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!