Early February 2018, I traveled to the coastal town of Mombasa to attend `Mwongozo’ (Code of Governance for Government Owned Entities) induction programme for Boards of State Corporations). Mwongozo is being implemented after H.E. the President issued Executive Order No. 7 for its implementation. Executive Orders are curious instruments made famous by one POTUS Donald Trump. 

Three days of sitting in an air-conditioned hall, listening to a spectrum of presentations, some good, some hivi hivi, while the rest of the world is out there in the beach enjoying themselves in excellent weather, can really try ones patience and resolve.  I was mollified somewhat when at the end of the course I was awarded a Certificate of Participation signed by the Chief of Staff and Head of Public Service, in the Executive Office of the President.


But that is not what I want to talk to you about. After checking into the hotel on a Sunday evening, I responded to a burning need to visit that very interesting watering hole in Shanzu known as Safari Inn International Meeting Point, opposite Mombasa Continental Hotel. To do that it meant that I had to walk out of the hotel and past the parking lot.  Who do I see in the parking lot descending from a taxi? None other than Professor Joash Barrack Okeyo-Owuor or JB as we like to refer to him. 

I let out a yell; JB turns around and cannot believe his eyes. What is JPR doing here? 

It turns out he is attending Mwongozo training since he was appointed a member of the Board of the Lake Victoria South Water Services Board. I am attending in my capacity as a Trustee of the National Research Fund (NRF). I met JB back in 1984. November 1, 2014 to be precise. That is the same day that Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India was assassinated.

I had just landed a job with the Crop Pests Research Programme (CPRP) of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE). I was posted to Mbita Point Filed Station on the shores of Lake Victoria. I was a Postgraduate Research Fellow under Professor Kailash Narayan Saxena, who was Programme Leader. My remit was simple (or so I thought). I was charged with mass rearing of Chilo partellus(Swinhoe), the Spotted maize Stalk Borer. The laboratory-reared caterpillars of the borer were to be used in the challenge of maize plants planted in research fields. Not just a few caterpillars, but millions. This is the science and practice of mass-rearing of insects. By taking up this job, I soon discovered that my weekends were now gone forever, since we were expected to work 7/7. 

Soon after taking my appointment, I got enlightened in what I was in for when one day a tall PhD scholar nick-named `Fuchs’ strode into the insectary (place where insects are reared) and calmly said he wanted 3 million first stage caterpillars of the borer to be collected on Sunday at 6.00 in the morning! 

I could not believe what I was hearing. This was madness. Who would want to wake up at wee hours of a Sunday morn to go out in the fields? This was disaster. It meant no partying that Saturday. But I digress…. 

JB is a big man with an efficacious smile and loves to tell a good story. He and I hit it out almost immediately. He was in the process of completing his doctorate thesis. JB is endowed with a heart of gold and has great compassion. This is the man that Odhiambo had charged to go to snake-infested Mbita and start a field station. He did this superbly. 

Those days the road to Mbita from Homabay was not tarmacked. You torturously drove some 45 Kilometers through about the worst road in Kenya; past tsetse infested Lambwe Valley to this heaven on earth station. JB can tell you galore stories on what he went through to establish the field station. 

My career as a young scientist began there, later to flourish when I went to study mass-rearing of insects and working in the insectary of the world famous scientist and insect rearing guru, Dr. Pritam Singh located in the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), Mt. Albert, Auckland, New Zealand.  My Professor at the University of Auckland was Euan C. Young, who researched on birds that flocked the Antarctica. He once asked me to join him down there saying that I would most likely become the first Kenyan scientist to set foot in Antarctica. I quickly retorted: `…and probably the first to die there…!’

Mbita was basically a rural town, which had been privileged to host a world-class facility and many international scientists earning good bucks. Beer was drunk with abandon and flirting with girls was the order of the night. This is before HIV arrived and began decimating the population. Getting to Mbita during the rainy season was tricky. You had to conquer the gluey black cotton soil. Then there was the indomitable Lambwe River that often flooded.  Vehicles simply could not get through. So your only hope was to get somebody to swim across with you on his back, as you looked around terrified at the sight of floating debris carrying fairly lethal-looking snakes. On reaching mid-stream, the guy carrying you across often would ask for more money claiming that he had not known that you were so heavy. If you did not comply he would fling you over. There was this day Mbita’s beer supply ended in the river because a foolish lorry driver thought he could get across. For some months we had to contend with drinking beer with rusted bottle tops rescued from the riverbed by adventurous divers.

JB reminded me of many such events as we sat at Safari Inn. The place became our favourite watering hole for the 3 days we were in Mombasa, helping us get back our sanity after day long punishment of enduring one PowerPoint after another. A Swiss national who runs it with precise efficiency owns the place. We experienced his management first-hand as he oversaw this year’s Valentine’s Day.

JB has many stories to tell. The man has been everywhere. He got his Ph.D. from Dar es Salaam, did a stint of research work at the ICIPE before he was posted to head research work in Siad Barre’s Somalia. In fact, he was among the very last of the ICIPE staff to be there as the coup was gathering pace. He later worked as MD of the Lake Basin Development Authority after being appointed by H.E. President Daniel Arap Moi. He lectured at Moi University and now is a full Professor at the recently chartered Rongo University. 

We discussed many things, one of which is how to get the legacy of TRO published. You see, JB and I share TRO as a cherished mentor. Odhiambo was most influential in shaping our future. We feel we owe him much.

We reminisced about the lighter moments of living in Mbita. I recalled a curious incident when an institutional Land Rover was taken for a wash at the lakeside only to collide with a traditional canoe that was landing fish. The rover suffered a smashed headlight. Much legal debate followed: should marine law or traffic rules be applied?

As a budding scientist, I have seen my own share of strange moments. One such is back in 1991, as the Centre’s founders were celebrating 20 years anniversary at Serena Hotel, Nairobi. Someone maliciously went to our insectary and turned up the incubators holding tsetse and sand-fly colonies from a safe level of 28 to simmering hot 70 degrees Centigrade. The insects were cooked, and I nearly lost my job. An ad hoc committee `found’ that `we were alien to the use of thermometers in the insectary. That `we used our bodies to feel temperature…!’ What crap!

Then there was the time when there was hue and cry from Lambwe Valley farmers. The Centre was doing what is called mark-release studies on tsetse flies. Laboratory reared flies are marked with some colour and then released. The farmers claimed that they saw the flies take blood meals from the cattle. Soon after, the cattle died. The farmers did not believe that our flies were clean and did not have the lethal parasites. I, Rose Washika, and Leonard Okola were charged by Odhiambo to help put off the fire.

But it is what happens to you as a person that often has the most bearing. Odhiambo was a wizard in fundraising, building consensus through consultations and programme planning. He invented periodic reviews of all the science and admin departments and units in the Centre. Known as IRREA- Internal Research Reviews by External Assessors, they were essentially external programme audits undertaken by top-notch scientist and expert peers drawn from all over the globe. Odhiambo had cleverly concluded that imposition by external periodic reviews demanded by donors would be less stringent if we could show that we had been already undergone assessment by peers.

 We loathed and dreaded these audits since their outcome could have far-reaching consequences to one’s scientific career at the Centre. My turn came in 1989 after being appointed interim head of the Insect-Mass Rearing Technology (IMRT) Unit. My predecessor had fallen foul due to some misadventure that will be the subject of another blog. Here I was, hardly a year after my doctoral graduation asked to head a massive unit of some 40 technical staff. Then Odhiambo scheduled an external review for my unit. I ensured that my good friend and international rearing expert Prof. Norman Leppla from Gainesville, Florida was part of the team.  The other team member was Dr Andre van der Vloedt from Belgium who was a close friend of the Centre and had mentored many African tsetse scientists. He had previously worked as Technical Officer with the screwworm eradication programme of the FAO in North Africa. Tragically, Andre later contracted malaria in Zimbabwe and died back home in Belgium largely due to misdiagnosis.  The third member of the team was Professor Prakash Sarup from Delhi, India. Part of my duty as the head was to make scientific presentations about our work, and show them around the various facilities. Those days we made presentations using mounted slides made from Fuji chrome film. I remember giving some money to a young technician charged with making slides to go buy the required film. The young man did so and brought me the film and a very crumpled receipt for 800 Kenya Shillings. Being very busy, I thought no more about it and later submitted the receipt to the finance department as an expense. Someone smelt fraud and checked with the shop that had sold the film. It turns out the cost was 300 Shillings and some clever manipulation had turned the figure `3’ into an `8’. Hell broke loose and I was accused of attempting to defraud the Centre. I missed the gallows by inches because on further cross-examination, the lad accepted culpability.

The year of 1989 was also eventful since in December I was elected to serve as Honorary Secretary of the African Association of Insect Scientists (AAIS) during a conference held in Lusaka, Zambia. Also elected was late Dr. Mbaye Ndoye (Chairman) from Senegal and Dr. Nguya Maniania (Treasurer). This meant my colleagues and I got to organize the next biennial meeting held in Accra, Ghana where we invited Dr. Hans Herren to make a keynote address. A few years later (1995) Hans took over from TRO as Director General (DG) of ICIPE. I rejoined the Centre in 1998 and worked under Herren until 2005 when Prof. Christian Borgemeister took over. I left ICIPE in 2008 after serving under 3 DGs.

In the early 90s, the ICIPE embarked on an ambitious Locust Research Programme to better find lasting solutions to the swarming Desert Locust- Schistocerca gregaria (Forskal), which exists in two phases, the solitary phase, and the gregarious phase. In the solitary phase, the hoppers do not group together into bands but move about independently. In the gregarious phase, the hoppers bunch together and develop into dense marauding swarms. Laboratory rearing systems for the solitary phase were not well described and to start us off, Odhiambo invited Dr. Pritam Singh and Prof. Paul Pener from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for consultations. Odhiambo wanted the Centre to have rearing colonies of both phases and I was charged to travel to Port Sudan to collect freshly laid egg pods. The short of it is that I came back with the pods, laid in sand contained in tubular aluminum vessels. I flew from Khartoum into Addis Ababa en-route to Nairobi. I had to spend a night at Addis, where lo and behold, the locusts hatched from the pods and I had to share my hotel food, mainly lettuce with the young creatures!

It is this work that saw me visit Israel in 1991to learn locust rearing techniques in Professor Pener’s lab in Jerusalem. This visit was organized days before Iraq’s Sadam Hussein began hurling scud missiles against the chosen nation. Israeli’s moved about carrying gas masks. My entry into Israel was full of drama. Security agents of Mossad questioned me at length about my visit to The Sudan the year before. 

In the last days of Odhiambo at the Centre there was quite some jostle and infighting. It was as if the queen bee had aged and was no longer able to influence and give direction. Chinua Achebe quotes William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) who most aptly described the phenomenon in his epic poem `The Second Coming’:

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre

    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world….

The infighting was at its worst at the Tick Research Programme. A lot had to do with a highly engaging scientist from a neighboring country. At some point, he claimed that he had discovered a tri-molecule that could eliminate the parasite that causes tick fever in cattle. The man kept a row of fridges under chain and lock. There was no such thing of course, as several committees commissioned internally found out. But reason could not prevail. Sycophancy had arrived and TRO’s image suffered a dent for listening and offering protection to this scientist. 

Sometimes the pressure of being a scientist can be quite intense (looking for grants, managing projects, etc.) that a few resort to cutting corners. It was during this time that some two scientists (not from the Centre) duped Kenyans into thinking they had found a cure for AIDS! 

I have had a good life as a scientist. I do not quibble. I celebrate when I can, more so when I am blessed to meet and reminisce with eminent people who have favoured me with their friendship such as JB. 


Leave a Comment on Reminiscing on being a Career Scientist – Part 1: Learning the mass rearing of insects at ICIPE

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *