Transmara

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.

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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/

 

 

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.

Upset Maasai

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Tommi checking the cattle at Intona ranch.

As I mentioned in earlier posts about my work in Kenya, Tommi was one of the herdsmen working with me. Regrettably he passed away in a car accident a couple of years after I left Kenya, the sad consequence of a very common event in that country where unsafe public transport claims an excessive number of innocent lives.

Tommi frequently accompanied me to Intona ranch with great pleasure as for him it meant “going home”. He was not exactly from the Transmara area as he came from Narok but he was close enough to the Maasai around Intona to feel well among them.

This was a great contrast to herdsmen belonging to other ethnic groups, such as Benson above, that did not relish spending time in Maasailand. This was particularly obvious among the Kikuyu workers that could not wait for me to relieve them from their duties and take them back to their homeland. I still remember their voices getting louder as soon as the Kikuyu escarpment came into view after Narok! We, outsiders, do not often realize how foreign parts of a country can be to other nationals, product of some arbitrary divisions decided by their colonizers.

In the case of the Maasai people, their territory got split between Kenya and Tanzania when the straight line from lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean coast was drawn as the border between these two countries. Eventually the line did not end as a straight one. This was not the consequence of Queen Victoria giving Kilimanjaro to her grandson Wilhelm to meet his complaints of not having a high mountain in Tanzania as it is often believed, but part of the treaty of Heligoland through which Germany abandoned some places in the Kenya coast, receiving in compensation the Island of Heligoland in the North Sea.

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The herdsmen and cattle guards. Benson in blue and Tommi in white.

The herdsmen lived at a tented camp at Intona and their presence attracted both vervet monkeys and baboons. Over the years that the camp was there the monkeys gradually became more cheeky as they got used to taking food from the camp. This was an annoyance to the herdsmen and Tommi in particular took exception to the primates’ shenanigans.

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Mwizi’s relatives.

There was one particular individual that Tommi identified and called Mwizi that in Swahili means thief. He was able to recognize that particular animal and he maintained a long feud with it. The baboon seemed to know this and kept a wide berth from the man! For a few months a truce seemed to have been worked out but one day Mwizi overstepped the mark. (!!The baboon took advantage of a distraction and broke open Tommi’s bag of maize meal spilling its contents all over the tent.!!) This was the proverbial straw and the last act of misbehaviour that would be would tolerated.

Tommi decided to take exemplary action against the intruder. Before I tell you what happened, let me tell you that the Maasai social structure is based on a system of age-sets. This applies primarily to men, as women become members of the age-set of their husbands. Successive age sets, at about five year intervals, are initiated into adult life during the same period forming a cohesive and permanent grouping that lasts throughout the life of its members.

The age sets go through successive milestones that are celebrated as ceremonies. Among these are, to name a few, Emuratta (circumcision), Enkiama (marriage) and Eunoto (warrior-shaving ceremony)[1].

Tommi, like all Maasai boys had undergone their circumcision and became Sipolio (recluse). This is an important step into manhood (and warrior-hood) and, after this somehow dreaded event, the newly circumcised boys roam around the countryside dressed with dark garments and armed with bows and arrows. They shoot blunt arrows at girls as part of their social interaction. They also use the same arrows to kill small birds that they skin and place around their heads, together with ostrich feathers. During this time they acquire excellent skills with the various weapons.

In view of the above it is not difficult to imagine that Mwizi’s fate did not look good. I was not aware of the development of this feud at the time so its finale took me by surprise. After a day’s work, I was getting ready for a wash and tidying up my own camp when I heard the commotion, or rather Mwizi’s screams. It is not normal to hear a baboon screaming unless there is some kind of danger, so, expecting some leopard-mobbing, I rushed to the place where the screams where coming from.

There was no leopard but another kind of drama was unfolding. Tommi, looking upset, was circling a tree near the cattle kraal. Once closer, I realized that he had managed to tree the baboon and he was about to execute his revenge. He carried a few stones and he was trying to get the best angle from where to throw them at Mwizi! I felt sorry for the beast but the events moved too fast and the adrenalin was flowing on both sides so I could only watch from a distance, keeping my own head down!

I imagine that some stones had flown before I arrived and this explained the baboon’s alarm calls. The first stone I saw Tommis’s throw at the terrified beast missed it by a few inches and, Mwizi moved to the top of the tree. At that time Tommi said “I got it now” and threw another stone that must have passed a couple of cm from the baboon that now offered a clear view. This was too much for the monkey that was now in a serious panic with the consequence that it emptied its bladder first and soon afterwards the rest followed.

I have mentioned earlier that I do not like baboons while camping but I could not help feeling sorry for the poor creature so I did the unthinkable: I negotiated with Tommi on behalf of the victim! I managed to calm Tommi down and he agreed to leave the terrified animal alone. Seeing that the siege had relaxed, Mwizi climbed down in a flash and disappeared into the bush.

Vervet monkeys and baboons continued to visit our tents and behave in their usual opportunistic ways taking food items from us so we really needed to take care at all times. As I could not recognize individual baboons, I took Tommi’s word that Mwizi was not among them and that it had migrated to another troop in the Transmara, away from its deadly enemy.

 

 

[1] Among the many books describing the Maasai culture I would like to recommend “Maasai”, written by Tepilit Ole Saitoti and illustrated by Carol Beckwith.

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.

trans mara

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.

Hyenas and planet-gazing

The morning after the Maasai chicken dinner a good breakfast was in order! We prepared bacon and eggs to compensate for our austere meal of the night before. In an attempt at avoiding another fasting episode I offered to take over the next dinner and to roast the beef we had brought from Nairobi.

Camping at Intona ranch.

Camping at Intona ranch.

After breakfast, another day of routine field trials followed, as we needed to do many replicates of our tests in order to confirm the results. We worked without stopping until late afternoon when we decided that we had done enough and it was time for a shower and to prepare dinner. As a South American I am ashamed to confess that I am fearful of horses and prefer to keep a good distance from them. That is not all, I am a real disaster at barbequing! Therefore, on the occasion I struggled through and I made sure that the food was abundant and we ate our fill.

The night was truly spectacular. The relative short distance of Intona ranch from Lake Victoria meant that it rained very often. It poured in late afternoon and then the sky cleared at dusk. The consequence was that the rains cleaned the air and the night sky was always very sharp.

Ernest and I stayed awake until late talking and contemplating the pristine sky. We talked about many issues, occasionally stopping to listen to the night sounds, in particular the spotted hyena calls getting closer to our camp. Getting gradually bolder they moved close to the periphery of the light of our camp fire. I reassured Ernest that this was a normal event when camping at Intona and that “normally” hyenas would not be aggressive.

Despite the good time we were having, we have had a long day and we felt very tired so soon we went to bed. As soon as we were inside the tent we heard something sniffing all around our tent. A white-tailed mongoose was seen scurrying away when we shined our torches. That small mystery solved, it was back to bed, hoping that sleep would come soon.

Not so. This time it was a loud crush outside the tent that also merited investigation. This time a hyena was the culprit! The beast had grabbed a dirty pan and had taken off at speed. We run after the beast but it was a futile effort and came back to bed thinking on resuming the search for the pot in the morning.

mmara hyena 2

A Brown hyena with wildebeest carcass in the Maasai Mara. Its cousins visited us nightly at Intona.

While thinking and hoping that normality would return, I finally fell sleep. Again, it did not last long. It may have been 03:00 hs when I heard Ernest opening the tent door zip. My first thought was that his gut had finally lost the fight against the filtered water drunk on the way in! In addition, aware of the hyenas I remained awake although without moving, hoping to go back to sleep immediately. No chance! Ernest came back and started to shake me up shouting “Wake up, the sky is perfect to look for planets!” I felt like slaying him but, remembering his partial deafness and on account of his contagious enthusiasm, I made the mistake of getting up!

By the time I managed to go out of the tent, Ernest was already looking through the binoculars, identifying the various noteworthy celestial bodies, accompanying his successive discoveries with shouts of joy! Although I had enjoyed contemplating the night sky both in Uruguay and in Kenya, I have never been that interested in astronomy. However, he convinced me to look at Jupiter (a small orange sphere) and even managed to see Saturn and what I though were its rings! Finally Ernest’s excitement subsided and we managed to hit the camp beds again, this time until the sun was up!

The large ball of crunched aluminium that we found about one hundred metres from our tent was not the remains of a recent asteroid that had narrowly missed us but all that remained from our cooking pan after the hyenas had squished it to get its juice.

Although our cooking options suffered another severe setback we still managed to produce some pan-less and chicken-less dinners during the following days!

Skewered Maasai chicken

When I was there in the 80’s the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Kenya had established various partnerships with universities and research centres outside Africa. I was involved with the collaboration with the University of Neuchâtel on tick pheromones. The idea was to explore ways of attracting ticks to pheromone-baited traps and, with the addition of a tickicide[1], to destroy them.

Bont ticks male (left) and female. A bad picture.

Bont ticks male (left) and female. A bad picture.

The composition of the aggregation pheromone of the Bont tick[2], one of the important cattle ticks, had just been discovered. It was a mixture of three chemicals that were available commercially. This offered us a good opportunity to test this compound in the field. Ernest was the scientist from Neuchâtel that would work with me at Intona ranch where natural populations of the tick occurred.

Ernest was a very enthusiastic and good-humoured Swiss that had a hearing problem as a consequence of firing cannons during his military service in the Swiss Alps, forgetting about wearing earmuffs! Luckily, we got on well from the start. So, armed with the necessary research tools, we departed for Intona to spend a few days doing fieldwork.

As a precaution, we did take a few ticks from the tick colony in case the bush ones would not cooperate! Crossing the Maasai Mara Game Reserve was never disappointing and, as usual, we spent a night there on the way to the Transmara where Intona was located. Ernest was delighted being able to see the plains game and we wee also lucky to spot elephants, lions and hyenas.

In the morning, as usual, we laboriously climbed the Oloololo escarpment and stopped to admire the breath taking view of the Mara triangle from its highpoint. The almost aerial view that it offered was really thrilling, even for me, a regular visitor to the area. Lines of wildebeest could be seen in the distance as well as dark patches that indicated buffalo herds. As I knew he would, Ernest loved the view. After spending a long while in contemplation, it was time to continue our long journey.

Maasai cattle at the Mara River bridge on the way to the Transmara.

Maasai cattle at the Mara River bridge on the way to the Transmara.

Following the escarpment the road was bad as usual but luckily this time it was dry. However, we needed to stop a few times, not because of getting stuck or having mechanical problems, but because Ernest was amazed at how bad the road was! “Ooohh no, please stop!” he would shout and then get out of the car to photograph it even before I managed to stop. Clearly he was comparing the Transmara tracks with the Swiss roads!

Stuck on the way to Intona on a rainy day.

Stuck on the way to Intona on a rainy day.

Eventually, after a few halts, he got used to the rough road but, being a very active person, his attention drifted to other things. As all first time visitors to the Transmara he took a great interest on the Maasai people and their cattle, a normal sight in the area for me but quite so for guests. As the Maasai were not keen on pictures, we did not stop.

Maasai herdsman on the way to Intona.

Maasai herdsman on the way to Intona.

Maasai Manyatta (dwelling).

Maasai Manyatta (dwelling).

Maasai children looking after livestock.

Maasai children looking after livestock.

After about half an hour of hard going I heard “Stop” coming from Ernest as we approached a large muddy pond by the side of the road. While I stopped the car he rummaged in his rucksack from where he extracted what looked like an over-sized hypodermic syringe and a tumbler. I was not sure of what was going on and limited myself to watch, together with our herdsmen travel companions. “This is a Swiss water filter that will make any water suitable for drinking” he said as we were walking towards the mud and the terrapins swam away in fear! He added “It is recommended by the Swiss Tropical Institute, so it must be good!”

Without further ado he sucked water into the syringe and, once it was full, it poured into the glass. The water was indeed crystal clear! “You see,” he said, showing the glass. I must confess that it was an impressive feat as the puddle was truly a thick chocolate mud and I had not seen such a contraption before! Ernest offered the water to us and, when we all politely declined, he drank it himself before I could stop him, fearing for the consequences on his guts.

After praising the quality of what he had just drunk, he repeated the operation once more. This time one of the herdsmen agreed to try it and he agreed that it was indeed OK if with a bit of a muddy taste. “The filter must be getting clogged,” declared Ernest, “I must clean it when we get to Intona”. I refrain from commenting on the cost-effectiveness of the device and we resumed our trip, clearly ready for innovation.

Eventually we arrived at Intona ranch. It was almost dark so we rushed to assemble our tent, had an early dinner and went to bed as we both felt the long two-day trip.

The following day we started our work early and spent most of the day carrying out several trials that were quite successful. In the afternoon we decided that we would have roasted chicken for dinner so while Ernest continued working I went with Tommi, my Maasai assistant, in search of dinner. Eventually we managed to persuade a Maasai lady to sell us a cockerel.

Our prospective dinner was killed by me and plucked by Ernest. The size of its talons were unequivocal indicators of its seniority and its leanness qualified it as a Maasai chicken long-distance runner! Its muscular condition spoke of speed and endurance at the service of survival! Oblivious to all this, Ernest assembled a boy scout-like contraption with branches where, after impaling the chicken, it would be rotated over the fire. We invited our herdsmen to join us and they prepared their traditional “ugali[3]” to go with it.

The cooking of the chicken took a very long time. Ernest kept stabbing it and declaring that it was cooked but still tough. The lengthy turning process led to inexorable shrinking and darkening until it was declared fit for human consumption. The cockerel had turned into a “toasted baby chicken”. I saw the herdsmen exchanging doubtful glances over their Tusker beers, a bad omen!

Ernest cut it into equal pieces and -luckily- Joseph placed large chunks of ugali to go with it. Tommi bit the first piece and I heard a “Taargh” coming from him that became a clear “tough!” once he managed to swallow it. Bad news coming from a Maasai! Ernest agreed on its toughness but declared that it tasted like real chickens did a long time ago in Switzerland so he was happy! As for the rest of us, we could have done with a second runner Maasai chicken!

Transmara, Kenya, circa 1986.

 

[1] Also known as an acaricide, a substance that kills ticks.

[2] Amblyomma variegatum (the Bont tick) transmits Cowdria ruminantum that causes a deadly disease of ruminants known as Heartwater.

[3] From Swahili, maize flour cooked with water to a thick porridge. It is the staple food in Kenya.

Life and work in Kenya: Intona

The work at Intona Ranch involved the organization of a six-month field trial, a first for me. Luckily Alan had a system in place for his own trials and I just “piggybacked” on what he had created. As he was the Head of the project he kindly supported my work very generously and enthusiastically. He lent me his work Land Rover, herdsmen and the routine disease monitoring system. I needed to add the tick burden evaluation part by bringing in my own people to carry it out. Visits were required for monitoring purposes and to replace personnel every two weeks. As mentioned earlier, I had employed two people: Kimondo and Tommi. The latter was a Maasai who was no stranger to the Transmara and although he was not as hardworking as Kimondo his local knowledge would prove of immense usefulness. We were a good team!

Routine monitoring of experimental cattle is key.

The team. At the time doing routine monitoring of experimental cattle. From left to right: Chege, Kimondo, Tommi and Benson.

The work would consist in the creation of two groups of cattle immunized against Theileriosis by Alan and his group. This would enable me to stop applying tick-killing chemicals (acaricides) to one group while the other would be maintained with strict tick control. The comparison on their live weight gain and the tick species and burdens observed would enable me to estimate the expected losses that the ticks themselves would cause to the cattle. Clearly it was only a start but something that had not been possible to assess before.

Cattle being dipped.

Cattle being dipped.

Liveweight gains were an important parameter in the trials.

Live weight gains were an important parameter in the trials.

Now I needed to find the right cattle for the trial and get them to Intona. This required some planning and involved travelling to Laikipia in Northern Kenya. I was searching for Boran, a Bos indicus breed as these would remain at Intona ranch once the trial ended and we knew that Joe would be very keen on them.

The cattle of Intona Ranch.

The cattle of Intona Ranch.

We did not take any chances...

We did not take any chances…

Gilfrid[1] had his ranch beyond the slopes of Mt. Kenya in Laikipia and he had the cattle we needed. I organized a “cattle-buying” trip. Luckily in Alan’s Land Rover, I departed for Laikipia with Kimondo and Tommi to assist me on the journey. A large lorry followed us to carry the animals. We drove past Murang’a with its amazing vegetable offer, Nyeri and Nanyuki on the slopes of Mt. Kenya. The views beyond Mt. Kenya into the very dry Northern Frontier District were worth stopping to take in. At Nanyuki we went West towards Rumuruti, gradually descending from the mountain into nomadic grazing land to finally arrive at the ranch. Gilfrid was waiting with the cattle on display for us to choose what we needed. The selection done, over a cup of tea we agreed on the final price and payment and then loaded the animals on the lorry. As the latter was slower than us, we agreed on the route to follow and told them to depart before us, as we were hoping to arrive at Nakuru to spend the night there.

We lingered a bit longer talking to Gilfrid while he showed me his ranch. He was clearly an interesting “character” and drove a “Hang over”, due to a modification he made to the back badge of the Range Rover! Returning to the house I saw three or four skulls on the roof of the verandah. I realized that they were lions’. Gilfrid explained that they had been “cattle-eaters” that needed to be shot, as they killed far more animals than they needed to eat. “I tolerate losing a few cattle but not that one lion needlessly kills ten cattle in one night!” he asserted. However, he reassured me that lions were still plentiful in the area and that he loved to hear them roaring in the evening, provided that they kept away from his cattle! I could not help asking for one and he promised to remember me the next time a lion overstepped the mark[2]. He agreed and after a while we said our farewells, as I needed to catch up with the lorry. I liked Gilfrid and would return to him for more cattle in the future.

After about an hour, the cloud of volcanic dust in front of us indicated that we were approaching our truck. As I positioned the car to overtake it and its dust plume, I saw a grid on the road that I just managed to avoid by braking and swerving to one side. Recovered from the sudden jolt we came close to the lorry again. “What on earth is going on!” I muttered while I tried to make sense of what I saw. The back door of the lorry was missing and a line of cattle were looking at me! The sudden appearance of the grid on the road suddenly became clear, it was in fact its back gate! I started hooting and flashing my lights hoping that the driver would stop. He ignored us or did no hear us so I took the risky decision of overtaking it to stop it from the front. The maneuver was not easy as it was a narrow dirt road but somehow I managed, probably helped by my stress!

We agreed that as soon as the lorry stopped we would jump out to stop the animals from jumping off and scampering into the endless savannah, as there are no fences in that part of Kenya! Luckily we managed to stop the lorry before any of the animals jumped and, while the herdsmen held the animals in check, I rushed back to collect the back gate that, luckily, somehow fit inside the Land Rover! I mentally thanked the cattle for being wise and verbally the herdsmen for keeping them at bay. The gate fixed, we resumed our journey with our car in the lead.

We managed to get as far as Kericho where we watered the animals and made sure that all was tightly secured before we retired for a fully deserved rest. As the lorry was much slower than us, we also agreed that it would depart at dawn towards Kisii and onwards until Kilgoris and eventually to Intona Ranch. I was really exhausted both physically and mentally and managed to count about three cattle jumping before I crashed into sound sleep!

When we were ready to go the next day, the lorry had already left as arranged. We headed for Kisii following the tarmac, expecting to find our lorry on the way. We got there and didn’t find it so I assumed that they must have continued towards Sotik, the next town so I proceeded to that destination. Still no lorry! I could not believe that they had already passed Sotik so I retraced my steps looking for it, as it was likely that they had stopped on the way and I had missed them. This proved to be a mistake as we still found nothing on the way back and by this stage I had lost too much time to catch up to it on the road!

My first and rather distressing thought was that my cattle had been stolen! There were lots of stories of cattle rustling taking place in that region of Kenya at the time and I had been warned about them prior to our departure. Not sure about which Police station to report the theft to, I decided to leave that as a last resort and instead pushed on to get to Kilgoris as this was our final meeting point before we took the rougher road to Intona Ranch.

We drove silently all the way and arrived at Kilgoris in the late afternoon, rather crestfallen and upset with myself for having been so careless. As Kilgoris is a small place, if the truck was there we would be able to see it, so we entered the town with a glimmer of hope. “There it is” exclaimed Kimondo and there it was, our lorry was almost the first vehicle we saw, parked at the prearranged meeting point in the town square. As expected, the lorry was totally surrounded by Maasai that were keenly watching our cattle. Through Tommi I learnt that they were really excited and very complimentary about our rather lovely and fat Boran yearlings! My worries increased again with the knowledge that Maasai believe that all cattle belong to them!

We finally found the driver at a nearby shop and told him of our adventure. Happy to see us again, he laughed at our obvious travel miscalculation. He had left Kericho earlier than we thought, as he was not sure of the condition of the road and got to Kisii and then Sotik with ease. Seeing this, he decided to push on to Kilgoris to save time and to arrive there before nightfall as I had recommended to him. He got to Kilgoris early, parked the lorry and waited! He shared my wariness about the curiosity shown by the Maasai crowd and we agreed that his “tout” would sleep on the lorry to avoid any nocturnal mishaps!

I was relieved to see that things were back to normal and I treated everyone to some “Nyama choma[3] and “ugali[4] and then went to the hotel to sleep. The place was rather basic, prepared for a Maasai clientele but I did not mind and slept soundly as we were reunited with our “lost” cattle!

The following morning we drove in front and, luckily, the road was dry. We reached Intona ranch without further disasters. The field trial could now start!

[1] See: http://suyiantrust.wildlifedirect.org/author/gilfrid-powys/

[2] See “Lion Skull” later in this blog.

[3] Barbequed beef.

[4] Maize meal.

Back to Nairobi[1]

The return trip from Intona ranch took us through the attractive Transmara parkland where its green natural grasslands were splattered with islands of forest, usually associated with large termite mounds. These forest patches coalesced at times to form larger wooded areas, particularly when linked with a river. Talking about rivers, we crossed the Migori where Alan said a group of Giant Forest Hogs (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) -a Transmara “special”- could be seen grazing in a forest clearing next to the road[2]. Other common game was plentiful, crisscrossing the road almost continuously. Alan informed me that the wildebeest had crossed the Mara River and were grazing in the area of the Mara triangle and some would climb the escarpment towards the Transmara. I was happy to know that we were heading in that direction!

Migori river in flood.

Migori river in flood.

A large tree near the Migori river.

A large tree near the Migori river.

The dirt road took us through Lolgorian where two GTZ German animal health specialists were supporting the Government of Kenya by giving veterinary assistance to the Maasai. We stopped to greet them as Alan had some ground-breaking collaboration going on with them, as mentioned in the earlier post. It was the first time I saw a small field laboratory that could deal with most relevant diseases while keeping work simple and straightforward. It was known as “ILRAD II”[3], an irony that Alan found very funny although it took me longer to understand the humour behind it!

Maasai working with their animals at Kilae, near Lolgorien.

Maasai working with their animals at Kilae, near Lolgorien.

A Maasai heifer. Note the heavy branding.

A Maasai heifer. Note the heavy branding.

ILRAD II (outside).

ILRAD II (outside).

ILRAD II (inside).

ILRAD II (inside).

After that enlightening visit we continued and passed a religious mission where Father Frans Mol lived and worked. Although we did not stop, I met him on other occasions and learnt of his erudition when it came to the Maasai people.[4]

Moving on and still in the Transmara we came to the “red hill” an infamous stretch of road. “When it rains, it is like driving on a bar of soap” said Alan and added, “I hope it is dry today”. He went on: “Because of the proximity with Lake Victoria, it rains almost everyday here so it is tricky at the best of times!” “That is why you should leave in the morning as to avoid the afternoon rain”. Alan continued: “You should engage 4WD and advance slowly in second gear. If the car starts sliding off the road all you can do is to stop and hope that the car stops and that you can straighten it again”. And then laughing: “I know people that have spent the night here!”

A common occurrence at the Transmara!

A common occurrence at the Transmara!

Luckily we managed it without problems and then we came to a stretch of black cotton soil that looked menacing to me as it was fairly water-logged. However, we slowly moved forward and even gathered some speed, as the wheel ruts were deep enough to prevent us from going off the road and our only option was to go straight. The road became better and then we found large wheat and barley plantations where the Maasai had leased their land to commercial farmers.

Soon we got to the edge of the Oloololo Escarpment. I can claim to be many things but a poet is not one of them, so I am not able to describe the view that unfolded below us. It was a green sea that extended as far as you could see. In it you could just make out vast numbers of animals; those forming long lines were wildebeest and zebra while the small specks were Thomson’s gazelles. A few elephants could also be seen together with an almost black and compact herd of buffalo. This sight will be with me until I die![5] I asked Alan to stop for a while so that I could take in the view a bit longer while stretching our legs. While watching the green marvel, Alan explained that we were looking at the “Mara Triangle”. He pointed out the Mara River to me as well as where Tanzania and the mythic Serengeti were.

We started our descent and eventually crossed the Mara River at the bottom of the Escarpment. We passed Kichwa Tembo Camp and then deviated into the Maasai Mara Game Reserve to have a look at the animals before continuing on the way to Aitong, Narok and Nairobi. The place was magnificent and we saw vast numbers of wildebeest and zebra grazing as well as other animals roaming around. A special mention to the Thomson’s Gazelles that are ubiquitous in the Maasai Mara; they are an integral part of the ecosystem. The best description I have heard about these gazelles came from Paul, my Mentor in FAO, who visiting the place for the first time, told me that they look like shoals of tropical fish!

Zebra with the Oloololo Escarpment in the background (I will remove the dirt from the ski when I learn to do it!)

Zebra with the Oloololo Escarpment in the background (I will remove the dirt from the sky when I learn to do it!)

Maasai cattle at the Mara river bridge.

Maasai cattle at the Mara river bridge.

Cattle drinking at Narok dam. Note cars used at the time: VW Kombi, Land Rover Series III and Land Cruiser 50 series!

Cattle drinking at Narok dam. Note cars used at the time: VW Kombi, Land Rover Series III and Land Cruiser 50 Series!

As detailed at the Intona ranch post the return journey only served to strengthen my conviction that I should work at Intona ranch, something that with the help of Alan, Matt could be persuaded to accept, thus allowing me the privilege of driving through the Maasai Mara Game Reserve on the way!

 

[1] Follows “Joe”.

[2] I did see them very often in this spot where they were quite tolerant of my presence and could watch them during long spells.

[3] The International Laboratory for Research in Animal Diseases was a state of the art large facility located at Kabete, near Nairobi. Today is known as the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

[4] Fr. Frans Mol MHM, affectionately known as the ‘Apostle to the Maasai’ worked at the Ngong Diocese covering most of Maasailand. He authored several books such as: Lessons in Maa: a grammar of Maasai language (1995) and Maasai Dictionary: Language & Culture (1996).

[5] We were at the very spot where Out of Africa’s famous final scene was filmed! Watch the movie and you will get the idea of what I saw in 1981!

Joe [1]

The trip to Intona ranch with Alan described in the post “Intona Ranch” put me in contact for the first time with Joseph (Joe) Murumbi and his wife Sheila. After this first encounter I shared many evenings with them at their beautiful if rather outlandish house. They had built it after retirement following the style of the houses found at the Kenya coast. It was a large house with many bedrooms, a large and complete kitchen and a sitting room bigger than a basketball field!

Although I stayed at the house several times, because of the work I was doing I normally camped at the ranch, as I preferred to keep my independence. Work started early and my timetable was rather different to their retired pace.

When we met, Joe had already suffered a stroke. He was recovering but still maintained the fire in his eyes and remembered a lot of stories of his life that he shared with Alan and me. They were very fond of Alan and they also got to like me. It helped that I was a veterinarian. They had a few dogs (5 or 6) that always had something wrong with them, despite the efforts of Kiza, their Ugandan resident veterinarian. Joe was always very supportive of our research and took a keen interest in our trials and their results! He could not wait to apply them on his cattle and those of his Maasai neighbours.

Although I will tell you more of my relationship with Joe and Sheila in future posts, I have a few reminiscences of our relationship that I will mention here.

Joe loved his cattle and he experienced great joy in going to the kraal in the evening to see them coming in. He was fair but tough with his employees and, as expected, he was feared by them on account of being a mzee[2] who had held power but also because of his short temper! I am sure his eyes had something to do with it as well, as he had a powerful look when fired up by anger or enthusiasm.

Sheila, conversely, did not care about cattle much. She loved plants and was a keen gardener. She kept a lovely greenhouse, which housed a collection of the orchids found at Intona and served as a nursery for the already beautiful garden and internal patios of the house.

The "Dutch Masters" paintings in the background, the picture was taken from the place Joe used to sit.

The “Dutch Masters” paintings in the background, the picture was taken from the place Joe used to sit.

They both shared an incredible passion for culture and art and the house was a true museum of African art although there were several large paintings that I attributed to “Dutch Classic painters”. The sitting room I mentioned above was literally filled with art. Wood and metal carvings, masks, ancient trunks, antique chairs, oriental rugs, and large paintings decorated the place.

murumbi mask 1

murumbi mask 2

murumbi lamu chair

murumbi mask

murumbi chest

And then there was his library! A large room with bookshelves all round and where all his diplomas, decorations and memorable photographs were kept. A young Joe could be seen in the company of Kenyatta, Nkurumah, Kaunda and Nyerere to name but a few. There was a large one of Joe with Haile Selassie and several more with other European leaders that he rubbed shoulders with during his political life. Clearly he had kept selected items after all his donations of books and documents to the Kenya Government.[3]

Although Joe was very enthusiastic about showing some of his unique books (he had all the first editions of the works by most African explorers, to name what I recall today!) his real joy was to open the many drawers that hosted his immense, comprehensive and very valuable stamp collection. He was very proud to show me some of the “specials” he possessed, including most of the first African stamps and even some of the earliest British ones that -apparently- were extremely rare and dear! Not being a collector myself, I listened and enjoyed his keenness more than anything else.

As if being shown the library by Joe himself would not have been enough, I was given the green light to roam free through his still vast book collection. This I did and spent long hours browsing through the many special books and documents that it housed. Among several, I particularly recall opening a proofreading specimen of Peter Beard’s “The End of the Game”[4] and finding inside it an exchange of letters between Joe and Peter about the book and its presentation! This was one surprise I remember but I have forgotten many, I am afraid!

Intona hosted a number of wild animals that intermingled with the cattle. Impala, Zebra and Topi were very common and herds of buffalo resided in the ranch. Lion were often heard but rarely seen (probably scared of the Maasai around us!) but a family of Cheetah resided at the ranch and were often seen. Spotted Hyenas were heard every evening and I was surprised if they did not visit my camp at night!

Buffalo herds often grazed in the meadows and frequently mixed with the cattle. Surprisingly they did not trouble the herdsmen, behaving like cattle but keeping their distance. The solitary males were a different issue and walking about Intona required great care as these rogues would seek shelter inside the clumps of forest that dotted the green grasslands at the ranch and come at you with anything but good intentions!

Buffalo were the main danger to watch out for while orchid collecting, an event that Robin -my good colleague from ICIPE- used to perform. As this involved entering the clumps of forest, it was a rather dangerous hobby. Luckily Joe had a hand-operated fire siren that a helper carried and used to scare the buffalo by sounding it before we entered the thicket. We were lucky not to encounter any buffalo, as I was doubtful of the effectiveness of the siren! Or maybe they ran away in the opposite direction? We did have a few scares when warthogs would crash out of their previously quiet resting areas because of our racket. We got a few adrenaline highs but fortunately they never came straight at us!

Alan’s closeness to Joe and Sheila meant that they relied on him for help at all times. I believe they saw Alan as the son they did not have! Their friendship was so close that once when Joe needed to go for an operation in the UK, Alan travelled with him! Alan did not travel alone, he had a most unusual companion: a nail-studded power figure[5] which was apparently rather expensive and Joe needed to sell it in the UK to cover the expenses of his medical intervention. So Alan was entrusted to fly with the sculpture for which I believe they booked a seat next to Alan! I do not know more details other than that Joe came back in better shape!

Joe greatly enjoyed having us for a drink in the evenings to talk about our work and tell us some of his stories. So we were often invited. Sheila was a great hostess and looked after us as if we would have been her newly discovered relatives! One of those occasions coincided with a rare and probably one of the last trips to Intona by road in his Range Rover. He mostly travelled by plane with the dogs!

On that occasion Joe was really upset about the condition of the road. The latter was really bad during normal times but at that particular occasion was impossible and -almost- impassable! Joe had a temper and that was the first time I saw him losing it! He was so upset that, after telling us about it, he picked the phone and started to call. At the time, Telephone calls from Intona were “difficult” to put it mildly so he insisted a few times until he managed to get through.

Despite his speech difficulties he managed to gather sufficient strength to speak in clearly strong terms and in Swahili. After a while his tone changed and, before he hung up, he burst into a hearty laugh. Still laughing and while shaking his head he said “That was Daniel[6] on the phone” and added “I was complaining to him on the conditions of the road and do you know what he replied?” he said looking amused “Joe, you know that I travel by helicopter!” I will keep Joe’s comments to myself!

 

[1] Follows Intona Ranch

[2] An elder in Swahili

[3] Ref. to details of his donation to the GoK

[4] Full title of the book

[5] See: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/online_science/explore_our_collections/objects/index/smxg-105001

[6] Daniel arap Moi was President of Kenya from 1978 to 2002. He succeeded Joe as Vice-President after Joe’s resignation in 1967.