Murumbi

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.

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

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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. https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/joseph-zuzarte-murumbi-1911-1990/

[3] See: “The cattle are gone”. https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/07/19/the-cattle-are-gone/

 

 

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Black tea in Maasailand

There are incidents in life that have a strong influence in the future and although the improper use of a microhaematocrit centrifuge may not be the commonest of examples, it had an impact on mine.

In short, while working at a colleague’s laboratory in Muguga, I forgot to place the inner lid over the blood-filled capillaries. The result of a short spin -I switched the machine off immediately- was a bloodstain at tummy height all around, including the people present! Basil, the Head of the Laboratory while watching his own red mark at waist level, made only one comment in the best British understated style: “Julio, you need a PhD” and abandoned the room leaving me alone to clean up the mess!

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My usual “laboratory”, quite far from Basil’s!

Basil’s words sunk in my mind and I decided to attempt a PhD as, clearly, I needed more scientific training, in addition to learn how to properly use a microhaematocrit centrifuge! Through a Muguga colleague I managed to get in touch with Cambridge University in the UK where I was -to my surprise- accepted. Unfortunately my initial enthusiasm got quickly dampened when I learnt about the university fees and the option was quickly discarded.

After more enquiries I learnt that I could do a PhD as an external student at my former Department of Applied Zoology of the University of Wales. So, very soon, I had organized the study at a small fraction of the cost. Luckily Ian, a Lecturer and friend from the Department, agreed to be my external supervisor while my ICIPE colleague Robin kindly agreed -apart from being my tick ecology teacher- to take on the day-to-day supervision of my work.

The rules of the PhD were very strict and they included a visit by the external supervisor to Kenya. Fortunately, Ian planned to present a scientific paper at an International Protozoology Conference[1] held in Nairobi in 1985 and the time was very suitable for the review of my work.

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Ian, right, and a smart Bushsnob attending the Conference.

Most of my fieldwork was carried out at Intona ranch[2] in the Transmara. So, when the time for Ian to come to oversee my work, apart from the more routine visits to the main ICIPE office in Nairobi and to our Muguga laboratory, the exciting part was a trip to Intona itself. In those days, the Transmara area was an uncommon and rather exciting destination in Kenya.

As usual, the trip required some organizing, particularly as I did not wish to give a bad impression to my Supervisor during his only review of my work! I got authorization from the always kind Murumbis to stay at the main house at the ranch and to get their staff to look after us.

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The main house at Intona ranch.

The one-day journey to Intona was an enjoyable one as we drove by the Maasai Mara Game Reserve where animales were always very abundant and then crossed the bridge over the Mara river to climb the Oloololo escarpment through Lolgorian to, finally, get to the ranch where we settled down and spent the next three days looking at our trials and analyzing my data.

Images of the journey, above and, below, some of the work we reviewed at Intona ranch.

The afternoon of the day after arriving, knowing that Ian was a great tea drinker[3], I decided to treat him to some five o’clock tea at the house’s back verandah where there was not only a beautiful view of the parkland and wildlife surrounding the house but also some very snug chairs.

I asked the cook to use some good Kenya tea I had brought for the occasion and we sat to chat, waiting for the fresh brew to arrive. We did not wait for long before the teapot came with the necessary milk and sugar. Tea was served while we contemplated the various art objects that decorated the verandah while the cook -trained by Sheila- discreetly withdrew.

I poured the tea and the milk and drank it while enjoying the both the taste as well as the view while Ian drank his. We talked about the journey and the animals we had seen, particularly during our stopover at the Maasai Mara but also during our trip when close to Intona. Seeing that Ian had finished his cup, I offered him more. To my great surprise, he politely declined!

When I insisted, making a comment about the tea being good, Ian mentioned that he found it with smoky flavour that he found rather unusual and too strong to his liking. Then I realized that our milk supplier was a Maasai lady from a manyatta nearby and, when I had a look at the milk, I confirmed that I had overlooked a detail: the milk was grey with a rim of dark froth!

With my apologies, I confessed to Ian that, in my enthusiasm to treat him to a proper “cuppa”, I had overlooked that our milk came from the Maasai who added a few pieces of charcoal to the milk gourd! Although Ian did not change his mind regarding drinking a second cup, he was very amused about the reason for the smoky flavour.

Although I knew that a few drops of cow urine were also added as a preservative to the milk, I did not mention it to Ian!

 

 

[1] The VII International Congress of Protozoology Held at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, Nairobi, Kenya, 22-29 June 1985.

[2] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/07/08/life-and-work-in-kenya-intona-2/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/intona-ranch1/

[3] His favourite saying was: “Whenever there is a crisis, have a cup of tea. Many times the problem goes away after that”.

Memories – A fishing trip

Thomas was one of our Maasai askaris[1] at Intona ranch. He liked cattle so, in addition to his guard duties, he often volunteered to take them for grazing. This was welcome as he was fearless when it came to walk in the bush and dealing with the buffalo herd that often intermingled with our cattle. It was rather amazing to see the herdsmen and Thomas separating our cattle from the buffalo herd!

Intona cattle grazing

Intona cattle kraal

Thomas was a very friendly young man and he got on very well with the other workers so, when I proposed to the workers to join me in a fishing trip, Thomas was very keen on the idea and he came along.

During the time of the fieldwork I often travelled to Intona ranch over the weekends, as I also needed to spend time working in Muguga on the laboratory trial during the week so time was short. Although there was some work to be done on Sundays, we tried to keep this to a minimum so that we had time off to rest and relax. Being rather restless I was always looking for some activity to do during this free hours. For this visit I had brought some fishing gear as I wished to try my luck in the Migori river, one of the boundaries of Intona ranch.

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The Migori in flood. We fished from these banks.

The Migori river water ends in lake Victoria after it joins the Gucha river forming the Gucha-Migori river basin. During every trip that we came to Intona via the Maasai Mara we crossed the Migori river bridge about 10 km before we arrived to Intona ranch. The area was well forested and there were a number of large fig trees in its vecinity making it a very attractive area as the shore of the river before the bridge was open grassland and seemed safe from the presence of buffalo, the main danger in the area.

It was in this bend by the river that we often saw a sounder of Giant Forest hogs[2] (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) grazing in this clearing. As these dark grey animals were a rare sight, it was a highlight of the journey for me whenever we spotted them, as they were quite tolerant of our presence with their impressive size, the males being about 100cm high and up to 190cm long with a mass ranging from 180 to 275 kg. Their name honours Richard Meinertzhagen who shot the type specimen in Kenya and had it shipped to the Natural History Museum in England in the early 1900s.

This “hog spot” is what I chose for our fishing expedition as, apart from catching fish, I also hoped to get a glimpse of these animals towards the evening. Our fishing targets were Clarias gariepinus or African sharptooth catfish. We had fish them earlier in the Mara river just outside of the game reserve and I saw no reason for them not to be in the Migori.

After fruitlessly digging for earthworms at various places in the bush I remembered Mrs. Murumbi’s greenhouse and garden at the main house and, after a short commando sortie we managed to get a handful from the large compost kept there.

The final preparation for the fishing trip was to run a tutorial on the basics of fishing as none of my companions had done this before, as they did not come from fish-eating ethnic groups. Aware that it had taken me some time before I could master the proper use of rod and reel, I decided that I would handle these equipment and prepared a couple of hand lines for my companions to use. We chose an open field and, after a while I judged that the team was as good at fishing as it could be so we went.

We left before lunch and took some food and non-alcoholic drinks for lunch and my companions were quite excited at the prospect of trying a new activity. Thomas in particular could hardly control his excitement and this somehow dented my understanding that the Maasai did not care for fish. Maybe Thomas was the exception?

After a quick lunch under the shade it was time to try our luck. I gave hand lines to Thomas and Joseph, I kept one rod and gave the other one to Mark. As expected, the earthworms were attractive as I felt them biting as soon as my hook landed.

Somehow, Thomas got lucky and hooked something that after a short struggle with a rather thick hand line happened to be a reasonable catfish. After a short squabble he soon had it out of the water and his happiness at his feat was incredible. It held the fish with both hands looking at it and laughing while talking to it. He said that he would eat it, something I found strange but, busy with my own fishing, I did not pay much attention. So, Thomas departed to clean his fish. We continued fishing and had some bites that, regrettably, resulted in clean hooks.

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Thomas and the fish!

After a while we noted Thomas’ absence but, distracted by our own fishing, did not think much of it. After a while longer of not seeing him and knowing that many dangerous animals were present, we stopped fishing and went searching for him. Joseph went one way and I took another path thinking that like that we increased our chances of success.

After walking perhaps 100 m following the river I saw Thomas seating down against a tree and I called him but did not reply. I called him again but still no reply so I assumed him to be sleeping and got closer to wake him up and then I saw his unsheathed simi[3] and the pool of blood. He had a bad cut in the palm of his right hand that was bleeding profusely and he was very pale.

I shook him and he opened his eyes and, still smiling, looked at me. He was weak but alive and, lifting his wounded hand above his head, I helped him to walk towards the car, calling Joseph to come and help. He appeared and, between both of us, we took him to the car and drove him with his hand bandaged and up outside the car towards the Lolgorian seeking medical assistance.

Maasai lived rather dangerous lives. Not only they fought often among themselves with serious consequences but also, as I described in an earlier post, they were constant skirmishes taking place at the time with the Kisii ethnical group that was moving into the Transmara. As if this would not be enough, they walked through the bush where many dangerous animals dwell. Although they do not fear them, they often suffer the consequences of encounters with wild animals, in particular with African buffaloes as these animals camouflage well and attack by surprise and without notice.

This way of life explained why the Lolgorian clinic was very busy that Sunday afternoon. Concerned about Thomas’ condition, I entered the hospital running and went straight to the emergency room asking for a doctor. A nurse pointed me to an European young guy in white that I assumed – correctly as it turned out – that he was a doctor.

I hastily mentioned that I had an injured person that needed his help and he gave me a rather tired look and motioned to me to look around. In my haste I had not paid attention to the “waiting room”! There were at least five people waiting before Thomas. A couple looked sick with malaria but the others were suffering from various traumatic accidents. I remember one that was holding his bloodied abdomen and another that had almost severed his large toe. It was clear that Thomas would need to wait.

Without much ado the doctor asked me to help him and I spent that Sunday afternoon cleaning wounds and helping him to stitch the severed toe and to close an abdominal wound caused by a buffalo horn! I was shocked by how stoic people were throughout the proceeds and this included Thomas’ stitching, comparatively a minor affair.

After finishing with Thomas, we thanked the doctor and left. During the return journey with a much more recovered Thomas, we learnt that while gutting the fish he had tripped and fell. During the fall his right hand had slipped over the length of the simi’s blade and had cut his hand very deeply.

With a much-recovered Thomas we arrived to the fishing spot at dusk where, before we collected all our fishing gear abandoned earlier, we had the privilege of watching the gian forest hogs! Thomas, now feeling strong again, collected his fish and, laughing again, assured us that he was going to eat it!

 

[1] An askari (from Arabic) was a local soldier serving in the armies of the European colonial powers in Africa. The term is still used today to informally describe security guards.

[2]  Listed as of “Least Concern” as they are relatively widespread, it is acknowledged that there is a general decreasing trend for the species across its range. In Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan Giant Forest hogs live also in very fragmented populations.

[3] A short sword used by the Maasai people with a leaf-shaped blade. It is kept in a scabbard made of wood and covered with rawhide.

Not just dinner

Kenya became independent on 12 December 1963 when Kenyatta became its first President and Odinga the Vice President. Not surprisingly, in 1965 Kenyatta and Odinga fell out, and Murumbi (Joe) was named Kenya’s second Vice-President for a few months until he resigned in December 1966[1].

As described before, I became involved with Joe through the work we did with Alan Young on tick and tick-borne diseases. He wholeheartedly supported our work. As with all scientific work, a substantial amount of time was spent writing research proposals in order to get the funds to continue with the research. Once the funding is secured, donors visit your field sites to see for themselves the activities being performed with their funds, the conditions of work, applications, progress, etc. These visits are critical for the future of your investigations and that was the way that they were also understood at the institute I was with. This meant that all should go smoothly and a good performance was expected.

I had several such visits but none as important as the final evaluation of our tick programme in the mid 80’s. Laboratory and field work came under the magnifying glass and, as it is quite normal our results were mixed. My part of the bargain was going well as we had good collaborators and achievable goals. Our partner with the highest profile was of course Joe and, in addition, nature was a great partner. Soon the donors knew that Intona ranch and its surrounding area -including the Maasai Mara- were beautiful areas worth a visit and this was good for us and we used it to our advantage!

The organization of a “high level” visit needed lot of work as guests would usually fly to the Maasai Mara where I would meet them and look after them until the following morning when we would climb the Oloololo escarpment and drive about three hours to Intona, hoping that the rains were light and we did not get stuck in the various tricky spots we needed to cross and spoil our trip! Usually our journey would take us to the manyatta (Maasai dwelling) of the Maasai Chief to inform him of our visit and to our GTZ collaborators, if applicable. The visit would last two days during which our work was shown and presented and future prospects discussed in detail. We were of course very fortunate that Joe and Sheila (his wife) allowed us to put them up in their magnificent house.

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Joe and Sheila’s house at Intona ranch, Transmara, Kenya

During this particular visit Joe and Sheila were at Intona. They normally flew directly to the ranch, together with their dogs! Aware of the importance of the occasion they kindly offered to organize a dinner for our guests. This was not an everyday event, but I had joined them for dinner a few times before and I knew that it would be a formal occasion with excellent hospitality and very good food.

The day of the visit arrived and I collected our visitors from Kichwa Tembo Camp, located close to the Oloololo escarpment and, after a game drive that they thoroughly enjoyed in the surrounding area of the Maasai Mara

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The Wildebeest moving through the reserve.

-that I knew very well- we spent the night there to leave early morning for Intona. The road was good and, once there, we devoted the rest of the day to visit our field activities. They seemed pleased with what they saw. I was also pleased and looking forward to the dinner to close a long day.

The Intona area is under the influence of the near lake Victoria and it frequently rains for a short spell in the afternoons. As a consequence the sun sets in a cloudy sky resulting in the most glorious and colourful sunsets. Aware of this Joe positioned the house in such a way to be able to make the most of them by having a wide west veranda where we congregated often to talk and have a drink before dinner. That day it was no exception and we joined Sheila and Joe for sun downers and polite conversation until Sheila, the perfect hostess and a very experienced one, announced that dinner was ready. While walking to the dining room she came close and whispered: “Julio, we have a new cook that came with us from Nairobi, I hope it will perform as he has excellent recommendations”. Knowing her standards I had no doubts and told her so.

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A view of Intona ranch in the Transmara parkland.

The dining room had a door to the kitchen and another one to the enormous and beautifully decorated sitting room. It had the most exquisite antique wooden table and chairs and antique rugs, most probably of Afghan origin, covered its floor. I knew from past dinners that under the rags at the place where Sheila sat there was a bell that she will press in order to call for assistance from the staff. This was her “secret weapon” that enabled her to coordinate things so perfectly that the guests would be amazed. Needless to say that it was a candlelight affair with lots of silverware and crystal!

When the first course came, brought by staff dressed in white with purple fezzes, it was a brownish coloured soup that looked rather disappointing. Trying it did not improve its look: it had a strong curry flavour and it was chilled! “I hope you like our Mulligatawny soup” said Sheila while she gave an approving look to the new cook that was overseeing the dinner from a discreet distance. Your concerns about the soup dissipated the moment your spoon found some submerged resistance that transformed itself in a spoon tip full of cranberry jam. The combination was simply amazing!

After our praise of the soup ended, the staff came back to collect our plates and this time the new cook looked happy and smiley, “the success with the soap was a boost for him” I thought while noting a serious-looking Sheila. By the time the roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes was brought in, the cook was definitely too happy and talking loudly to the visible embarrassment of our hosts. Sheila, used to deal with the highest-ranking world figures, ask to be excused and went to the kitchen, an unusual event. In the meantime, we enjoyed our roast that was really excellent.

Soon, Sheila came back announcing that all was well although she could not hide her concerned expression. We understood her fears the moment the cook opened the door of the kitchen when the staff came to collect the plates. The cook proffered, rather loudly, his hopes that we enjoyed the main course while trying to keep steady. By then we could not help noticing the strong alcohol whiff and knew that the worse had taken place! The spirit meant to go into the cooking had been “diverted”!

Although the guests and Joe were rather amused, Sheila was visibly upset! She excused herself again and went to the kitchen. We could not help overhearing a loud argument or rather Sheila’s shouts! There was a door banged and the sounds of a scuffle. She came back; her usual cool almost lost and red on her face. As an experienced host, she re-gained her composure fast and invited us to move next door to the sitting room for coffee and liquor. I stayed back with her as the guests and Joe moved out and Sheila -unseen by the guests- looked at me as if asking for support and understanding. I made my best “do not worry” gesture and moved to the sitting room together with the guests. She remained behind.

Intona sitting room copy

We all sat in the ornate sitting room and overlooked the cook’s episode, listening to Joe. Although soft spoken, he was a great host and a very engaging story teller with great tales and anecdotes from his many years in politics. We listened for quite a while until more noises coming from the kitchen area hinted that all was still not well and then Sheila reappeared –now with a grimace- to announce that the cook would like to say good bye to the guests! “Oh, no”, I thought, “is the situation that bad!”

The cook appeared escorted by the night watchman and a couple of staff and boisterously said “bye-bye!!!” but did not move and tried to say something but what came was a rather loud burp followed by another “bye-bye!!!” After this performance he was immediately manhandled out of the room, still saying “bye-bye!!!” and waving at us until the door was closed behind the group. I still vividly remember his final wave just before the door was shut! Confronted with this final act, even Joe was briefly embarrassed while the guests and I were quite amused!

The following morning Sheila and Joe were leaving for Nairobi and, as usual, I escorted them to the plane to assist them with their luggage, dogs and other items that they needed to take with them. They were sorry for what had happened. I felt very bad to have put them in this situation and explained them that I was very grateful for their hospitality and, to their obvious relief, I also told them that the donors were very pleased with the work and also very proud to have had the opportunity to have met them and enjoyed their hospitality, including the cook incident.

Before closing the door of the plane I spotted the cook. He was seated at the very back, looking penitent. I could not decide if his rather sombre looks were a consequence of his hangover, Sheila’s morning sermons or a combination of both!

The next time I was invited for dinner at Intona there was a new cook!

 

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/joseph-zuzarte-murumbi-1911-1990/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/06/22/joe-1/ in this blog.

Intona ranch[1]

It took a while to disassemble the tent and to collect our scattered belongings; including the unwashed suferiers where the soon to be legendary and much talked about Chicken a la Rusinga had been created, surely for one and only time in the universe! We were late, packed the car in a rush and, rather casually, left Mbita Point for our rendezvous with Alan in Kilgoris. I would remain with Alan to visit his field trials and collaborators while Matt returned to Nairobi, probably to attend some important meeting (read trout fishing) over the weekend.

We got to our meeting point, an open field in Kilgoris, meant –at some point in future- to be the village’s main square but currently occupied by grazing Maasai cattle and found Alan waiting for us. A few dukas[2] were found around the field that were clearly taking care of Maasai needs: lots of red cloth[3] and assorted veterinary drugs among other essentials such as Tusker beer. Just across the road was the “Kilgoris Nylon Day and Night Club”, a name that took me a while to digest! Despite its interesting name, we refrained from exploring it and preferred to miss lunch. What we would have found in it will remain shrouded in mystery. Alan welcomed me and, after a quick exchange of news and greetings Matt went his way and we headed for Intona ranch.

The meeting point with Alan.

The meeting point with Alan.

Alan was a chain smoker of menthol cigarettes[4], he stammered in an Irish accent, had an easy laugh that he combined with rubbing his gold and gray goatee. As we moved on, it became evident that Alan was not concerned about potholes and I was treated to the unique experience of listening to his mostly one-way conversation while bumping around on a rough road. Luckily we were in a Land Rover Series III, an almost unbreakable vehicle.

Although I focused fully on Alan’s conversation I still needed to guess a lot of what he said. I learnt that he was born in Northern Ireland and studied parasitology in London. He had come to Kenya in 1968 where he remained since, with a few short spells back home. He was a great supporter of the infection and treatment method to protect cattle against this scourge and he had helped Matt to develop it. I also learnt that collaboration was everything for him and that he was already talking to me as if we were already working together. This was excellent after my earlier experience in Mbita Point. Things were looking good but I still needed more details. “That is the purpose of this trip”, I thought, and continued listening. Our budding friendship was further boosted when we discovered our shared passion for soccer and the fact that Alan knew and liked some of the Uruguayan soccer players of the day, particularly Rubén Sosa.

He explained that he first came to the Transmara to collaborate with a veterinary GTZ project near Lolgorian –another small Maasai town- where they had done some pioneer epidemiological studies on theileriosis. The fact that this information was available enabled him to select the prevalent Theileria parasites to be used for the immunization of cattle in the area, including Intona ranch. This breakthrough meant that tick control could now be relaxed and even stopped altogether. This, Alan said, would enable me to compare dipped and not dipped cattle subject to natural field tick challenge and, in this way, ascertain their impact to achieve my goal.

Kilgoris was a Maasai town, Alan explained, the shambas[5] we could see in the outskirts belonged to the Kisii people. The latter became less frequent as we moved out of the populated area and the landscape started to open up to a savannah ecosystem where Maasai cattle grazed, looked after by the usual herd boys or elders. The countryside was punctuated by brown manyattas[6], giant brown mushrooms scattered at regular intervals.

A Manyatta.

A Manyatta.

A manyatta is where the Maasai live. A strong thorn bush fenced area designed to keep all predators out and themselves and their livestock protected within, mainly during the night. Inside the enclosure there are any number of huts made of a rounded frame of branches and built with a mixture of mud and cattle dung. Most cattle are kept in the enclosure but there are smaller sub-enclosures for sheep and goats or animals belonging to the different dwellers of the manyatta. Cattle are heavily branded and their ancestry thoroughly known by their owners.

“I know you will not believe this”, said Alan, “but there is a war going on here. The Kisii are moving in to occupy the Maasai grazing land”. He went on: “the Kisii will eventually win and this beautiful place will get all planted with maize!” Looking around, I found this really unbelievable but I trusted Alan.

The mention of a war made me wary and I started to look for warring parties lurking behind the bushes. After a while of not seeing anything unusual I said with hope in my voice: “Luckily, I see nothing so there must be a truce at the moment.” Alan laughed heartily with profuse goatee rubbing and, after hitting a few more potholes, he explained that the fighting was in the bush and normally not obvious. He added: “the Kisii cultivate the soil and gradually they are being given land. The Maasai resist and there are frequent skirmishes and then the Government intervenes to bring back some degree of calm”.

A view of Intona ranch in  the Transmara parkland.

A view of Intona ranch in the Transmara parkland.

Nearer to Intona ranch there was only lush green savannah with large tree islands. I noticed that these islands were always associated with bulky termite nests and I started wondering which appeared first, the trees of the termite mounds? I decided in favour of the trees. And then I saw the first game: a herd of Impala, shiny and healthy. Later, Topi and Zebras appeared to add a wild touch to the ever-present Maasai cattle. There were also Baboons and Vervet monkeys and a large number of Warthogs.

The manyattas in this area had significantly more dramatic thorn enclosures and the presence of large predators such as Lion, Leopard and hyena came to mind as the reason behind the need for greater protection, but I learnt from Alan that cattle rustling was rampant and probably more of a concern than predators. Clearly the Maasai were not taking any chances with their beloved livestock. This was in sharp contrast with their seemingly casual bearing when walking in the bush only carrying a spear and a simmi[7] with a few throwing sticks, their feet clad in recycled car tire sandals. They appeared to be carrying very light luggage considering all predators that were around, not to mention the on-going war!

Maasai visitors with spears, bow and arrows and throwing sticks.

Maasai visitors with spears, bow and arrows and throwing sticks.

The Transmara District that we were traversing is close to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve and the latter is the northern extension of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The Transmara is split into two by the Migori River with its riverine forest. It is here that, with luck, the Giant Forest hog (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) can be spotted. A native of forest habitats in Africa, it is considered the largest wild pig, at over two metres in length and one in height, reaching more than 200kg of weight. Discovered by Richard Meinertzhagen in 1904, who shot the type specimen in Kenya. Another special of the area is the Blue Flycatcher (Elminia longicauda), a lovely cerulean blue bird with a beautiful tail-fanning display.

“Julio, remember that Maasai do not like to be photographed and they can get very agitated and even aggressive”, said Alan. “Why is that?” I asked with surprise. “I do not know for sure” came the reply. I started learning that he was not too interested in any issues apart from theileriosis!

During the trip I decided that I would work with Alan and started developing a plan to convince Matt that this was the best idea. Rather sleep-deprived by Matt’s snores, and despite the jerks and bumps, I dozed off. I woke up startled by the sudden stop. I prepared for a surprise attack by the warring parties! However, the herd of Wildebeest and Zebra in front of us did not look dangerous. They were frolicking about as only wildebeest can as they moved back into the parkland.

Alan decided to follow them so that I could observe them better and take a few pictures as he liked photography. We drove off-road following them and got some good shots. When we decided that we had enough good pictures and turned back we realized that we were lost in the green labyrinth. The workers travelling with us were of the Kikuyu ethnic group. They were foreigners like us and therefore as lost as we were! We drove rather aimlessly for a while following a few cues we thought correct but the road was nowhere to be seen.

Lost in the bush with Alan, prior to finding our Maasai

Lost in the bush with Alan, prior to finding our Maasai “saviour”.

In one of our turns we found a Maasai elder who asked us for a lift! We gladly obliged and he jumped in. In a mix of English and Swahili we asked him to take us to the road. He sat next to me, half on my lap, as we were already three in the front seat of the Land Rover. We were ridiculously close to the road and were brought back to it immediately. Our saviour stayed with us as, apparently, we were going in the same direction!

The fig tree,

The fig tree, “signpost” to Intona ranch.

Finally we got to a large fig tree on our right, the entrance to Intona Ranch and there the Maasai left us with our thanks. The ranch was still unfenced and largely undeveloped at the time. Its border was marked by a plough furrow! Alan drove through the ranch and showed me the crush pen, weighbridge and cattle boma[8]. The latter was a large wood and barbed wire fortress. He also showed me the ranch personnel quarters and other back up installations such as the generator house and store. “The cattle are out grazing”, said Alan, “they will not come back until dusk so let´s take the personnel to their camp and then go to meet Joe and Sheila” he added. During the journey I had learnt that Joe was in fact Joseph Murumbi, an important retired politician[9]. His mother was Maasai and he was given the land by them.

Cattle and facilities at Intona ranch.

Cattle and facilities at Intona ranch.

The herdsmen camp at Intona ranch.

The herdsmen camp at Intona ranch.

Intona cattle kraal cropped

After about a kilometre a very large white house appeared, looking like a palace to me at that point. It looked newly built and was as beautiful as it was out of place. Its construction –I learnt from Alan- followed the Swahili style found at the Kenyan coast, complete with carved wooden doors brought all the way from Lamu and surrounded by a high white wall. We parked in one of the lateral entrances, announced our arrival and were shown in.

A large white house appeared in the distance!

A large white house appeared in the distance!

We walked into a very large rectangular living room, its walls covered with art objects. The chairs were large and made of forged iron, including the one where a coloured person with Indian features sat, atop lots of cushions and surrounded by small dogs. I guessed him to be in his late seventies. He stood up with some difficulty and came to greet us with a warm look on his face.

He was Joe. “How was the safari?” he asked and added: “they tell me the road is rough but I do not drive any more so I do not know”. Alan made a comment about the road and introduced me, explaining who I was and the reasons for my visit. Joe welcomed me and invited us to sit, while ringing a bell. Soon a white middle-aged woman in crutches came in. Joe introduced her to me as Sheila, his wife. As it was late afternoon some Tuskers were produced for us. “You must be tired Julio”, she said, “coming all the way from Mbita Point”. “We will have dinner very soon as Joe goes to bed early” she added.

Over the beer I gathered that Joe had a special interest in books, largely fired by his Goan father. “I have many books” Joe said “and art” he added. I also learnt that Joe was recovering from a stroke and that Sheila’s hips were in a bad state and that she needed an operation soon.

Dinner was a simple affair and we soon retired to our bedrooms. Alan´s had a microscope and piles of stained slides that he needed to examine, so he proceeded to check the health of his experimental cattle. I unpacked my belongings and feeling very tired I went to bed, leaving Alan with the microscope and the ubiquitous Tusker at hand.

The following morning Alan woke me up before sunrise as we needed to check the cattle before they went out for grazing. We did not see our hosts as they were resting when we left. Daily body temperature, blood and lymph node smears are routine monitoring activities when working with theileriosis. That day we also had to tag a few animals. We needed to write on the tags with a special pen known as the “magic marker”. Alan asked one of the herdsmen -Ephraim- to fetch it. He went to look for it while we went to look at the cattle boma. This was an enormous 3-metre tall barbed wire enclosure where Joe´s cattle were kept, together with the experimental cattle. After inspecting it we went back to the crush pen to continue with the work but Ephraim was not back yet! Alan asked what was happening and was told that “he is coming”, the usual reply in these situations. Finally, after Alan’s patience was almost gone Ephraim appeared carrying a basin with hot water! When Alan saw this, he became quite angry. “What is this?” he asked. “What you asked for” replied Ephraim “maji moto“. The incredulous look on Alan’s face was very funny to see, and suddenly he laughed at the confusion and all the tension disappeared everyone joined in! Magic marker was mistakenly taken for magi moto, Swahili for hot water!

Alan watching the cattle leaving the boma.

Alan watching the cattle leaving the boma.

Our work completed, we left the following morning, driving through the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. I loved the place! We crossed the Mara River on our way and had the chance to see the aftermath of the Wildebeest river crossings: a solid mass of dead animals being feasted upon by crocodiles and vultures, after the remaining beasts successfully continued on their migratory route.

The aftermath of a wildebeest crossing of the Mara river.

The aftermath of a wildebeest crossing of the Mara river.

Seeing that natural marvel for the first time created a very strong impression on me. I believe that it was then that my life took a turn that would make me stay in Kenya and Africa. I decided that I would do all I could to persuade Matt that I should work at Intona ranch and, on my way to it, have the privilege of driving through the Maasai Mara Game Reserve!

A hot air baloon flies over a rather dry Maasai Mara.

A hot air baloon flies over a rather dry Maasai Mara.

[1] Follows “Chicken a la Rusinga”.

[2] Swahili for a general store shop.

[3] Red was the dominant colour for the Maasai “tunics” at the time.

[4] Sadly he died on 15 March 1995. I placed his Obituary in the Pages section.

[5] Swahili for cultivated land or vegetable garden.

[6] Maasai for house.

[7] Short, double edged Maasai sword.

[8] Kraal in Swahili.

[9] See Pages for more info. The next post describes more of my relationship with Sheila and Joe.