work

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”.

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Bush cats…

While in Kenya, when a couple of friends departed, we inherited two neutered cats. They could not have been more different. One was a marmalade coloured male that went by the name of Tigger. The other one a seal-point Siamese female named Inky. While Tigger was an indoors fat and lazy youngster, Inky was an outside cat and an excellent hunter that forced us to make our bird feeder and bath cat-proof to prevent a disaster.

When our time to leave Kenya came, we were very attached to them and we decided to take them with us. After the needed health certificates and a special double box that would enable them to have eye contact through wire mesh, we were ready to go. The plane trip was not too far as we were going to Addis Ababa.

It was an easy trip and we found no difficulties on arrival at Bole airport. However, negotiating their stay at the Harambee Hotel in Addis Ababa for the days needed to prepare our long trip to Bedele in West Ethiopia was more time-consuming and it required some protracted negotiations. Eventually, permission was granted, provided that they remained inside our room!

After a few days, our travel permits were ready, we had a vehicle, petrol and petrol coupons as well as a stockpile of food to last us for a couple of weeks. We were ready to set off, at last. The journey from Addis Ababa to Bedele via Jimma was about 420 km in terms of physical distance but because of the traffic -particularly people and livestock walking on the road- it took the whole day to complete, with a bit of luck!

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On the way to Bedele.

Auspiciously, our maiden voyage went well and we eventually arrived in Bedele in late evening. We managed to get the keys of our cottage from the Administrator of the Veterinary Laboratory and moved into the house we would live in during the following two years. That night we camped in the house as we were only able to travel with the few possessions that we could carry in the pick-up. Our furniture and other household items would arrive later via an FAO lorry as, at that time, there were no moving companies operating in Ethiopia’s countryside.

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The arrival of our personal effects.

Immediately after arrival our cats got on with their job: Tigger found a place to sleep and Inky started to inspect the house and its environs while calling for attention, before settling down with us to spend the first night in the Ethiopian bush. Starting the following morning, our interaction with our Ethiopian and foreign colleagues assisted us greatly to settle in and, with the arrival of our belongings a few weeks later, we managed to make the place quite comfortable. Eventually we developed a very good vegetable garden and, while Tigger relaxed, Inky was active keeping garden enemies at bay.

Unexpectedly Tigger started to follow Inky during her sorties to the outside world, cautiously at first but eventually accompanying her on her hunting expeditions although we did not think much of his contribution!

It was during an evening that we were involved in book-reading while listening to some opera music, our favourite evening activity in Bedele, that Tigger stunned us. It all started when we heard a kind of meowing that was new to us. Fearing some cat tragedy we immediately went to investigate its origin. We did not need to go too far as we met Tigger while entering the house carrying something in his mouth, followed by Inky.

As soon as he was under the entrance lamp we could see that he was triumphantly carrying in his mouth the most humongous rat I have ever seen. While I was amazed to see this my wife was consternated as she has a problem with rodents, particularly rats and mice. It was not a Giant rat or a Cane rat but one of the grey rats that are a pest the world over. But it was a “super rat”!

I failed to calm things down by saying: “he brought the rat to us to show off…” Before I finished my sentence, I noticed that the rat was alive and, sooner than I could say anything else Tigger let the rat go inside the house! I expected that he was just playing with it as normal cats do but, to my dismay, not only Tigger but also Inky (the huntress) were looking the other way while the rat made frantic efforts to escape from the house!

The situation was a bad one and I will never know why he opened his mouth! My theory is that, as soon as he saw his catch under the house light, he got so terrified that preferred to forget the possible glory and cut his losses! Although I failed to see it at the time, today, many years later I can understand the cats’ reaction as the rat was a true monster. However, I am still to forgive them because their indifference meant that it was up to me to sort out the situation!

Mayhem followed the rat’s release! My wife climbed on a chair threatening me with going on a cooking strike if I did not kill it while the guilty cats disappeared with their tails between their legs!  I was alone with Super rat! The first thing I noted was that it had no plans to surrender peacefully. As usual, it was fast and it immediately found a crack in my defenses and it squeezed through a badly closed door and got inside the kitchen, the worst scenario as far as my wife was concerned. My situation deteriorated by the second!

I followed it but when I entered the kitchen and managed to switch the light on, the rat had vanished! Swiftly, my wife slammed the door behind my back, oblivious to the fate of her husband, and then it was Super rat and I in a duel to the death, if I could find the villain.

Although our kitchen was a small affair it was rather packed with goods for us to survive our rather isolated life in a war-thorn country and away from shops! I had a look and realized that the rat could have been anywhere and that to find it would have been a laborious and even dangerous task that could prolong well beyond midnight!

So, I procrastinated -not for the first or last time in my life- and sat there for a while before announcing the rat’s absence to the incredulity and displeasure of my wife. However, she eventually though reluctantly accepted the status quo. Swearing at the cats we went to bed and, luckily, the following morning I opened the door of the kitchen and convinced my wife that the rat had gone. It worked and I was thrilled to be unharmed.

The rat incident forgotten, our cats continued to live regal lives, enjoying the large track of land surrounding our house and stalking the various birds that visited us. Luckily, I did not see them catching any but they did repeatedly ambushed a “rescued” Egyptian goose we kept for a while until it decided to depart, and watched for hours on end a pigmy kingfisher that was brought to us by a boy from the village and eventually released. They also enjoyed playing with a young duiker that outsmarted and outran them all the time.

As they seemed to be well entertained and busy, I cannot understand why they decided to expand their circle of friends and get in touch with some wild neighbours at the back of the garden…

We learnt about the new situation when we started to hear a high pitch barking in the evenings that we attributed to foxes. Eventually we saw them at about one hundred metres from our house, near the perimeter fence of the station. After watching them for a few days we identified them as a pair of side-striped jackals (Canis adustus) not without some surprise. We decided to keep the find to ourselves for fearing of they being chased off or killed.

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My wife walking in the garden with cats and duiker. At the back is where the jackals were.

We realized that the jackals were residing under some heavy iron pieces that should have been an incinerator that was never assembled. Our sightings became more frequent and then we realized that pups had arrived so we derived good entertainment from them as we saw them often and heard them every night.

One day the cats were nowhere to be found. At first we were not alarmed, as occasionally they would temporarily disappear. However, when they did not turn-up by the afternoon, we decided to search for them before it was too dark. After fruitlessly checking around the houses, we extended our search to the compound, increasingly worried.

Eventually we saw them at the bottom of the garden, in the area where the jackals were! “Gosh”, I thought, “They are dead meat” and run towards the area to see what I could do while cursing them for their stupidity. When I got closer, however, I noticed that not only the cats were unharmed, but that they were engaged in a kind of hide and seek exercise with the wild jackals, both adults and pups!

I then realized that this was not a new development but a relationship that had existed for a while and a kind of “friendship” had developed between our lazy and well-fed cats and the wild canids. I left them alone and the cats returned to our house later unharmed. The cat-jackal interaction continued for a few weeks but they never came close to the houses and eventually, when the pups matured, the jackals moved off.

As for the giant rat, a few days after the jackals’ disappearance, while blindly searching for some cans in the kitchen, I touched a hairy and warm “entity” and realized that this was not what I expected to find. Careful removal of the surrounding cans and jars caused the rat to jump out -almost hitting my face and stopping my heart- and run off into the open, never to be seen again. I believe that Super rat had taken residence there since the time of its arrival.

Luckily my wife was not there while I removed all evidence of the presence of Super rat. It was a tough job that required that I cleaned the nest in which I could identify shreds from some of my working reports and documents that I thought I had misplaced!

 

 

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.

Javelin throwing (almost Olympic games)

The view of the Mara triangle on the Maasai Mara from the Oloololo escarpment on the way to Intona ranch.

The view of the Mara triangle in the Maasai Mara from the Oloololo escarpment on the way to Intona ranch.

Despite our busy work schedule we did not work on Sundays. We took the morning to explore Intona and its surrounds as there were always interesting sightings, particularly in the area towards the Migori river forest.

A flooded Migori river at the back of Intona ranch.

A flooded Migori river at the back of Intona ranch.

A notable tree in the Migori river forest.

A notable tree in the Migori river forest.

After lunch and seeing that there was not much to do I hatched the idea of a spear-throwing contest and mentioned it to Ernest. “What about an international spear throwing competition this afternoon?” “We can have participants from Africa, América and Europe, almost like the Olympic games”, I added. Ernest happily agreed and I got on with the organizing.

Apart from Ernest and myself there were also a Ugandan veterinarian and Kikuyu and Maasai assistants, admittedly both Kenyans but from different ethnic groups. “After all, we are in Maasailand” I thought and we should find a suitable javelin” “Let’s find a good spear and get the throwing field organized,” I said as I was already walking towards the herdsmen camp to arrange the details. “Tommi, I need to find a good spear” I said before I said good morning, and added, “I have an idea”.

He and the other herdsmen knew me by now and they smiled in anticipation. Tommi assured me that he could easily find the right tool as there were Maasai nearby that he knew. Good news!

A similar spear to the one used in our competition.

A similar spear to the one used in our competition.

While Tommi strolled through the bush in search for the spear we walked about to find a suitable field where the competition could take place. We found a good site and placed some distance marks while we waited for Tommi’s return. I also went around the farm inviting participants to the event. I managed to engage Joseph (Kikuyu, Kenyan) and Kiza (Ugandan) in addition to Tommi (Maasai, Kenyan), Ernest (Swiss) and myself (Uruguay). We had an international field!

By the time Tommi returned after lunch we were all ready and waiting. He brought a sturdy looking spear that we judged suitable for the task although it was rather long and heavy. It had a long metal blade, a wooden middle part and along steel rod at the end. It was time to start to get done before the daily 17:00 hours shower!

Ernest and helpers examining an animal for ticks.

Ernest and helpers examining an animal for ticks. The herdsmen tent can be seen in the background.

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A heavy Bont tick infestation on a heifer at Intona ranch.

All participants agreed at the onset that measurements would be done in paces. It was thought that equal throws were unlikely and the need for laser-aided technology[1] was thought not to be required. No bets were allowed, as just by looking at the competitors, an inexperienced observer should have been able to guess who the favourites were! This did not come to our minds while we warmed-up.

As the start of the competition approached, the tension increased and, by the time we drew our throwing terms, it was almost unbearable… For some reason Uruguay went first, followed by Joseph the Kikuyu representative, Switzerland was third, Kiza, the Ugandan fourth and, a fitting finale, the last to throw was Tommi, Maasai. It may as well as he was the “host country”.

Aware that I would not win I argued in favour of some try throws to get the right balance of both body and javelin but, regrettably for me, the other competitors (unkindly in my opinion) refused arguing that this was not in the rules (?). So, resigned to my fate I grabbed the spear and got ready to do my best. It felt heavy and rigid. I threw it and, the second it left me I knew that there were problems with both direction and distance. It was a rather poor show that landed a long way from the cattle boma and far from my possible personal best. “I have never had any strength in my arms” I said, trying to feel better. “about 20 paces is not too bad for my age”.

Joseph was quite fit although he was from a relatively well off Kikuyu family and this was beginning to show around his midriff. His throw was better than mine but stopped at 26 paces. Ernest, the Swiss researcher turned athlete improved my mark by a couple of paces and Kiza, the man from Uganda, despite his relatively small size, did much better than all at about 30 paces. A big smile lit his face, as usual and a lesson to us all that size is not that important but good technique is!

It was the turn of the Maasailand representative, the final competitor. He was perhaps the most relaxed participant and the one that was enjoying the tournament the most! From the moment he picked the spear we all new that the competition was over! We exchanged resigned glances and head shakes and got ready for an Olympic humiliation! We tried our best to disrupt his throw by talking to him but, he just smiled and replied to our remarks without losing his composure.

He held the spear naturally, balancing its weight by instinct. Almost without running and with a fast and wide arm movement he threw it, almost unexpectedly and even casually. The spear flew high vibrating with a “swiiiiiiisshhhh”. It went beyond our throwing field and over the cattle boma. We lost sight of it but run in the general direction where we last saw it to see how far it had gone. Behind the cattle boma it was the herdsmen camp so, when we fail to find it inside the boma we got more worried and started looking around the camp. There was no trace of the spear anywhere and the camp looked normal. For this we were reassured as at least there were no casualties!

We looked around the tent, near the fireplace, chairs, table, up the trees and all over: no spear! Nothing stuck on the ground, nothing visible up the trees or stuck anywhere. “Another mystery of the African bush”, I thought, or some Maasai magic I was not aware of?

As there was no point in arguing in favour of declaring the throw void on account of it having gone beyond the throwing field or even worse, on account of the disappearance of the instrument, we declared our Maasai warrior the undisputed winner. The absence of the spear meant that there was no possible revenge. This came as a relief as a change of the result would have been unlikely!

I apologized to Tommi for having had the idea that has led to the losing of his borrowed spear and offered financial compensation for his loss. He said that he had thrown it and lost it so I did not need to worry. He will eventually find it he said. I expressed serious doubts but gave him the benefit of the doubt and, as the rain was starting, I moved to our tent.

That night, while we were having our dinner we herd loud talking and laughing at the workers camp next door and went to have a look. The spear had been found! In its wild trajectory it had gone through both the flysheet and the tent and it was embedded in one of the herdsmen’s camp beds, luckily empty at the time of the event! I felt great relief that nothing had happened and a lesser one that the spear could now be returned to its owner!

I cannot remember how I explained the tent holes to my senior managers. Maybe I did not and it just remained as normal “wear and tear”!

Transmara, Kenya circa 1986.

[1] I do not think it was available at the time, anyway!

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.

Harvesting from the effort[1]

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

A Boran young bull at Mutara ranch, Kenya.

A Boran young bull at Mutara ranch, Kenya.

Boran young bulls at Mutara ranch, Kenya.

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

Mutara tick selection work.

Mutara tick selection work.

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

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

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

The laboratory at Bedele, Ethiopia.

The laboratory at Bedele, Ethiopia.

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

Villagers at Gambela, West Ethiopia.

Villagers at Gambela, West Ethiopia.

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

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

The project site at Lutale, Central Province of Zambia.

The project site at Lutale, Central Province of Zambia.

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

Cattle work in Southern Province, Zambia.

Cattle work in Southern Province, Zambia.

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

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

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

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

Mudanza a Hre copy 2

Moving again! This time to Zimbabwe.

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

Great Zimbabwe ruins, Zimbabwe, 1998.

Great Zimbabwe ruins, Zimbabwe, 1998.

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

Sewing in Bolivia.

Sewing in Bolivia.

Market street of La Paz, Bolivia.

Market street of La Paz, Bolivia.

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

The Appia Antica road, Rome.

The Appia Antica road, Rome.

Rome, 2009!

Rome, 2009!

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

Time to move to Mozambique.

Time to move to Mozambique.

Speaking on World Food Day in Mozambique.

Speaking on World Food Day in Mozambique.

Interviewed by the press.

Being interviewed by the press.

Maputo's beach in Mozambique.

Maputo’s beach.

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

I hope you enjoy reading what I have to say.

 

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