The Kombi falls

I will be unfair if I would not say a few words about our VW Kombi. It seems that these days these vehicles still attract quite a lot of attention among car lovers. Although I never saw it in this light at the time we had it, they dominated the minibus market and most of the Kenya safari companies used them. Then VW came up with a new model that was not as good for rough roads as their back doors became undone and needed to be welded to keep them shut! Very soon afterwards the Japanese minibuses replaced them.

m mara kombi

A young-looking Bushsnob posing with the kombi after driving through a muddy Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

The Kombi had, like any vehicle, good and bad features. My first concern was safety, as I had never driven a car with the engine at the back and I felt rather vulnerable in case of an accident, particularly the way driving in Kenya was in those days! I also needed to fit seat belts, surprisingly absent in a UN vehicle! Its lack of 4WD was another rather serious drawback and I recall several instances of getting stuck in places that a 4WD would not even have skidded!

l naiv july 82 after being stuck

My wife (red shirt) and our friend Aurora resting after pushing the kombi out of the sand at Naivasha. July 1982.

One particularly bad instance was at Amboseli National Park when, trying to approach the swamp to get a better view of an elephant, we ended up into soft black cotton soil. This kind of mud sticks to your wheels filling their threads so your tyres soon become smooth! Fed-up of fruitlessly attempting to get the car unstuck I placed our BBQ grid under one of the wheels to see if I could get some better grip. It was good and bad. We got out of the spot but the grid got somehow ejected with such force into the thicket surrounding the swamp that we never found it again and had to cook our chicken on a stick that night!

Tsavo W stuck with paul rossiter

Stuck again! This time on a rainy day at Tsavo West National Park. My wife -with the raincoat- and Paul lifting and digging to place the spare under the wheel to get some grip.

It also had the rare ability of losing traction and stopping while driving slowly over a gully or when crossing a culvert diagonally as its chassis somehow would get twisted leaving one wheel in the air spinning hopelessly! In order for the car to move again it needed the assistance of one passenger to stand on the back fender and sometimes to jump in order for the offending wheel to grip and the car to move. While this was not a great problem, imagine doing it on a ditch full of muddy water!

Snapping the clutch cable was another “Kombi special”. As you can imagine, this cable needed to transmit my left foot’s instructions for quite a distance before it reached its destination so it was a weak feature and one that left us stranded. Luckily only once. Eventually, apart from learning to fit a new cable and carrying a spare, I learnt to operate without the clutch thanks to Joseph, one of the Muguga herdsmen that taught me how to start it and drive it without a clutch! I would engage second gear and then start the engine. The car will shudder, shake and jump forward until it got going. After a while you could change gears upwards if you knew the right speed. Changing downwards was not easy so stalling at stop signs was unavoidable! Although not a long-term solution, it would get you back home or to the mechanic.

On the side of its virtues, it had great ground clearance, a reliable engine that never had a problem despite its mileage and, being two of us, it also had lots of space to carry supplies and materials for my work as well as to take all of our gear on safari (and that is a lot and increasing!). Removing the second seat we could sleep inside if the circumstances so demanded. Its sliding door made for great game watching; particularly driving around lakes (with the door facing the lakeshore, of course) enabled superb birding.

I drove the car intensely between Tigoni, Nairobi and Muguga during the week and all over Kenya during the weekends. That particular morning I had come to Ranjini´s house to bring her some vegetables that I got for her in the Limuru market, close to Tigoni. The clutch cable had snapped while entering her house but then there was worse to come…

Ranjini worked as a scientist with the then Overseas Development Administration (now the Department for International Development of the British Government attached to the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) in Muguga where she also lived. We had met while sharing accommodation at Muguga House, KARI´s visitors hostel [1].

“Clutchless” I crawled into her garden and did a jerk-stop. Although I carried a spare cable and I woud have been able to fix it then, it was not a short exercise as its calibration took a while and I needed to get back home. Further, we had plans to travel far in a couple of days so it needed proper fixing. So, having given Ranjini her shopping I assured her that I would be fine and left her rather worried by means of another jerk-start departure.

With my mind focussed on keeping the car going I forgot to fasten my seatbelt, an essential precaution when driving in Kenya. I was going very slowly down Ranjini’ s driveway when I decided to buckle up. I had never noticed that particular pine tree but I am sure that it had been there for many years and not moved much so it was not the guilty party! Neither had I seen its protuberant roots reaching towards the driveway. I still did not that day, I only felt them!

Everybody know that buckling up in movement is not recommended. It requires a few seconds of focusing your mind on the belt as well as some handless driving. A lot can happen over those few seconds. I remember feeling the left wheel rising over the roots and, as I tried to break, the car shuddered, stalled and stopped. However, in a bewildering feat, it gradually started to tilt towards mi side. My surprise quickly turned to panic and then resignation: the car was falling on me in slow motion.

My immediate thought was to try to stop it by sticking my hands through the window but -luckily for me- events happened faster than my thoughts and a thump followed by a shower of spanners, driving licence, car book, nuts and bolts and all things that one carries in a car’s shelf fell on me! The Kombi was now securely resting on its right side and only the door separated me from the ground that I could touch as my window was down.

It was an upset Bushsnob that emerged through the passenger’s window! Once outside I could contemplate my sublimely stupid achievement and promised myself never to try the seat belt trick while driving again. To say that I was also embarrassed when I walked back to Ranjini’s house is an understatement. She had just sent me off and closed the front door and I there I was again! I am sure that she thought I had forgotten something. When I told her what had happened, her expression changed dramatically! “Are you all right?” she asked with genuine concern. I told her that I was fine and invited her to come and have a look at my masterpiece!

We walked to the beginning of the driveway and we had a clear vision of the Kombi peacefully resting on its side! She gasped and while she recovered, I asked her if Njuguna, her gardener, was around. She immediately called him. He came and joined the unbelieving crowd expressing his regrets.

“Njuguna, please give me a hand to put it up again” I said estimating that most of the weight should be on the underside and therefore not too difficult to bring the car back to its normal position. Looking somehow doubtful he came along. Although I did not look at Ranjini, I am sure that her expression had changed to amusement! I could not blame her.

The effort required to put the car upright again was easier than I thought and the car bounced on its wheels as it got upright again. Apart from a broken side mirror and a few small dents and scratches on the side, the car was in good condition and driveable. I thanked Njuguna, said farewell to Ranjini, buckled-up, jerk-started it and drove off, still upset at my stupidity.

It was only weeks after the event, after I had replaced the mirror and got the dents painted that I could see the funny side of this rather freakish accident that even today I find rather incredible. I regret not having a picture of the car and the faces of my rescuers when they saw it to show it to you. It was all memorable and -in retrospect- quite funny!


[1] See:




Kenya memoirs – Buying cattle

Once it was decided that my experimental work in Kenya would take place in Muguga and Intona ranch in the Transmara, I needed to get cattle. I was lucky that there were suitable animals available at the Kenya Veterinary Research Institute (KEVRI) at Muguga that I could select for my work there but I still needed to get the necessary animals for Intona.

Experimental cattle Isolation unit copy

The Muguga animals came from the KEVRI herd.

As I needed young cattle with no exposure to ticks and tick-borne diseases [1] I needed to go North where I could find them in an environment that would not allow the ticks to thrive. The purchased cattle would also have to be acceptable by Joe Murumbi [2] the owner of Intona ranch as, after the trials were completed, the cattle would remain there. That was not an easy choice! However Alan, helpful as usual, suggested that I bought Boran cattle from a ranch at Laikipia in Northern Kenya. He had purchased animals from there earlier and found them suitable. He immediately put me in touch with Godfrey, a rancher that bred Boran in Laikipia and I arranged with him to get there to chose about 30 young cattle.

Within a couple of days I had visited the farm and bought the animals. I also arranged that I would come to collect them a few days later, as soon as I could get transport organized. After my return I made enquiries among the veterinarians at KEVRI and found a lorry company that was prepared to go to Laikipia and then carry them all the way to Intona in the Transmara, a journey of about 700km that was not straight forward.

I would accompany the lorry throughout the trip to make sure that it would get there and to make sure that the cattle were well treated. I agreed with the company’s owner that I would get an experienced and responsible driver that knew the route and I also checked the vehicle to make sure -as far as I could- that it was in good nick and that it was suitable for the number of animals that we needed to transport.

I prepared the trip very carefully as I was spending a lot of my budget on this purchase. The final plan was that I would travel with Tommi, my Maasai herdsman (see the “Angry Maasai” post) and Mark, a young Kikuyu that I had also employed to assist me with the cattle work. They would keep me company, help with the cattle as well as performing communication duties on KiSwahili, Kikuyu and Maasai languages, just in case!

I planned a conservative itinerary that, leaving very early from Muguga would see us all the way to the ranch at Laikipia (260km), load the cattle and proceed as far as Nyahururu (160km) to spend the night there. During the following leg of the trip we would get to Kericho (170km) to spend the second night and finally travel from there to Intona via Kilgoris (110km). It was the “long way” to get to Intona (the normal one being through the Rift Valley, via Narok and Lolgorian) but, apart from the two ends -Laikipia and Intona- the roads were tarred and the loaded lorry would face less risk of a breakdown.

Despite all the planning, the departure got delayed! The lorry did not turn up on time and when it did, about an hour late, the driver handed me a letter. It was short: the experienced driver was sick with malaria so they had sent me a replacement! The new driver was praised and the company owner was also apologetic. Despite this “bad omen”, it was all set so I decided to continue with the planned operation.

Despite our late start we managed to get to the ranch, load the cattle and get back to Nyahururu. It was night by the time we drove into this highlands town as, to our late departure a rather bizarre incident delayed us further. While on the road about 50km after leaving the ranch through a dirt road I was in the front when, suddenly the lorry came to a grinding halt while flashing its headlights. I immediately turned back to see what the matter was and, as soon as we drove past the lorry, my heart sunk. There was no tailgate and we were being watched by a few Boran cattle about to jump off the back of the lorry! That would have been a disaster as in that part of the country there are no fences and probably the animals would have run away!

Luckily, before they could estimate the jumping height, Tommi and Mark were on them and managed to stoped them and to hold them onboard while I retraced our steps to look for the gate. I found it about 200m behind the truck. The securing bolts had vanished. I loaded the large and heavy gate as well as I could into the back of the Land Rover and drove back. Without hesitation, with the use of the ubiquitous piece of wire, it was soon secured back in its place. It was now probably safer than before, particularly against theft as it would be impossible to open it without a long struggle!

Our night at Nyahururu was very cold as usual but -luckily- uneventful. Despite the low temperature I did get up at midnight to make sure that truck and animals were still there. As usual the hotel’s watchman was sleeping and as usual immediately woke up to report that all was well. Feeling really cold I went fast back to bed and slept soundly until morning.

We left early for our second leg that would take us to the beautiful tea-planting area of Kericho. All was going well until we had a puncture. We told the lorry to go on as we were sure to catch up with it after the wheel change. So, as soon as we fitted the spare we moved on expecting to find the truck anytime. However, as we drove for a while we realized that although by then we should have found the truck, we had not! Eventually we entered Kericho “truckless” and worried!

We fruitlessly drove around Kericho, not a very large town then, and, empty-handed, decided to retrace our way for a few kilometres. Still no truck! As there were no cellphones, we had no way of communicating with our lorry so it was a despondent group that checked in our hotel that evening. We had no idea of what had happened and we could only hope that we would find the truck in the morning. We guessed that the driver must have gone past Kericho in the hope of covering more distance while he could but this was pure speculation.

I would not lie to say that my dreams were of cattle counting as I did not sleep very well that night. I blamed myself for not stopping the lorry to wait for us to change our wheel. Anyway, the night eventually over we set off towards Kilgoris, still searching for our lost truck! The more I drove without seeing the lorry, the more the idea of cattle theft became fixed in my brain but I kept quiet, hoping that I was wrong.

After driving to Kisii without luck, my hope of ever seeing the lorry started to fade fast! We got to Kilgoris and drove all over this small town and failed again to get any results. As Kilgoris was (and probably still is) a quiet Maasai town, we thought that a cattle-loaded lorry would be the town’s main attraction. Those who Tommi asked had not seen anything so we were convinced that the lorry had not been there!

We were parked at the Kilgoris “plaza” finding out how to get to the Kilgoris Anti Stock Theft Unit of the Kenya Police to report the incident when we heard a loud engine noise and our lorry (with our cattle still on it) suddenly arrived! I was so relieved to find it that I felt no longer any anger and I knew that I would be close to the lorry for the last 20km to Intona!

The driver was clearly as comforted to find us as we were to see him! He explained that, after overtaking us, he decided to pass Kericho and spend the night at Sotik, 50km further on, as this would save him travel time. He admitted that this was a mistake and he felt truly sorry. I accepted his apology and decided that it was time to move off towards Intona. We still had the final distance to cover through an often muddy track and I wanted to reach the place before nightfall to offload the cattle so that they could rest, eat and drink after such a long journey.

Luckily the road was passable and we managed to reach the ranch still with some minutes of daylight left that enabled us to see that all animals were in good condition despite their three-day ordeal.

They soon settled at the ranch to the constant admiration of our Maasai neighbours and visitors as well as some hitches [3]. They were not beautiful animals but an essential part of my field work.

I had never felt as exhausted in my entire life than that night at Intona ranch. Luckily I had a comfortable bed at a nice house to spend the night and recover.


The Boran cattle enjoying the green grass at Intona. The ear bags were part of a test to assess their resistance to ticks.


Murumbi’s house at Intona, where I spent the night.



[1] The Brown Ear Tick Rhipicephalus appendiculatus vector of theileriosis caused by Theileria parva.

[2] See: “Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi” under pages in this blog.

[3] See: “The cattle are gone”.



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.

Kenya: Friends and foes[1]

After the initial rather intensive contact with Matt, a time of waiting followed while settling down at Muguga House. I saw Matt less often as he was busy running the Tick Programme. It was time for waiting, he had said earlier, as possible collaborators needed to return from their home leave when the European summer ended.

I was still busy! My attention was fully dedicated to my wife’s arrival as this offered some logistical issues both locally but also en route. The local issues were easier: obtaining a more comfortable bungalow at Muguga House and persuading a colleague to provide us with night transportation to and from the airport as her arrival was late at night. The issue of her Visa was a serious concern, though. For some reason better known to the intricate recesses of international diplomacy, Uruguayans get a Visa at the airport in both Kenya and South Africa, a rather convenient procedure. All very well then. Not so: my wife needed an overnight stopover in Johannesburg and needed a Visa for South Africa.

Flight connections were not as frequent as today. Nothing wrong with that you may think. However, I had learnt while in Kenya that, because of South Africa’s apartheid being in full swing at the time (1981), passengers arriving in Kenya with their passports stamped by the “racist regime” would be denied entrance and sent back! This was part of the blockade being imposed by all African countries to South Africa at the time.

I could expect no assistance from the Embassy of Uruguay in Kenya as there wasn’t one![2] There were only three Uruguayan embassies in Africa: Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa. Aware of that there was no South African High Commission in Kenya I decided to first see the airline and then, if all else failed, to call the Uruguayan Embassy in South Africa seeking help. Cellphones did not exist and landlines between Muguga and Nairobi did not work very well so the best thing to do was to go to Nairobi to meet the airline, Varig at the time.

As her arrival was imminent I decided to travel to Nairobi the following day using public transport, no doubt encouraged by the experience I had on arrival[3]. The trip consisted in finding a way from Muguga to the main road and then another one to Nairobi, both ways.

The trip started well as I was lucky to find transport straightaway and got to the main road in good time. I joined a crowd of waiting passengers and, soon enough, a matatu[4] was waved down. It was a VW minibus, the brand that at the time dominated the minibus world in Kenya.

My hopes of a good ride in the front evaporated fast as this was apparently reserved for women and friends and currently overflowing. With moderate pushing and shuffling I entered, after paying the tout the necessary fare. “Not too bad” I thought while finding a seat in the back. “At least I will learn the dynamics of public transportation”. I also thought that the trip would have been fast as the bus was pretty full -by my standards- already. Nothing could have been more wrong! People needed to get out but many more got in until there were over twenty people in the back (I cannot say how many there were in the front seat as visibility was severely impaired!). Amazingly, we still accommodated a few more before we reached the Post Office stop at Nairobi city centre.

I literally popped out of the jam-packed bus and walked to the Varig office, almost on a “high” due to the sudden increase in oxygen levels, despite Nairobi’s high altitude! I hasten to add that, despite the large number of people and the scarcity of water in the rural areas, there was no more human body smell in the bus than in any minibus or lift in my country or the UK for that matter!

The Varig representative, fortunately, was not at all concerned by my predicament. “All you need to do is to ask your wife to get her Visa on a separate paper” she said. And she added, “She gets that paper stamped, makes sure that her passport is clean when she presents it to Immigration here”. Those were the tricks of countries under UN sanctions! The rather fast resolution of the Visa issue left me with time in my hands so I decided to look for Matt at ICIPE and I was lucky to get a most welcome return ride all the way to Muguga with him. He was rather surprised that I was so grateful and, after explaining the reasons, luckily he agreed to approach FAO in Nairobi to get me a vehicle. A rather good outcome from the matatu ride!

My wife’s travel went without hitches and I soon had her with me at Muguga House. Her arrival coincided with the return of most of the potential collaborators and I had the chance to meet some of them as well as do a lot of reading about tick and tick-borne diseases, working at the KARI library, an excellent source of historical research documents on the subject. I prepared a new work plan everyday, only to abandon it as my knowledge augmented!

Over the following days Matt took me for a round of official meetings to meet several people relevant to my future stay in Kenya. We had a rather difficult and cold meeting with the Government Veterinary Department and I could detect negative vibrations. In the end I was given the green light. Matt did not enjoy the meeting and he was rather short-tempered for the rest of the day. I, conversely, was happy that I was in Kenya to stay!

We also met the FAO Representative to update him on my plans as well as to plead for transport. Luckily, his response was positive and he asked the Administrator to identify a suitable vehicle for my use. This produced a VW Kombi, redundant from an earlier project, that was allocated to me for private as well as official use! An added advantage was that it had one of the most coveted items: a red -diplomatic- plate, a road opener. So we were finally mobile. The new car was ideal for us. Although it did not have 4WD, it had the necessary road clearance to take us all over Kenya.

Returning from a muddy Maasai Mara Game Reserve in the VW Kombi.

Returning from a muddy Maasai Mara Game Reserve in the VW Kombi.

At Muguga we met the Director of KEVRI, a highly qualified, very friendly and smooth Kenyan that was very welcoming. He was the Chairman of one of the two most popular soccer teams of Kenya and very involved with soccer in the country. We connected immediately when he learnt that I was coming from a country with such a good soccer pedigree and, although we talked about my future work and how collaboration could be strengthened, the main topic of our first meeting was soccer! Among the issues we covered was the possibility of me getting a Latin American coach for his team! This was the beginning of a friendly relationship through which I got very good support at work and also shared a few soccer matches with him.

The final of the “obligatory” meetings was with the Director of ICIPE. He was a highly educated and suave Kenyan Professor that was difficult to meet as he was constantly in meetings, running the Centre and meeting Donors and partners. He was pleased to see me and gave me valuable directions on what my situation as a Fellow within ICIPE would be and, of course, directed me to his Deputy for further issues. During the meeting he was very clear that I was awaited at Rusinga Island as ICIPE’s new research station at Mbita Point needed scientists settling down there. After the meeting was over, I learnt from Matt that the Director’s home area was precisely Western Kenya and that was the reason for his keenness for me to get there. Apparently the die was cast!

After these meetings I saw Matt less frequently for a while. Luckily Robin, the ICIPE ecologist, returned and I started going to the ICIPE laboratory at Muguga to be with him and learn. He was a very kind man, graduated in Oxford, who never refused to answer my questions and be of help. I was really lucky to find him and with him I learnt most of what I know about ticks and their ecology!

I had been in Kenya for about two months by now and I still did not know about what I would be doing so, concerned, I decided to ask Matt what was happening. The opportunity presented itself when he came to Muguga for a meeting. I managed to get a moment alone with him and asked him about the situation. Matt’s reply left me cold: “Julio, if you are not happy with the situation you tell me now and we cancel all arrangements and you go back to Uruguay and nothing happens”. I was shocked and worried but perhaps I had insisted a trifle too much or perhaps he was having a bad day as his mood sometimes seemed to swing. However, as the FAO Fellowship was all I had, I replied that I trusted him and would wait. I said: “Matt, the idea is not to leave but to let you know that I am worried for the delays”, I answered. “I understand your problem but this is Kenya and things work differently and at a slower pace. This should be clear to you from the start, otherwise you will not be able to work here” he said, in a way that was meant to close this uncomfortable encounter. I got his message and began my adjustment process to Kenya, Africa and to Matt’s ways and moods!

A few days later Matt came to see me at Muguga. He was in a jovial disposition. “Julio, Alan is back and we are meeting him now” he said. The meeting was timely and good. Alan was aware of my arrival and very keen to work with me as he saw the collaboration as very promising. The various work options were discussed and it also transpired that Matt had been under great pressure from the Government regarding my work as the latter had different ideas[5]. There had also been some administrative difficulties between FAO and ICIPE regarding the administration of the Fellowship’s funds. However, it had all been solved by now and we were, apparently, ready to go.

Matt was as idealistic as Alan was practical so they were a good combination: ideas and execution. I liked Alan from the start. During the meeting it was agreed that I would do some work at Muguga itself as well as field work. We would therefore visit Mbita Point and Rusinga Island with Matt. On the way back to Nairobi, we would take the opportunity to visit the ranch in the Transmara where Alan had his research on immunization. Finally, the return would be across the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, an added bonus.

It was agreed that, after that visit we would be in a better situation to take a decision on my future research work. In a way they kicked the ball forward! Nevertheless, I was happy to see movement at last. We agreed to leave as soon as possible.

[1] Follows “Kenya: Muguga”

[2] A complication that affected our lives and I will refer to in a future post.

[3] See “Africa – Arrival” in this blog.

[4] In Swahili, passenger minibuses or closed pick-ups.

[5] A couple of years later I learnt that the Kenyan Government had their own candidate for the FAO Fellowship that I got and my appointment did not go down well.

Kenya: Muguga[1]

The last night at the Fairview Hotel was a good one and I enjoyed my breakfast in the garden, where I noticed that birdlife in Nairobi was prolific and that there were not only several bird species but there were also large numbers of them! I did not know their names yet, apart from the ubiquitous sparrows that I knew from Uruguay. I was amazed to see birds so tame, in particular a kind of iridescent blue ones with cinnamon chests[2] that would come to my breakfast table expecting something from me! “Cheeky ones”, I thought.

The access to the Fairview Hotel.

The access to the Fairview Hotel.

It was light by 06:00 hours and dark by 19:00 hours so, unless you covered your ears, it was impossible not to be woken up by the early loud bird chorus. As it is customary, a cup of early morning tea is brought to your room and I had asked for mine for 06:30 hs, had showered and packed my bags before I went down for breakfast to be ready for Matt’s arrival.

A Superb Starling (Lamprotornis superbus).

A Superb Starling (Lamprotornis superbus).

The hotel was good and, thankfully, economical as I did not get any perdiem as a FAO Fellow and my stipend was rather modest. I needed to watch my expenses all the time. Clearly aware of my modest income Matt had booked me at a Government’s Hostel in Muguga, known as Muguga House until more permanent accommodation could be found. Muguga was then about 30-40 minutes drive North of Nairobi, in the direction of the Uganda border.

Packing Matt’s car -a smallish Honda Civic- was trickier than expected. One of my bags filled the boot so I went straight for the back seat, only to be warned by Matt “Wait, this is my portable Office archive” I looked up and only then noted that the back seat and floor were covered with papers and publications. “I need to be in several places so I carry the work with me” said Matt while piling papers on the floor in no particular order!, until my bag fit.

We drove straight to the hostel at Muguga. The place consisted of a central building where the administration and common facilities such as dining room and bar were located and a number of two- and three-room cottages with toilet and bath, scattered throughout ample wooded grounds. Matt had already booked me a cottage so my settling in was smooth. I noticed that several cottages were occupied and wondered who my neighbours would be but I left this for later. I adverted the Manageress of the arrival of my wife in about one month and arranged to pay monthly. I also deposited some advanced money for the use of the bar and I was settled.

Our bungalow at Muguga House.

Our bungalow at Muguga House.

After Muguga House, we toured the very large grounds of the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) where we saw the various establishments based there such as the Kenya Veterinary Research Institute (KEVRI) and the Kenya Trypanosomosis Research Institute (KETRI). Matt pointed out the ICIPE’s “laboratory” at KEVRI. To my eyes it looked like a very small barn but I kept the comments to myself.

We did not find any of our prospective collaborators as most were on leave and others outside the Institute so Matt decided that lunch would be at ILRAD’s restaurant, so we drove back to Kabete, about half way between Muguga and Nairobi. While KARI impressed me as a formerly beautiful place built by colonial Britain and getting slowly worn down by lack of funding and maintenance since Kenya’s independence, ILRAD belonged to another planet! It was a modern and beautifully set campus with manicured lawns and all possible facilities to perform research on livestock diseases. To me it looked like a grand place tailored for high-powered research with several state of the art laboratories and all the necessary equipment that scientific research would need. All of this was nestled in a lovely hilly area where the central manicured lawns and woods were surrounded by grasslands where lovely zebu cattle grazed. “Julio, welcome to ILRAD” said Matt while finding a place to park among the abundant 4WDs and other expensive cars. I could not believe my eyes!

While walking towards the canteen Matt explained that ILRAD was created in 197… to solve two problems Trypanosomosis and Theileriosis. “A difficult job” said Matt and added “I know lots of people here and we will meet a few over lunch”. The restaurant followed the style of a university campus restaurant and it was very busy. The diners were of mixed race and different nationalities. I was amazed, as Ross seemed to know everybody. He walked straight to a large table at a corner and introduced me to the Director General and his Argentinian born wife. I also met many other people that day. The place was a hive of activity and the closest resemblance to a place I had been was the University of East Anglia in the UK while I learnt English prior to my MSc studies in North Wales. It was both stimulating and rather intimidating but, above all, totally unexpected!

After lunch we toured the laboratories and talked to even more researchers about what they were doing until Matt decided that we had done enough and it was time to leave. He invited me to pass by his house in Tigoni, North of Nairobi, for a cup of tea. Matt’s invitations were more decisions than invitations so I was not given a chance to refuse, despite being rather tired by then!

It was a worthy visit as another huge surprise awaited me. His house was a lovely British-style house with a tiled roof and stonewalls, located in beautiful woodlands. A stream ran through the large grounds and this was the source of water for the trout ponds being developed. I could see at least three from the house.

Although she was not informed of our visit[3] his wife gracefully invited us for tea and cake in the lovely garden. Afterwards Matt gave me a guided tour of the trout dams with two of his three young sons. The third one was busy becoming a plane pilot in Nairobi Wilson Airport. It was an impressive development as three dams were being built and there was a lot of activity. Clearly Matt was serious about his trout! Afterwards it was his wife’s turn to show me their flock of African Gray parrots. About eight young parrots were kept in a large enclosure. They were young fledglings when seized as part of an illegal shipment at Jomo Kenyatta Airport. “They were in bad condition when we got them but we were lucky to get them all back to good health” said his wife, proud of her achievement. She also informed me that once fully grown they would be returned to the Kenya Society for the Protection of Animals for distribution.

Matt somehow interrupted the “parrot tour” to bring me back to his verandah as he wished to show me something. I followed him until he stopped facing the dams. “Julio, this has been my dream since I left Scotland” he said and then added “I will catch them from here when I retire and cannot walk anymore” he said, mimicking the fly rod movement from his verandah and laughing heartedly. It was clear that Matt and family enjoyed a very good standard of living that, in my ignorance, I did not expect to find in Africa!

The more I listened to Matt the more I gathered that he was a man with many dreams and ideas both private and professional. While the trout dams being built belonged to the former, the achievement of an immunization method against ECF was clearly part of a realized professional dream. A more recent one was the development of the vaccine against ticks and he talked about it as if it was something really achievable. However, it was clear that his veterinarian’s heart was with ECF work while the tick work -mine included- was more of a necessity for him, despite his infectious enthusiasm.

I continued listening to Matt for the rest of the day and it helped me to get an initial understanding of the persona as well as the worker. It was clear that as someone who got to the top of his working area, he had made himself a few enemies, both black and white. Realizing that I would have to share them I listened carefully. As most people in Kenya at the time, he had a rather colonial view of racial relations! I learnt that he had a long-term rivalry with a Senior Government veterinarian as well as with other British colleagues. He had a clear dislike for one and described his face as looking like “a weasel peering out of a bear’s ass”. I did not really understand what that meant until later!

We drove back to Muguga at the end of the day, still talking and making future plans. We agreed to meet again in a couple of days to carry out a few protocol visits: Government, FAO and ICIPE to start with.

I got back just in time for dinner and to get to know some of my future housemates. There were several Kenyans from up country, Ugandans and the ubiquitous British. I shared the table with some of them. Food was simple (some roasted, boiled or curried meat with rice and occasionally salads), soon to get boring, particularly the boiled cape gooseberries and custard dessert that I eventually learnt would be a lunch and dinner ending feature forever!

More interesting was the after dinner conversation held in the main hall. Most of the guests were long-term and worked in different institutions at KARI. There were mainly agronomists, biologists, foresters and veterinarians and the topics of conversation were Kenyan politics, sports and comments about life in Muguga House. It was entertaining and interesting as well as informative and some of the friends I made there remain friends to this very day!


[1] Follows “Kenya – The Beginnings”.

[2] Later I identified them as Superb Starlings, a common bird in East Africa.

[3] No cell phones then!

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.