I was cast into the deep-end and expected to self-learn how to swim! This indeed happened. A flashback of the events is as follows; 

  • Period: 1992-1993; 
  • Locality: The Duduville world headquarters of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE). Kasarani, and various other meeting rooms of collaborating institutions in Nairobi and later in Siaya District of the then Nyanza Province;
  • Event: Begins with I, as a young postdoc being summoned to the office of the late Prof. Thomas R. Odhiambo, Founding Director of ICIPE and tasked to be the Scientific Coordinator of an expedition to the Got Ramogi Sacred Forest;
  • Purpose: To assess the significance and management of biodiversity of African Indigenous Cultural and Religious Forests.
  • Sponsors: ICIPE, The Centre for Field Research (Earthwatch) and African Academy of Sciences (AAS); and
  • Collaborators: Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), University of Nairobi (UoN), National Museums of Kenya (NMK), Lake Basin Development Authority (LBDA).

What innocuously began as a project idea soon blossomed into a fully-fledged field project that was to be my baptism by fire in the very literal sense of the term. Odhiambo, and those of his kind, believed in casting you into the deep-end of things and waiting to see if you would survive. It is how he himself had been trained during his postgraduate days at Cambridge. No spoon feeding, those days as a former college mate at Makerere University and later a Cabinet Minister Lawyer Isaac Omolo Okero was to attest.  It was hard intellectual pursuit to earn your qualifications. Renowned historian Professor Bethuel Ogot who was in the UK with Odhiambo collaborates.  You see, Odhiambo undertook his doctoral studies at Cambridge under the supervision of the legendary Sir Vincent Brian Wigglesworth. Wikipedia will inform you that Wigglesworth `served in the Royal Field Artillery in France in World War I. Wigglesworth received his degree from the University of Cambridge and lectured at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the University of London, and finally at the University of Cambridge. He was named Quick Professor of Biology at the University of Cambridge in 1952, appointed CBE in 1951, and knighted in 1964. The bacterium Wigglesworthia glossinidia, which lives in the guts of tsetse flies, is named after him. My mentor and PhD supervisor, Professor Euan C. Young of the University of Auckland was also trained thus. He arrived in UK during a horrid cold rainy season and reported to Wigglesworth who promptly dispatched him to a nearby pond nearby and was told not to come back until after six months when he had figured out what he wanted to do for his doctoral studies!

So here I am, shortly after my return from the land of the Kiwi, armed with my PhD from Auckland and working under Odhiambo. After developing the proposal and winning my very first grant in my scientific career, Odhiambo startles me by asking me to follow through and lead the multi-disciplinary team of senior scientists such as Dr. Jephtha Kadhaya Odera, then Director of KEFRI, Prof. Norbert Opiyo-Akech, then senior geology lecturer from the University of Nairobi. Others in the team included the late Dr. Hezron O. Oranga, a wizard statistician trained at ICIPE but working with African Medical Research Foundation (AMREF), as well as Entomologist Dr. Richard Bagine and James Maikweki, a leading Curator from the National Museums. Earthwatch was represented by Dr. Daniel M. Kammen from Harvard and who was until recently a U.S. Science Envoy in the State Department under President Donald Trump. KEFRI’s Socio-economics and Policy Studies Division was well represented by Paul. O. Ongugo, Doris Mutta (who has since earned her PhD) and the late Barack Abayo. An early student protégé of Odhiambo, Prof. JB Okeyo-Owuor, then Managing Director of the Lake Basin Development Authority is very much part of the team and provided us with suitable accommodation at their Yala Swamp Guest House. A real tour de force of PI’s (principal investigators in our research parlance) this was.

I was totally flummoxed, mesmerized and perplexed by the enormity of the task and the complexity of managing such a multifaceted project. I spent sleepless nights ensuring that deadlines were met, transport and accommodation logistics were arranged well in advance, safety for all is assured, appointments and courtesy calls to local government administrators is made beforehand and kept, appropriate food is available and so on and so forth.  Occasionally, I was called upon to reigning-in my night-loving, hard-drinking amorous researchers. Haggling for and paying out per-diems, allowances and expense reimbursement was on my plate. All the above in addition to making sure that we regularly reported on progress to the sponsors. It was overwhelming and nearly drove me up the wall. To survive and restore my rapidly diminishing sanity and confidence in myself, I decided to rope in a budding socio-scientist from the coast called Doris Mutta as well as her colleague, Barack Abayo. The two had more field experience than me. We soon became a focal team who executed this expedition with the required finesse, dedication and eye for detail. 

Within a tight schedule, we still found time to have some fun, some of which hinged on the absurd. I recall once being booked into `Beograda’, a then affordable hotel owned by Nyakach legislator Ojwang’ Kombudo and situated in Kisumu. The design of the hotel was bizarre, where two adjacent rooms shared a common bathroom. It meant that when you needed to answer a call of nature, you locked your neighbour from accessing the facility until you are done. One stormy evening, the lights went off while I and a few friends imbibed several frothy Whitecap Lagers. I later stumbled upstairs in total darkness and before retiring for the night, decided to micturate. Groping blindly, I opened the ablutions door and prepared to do the needful with using my outstretched hands to guide may aim. Imagine my utter shock when my hands landed on a bearded face who responded with in a drunken grunt….!  

Odhiambo’s hypothesis for the expedition was as follows: Sacred cultural forests are found among many of the savannah-dwelling peoples in Africa. Firstly, there must be some underlying factors that are responsible for the conservation, overtime, of such sacred forests amidst otherwise considerable deforestation among other savannah forests and bushlands. Secondly, since these forests have been preserved over long periods of time, they will contain richness in biodiversity of both flora and fauna (see The Got Ramogi Sacred Forest: A Community-Based Conservation of its Assets by Thomas R. Odhiambo based on the 1997/1998 Public Lecture Series later published by the Kenya National Academy of Sciences in 2006).

The two hills which comprise Got Ramogi, whose highest point is some 1240 metres above sea-level, are surrounded by low-lying dry savannah areas, with Lake Victoria lying in the South and West of the hills. The Yala Swamp, on the northern flank of Got Ramogi, separates the latter from the Samia Hills further to the North. To the South-West of Got Ramogi lies Lake Sare, and to the North-East, Lake Usigu. From the slopes of Got Ramogi, extends a vast savannah plain that covers most of the littoral Yimbo, Uyoma, and Sakwa locations in the now Siaya County.

According to Odhiambo, the expedition determined that `there were over 100 species of plants, 12 species of mammals, 4 reptiles, 3 amphibians, 64 birds, and 22 orders of invertebrates (including a large number of insect species). The Got Ramogi Sacred Forest is rich in medicinal plants, is quietly but extremely well known, and attracts traditional practitioners from as far afield as southern Angola and the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Malawi. Over and above all these singular products and services proffered by the Got Ramogi Sacred Forest- indeed, probably its primary purpose since the Patriarch, Ramogi Ajwang’ (or as he was often called, “Ramogi the Elder”), established in the late fifteenth century, Got Ramogi as the ancestral home of the Kenya and Tanzania Luo’. The sacred forest on Got Ramogi has become a hallowed place for pilgrimage for the elders of the traditional African religion, the traditional sages, and the final source of uncommon medicinal plants. 

We are told that Ramogi Ajwang’ established his first settlement on top of the main hill, Mienjera. The spot is presently marked by an open grassy glade dotted with large trees. Because of the increase in this ancestral population, the Patriach Ramogi moved the village to the foot of Mienjera, closer to a perennial source of water. His grandson, Rabala Minyolo, built his residence to the South-Western foot of Mienjera, which is currently marked by two prominent objects, traditionally regarded as sacred- Pong’ (grinding Stone) and the sacred tree, Muanda.

Preceding our expedition, Kenyans were treated to sensational stories about an enormous migratory python known as Omieri that lived among the peoples of lower Nyakach. A newspaper story tells us thus: `The revered python among the Luo people became a national sensation’ some four decades ago. It was debated in Parliament and when it died, a condolence book was opened at the Kaloleni Social Hall and the Kisumu National Museum. Its death made national headlines.’ During our preparations for the expedition, Maikweki, and I, debated on a story that a similar serpent existed in the environs of Got Ramogi and would descend on the fishing village of Usenge. This spiced our travel, terrifying even the hardiest among us, though we never did come across it.

Odhiambo, driven in his sturdy 4-wheel, brown-red Mercedes van by the ever-faithful Joel Kibor, and clad in a safari suit, would come down to visit us in the field every so often, sometimes accompanied by his wife, Jerusha. He was a lively source of inspiration to us, informing us that it is through mounting expeditions such as these by serving or retired colonial military officers that had led to some of the great entomological discoveries. Odhiambo was a unique teacher, toiling along us as we made sense of quadrants, transects and other field sampling techniques. Little did I know then of the enormous pressures that he was under from donors that were supporting ICIPE and who were clamoring for his departure from the helm of the institution he had built from scratch, and why such field exercises were so important to him, rejuvenating and reconnecting him to his professional and ancestral life.

My friends, learning from doing has its rewards. I would certainly not be who I am if Odhiambo had not tossed me to this deep-end experience of project management. 

It is not over. I am still learning to swim more murky waters.


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