights but did not shoot the animal exclaiming “Let it live”.

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Tusk size and shape varies with the areas. This bull in Hwange National Park carries thick but rather short tusks.

Whether this took place or not is an issue of debate as other chroniclers claimed that Bvekenya -an inveterate commercial ivory trader- would not have missed such a tusker. This thesis is supported by the appearance in 1932 -a few years after Bvekenya ‘s retirement- of two humongous tusks that were claimed to be Dhlulamithi ‘s that were eventually auctioned in London. The tusks weighed 73 and 73.5 kg and their origin is unclear. They are meant to be now at a London Museum.

Luckily, there still are elephants carrying heavy ivory roaming in the Kruger National Park and, with patience they can be found at the various watering points, particularly in the Northern part of the park [4]. Whenever I see one of these colossuses I hope that Dhlulamithi ‘s genes are still present in them!

These two “friends” were leaving one of the waterholes in the north of the Kruger National Park.

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Masthulele seen at the Letaba river  (Kruger National Park), together with the tusker below, the largest tuskers I have seen so far.

If lucky, next time I see these colossuses I will remember this story and hope that what I see still carries Dhlulamithi’s genes that will be passed to future generations.

The above, seen by the bushsnob in 2014, is no longer an unknown tusker! (In this regard, see: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/a-tusk-task-2/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/unraveling-the-tusker-mystery/ and the next post coming soon!)

 

[1] “Place of many elephants” is the Shona language is the more accepted meaning of Gonarezhou. It is also translated less often as “sacred place of the elephants” or “elephant’s tusk”.

[2] Quoted from from Wolmer, W. (2007). From Wilderness Vision to Farm Invasions. Conservation & Development in Zimbabwe Southeast Lowveld. James Currey, Oxford. 247p.

[3] Wright, A. (1972). Valley of the ironwoods: A personal record of ten years served as District Commissioner in Rhodesia’s largest administrative area, Nuanetsi, in the south-eastern Lowveld (unknown publisher) and Wright, A. (1976). Grey Ghosts at Buffalo Bend, Galaxie Press. Both books are out of print.

[4] Bulpin, T.V. (2011). The Ivory Trail. Protea BoekhuisEds., 4 edition. 240p.

 

Postcript: Apart from T.V. Bulpin’s The Ivory Trail book I recommend to visit the following links that will provide you with more detail, if interested:

https://www.africahunting.com/threads/the-legend-of-dhlulamithi.15191/

http://www.pendukasafaris.com/history/remembering-bvekenya-country-life-february-2003/

 

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Lord of the (dead) flies

While living in Maputo (Mozambique) we rented a house that came with a gardener, as it is usually the case very in these places. His name was Erasmus and he was a very easy-going and religious young man. Often in the afternoon we were regularly treated to a choir of holy hymns when he and the afternoon security guard sang together. We later learnt that they were at the choir at the same church and they were rehearsing. I must admit that -as it is the norm in Africa- they sang very well.

The house was built in an area of Maputo liable to flooding and, perhaps because of the humidity and heat, we had a serious problem with flies. The latter became an issue during the rainy season, despite us keeping all rubbish in sealed containers that were removed regularly.

After some search we found the solution: a flytrap, a transparent plastic contraption that, when filled with a smelly solution, would attract flies to it where, unable to escape, they would die.

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In consultation with Odette, our housemaid, the trap was placed by the kitchen door with the objective of intercepting the flies before getting into the house. The siting was an instant success as, after a few days, flies began to get trapped. Then we confronted a problem: the smell! It gradually increased as more flies accumulated and soon Odette started to make remarks about the fedor[1] that started to emanate from the offending trap.

After a couple of days of putting up with the stink, Odette moved the trap away from the house without opposition as, despite being of small complexion, she was clearly in charge of the household personnel by virtue of being the employee closest to us.

The trap stayed in the new location, close to the security guards’ changing quarters, for a few days until they staged a “mini demo” to protest about the stench and Odette agreed to hang it far away, under a casuarina tree where its smell did not interfere with anyone.

Peace restored, the contraption continued to hammer the flies but soon it filled to near bursting point and it became less effective as no more flies would be able to get in anymore. So, Odette stroke again! She asked Erasmus to empty it. Poor old Erasmus had no option but to accept Odette’s request, being her sidekick.

The above background to this saga has been reconstructed afterwards talking to the various participants and witnesses as at the time I still had working duties.

I was at home when I heard a strange noise in the garden and went out to investigate. I saw Odette overseeing Erasmus work from a prudent distance. Erasmus -looking quite sick- was busy emptying the trap while pausing frequently to move away and take deep breaths of pure air while trying to keep his lunch down! Eventually, the job was done and Erasmus started to look his normal self while Odette looked rather amused! I am sure that it was probably his toughest assignment ever.

It was a very quiet Erasmus that walked past after completing the cleaning and that got into the toilet. It was too evident that he needed a long shower to be allowed on public transport to get back home!

After the operation, the trap was not cleaned again, a decision that I suspect followed some hard bargaining between Erasmus and Odette. In 2013 I retired and we left Maputo so the flytrap was packed away and it disappeared from our memories. Since then we have commuted between Uruguay, Argentina and Zimbabwe, avoiding the winter as much as possible.

Harare, being at about 1,500m of altitude has an extremely pleasant climate and it is almost fly- and mosquito-free for most of the year but some flies start to appear just before the rains and their numbers increase when it gets wet. Last year (2016) , the rains started on time and the flies were more numerous than normal.

A consensus was reached between my wife and Stephen -our caretaker- that preventive action was indicated to keep the flies in check. So, lo and behold, the infamous flytrap re-appeared! I immediately remembered Erasmus and felt sorry for Stephen but kept quiet…

This time, as experienced users and with the benefit of hindsight, we placed the trap far from all forms of human and pet habitation and positive results did not take long as the trap had not lost any of its effectiveness. Flies came in in numbers, again probably from the whole of our neighbourhood and, as it happened in Maputo, after about a week, it was obvious that a cleanup was needed.

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My thoughts immediately went to Stephen and I was totally taken by surprise when my wife asked me to do the cleaning! “What about Stephen?” was my immediate response. “He is going to the rural area tomorrow, to prepare the land for planting” was her reply. I found this as a very suspect situation and I even thought that Erasmus had intervened in a long-distance revenge!

So it was the trap and I! I decided to take the only course of action left to me: my often practiced procrastination to see if I could last until Stephen’s return and delegate the task to him. To my regret I failed as some flies were spotted in the kitchen despite my efforts to kill and hide the corpses.

So, like Erasmus before me, I braved the cleanup. I have to confess that I had an advantage over Erasmus as my training and practice as a veterinarian had exposed me to a variety of emanations from decomposing nature. I also found a good face mask (from the times of the flu pandemic scare!) that I decided to wear, apart from rubber gloves.

When I believed I was ready, I went for it! Remembering Erasmus, I refrained from eating prior to the event. I unhooked the trap from the tree without major problems and I sprayed its contents with insecticide to kill the flies that were still alive inside. Emptying it was not as easy as it looked. Being lazy I tried to do it without removing the lid but this was not possible. Opening it became inevitable.

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This action created a blast of malodorous miasma that hit my covered nostrils at full blast. The smell nearly knocked me off my feet and I decided that it was time for a pause to think (read “to keep all my innards in their right places”). At that stage I remember poor old Erasmus again as even the photographer used a powerful zoom to take the shots shown!

The pause worked and I managed to empty the trap from its burden and re-charge it with fresh water and powder so that it could continue functioning. I was quite happy to set it up again as I knew that the next cleanup would fall on Stephen and it would be my time to watch!

After hanging the newly-charged contraption I needed to dispose of the fly bodies by burying them as recommended to prevent any flies’ eggs from hatching. As an added precaution I also sprayed the fly mass with an insecticide and buried them deep.

The procedure over, I was triumphant for a while, until flies started to come towards me, mistaking me for the trap (now clean and smell-less) as I must have stunk badly although I was unable to smell anything at the time and for a while afterwards. Flies still followed me into the house when I entered to have a badly needed shower.

 

[1] Stink in Portuguese.

Born a whistle!

A well-known saying in Spanish goes something like “if you are born a whistle you will never be a cornet”. I am sure that there are many of these kinds of sayings that are applicable to the various walks of life. I am a whistle when it comes to sea fearing. However, as the family had the idea of a sea holiday, we travelled to Mozambique. The latter offers about 2,500 km of seacoast and beaches for all tastes.

Views of the sea and beaches around Vilankulos.

The road trip was good with the usual border hassle that added a dose of stress to my otherwise calm retired life. As usual the Zimbabwean side was very formal and rather time-consuming but with the pleasant manners that you almost take for granted in our “second” home.

Mozambique was something else! We had only crossed the border in and out of this country while being a UN employee and I did not have any issues apart from some queuing at peak times. Luckily this time there was no queuing, only confusion! We arrived at the border to be welcome by “helpers” to give them a name, all wearing identification badges. I noted that the badges were showing their plastic backs only while I was verbally overwhelmed in Portuguese and English about their offers for “help” and directions on how to perform the usual two steps: immigration and customs! I knew where this was leading!

Perhaps it was the proximity of the festive season as we were at the border before Christmas or perhaps this is always the case. I will find out in next visits but confusion took over, despite being aware of it. First it was a small piece of paper at the entrance gate where the car and occupants were to be recorded, about three words and a number. For some reason it took an inordinate amount of time and arguments between my self-appointed “helpers” and the official at the gate. Eventually I got the important paper and started to walk the plank towards the building to face the rest of the ordeal.

Not so. A lot of shouting behind me called my attention and I was informed that I had been given the paper of a lorry driver from the Democratic Republic of Congo! So, it was back to get the right one and resume the walk. We all had visas from Harare, except one of us who needed to get it in the border so the wait was longer than expected but acceptable. Finally we were ready to do customs. This required the filling of a form and I naively thought, driving off. Not to be. The need for a physical inspection of the vehicle was announced!

This was clearly what the “helpers” were waiting for. As the Customs official walked towards the vehicle, they advised me in hashed tone, on the various ways of handling this apparently difficult procedure. In addition, while the we approached the car, the word “Christmas” was repeated often by my “helper” entourage, now numbering five and growing.

We were two vehicles in this trip. Our friends did not require a visa so they had already been “helped” through the car check-up. We were about to open ours at the request of the Customs Officer when one of our friends came and whispered that he was asked for a USD 10 payment and that he had agreed and obtained Customs’ clearance and, more importantly, the key to freedom: the valuable gate pass. Assessing the situation surrounding us: utter confusion, a growing crowd of “helpers” and the already expectant Customs Officer, we had no option but to follow our friend’s arrangement and handed over our first Christmas present of the journey!

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Crossing the bridge over the Save river.

We shared a house with our friends in Vilankulos and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere while the younger members of the family were engaged in more muscle-demanding activities such as SCUBA diving and snorkeling.

Under severe peer pressure I consented to accompany them on a snorkeling trip to a well-known area of coral called “Two mile reef”. Trying to improve my snorkeling experience, I had acquired a floating aid in order to be able to save my energy for swimming in search of coral formations and other creatures rather than spending most of them on trying to stay afloat.

A selection of underwater finds. Pictures by Florencia de Castro, Mariana Terra and Julio A. de Castro.

I still had fresh in my mind an earlier experience at the same location when I got really exhausted and, eventually, seasick swimming in the rough sea! So I did not wish for a repeat! Luckily, the floating aid was a success and I did see some interesting coral formations and fish that I was not able to identify as I have decided that only terrestrial animals interest me in this life! Soon the tide changed and it was time to return; I was still swimming and could even climb on the boat unaided (I am not sure if this was me being fit or the ladder being lower but I prefer to think the former!).

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About to depart after a day spent snorkeling. The Washing Machine was yet to come!

A final word on the return trip. The passage between Two-mile reef and Bazaruto and Benguerra islands is infamously and justifiably known as the “Washing machine”. I can assure you that this was violent rock and rollish to put it mildly. The rest of the return trip was just choppy! Fortunately, we all survived -just- and got to land in relatively good shape. Once more I promised myself that this was “curtains” on seafaring for me. I did this fully aware that I have declared similar resolutions before only to forget and backslide, caught in a vicious peer pressure circle!

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Coconut harvesting, the preliminary of coconut splitting.

Swimming at the beach, walking and coconut opening occupied the rest of my life in Vilankulos and I was really busy working on a novel that I have had in my mind for years and still refuses to be born! I was pleased to make some progress that encourages me to go on writing for a few more years.

The trip back was uneventful, including the border crossing, and we managed to get to the Vumba mountainous area in Zimbabwe in good time. We stayed the night at one of the Inns there and, after a good breakfast and a walk in the garden observing insects and birds (what a relief!), we headed back home where a rather green garden was waiting for us.

Harvesting from the effort[1]

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

A Boran young bull at Mutara ranch, Kenya.

A Boran young bull at Mutara ranch, Kenya.

Boran young bulls at Mutara ranch, Kenya.

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

Mutara tick selection work.

Mutara tick selection work.

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

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

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

The laboratory at Bedele, Ethiopia.

The laboratory at Bedele, Ethiopia.

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

Villagers at Gambela, West Ethiopia.

Villagers at Gambela, West Ethiopia.

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

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

The project site at Lutale, Central Province of Zambia.

The project site at Lutale, Central Province of Zambia.

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

Cattle work in Southern Province, Zambia.

Cattle work in Southern Province, Zambia.

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

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

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

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

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Moving again! This time to Zimbabwe.

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

Great Zimbabwe ruins, Zimbabwe, 1998.

Great Zimbabwe ruins, Zimbabwe, 1998.

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

Sewing in Bolivia.

Sewing in Bolivia.

Market street of La Paz, Bolivia.

Market street of La Paz, Bolivia.

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

The Appia Antica road, Rome.

The Appia Antica road, Rome.

Rome, 2009!

Rome, 2009!

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

Time to move to Mozambique.

Time to move to Mozambique.

Speaking on World Food Day in Mozambique.

Speaking on World Food Day in Mozambique.

Interviewed by the press.

Being interviewed by the press.

Maputo's beach in Mozambique.

Maputo’s beach.

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

I hope you enjoy reading what I have to say.

 

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