Emerons and Interviews

The Africana Guest House, Lodwar, Turkana County, Kenya

August 11th, 2018


~As told to me by a sub-county vet during lunch one day~

Emerons are wise men, seers. Some people call them witch doctors. In the Turkana culture, and among other groups in the Karamoja cluster, they’re powerful, the leaders. Because they can see the future, they dictate when the migration of people and animals happens. And some say they can stop an animal in its tracks just by looking at it. I’ve seen the power of Emurons in person, in two instances. Once, I saw an Emeron sitting near the kraal, eating some meat. All of a sudden, a large eagle flew down and picked up a piece of meat. It started to fly straight up, very high until you could barely see it. The Emeron started talking to the eagle. He said, “that’s my meat. You must bring it down because I was eating it.” All of a sudden, the dark speck in the sky started to grow. The eagle was falling straight down to the ground, dead. It hit the ground in a burst of feathers and dust. The Emeron walked over to the eagle, retrieved his meat, wiped it off on his sleeve and continued to eat.

Another time, we were in a remote part of the sub-county, near the border. The Emeron had stated that no goats or sheep were to leave the area past a certain hill. After completing our vaccinations one of the pastoralists gave us a goat to thank us. He said we did a very good job. I thought about the Emeron’s decree, but their power is waining with modern times. It didn’t seem very important. We put this goat in the back of our truck and started to head back. To leave the area, we had to cross a dry riverbed. Someone had dug a hole in the riverbed to get water and our truck go stuck because of that hole. All of a sudden, without warming, water started rushing down the riverbed – a flash flood. We had to leave the truck there, with the goat tied in the back. We spent the night in the village and the next morning walked downstream to where the truck was after being swept away by the waters. The goat was nowhere to be seen. We never found it.

The Turkana and the Pokot

Another veterinarian and I were also discussing raiding between the Turkana and Pokot, which is a major problem. It goes like this (according to him): There is the Turkana tribe to the north (lowlands) and the Pokot tribe to the south (highlands). They speak different languages and although their lifestyle is similar, mobile and focused on livestock, they consider each other traditional enemies. For hundreds of years they’ve been crossing into each other’s land and stealing cattle. Moonlight raids, silent lines of creeping young men in the Turkana sands, surrounded by flat-topped acacia and esekon trees, the silhouette of cattle, shining horns and the soft shuffle of hooves. He thinks a lot of the recent violence has to do with bride price, or the monetary value of livestock that is required to get married. According to a recent report in the local newspaper, the bride price for the Pokot in 2018 was $1.4 million KES in cattle, sheep, goats, camels, and donkeys. And where do you get those animals? From the Turkana of course, traditional enemies and closest neighbors makes it hard to resist. A similar story exists for the Turkana, who have the second highest bride price at $800,000 KES among the tribes in the region. Interestingly, the Pokot don’t accept installment plans for buying brides like other communities, which may force more drastic action. So, a cultural tradition that has existed for millennium continues, but now instead of spears raiders have AK-47s, and that has made a once relatively harmless practice that was mediate by elders, extremely dangerous. As he put it, young Turkana and Pokot men are told they are nothing without animals, that they have to marry well to move ahead in life, and thus, they raid.

Because I was interested in this topic, I looked more into it. It turns out, like most issues, there’s not just one factor that is at the root cause of the violence. In his thesis titled “The Silent War: Pokot and Turkana Conflict,” Stephan Muntet describes a variety of factors that play a role. These include:
1. Environmental scarcity, which encourages competition between groups for resources
2. Availability of illegal firearms – the majority of which are provided by the Kenyan police to protect against raiding by Ugandan and Sudan communities (note the irony here, as those guns are then used for violence against others)
3. Poor governance (lack of disarmament, no education, bad infrastructure, etc)
4. Extreme poverty (see Table 1)
5. Tribal politics – exacerbated by environmental scarcity
6. Beings surrounded by “enemies” – the region is bordered by Uganda, Sudan, and Ethiopia, resulting in insecurity and lack of peaceful collaboration and problem solving
7. Climate change – more severe and frequent droughts, which results in the death of many animals and the need to restock herds through raiding
8. Lack of elders – disintegration of social structure resulting in unsupervised raids by young men. Furthermore, peaceful conflict resolution depends on community leaders coming together, without those leaders peaceful resolution isn’t possible.

To summarize:
“The inability of the Kenyan government to provide security for its people plus the easy access for semi-automatic guns by young men of both ethnic groups, have contributed to the crumbling of these communities social structures. Droughts and other calamities that shrink resources such as grazing land and water, just contribute to this conflict but not the root cause of the problem. A combination of the above scenarios, have therefore transformed the traditional age-sets systems into gang-like groups. These sets have derailed from the original approach of organizing relations and order within a tribe into mini-militaries who have unlimited power, freedom and discretion.”

Muntet focuses on the degradation of power among elders in the Turkana and Pokot tribes as a main cause of the violence, although I wasn’t completely convinced by his argument. For example, he mentions that elders are in-fact giving their implicit support for raids and gaining animals from them. His suggestions for how to resolve the conflict include:

1. Adding police stations to Northwest Kenya to deter raids
2. Disarmament
3. Improve literacy rates
4. Provide veterinary services and improve infrastructure – Just a note on this one: Veterinary services are being provided! But I can attest to the need for better infrastructure (e.g. roads).
5. Peace mediation between the Turkana and Pokot

Some researchers have focused more on environmental factors, like drought, as motivation for raiding. However, although a lot of research has examined the link between climate change and violence, not just in Turkana but around the world, no definitive link has been found between warming and armed conflict to date. The way I think about it, there are so many different factors that influence conflict that quantifying the role of climate is challenging. In addition, how do you define conflict? It could be between non-state or state actors. Does it include raids AND the threat of raids? Or is it just mortality events? The research in this area is diverse, with different definitions being applied to various scenarios, adding another challenge to quantifying the effect of factors on conflict between pastoralist, and other, communities. Violence between pastoralists communities is a topic that has arisen during the course of several interviews, and one that Dr. Ronoh and I are investigating currently. It’s possible that a small aspect of my study this summer may contribute to solutions in this area. I’m excited to further explore this topic, of which I know very little about.

Research update

This week was extremely busy. I conducted interviews with the following people/groups (hyperlinks go to organization’s websites):

1. Sub-county veterinary officer (SCVO) Turkana West
2. Chief livestock health technician Turkana South
3. Turkana Pastoralists Development Organization (TOPADO) – Livestock team
4. Senior public health officer (PHO) Turkana Central
5. Afya Timiza (USAID) – Kimormor officer
6. Nadapa community – Loima sub-county
7. Sub-county Public Health Officer (SCPHO) – Loima
8. TURKWEL community – Loima sub-county
9. Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Animal Health Assistant – Kakuma (Turkana West)
10. PHO/deputy public health officer (DPHO) – Turkana West
11. Lotus Kenya Action for Development Organization (LOKADO) – Kakuma
12. Kakuma community – Turkana West

I’ve talked with basically all of the sub-county veterinarians now. Next week will be more focused on the human side of things, in terms of PHOs and NGOs that deal with human health (e.g. IRC and UNICEF). A few observations: Kakuma, the headquarters/capital of Turkana West, is impressive. It’s over 250 km away from Lodwar, and after 2.5 hours of traveling along a crumbling road (mostly dirt with patches of broken concrete, I wasn’t expecting such a population hub.

Community members in Loima sub-county.

The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) was very active in Turkana County in the 80s and 90s and built the road to Kakuma. I found out NORAD was kicked out of Turkana by President Moi in the 90s, they were given 72 hours to leave the country, because they worked too closely with the opposition. As Dr. Ronoh explained, they were empowering the local population that didn’t support President Moi, so they had to go. They had a lot of irrigation project in Lodwar that are abandoned now; politics can be so destructive.

Interviews in an old NORAD garage. Behind me, is where they use to pull their cars up to get worked on.


Dr. Ronoh said there are 400,000 people in Kakuma, although the refugee camps make up a large part of that with 181,000 refugees there alone. I learned more about the refugee camps when visiting the project coordinator at LWF. It wasn’t a formal interview, more like a courtesy call. In Kakuma, LWF are the biggest implementing partners of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and primarily support the refugee camp with programs that include: Education, Child Protection Services, Sustainable Livelihoods, Community Peace and Person with Specific Needs. In Turkana West they work not only in Kakuma but also at the Kalobeyei settlement, Nadapal Transit Centre at the South Sudanese border, and in the greater sub-county as a whole. The project coordinator told us LWF initially came to Kakuma in 1992 when the refugee camp was established following the arrival of the “Lost Boys of Sudan.” Interestingly, one of the better known long-distance runners in the U.S., Lopez Lomong, was a “lost boy” who arrived as a 16 year old. I read he ran, with 3 other boys, for 4 days to reach the refugee camp in Kakuma from South Sudan. What an inspiration. Also, I was reading about the second Sudan civil war that resulted in the refugee crisis and was wondering, what about the lost girls of Sudan? It turns out that fewer escaped initially because while the boys were in the fields herding the animals the girls were home and were killed during attacks in the village. For those that did escape, they were given to foster families in the Kakuma refugee camps and surrounding areas. Those families that often took advantage of them (e.g. used as domestic servants and prevented from attending school, or sold them for bride-price). Furthermore, only 87 of the of the 3,700 Sudanese refuges settled in the U.S. in 2001 were girls. A lot of attention has been given to the boys, deservedly, but more needs to be done for the girls fleeing the region.

Recently, the current President in South Sudan, Salva Kiir, gave the rebel leader Risk Machar and all rebel groups amnesty as part of the peace process. Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar both signed a cease fire and power-sharing agreement on August 5th. However, both led opposite sides of the civil war that started in 2013 and has resulted in the death of thousands. I hope the deal brings about peace.


Alale, Turkana, and birthday plans

Alale, West Pokot County

Getting to Alale was certainly worthy of a story. I decided to take public transport, only 600 shillings (about $6 USD) each way. The day before, I went down to where the ticket office is in Makutano and reserved my seat. They told me the van would leave around 10 or 11 am, but what they meant was the van will leave when it’s full; that’s the norm for public transport. I showed up around 10 am, just to be on the safe side, and ended up waiting until 2pm (saa mbili mchana) to leave. Interestingly, a lot of the passengers where children. I think they were heading home for the summer holidays, school just got out. As we were heading down the escarpment towards Kacheliba, the car started having issues and eventually broke down. So there we were, stuck on the side of the road as the huge trucks carrying sand for construction rolled past, covering us in dust, followed by a brief but fierce thunder storm and torrential rain. A few hours later, another van from the same company showed up and we continued our journey. The road to Alale is bad: dry river beds to forge (this time of year they’re not full at least), rocks, dips, bumps, washboard, holes, and everything else. Being the relative newcomer to public transport that I am, I chose a seat next to the window. It took 5+ hours to make it to Alale. I kept drifting off to sleep when it got dark and would be jolted awake every time I slammed into the side of the van. When we arrived at 10pm my right shoulder and arm were bruised, but I was very happy to have made it!

Philip, the animal health officer in Alale was waiting for me at the county offices when we got into town. He delivered me to a church that rents rooms for the night, and I met him the next morning after a sound night of sleep and a cold shower. We shared a tea and hardboiled egg breakfast, eggs from the chicken that was wandering around in front of the sub-county offices. I told Philip I had grown up with farm-fresh eggs too! After Philip and I talked about integrated vaccination and I got a solid idea of what his role was concerning animal health, we headed out on his motorbike (bodaboda) to meet with a sub-chief and 5 farmers. Chief and sub-chief are administrative titles. I would summarize their roles as organizational in nature. Pastoralists in semi-arid and arid environments live a mobile lifestyle by necessity. For example, in West Pokot, they will travel back and forth between Uganda and Kenya based on where there’s grass for their livestock. Cell phones have gone a long way to improving communication, but it’s still challenging. Chiefs and sub-chiefs receive and disseminate information by calling public meetings. They also act as advocates for their community. It’s safe to say they play a large role in human and animal health.

Sub-chief (farthest left) and farmers from the first interview

Did I mention there were camels? 🙂

The sub-chief was so welcoming and eager to have a conversation about human and non-human animal health. She was also able to translate during our conversation with the farmers. After the first set of interviews, we headed up the mountain for the second round. The chief I interviewed there wasn’t very receptive. I’m not sure if it was just me, or he didn’t like the line of questioning, but I would say it was my first non-fruitful conversation. In contrast, the group of 5 farmers were very friendly and we had a productive talk.

Philip on his motorbike (bodaboda) as we head up the mountain

Afterwards, we headed down to town where Philip has an agroshop. He sells veterinary drugs to the farmers. Because of his knowledge, he not only sells the drugs but can also give advice on how to use them. It’s a good business in addition to what he does for the county. After relaxing for a few hours, I hopped into another van to head back to town. At first it seemed too good to be true: a plush, middle seat all to myself? As is usually the case, it was. The 3 seats were soon occupied by 4 people, which left me in the middle of two seats and someone leaning against the entire left side of my chest. 5+ hours later we arrived back in Makutano. I was exhausted to say the least and grateful to be back in my comfy bed at the Kalya.

Friends at the Kalya


Lodwar, Turkana County

Turkana County feels worlds apart from West Pokot, especially compared to the high elevation towns I spent most of my time in. It is 77,000 sq. km and Kenya’s second largest county. It borders Uganda, South Sudan, and Ethiopia. In 2009, its population was 849,277. Approximately 70% of the populations are nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists, known as the Turkana people, that derive their livelihood from extensive livestock production, compared to West Pokot that consists mainly of agro-pastoralists (growing crops in addition to raising livestock). A smaller subset of the population (also considered Turkana) makes their living as fishermen and lives along Lake Turkana. I’ve certainly enjoyed the change in cuisine since I arrived, fish fillet and ugale makes for a good combination. Interestingly, the Turkana are the second largest pastoral community in Kenya after the Maasai. According to the most recent census there were 3,517,151 sheep and 5,994,861 goats in Turkana county that, along with cattle and camels, represent economic and social capital for Turkana pastoralists. The biggest difference from Makutano to Lodwar, where I am now, is the climate. It hasn’t been below 80 degrees since I’ve arrived, and the daytime temperatures have been around 95. I feel like I’m back in southern Australia! There are a few permanent rivers that exist in the county. For example, the Kawalasee River flows through the center of town and drains into Lake Turkana. Beyond those few water sources, the county is arid and harsh – flying from Eldoret I watched as the green hills changed into sand-colored plains with small dots of shrubs and few permanent settlements.

As a MCM graduate and proponent of One Health, Turkana County not only sets an example of how this concept can work, but serves as an inspiration for the rest of us. The county director of veterinary services (CDVS) and county director of public health (CDPH) not only know about One Health, but are actively invested in it and interested in increasing collaboration where possible. Since I’ve arrived, not a single person has asked me what One Health is or why it might be a good idea to have the departments work together. Instead, they’ve been eager to explore the overlap between human and non-human animal health. It doesn’t hurt that Dr. Mariner has worked with the county government extensively, not only on rinderpest and PPR, but also with Participatory Epidemiology (PE) training. I think my project has been successful here (already) for two main factors: one, the familiarity with Tufts and the PPR Vaccination Project and two, the leadership’s (and everyone below) embrace of the One Health concept. The CDVS is very young and willing to pursue new ideas like providing human and animal health services together. To quote: “the ground is ripe for One Health.” That leadership makes all the difference when it comes to the potential implementation of integrated vaccination and other similar strategies, and the success of my project. In West Pokot, I was prevented from doing many interviews because of clearance issues, even so, I don’t think, at least on the veterinary side, that One Health is endorsed to the same extent for whatever reason. Perhaps my study can contribute in some small way to initiating new connections between human health and non-human animal health in West Pokot. There are enough similarities between the two counties that even if I don’t go back to Kapenguria to finish my interviews, I can produce a report for both counties.

Dr. Ronoh

Dr. Ronoh is slight, a little shorter than me, with a smooth head, toothy grin and soft voice. He’s the sub-county veterinarian for Loima, pronounced “Low-ee-ma,” in Turkana County and someone I’ve been working with for months. It’s so helpful to have someone on the ground. Not only does Dr. Ronoh know the intricacies of my project well, he’s also helping to schedule and facilitate interviews here in Turkana. In addition, he conducted his own study on PPR incidence using similar PE methods to myself and therefore, can assist with the techniques I’m using in the field (e.g. proportional piling and venn diagrams). Dr. Ronoh is young. He just received his Master’s degree a few years ago and has only been in his current position for 3 years. Interestingly, he was taught by Dr. Abuom for his vet degree, and a Tufts professor taught his statistics course for his Master’s. Funny how the world works! He has also met Jeff (Dr. Mariner) from whom he received some PE training. In a way, working with him has made me excited for when I’ll be a young professional, done with school finally, and working on a job that I’m passionate about. It seems like a long time from now, but I know it will arrive quickly!

It’s your birthday, let’s party, it’s your birthday

Sunday is my 26th birthday. Wow! I’ve decided to treat myself and spend the weekend at the Eliye Springs Resort on the shores of Lake Turkana. You can swim in the lake, relax in the hot springs (at night I’m assuming when it’s not 100 degrees out), and enjoy a beer. Also, my friend Maurice let me borrow his Eastern African bird book. My plan is to wake up early Sunday morning and see as many new birds as possible! Should be a fun birthday and a relaxing first weekend in Turkana!

Konyau – First Day in the Field

The driver showed up at the Kalya at 7 am, but Paul, the community animal health worker coming up from Kitale, didn’t make it until 8. We headed down the escarpment, the same way Maurice and I went to Kacheliba, pronounced “Kach-a-Leeba”, for our birding adventure. I’ll never get sick of driving down the escarpment, going from rocky outcrops to the dry, dusty lowlands, from 7000 feet to 4000 feet above sea level in a matter of a few kilometers. The acacia scrubland and desert succulents become more prominent as you descend. Once you make it past the escarpment, the road becomes a lot better (for a few kilometers at least). It’s currently being redone by, as Paul described it, the “Chinese.” According to Paul and what I’ve read, Chinese influence is increasingly prevalent in Kenya, and Africa in general. Paul asked why America stopped coming to Africa. Now, he said, it’s all the Chinese. According to him, it was better when the Americans and the British (post-colonialism) were investing in Africa, especially in the 90s and 2000s (even George W Bush did a lot for Africa), because they would “share their skills with Africans.” The Chinese companies, according to him, mostly bring their own laborers over and “don’t want Africans to have skills.” I don’t know enough about the situation to make a broad generalization, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard the Chinese referred to as the new colonizers; attitudes concerning them haven’t been extremely high among the people I’ve spoken with. Also, there’s a current scandal I’ve read about in the newspaper, a Chinese company that’s building a railroad has been accused of acting in a discriminatory way towards its African employees. It’s safe to say that the world order is shifting, with Americans becoming less present in Kenya. According to Paul, that’s bad, but I wonder if it’s just a matter of the new reality being different. Looking no further than the U.S., it’s easy to see how demographic changes produce prejudice and unease.

We continued about 15km past Kacheliba until we saw a tall hill in the distance, the namesake of the town: Konyau hill. Paul had organized everything so that we met one of the Konyau chiefs and 15 farmers, which turned into about 30 by the time we got there at the livestock “crush,” which is where they hold the animals when they’re vaccinating them. First, I talked with the chief, opinion leaders, and Paul – more of the administrative angle.

Everyone gathered near the livestock crush (holding pen).

Then we spoke with the men who showed up; men and women are generally culturally separate, but it’s important to get both viewpoints (of course). So after speaking with the men, I interviewed the women as a group. The chief spoke some Kiswahili and English, while the farmers only spoke Pokot, the native dialect. Initially, we had one translator, but then a few more showed up, so they all took turns translating from Pokot into Kiswahili and English. It was a group effort for sure!

It’s a little strange to be writing a research blog and not be able to talk about what I’ve learned from my interviews so far. There are issues of privacy that I don’t want to violate. Also, it’s always better to perform a complete analysis of the results before talking about them. I’m sure my perceptions and understanding will change the more interviews I do! I’m looking forward to having all my results analyzed, and being able to share what I’ve learned!

Treating the sick cow. A little smaller than our beef cattle in the states!

After we completed the interviews, we headed back up the bumpy, dusty road towards Makutano. On the way, we stopped at the driver’s farm so that Paul could look at a sick animal. The farm was beautiful, right at the base of the escarpment, with the cliffs looming hazily in the distance and a cool breeze coming off the highlands. Luckily, the cow had a disease that is easily treatable with antibiotics, so Paul administered them and left instructions for the next few days. When we were walking out to the cow, we passed the driver’s family. Everyone stopped to great each other, like normal, but I was at the back of the line and arrived last. I said hi to the driver’s wife, his mother and father, and then the children saw me. The surprise on their face was priceless, eyes wide, mouths open. I said “Habari gani,” which means “how are you?” They just reached out their hand to mine like I might be an alien: scary to look at but irresistible to touch. I doubt they had seen a mzungu before. By the time we came back from the cow they looked at me and smiled, and went back to playing their game.

My friends that work at the hotel keep telling me they’re sad that I’m leaving. Tonight, during dinner, I sat with Emily, Ester, and Donald and they wrote Swahili words and phrases down in my notebook for me to learn. Apparently there’s going to be a quiz! I’m going to miss them too.

Friends at the Kalya

Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire

Thursday July 26th, 2018

The Kalya Hotel, Makutano, Kenya

It took a long time, but I was finally able to start my project! The University of Nairobi (UoN) still hasn’t given their official approval, that’s suppose to happen tomorrow. However, Dr. M (the county director of veterinary services in West Pokot) said if the Director of Veterinary Services (DVS) in Nairobi told him it was ok to start then he would be fine with it. So Dr. Abuom got on the phone with the DVS office and got conditional approval: It’s fine for me to start but I still need to get approval from UoN. It was such a relief to finally be able to do something that’s relate to my project. I’ve been enjoying birding and visiting friends, see in future posts, but ultimately I’m here for my study. I conducted an interview today and it was really encouraging. I talked with Dr. M and a sub-county veterinarian. We had a wide ranging discussion, over 90 minutes long, about a whole range of topics including: the main players in animal health, the hierarchical structure of veterinary medicine at the national, county, and local level, previous and ongoing vaccination programs, logistical capacity, challenges with vaccination services, previous or ongoing collaboration with human health, thoughts and perceptions of integrated vaccination, the potential benefits of integrated vaccination, and how challenges to integrated vaccination can be overcome. The recorder worked perfectly – I saved the audio file to my computer ASAP after the interview – and the whole experience gave me a really good feeling going forward.

Because I’m in such a time crunch, I leave for Lodwar in Turkana County on Wednesday, we decided to go ahead and do the field work right away. That’s why I’m going to Konyau, pronounced “Kon-ya-ow,” tomorrow! I spent the afternoon in a mad rush to get all the details figured out, with Dr. M’s help. I need a car: where do I rent a car? How much do cars generally cost to rent? If I rent a car by myself I’m guaranteed to be charged at least double what they normally cost; thanks Dr. M for negotiating so that didn’t happen. The ward (administrative unit) animal health officer is helping me out in Konyau. He called to ask, how many chiefs do I want to interview? No idea… How many farmers? Do I want to interview farmers individually or in groups? After a quick call to confer with Dr. Ronoh in Lodwar, he’s been helping me with the project, I decided to interview two chiefs individually and three groups of 5 farmers, along with the Paul, the animal health officer. Just one problem, my list of semi-structured interview questions are exhaustive, meant for a county director, not a farmer. They’re not going to know what the annual budget for veterinary services is for West Pokot County. So I reorganized and slimmed down my topics of discussion to meet the requirements of each group I’m talking to. I think I’m ready, but at the same time it’s happening so fast I don’t feel nearly prepared enough. Hence, out of the frying pan into the fire (yes, that is a Hobbit reference). I know tomorrow is going to be my most challenging day so far. I also know that everyone starts somewhere and since I haven’t done this before, it’s ok for there to be a learning curve. I had a really positive experience today and I can carry that forward no matter what. Dr. M is enthused about the idea of integrating services for a number of reasons – look for a publication in the future discussing why :-).

In my next post I’ll talk about another birding expedition with Maurice and my visit to the Barnleys Guest House. Kwaheri for now!

My American Friend

I don’t think it’s an unusual experience to be perceived as a “rich American” and find that people want something from you. Comparatively, I am “rich” compared to the average person in West Pokot (and in many other places). Although my personal bank account doesn’t have much in it and I’m saturated with student debt, I have a strong safety net because of my family. If all my funds disappeared overnight I have not doubt I would be just fine. The people here aren’t afforded that type of security. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes eloquently about this topic for African American families in the US: “Effectively, the black family in America is working without a safety net. When financial calamity strikes—a medical emergency, divorce, job loss—the fall is precipitous.”

Last week, I was connected with a Kenyan National Team running coach who wanted $500 USD every two weeks to train me like a Kenyan. He also wanted to be introduced to universities in the U.S. that maybe needed a coach. At our last meeting, I explained that although I once dreamed about a career as a professional runner and poured everything into my athletic career in college, I wasn’t in Kenya to run. I was here to conduct a research project that I believed deeply in and was fully committed to. Sometimes a dream dies, and in it’s place is the realization that all the activities you were doing along with running can fulfill you to the same extent even without it. I’ve had a harder time coming to that realization than some of my teammates at Grinnell, I think. But physically, serious running isn’t in the cards for me. I’m still trying to learn how to do it as a hobby, not a calling.

He was disappointed to say the least and said something to the effect of, “I hope you give back to the community in some way while you’re here.” A more cynical side of myself translated that to, “you should be helping me while you’re here,” but I took his comment seriously. I don’t mean to sound naive or paint myself as the great white hope, but PPR presents a serious economic burden to pastoralists, not only in Kenya, but all over the world. It’s found in 70 countries located in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and is estimated to cause $1.475 billion USD in economic losses globally. The consequences are severe, even at the local level. For example, an outbreak in Turkana County in 2010 resulted in estimated $19.1 million USD in losses among pastoralists, a number which doesn’t accurately represent the devastation of losing your herd, your entire livelihood, to an infectious disease. Integrated vaccination isn’t going to solve the problem of PPR, but it does have the possibility of contributing to combating the disease. Ultimately, I hope that my project has a large impact by promoting One Health at the county level – maybe other services can be integrated as well. That being said, the entire interaction left me with a feeling of shame that I haven’t completely shaken.

And that brings me to Peker, who initially assisted me when I arrived in Kapenguria and wants to be my friend. I’ve been trying to figure out Peker’s motives, not because I think they’re nefarious, but because he might have expectations that I’m unaware of. Does he expect reimbursement for his help? Last night, Peker and I went to a bar about 5 minutes walk from The Kalya. Circular, bright red tables were spread between the concrete walls, surrounded by tall, faux leather chairs, also red. Squares and circles were cut into the ceiling, emitting blue and pink fluorescent light, which bathed the room in an ambiance normally reserved for a rave. Loud 70s and 80s music was blasting: Whitney Houston and Donna Summer. It was a fun place and Peker seemed to know everyone in it. He introduced me many times as his “American friend, Evan” although after a few beers it became “Evans.” He told me that his friends were impressed that he was friends with an American; i.e., it gave him a certain level of status.

I have to admit to being a little confused about this. Is it simply because I’m different, a novelty? Peker told me he knows of one other white person in West Pokot and Turkana, someone who works in Lodwar. I know there are a few more, but there’s no doubt I stand out here. Also, being American holds a special sort of appeal in Kenya as well. Obama arrived on Monday in Kogelo for the opening of his half-sister’s sports and vocation training center. There was non-stop, 24 hour coverage of his arrival and the speech he gave. Kenyan’s have a special place in their hearts for Obama, his father was Kenyan, and that translates somewhat to Americans as a whole. Thanks Obama. Of course, in the current political climate, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about you-know-who. Someone interjected into a conversation, “Donald Trump is a racist,” and then proceeded to shake my hand and sincerely welcome me to Kenya. It does appear that people can hold two thoughts in their head at the same time: I don’t like the American president; not all Americans are bad. That subtlety seems to be lost in the divisive politics that now face our country, although I’m not sure that the fake news, trolling attitude of our president and his followers leaves much room for civil discourse. One thing, among many, that confuses me is that upsetting “liberal snowflakes” is to be commended, but civil discourse is of the utmost importance when it comes to protesting elected officials… but I digress.

The bar was fun. I danced a lot to songs from my youth, not only disco music and R&B, but also Pitbull, Enrique Iglesias, Jason Derulo, Shakira (Waka Waka: This Time for Africa, of course), etc. There was a lot of great Kenyan music too, which I wish I knew the name of. Peker was impressed that I was interacting. He said, “it’s like you don’t realize you’re alone here.” I knew exactly what he meant, I looked different from everyone in that bar. But then I looked back at him and said, “Peker, I’m not alone.” He laughed and gave me a fist bump, and we went back to dancing and having fun. At this point, as far as I can tell, Peker wants to be friends and yes, get some free food and free beer. That seems like a perfectly acceptable situation to me.


Saiwa Swamp National Park

July 16th, 2018

The Kalya Hotel – Makutano, Kenya

I had mandazi for the first time recently, which is basically an African donut and is often served with tea aka “chai” for breakfast in the morning. On the way to Saiwa we stopped at a hotel for breakfast. It always gets cold overnight, into the 50s, so we needed something to warm up with. Biting into the mandazi was like eating a warm donut without any toppings, crisp on the outside and soft and doughy on the inside. It was delicious. If Dunkin’ Donuts served mandazi I would be there every morning.

So I probably should have done this earlier (thanks for the idea dad), but here’s a map of Western Kenya. I flew into Kitale, am staying in Makutano/Kapenguria, and will be flying from Eldoret to Lodwar near Lake Turkana in a couple of weeks.

Uganda is to the west and Ethiopia to the southwest (can’t see in this image)

Saiwa Swamp National Park is one of the smallest national parks in Kenya and is located near Kitale, only about 20 minutes from my hotel. It’s also one of the few parks in Kenya that you can walk around unescorted and is famous for the Sitatunga, a semi-aquatic antelope, and the De Brazza’s monkey. My friend in Kitale, Ajay, told me to call Richard Barnley, who’s family started Sirikwa Safaris with the goal of making Western Kenya a birder’s destination. They certainly succeeded! Visitors can stay at The Barnley’s Guesthouse and travel all over Western Kenya on birding, fishing, and sightseeing expeditions. Richard put me in touch with Maurice, the bird guide who takes their clients out, and Maurice suggested that we go to Saiwa. I got up at 5 am, excited to do some birding, and met Maurice and Dan (our driver for the day) outside the hotel. We headed off in the morning darkness, and as I mentioned in the intro, stopped a few kilometers outside of the park for a delicious breakfast of chai and mandazi. When we got to the park Maurice got his bird book out and we were off! It was so incredible to be with someone as knowledgeable as Maurice. He would identify the species by call and show me where they were so I could look through my binoculars. It seems a bit surreal that I could hire him for a private tour for $30 USD for the whole day. As we were walking through the gate we saw a black-and-white colobus monkey and a black-faced vervet monkeys. In other mammal news, we saw the elusive De Brazza’s monkey, which apparently is  rare for two reasons: 1) habitat destruction, they like to live alongside swamps, and 2) they’re fierce crop raiders and so people consider them to be pests and try to get rid of them. We did see a few guard dogs along the corn field bordering the swamp – a useful deterrent for monkeys.

Guarding the crops from monkeys

We also saw 6 Sitatunga, 5 females and a male. The male was really impressive with big horns. We saw a lot of brush buck in the park as well, and I learned that the Sitatunga are basically an aquatic brush buck. They’re virtually impossible to tell apart, except of course for what habitats they occupy. Also, Maurice said the Sitatunga wave their ears constantly. I guess there are a lot biting insects in the swamp!

The Saiwa River that runs through the swamp and eventually drains into Lake Victoria

I wasn’t sure how to write this blog post; by definition it’s going to be bird heavy. I’ve tried to group the species somewhat and give highlights. I wish I could go in-depth for every species, but a quick google search can help you learn more. For you non-birders out there, look at the pictures? For you birders, enjoy!

Hawks and Eagles:

Bat hawk – It was so cool to see one of these during the day. As the name suggests, it is most active when its prey of choice, bats, are out around dusk and dawn. When we first walked out on the boardwalk over the swamp, it was chasing a Crowned crane, another one of my favorite species we saw.

Maurice (closest) on the boardwalk

African goshawk

Great sparrow hawk

Western banded snake eagle – Maurice said they do feed predominantly on snakes. I wish I could see that in action!

Black sparrow hawk

Long-crested eagle – The first one we saw was sitting on a snag in the middle of the swamp, and we got to watch it for a long time. The feathers on top of its head are very distinctive.

Shrikes: carnivorous passerine birds, easily identied by their hooked beaks

Northern puffback

Luhder’s bush shrike

Common fiscal

Purple-throated cuckoo shrike

Flycatchers: INsectivorous passerine

African dusky flycatcher

African blue flycatcher – Beautiful blue color, so neat to see in a flycatcher

White-eyed slaty flycatcher

Black-throated wattle-eye

Warblers: Small, vocal, and insectivorous passerine

Grey-backed camaroptera

Chubb’s cisticola

Black collared apalis

Grey apalis

Weavers: Make nests shaped like baskets

Speckled weaver

Holub’s golden weaver

Chats and Finches:

Grey winged robin chat

White-browed robin chat

Red-cheeked cordon-bleu– I was blown away the colors on these guys. Bright blue breast, the color of a robin’s egg, and a cardinal-red patch on their cheek.

Common Waxbill

Water birds:

Hadada ibis – These birds were incredibly loud. You could hear them calling to each other as they flew the length of the swamp.

Grey-crowned crane – The national bird of Uganda. They have a “crown” of golden feathers and a bright red throat patch. When I watched them fly I was immediately reminded of the Ikrans from Avatar, they had such a large wingspan but seemed incredibly powerful and graceful.


Bulbul family:

These were some of my favorites, because they were so new. I didn’t realy have anything to compare them with from back home.

Camp sites are available at Saiwa. Also, I was standing in an ant nest when I took this picture. Took at least 5 minutes to get them all out of my pants…

Common bulbul

Tropical boubou

Yellow-throated leaflove

Slender-billed greenbul


Tambourine dove

Blue-headed coucal – This was an exciting bird for me, because I spotted just a tiny part of its wing in the top of the canopy. I told Maurice that I saw a rufus-colored wing. He took a quick look and got really fired up that I had made such a good find from the tiny window through the branches that we had. I guess I come by my birding skills naturally ;-).

Northern double collared sunbird – Sunbirds are a beautiful group of birds that feed on nectar, similar to our hummingbirds.

Yellow bishop

Fan-tailed widowbird

Yellow-billed barbet – It’s really rare to see this species at Saiwa. Maurice said he’s never seen one there in all the years he’s been leading tours. Very exciting!

Pin-tailed whydah – Taty’s sister saw one of these in LA. Now I’ve seen it where it’s suppose to be!

African thrush

African yellow white-eye

Violet-backed starling – Unlike our starlings, African starlings are different shades of bright, iridescent colors. It has something to do with how the light reflects off their feathers.

Lesser blue-eared starling

Pied crow

 It seemed strange to be birding without Taty on this trip. I’m so use to us going together for the past couple of years; one of us calling out distinguishing characteristics, the other looking at ibird to try and ID. Hopefully some time in the future we can make it here together! I had an amazing time with Maurice, and although our afternoon trip to Tartar Falls got cancelled, we’ve made a plan to go there next weekend. I can’t wait!

On the way to Tartar Falls, along the escarpment

Project Update: I finally got a meeting with the County Director of Veterinary Services (CDVS). He’s completely on board and also offered to set up my trips to Konyau and Alele to meeting with community members there. All he needs is the UoN ethics letter, which I’ve made good progress on and hope to finalize and turn in tomorrow for submission. Diana, bless her, is going to go and sit in the ethics committee office all day until we get this thing figured out. Sometimes pure stubbornness will get the job done. I’m looking forward to starting my interviews!

ATM Iko Wapi

Friday July 13th, 2018

Makutano, West Pokot County, Rift Valley Province, Kenya

The handshake is an important cultural greeting in Kenya. Every time you see someone in the street you know, you walk over and say “ujambo,” or another greeting and shake hands while maintaining eye contact. This ceremony is maintained when being introduced to strangers as well, and often occurs when two people happen to be in the same place for a short amount of time (e.g. walking through the hallway in the hotel). Sometimes, among close friends, the greeting starts with slapping hands, which then turns into an extended handshake and expressions of joy. It’s impossible not to feel like people are happy to meet you; each new person I meet here greets me like a long lost friend. I’ve shaken more hands in the past few days than in the previous 2 years.

 After another short night of sleep, I got up at 5 am to get to the airport. This time I was going to Wilson, which handles regional flights. Interestingly, there are about 20 different terminals all spread out over a few miles, which turned out to pose a challenge. The 3rd party I had booked my ticket through didn’t mention what Kenyan airline it contracted with. I went to the wrong terminal initially, but with help I found my way to SarfariLink with plenty of time to spare.

The flight was about an hour long. As we descended below the clouds Kitale came into view. I first noticed the grid-like fields; later I learned that the area around Kitale and much of West Pokot is known for its agriculture and food production.

A view of Kitale from the rooftop restaurant at my hotel

The lush green vegetation and impending thunder clouds seemed to indicate the climate was suitable for it. Kitale was bustling, with clouds of motorbikes darting every which way and brightly colored shops lining the sunset-red streets. In Kenya, motorbikes are taxis and a very common means of transportation. I think they’re especially useful because they get good gas mileage, are easy to maintain, and can transverse difficult roads.

I wasn’t in a good place to appreciate Kitale. The jet lag and busy day in Nairobi had taken its toll. I checked into my very nice hotel room – $40 USD a night gets you a bathrobe and slippers, a flatscreen tv, and a tiled bathroom – and took a 3 hour nap, which I desperately needed. In the evening, I went up to the rooftop restaurant to watch the semifinal World Cup game between England and Croatia. Ajay and his wife, both from Kitale, sat next to me. They were both Croatia fans, or at least anti-England fans.

Another view of Kitale with Mount Elgon in the background

As the night wore on and their bourbon glasses kept getting refilled, their exclamations of excitement when Croatia did well became more boisterous. Lets just say that there was a lot of hugging when Croatia scored that I happened to be involved with. Overall, the atmosphere was electric, everyone in the room exclaimed loudly when something happened. I seriously enjoyed myself. Also, Ajay put me in contact with a tour director who could get me a birding trip to Saiwa Swamp National Park – look for more on that in a later post.

The next day Wycleff, who’s name made me think of the Fuggees, drove me north to the Kalya hotel in Makutano, right next to Kapenguria. I saw a lot of livestock on the way, including cows followed by herders with long switches and goats grazing on the side of the road. Interestingly, there was usually a dog with the cattle, I assume to help with the herding. In general, the dogs looked like they were in good shape. After I got sorted at the hotel, I headed to the county offices with Peker, pronounced “Pee-kair.” He works for the county land commission, managing public lands, and has been roped in to helping me by his friend Sebastian, my Pokot contact at FAO.

Kilimo House: Ministry of Agriculture Irrigation and Pastoral Economy

We spent a lot of the day waiting for people (e.g. the director of public health), but I really enjoyed talking with Peker. He was curious about many aspects of the U.S., especially how agriculture works. We talked about the economics of scale and how in the U.S. large companies produce most of the food. I described Iowa to him, with it’s ubiquitous corn and soy – shoutout to Grinnell. In Kenya, most food production still happens on a small scale, with single plots of land being owned by a farmer. Peker also asked if most people lived in public or private housing. I got the impression he maybe thought that everyone was provided housing by the government. I explained the system is predominantly private, although based on what he said, it’s much easier to get a loan in the U.S.

Overall, it was a successful day. I used my rudimentary swahili to find an ATM, “iko wapi” translates to “where is it.” The public health CE indicated that with UoN clearance she would be happy to facilitate my research in Pokot. I also scheduled a meeting with the county director of veterinary services for Monday and identified who could help me with Alale and Konyau contacts. I’m well on my way!

The view from the Kalya hotel deck, where I wrote this post






“What if we lived there and you lived here?”

Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi is chaotic traffic: vans blasting music, buses with men hanging out of the sides, old cars belching black smoke, motorbikes speeding between vehicles, their drivers wearing bright green fluorescent vets, incessant honking, and pedestrians leaking onto the road. Once a large enough crowd (5-10) people builds up, everyone crosses the street in a mass, dodging the cars that slow down just enough not to run you over as they navigate the traffic circles. Men wearing business suits hurry past, women in brightly colored dresses – Maasai red, blues, and yellows – stand out in the crowd. School kids in uniforms joke and talk loudly on their way to class. Venders sell roasted corn on the sidewalk and some homeless people burn trash. Smells fill the air, mostly diesel and gasoline, cooking meat and trash – the heavy smell of the city seeps into your nostrils and sits there until you don’t notice it. In the city center, shops line the streets, buildings jostling for space like trees competing for sunlight. Clothing stores, convenience stores, cell phone services, internet cafes, banks and hotels – you can buy anything.

I woke up at 4:30 am sharp, the sounds of traffic coming through my window. A few  hours later and after a delicious breakfast buffet and 3 small cups of coffee (I think I needed more), I headed out from my hotel to explore the city center. I stumbled across John Michuki Memorial Park where there’s a market every Tuesday. Because I was there so early, the venders were just unpacking their wares. I talked with almost everyone and was told many times that “being the first customer is lucky, I will give you a good price.” They were selling ornamental masks, Maasai blankets, brightly colored, beaded earrings, carved can openers, wood statues of wildlife, bracelets, necklaces, paintings, and a lot of other things. Safe to say I got my gift purchases out of the way!

After the market, I headed off to the University of Nairobi (UoN) College of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences to meet with Dr. Abuom, my project mentor and the head of the One Health Central and East Africa (OHCEA) Network – Kenya. Driving up to the campus, we were surrounded by lush fields: corn and coffee and other crops. As we got closer to the small animal clinic, I also saw livestock housing, kennels and everything you’d expect at a vet school. I really enjoyed being there because although the landscape was different, I still felt a sense of connection based on the continuity of veterinary medicine.

UofN College of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences

The drive to the school

Vet students in their coveralls, a familiar sight

I didn’t know until very recently that I needed ethical clearance from UoN for my project. The Department of Veterinary Services (DVS) – Kenya lost my letter requesting approval for my study and took 6 weeks to get back to me. When they did, they said I also needed to seek approval from UoN. The purpose of my meeting with Dr. Abuom was to get the whole crazy mess figured out. Diana, the OHCEA administrator helped me make copies of my application and get everything in order before we went to the UoN medical school to turn in the form (online applications aren’t for things like this, apparently). I probably could have made this description a lot simpler, but conducting One Health research is messy, especially when you’re working in a different country, and I want to highlight how the process works. Luck and not giving up is definitely involved!

I really enjoyed meeting Diana and getting to talk with her, not only about OHCEA-Kenya and the projects they’re involved in, but also about what it’s like to live in Kenya. We were both interested in learning something about each other’s culture. One moment that stands out is when we were discussing infectious diseases and Diana said “what if we lived there and you lived here?” She was talking about how there are many more infectious diseases in Kenya (the tropics really), which is compounded by the fact the public health infrastructure (e.g. surveillance programs, emergency response, medical facilities and treatment, etc) is less developed in Kenya compared to the United States. I think inherent in the comment too, at least in the way I was thinking about it, was the thought that the U.S. might not be the economic juggernaut it is if the environment was tropical instead of temperate. In other words, the environment, including infectious diseases, have a large impact on the economy and development. Just another reason that One Health is so important; health is inherently tied to livelihoods and economic security. I also had another thought about her comment, that the situation she describes actually occurs if you look at evolutionary time. A few million years ago, every Homo sapiens individual was living in Africa, along with a lot of other species in the genus Homo. Now sapiens, originating from Africa, have spread across the word and while we might look somewhat different, we aren’t, really. For example, I had to get vaccines for all the tropical diseases found in Kenya, I can still catch them even though I’m not from here. Obviously, that’s not the time frame Diana was talking about, but an interesting thought none the less.

The mythical Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH)/UoN Ethics & Research Committee – we found it!

After gathering the necessary materials, we headed down to the UoN College of Health Sciences to submit the application, an adventure of epic proportions. Once we actually found the office after wandering around campus, I discovered that not only had I filled out the wrong form, but my study wasn’t appropriate for the type of ethics review they normally do. Luckily, the head of the committee was available to advise us. After I described the basic aspects of my project, she grilled me to the 10th degree. I felt like I was defending a PhD thesis, which after 17 hrs of travel and 7 hrs of sleep in 2 days was a challenge to say the least! She didn’t understand the purpose of my study, which Diana told me didn’t surprise her since One Health isn’t as large in the M.D. world in Kenya, similar to the U.S. She also kept asking questions about outcomes (e.g. why would the public heath department want to work with veterinarians?), which I found challenging to answer since finding those things out is the whole point of my study! Ultimately, I adequately got the facts across (*celebration*) and she said when the committee meets on Wednesday, she would bring up my study for approval. I’m cautiously optimistic, but nothing is for certain. As Dr. Abuom and Diana said, it will get done with perseverance!

After that, I went to a wildlife sanctuary near the city. I really enjoyed seeing all the different species of African snakes. They’re beautiful! Then I watched the world cup game at the hotel bar and enjoyed my first taste of Tusker, Kenya’s finest beer. Kitale tomorrow and then Kapenguria for the start of interviews. I can’t wait!



Call me Evans

This may be the shortest research blog ever, considering that I’ll be spending 6 weeks in one of the most remote regions of Kenya. Internet will be limited, but I’m hoping to post updates every once in awhile.

I can’t believe the departure date is almost here! I came up with the idea for this project in January (look for a project summary in a future blog post) after I saw a talk by Dr. Stacie Dunkle V’07 about work she did with the CDC in Ethiopia on integrated vaccination. Hours of emailing, skype meetings, and project planning later, I’ll be arriving in Kapenguria, Kenya in West Pokot County on July 11th.

One thing I’ve learned in my communications is that “Evan” is not a popular name in Kenya, but “Evans” is. I expect to hear “Jambo, Evans” a lot in the next few months! I’m excited to travel to Africa again. Studying abroad in South Africa during my junior year of college was one of the most influential experiences of my life. I not only learned about savannah ecology and African conservation – shoutout OTS – but also began to understand how most people live in the world. OTS started me on my current path to One Health and the understanding that everything is connected. I changed (grew I hope) as a person, which can best be summarized by the phrase, “empathy through experience.”

How will this summer change me? How will I grow? There are a few things that have been on my mind recently, and I’m wondering how my thoughts on them will change after my trip.

Animal welfare vs. animal rights: Veterinary medicine is firmly in the animal welfare camp, defined as ensuring that animals are healthy, comfortable, well nourished, safe, and are able to express innate behavior. Lately I feel like I’m looking over a fence at the animal rights camp (rights believed to belong to animals to live free from use in medical research, hunting, and other services to humans) and realizing that I might belong on the other side. However, many people in the world rely on livestock for their livelihoods. For example, Turkana pastoralists, some of whom I’ll be interviewing this summer, depend on livestock for nutrition and economic stability. How does animal welfare and animal rights exist in this setting? Importantly, I’m passionate about biodiversity conservation and I believe that conservation and agriculture can complement each other. Not only that, but livestock play an integral role in helping people across the world escape the poverty trap and live healthier lives; economic stability is a social determinant of health. Thus, while I acknowledge the sentience of non-human animals and sympathize with the concept of animal rights, I strongly believe that engaging stakeholders, in this case farmers and herders, is vital to achieving the conservation and development goals I believe in. Is this an insincere discrepancy? How about the fact that I frequently eat meat that comes from factory farms, which I disagree with on principle?

The social determinants of health: The more classes I take in public heath, the more I realize just how important the social determinants are. The most insightful (for me) thought I’ve had recently in this area is that fixing disparities in heath, education, and economics requires identifying socially-determined groups, i.e. identity politics. Without identifying these groups, it’s impossible to fix the disparities that exist between them. Thanks to Nate for starting the conversation on that one. Also, I really like the idea of health in all policies, defined as a collaborative approach to improving the health of all people by incorporating health, equity, and sustainability considerations into decision-making across sectors and policy areas. How can it be applied in the U.S. to a fuller extent? What about where I’m going in Kenya?

I’ll try to talk about my project more in my next post. Signing out for now!