Monthly Archives: August 2008

Proof that my hypotheses are not stupid.

I have a few hypotheses on potential risk factors for the transmission of Cryptosporidium parvum and Giardia from livestock to their human caretakers.  One major assumption is that water, a transmission pathway for both pathogens, is shared to some extent between the household and their animals.  This might be through the use of a bucket or container that both livestock and humans drink from, whether intentionally or not.  Snouts and muzzles that have been involved in fecal-oral episodes in the corral may dip their stinky faces in your water and boom!  You’ve got a contaminated water supply.

We’ve run the study for a couple of weeks now and are in a position to see which of my original hypotheses are in fact out of line.  Including household water sharing.

Survey says….”Absolutely not!  No way do people share water with their animals stupid!  Animals drink from the river.  How could you be so retarded….  Wait, no we do water animals from buckets sometimes.  If they’re sick.”

Hmmm.  So what you’re saying is you share water with sick animals.  I call that a risk factor.  And another thing, even if you don’t intentionally share water with animals, goats will take it.  They’re little water thieves.  They love to drink from buckets and basins.  Check it out:



This is Sukuma.

He lives in a compound with kin.  Their houses are many, usually mud brick with thatch roofs.  Other scaffolding holds thatched tops covered in orange clusters.  They are drying sweet potatoes.  They look like mango, they taste tough, leathery, but as your saliva breaks them down a sweetness is released.  The familiar flavor of Thanksgiving.  Nearby, another open-walled hut houses a great mud and stick storage container.  It is immense.  Inside, husked millet awaits the rhythmic grinding of an afternoon mortar and pestil session.  The “thump…thump,” filling the general silence along with cries of satisfaction from full calves and goats.

The Sukuma are primarily agro-pastoralists.  Their herds are large, sometimes over 300 head of cattle and 600 goat and sheep.  At one homestead I counted 122 ndama or calves.  That makes 122 mothers, not counting bulls, not counting shoats.  It is a sea of livestock.  In the zizi you could walk on the backs of cattle and never touch the soft, dark manure-coated earth.  A goat does, it is walking on the back of a bull.

The Sukuma are originally from the southern edge of Lake Victoria.  They migrated to the Pawage division generations ago, and have become quite profitable.  They are healthy.  I forgot about muscles when among the Barabaig and the Maasai.  The Sukuma are strong, their dogs are well-fed, my new barometer of food security.  They are warm and generous.  They welcome you in, give you seats in the shade, share warm milk and tea with you, and sometimes boiled sweet potatoes and meat.  It’s easier to be hospitable when you have something to share.  The Sukuma share stories, share wisdom, share smiles and jokes.  Their beadwork is colorful like their personalities.  Their children are happy, energetic and curious, the hallmark of good nutrition, of security.

Sukuma Family Portrait

The men ride bicycles to their herds who graze on their fields of maize, millet, and potatoes.  The calves eat potato greens.  Manure from the zizi is hauled to their fields.  The Sukuma work constantly, they work hard, they profit from their labor.  They are in general warm and happy, despite their toil.  They are what we would consider the American ideal, innovative, industrious, and generous.  Some have brick homes with tin roofs, generators, 4×4 trucks and tractors.  They have cell phones, better ones than me, Nokia camera phones, MP3 phones, a Blackberry.  They have modernized, yet teenagers dress in kanga and beads, straw hats and tire sandals like in the picture.  They are proud.  Balanced.

We sit in hand carved stools in the shade and drink fresh milk and listen to their stories over the thump of grinding millet.  We snack on millet donughts.  A donkey screams in the distance, and puppies doze in the sun next to a pile of sweet potato skins.  I feel warm and content.


This is a Barabaig.

He lives in tough country, sandy depeleted soils, and woody vegetation, thorns.  It’s country you would expect outlaws to dominate.  Water is scarce, rivers run dry, forage is minimal and tough in lignin and tannins.  It is the dry season, and young nutrient rich leaves are forgotten.  Cattle are thin, their ribs press outward against thin dehydrated skin and resemble the frame of a ship’s hull.

Barabaig are a secret.  They magically appear and disappear again.  The Land Rover roams the country seeking tracks, bicycle tires, hoof prints, sandal prints in bleached white sand.  The sand is hot like beachsand.  Suddenly a canopy of thorny bush trees is interrupted by a less natural wall of thorny vegetation.  It runs horizontal.  Like a hedge.  A closer look reveals a compound.  In the compound are several stick and manure-mortar huts, thatch roofs and charcoal fires.  No one in sight.  There is silence as the engine cuts.  It is a Sergio Leone scene.

Children hide inside huts, you carefully enter the compound as dogs eye you uneasily, not sure what to make of the vehicle, of the strangers.  Empty gourds hang off of posts, meat dries on scaffolding, away from mammals, a feast for flies.  An empty thermos sits by a dwindling fire.  A hide wearing the clan’s harama or brand is unraveled in the shade of an acacia tree.  The zizi or corral is empty but for a few baby goats and sheep who pick at whatever dried out vegetation still remains.  Chickens graze on ants and beetles, and the occasional husk of grain.

We call out “Hodi!” awaiting the inevitable “Karibu,” or welcome as is the custom here.  Karibu does not come.  Children scatter from one hut to another as we come near, keeping thier distance, a trained reaction to strangers, a custom of fear.  The Barabaig are often not welcome.  They are outlaws.  Their presence is an encroachment on Maasai and other tribal land.  Displaced from their ancestral grazing lands for the development of habitat and conservation areas, they live in a state of distrust of authority, of neighbors, of strangers.  Absent is the traditional hospitality.  They are hard to find, hard to engage.  They are beautiful, women adorned in copper jewelry wire plated around their necks, dangling copper and silver earrings, colorful beadwork, and scarred facial tatoos.  Children wear only beads, around their necks, shoulders, and wastes.  They live off of milk, soup, meat, and wild honey. They are biblical.  I think of John the Baptist as we wait for the return of the herders.  The only sound is the hushed whispering of children inside dark huts, the buzz of flies around your face and hair, the crackle of things slowly dring out in the mid-day sun, sand and dust carried by the hot wind.  We find shade to wait for the men.  A bleached white dog skull is under the tree next to broken and empty tamarind pods.  It is missing four teeth.

Nice Shoes in the Forest

We were drinking chai and eating rice in the living room of Mzee Magombwe.  He shared these words of wisdom on education:

“Having a brain but no education is like owning and valuing a nice pair of shoes when you live in the forest.  You put them on, and they look and feel nice.  But when you want to leave, you have to take them off again because the bush and thorns will destroy them, and they wont be nice anymore.  They will destroy your feet too, so you don’t go anywhere.  Instead, you walk around the house in your nice shoes, but never leave home.  No one knows you, or that you have nice shoes.  That is why everyone must go to school, they must recognize their brain, learn to use it, subject it to the harshness of the forest, and share their knowledge with others.”

Mzee Magombwe wears tire-rubber sandals, his feet are worn, toenails broken, and his mind is clear and wit sharp….

To Pawaga…

Off to Pawaga this morning.  We’re trying to sample around 25 households in the next 5 days, starting in the village of Malinzanga, then moving northeast from Maasai to Sukuma territory.  I’ll be with Erasto the driver, and Asha my assistant.

Pawaga Division, Iringa District, Tanzania (Source:

Probably won’t have a cell signal the entire time, so if you’re calling from Skype, expect it to take a bit of effort.  I’ll be back in the WCS office on Saturday night if all goes well, otherwise Sunday morning at the latest.  I’m heading over to the main post office in a few minutes to get a Western Union wire from the States.  Had my wallet picked on Saturday and lost some cash, and more annoying, the ATM card.  It’s hard to run a project with no money, and field assistants are not pleased.  Hopefully the wire transfer is smooth, and new ATM card arrives with no setbacks.

Until Sunday then…

African cowboys…

Harison, the HALI Project Coordinator and an expert field veterinarian, doing his thing with the African Cowboys (Source: D. Wolking)

We were in the field for two days last week.  We piloted the survey in a few villages, got some interesting feedback, and took around 25 fecal samples.  More on that later….

I drew blood.  From this calf.   We went to a Masai household where there were some reported problems with a calf and its mother.  It wasn’t walking, wasn’t standing up.  It just lay in the dirt crying, pressure sores from the ground forming on its joints.  We went to take some blood samples for analysis at UC Davis.  There is a researcher in Davis who first saw the calf, and speculated that it might be infected with neospora.  Neospora is a protozoal pathogen that infects domestic and wild dogs.  It’s sexual reproduction cycle is similar to Crypto, dog ingests oocycsts, oocysts embed in dog and reproduce, dog passes oocysts in feces.  Neospora also infects livestock.  They ingest the oocysts, and become an intermediary host.  Neospora doesn’t reproduce in livestock, something about the ruminant digestive system prevents it from doing its thing.  Instead, it passes on through the meat, through the carcass, finding its way back into scavenging dogs where it can go on sex bender.

Neospora causes abortions in livestock.  It can cause deformity.  It’s neurologic, like toxoplasma, another protozoal pathogent that infects feral and domestic cats.  Studies show rats infected with neospora habituate erratic behavior.  They lose control.  The cysts produced by the protozoa find their way into your brain.  They start to interfere with neurologic activity and you act strange.  Like Peewee Herman.


The calf acted strange.  Its head jerked back and forth, it was losing muscle control.  We approached it with some vials, needles, and rubber gloves.  Harison said I was sampling.  I thought he was joking up until I was wearing gloves with a needle in my hand.  Veterinarians are different from doctors.  It’s all hands-on fun, and they love to spread it around.  The Masai showed me the jugular, near to the surface.  The calf was dehydrated and it was hot.  Its blood was flowing close the surface of the skin in an attempt to cool off.  I inserted the needle, lowered the vial to let gravity and the vacuum work their magic, and presto!  My first blood sample.  It’s easier on calves.

Later that day we sampled its mother and a few additional animals.  It’s no joke.  Sampling pastoral livestock is cattle rustling.  It’s exciting.  The Masai are some hardcore wranglers.  Branding and roping experts.  The video I think is evidence enough.

I’m glad I work with calves.  Babies are cute and so much easier to handle.  Here’s proof:

Cute babies.  (Photo: D. Wolking)

Recipes from Deana’s kitchen…

Deana has a cookbook.  It’s called Necropsy of Wild Animals by Linda Munson.  Linda works at the UC Davis Widlife Health Center.  In the book are all kinds of recipes.  Recipes for “Easy Blood,”  recipes for “Sterile Buffered Glycerine,” recipes for “Buffered Formalin.”

Linda Munson works with dead things.  She’s a mortician of road kill.  Linda studies diseased dead things, so she can find out the causes of death in order uncover the natural history of infectious disease in the environment.  She finds a dead animal, and she examines it.  She performs an necropsy, an autopsy. The forest, the beach, the savanna become the scene of the crime.  The suspects are all around you, so you wear gloves and a mask.  Everyone at the Wildlife Health Center is sexy like on CSI.  They work out.  They have to.  They have to chainsaw into whale carcasses on the beach, wearing rubber aprons and gloves, masks.  An apocalyptic freak show of butchery.

Necropsy of a gray whale carcass (Source:

I had a peek at the book today because we needed to cook up some 2% buffered Formalin.  Formalin is used to preserve, to essentially slow decay, which means to destroy microbes and fungi that act as decomposers.  We are good at slowing down nature.  Formalin is like a natural breaking system.  ABS for dead flesh.  I could cut off my finger and preserve it in a display case with cool lighting.  In fact, I could cut off my legs for art too and get better ones, except I couldn’t qualify for the Olympics.

Formalin is used at the University of Michigan on wooley mammoths.  Here’s a picture:

Researchers are applying a dilute formalin solution to discourage the further growth of fungi that colonized the carcass after it eroded out of a Siberian riverbank.  Credit: Daniel Fisher, University of Michigan, my alma mater.

I figure, if formalin can preserve Lyuba here, it damn well better preserve some poo….

Asha is my new field assistant.  She started yesterday.  She is from one of the villages near to the study site.  Today, Asha and I did a cooking show on the sidewalk in Iringa using Linda’s cookbook.  We set up two stools, upon which we placed two graduated cylinders, a few liters of distilled water, an empty heavy brown 2L glass jug, and a 5L container of 38-40% formaldehyde.  We put on masks and rubber gloves.  We wore flip flops.  Our lab had a dirt floor, and a lot of spectators.  It’s fun to cook buffered formalin in the company of strangers.  It’s fun to have a sidewalk laboratory.  No serious mishaps, except formalin spilled on my toes.  But they’re washed now, well preserved, Pharaoh’s toes.

Here’s the recipe in case your kids want to sell embalming chemicals instead of lemonade…
10% Buffered Formalin Recipe
Good on any carcass! Makes 1 liter.

  • Pour out 100mL of 35-40% Formalin
  • Add 900mL of Distilled Water
  • Add 3.5g of NaCl (table salt) for pH

2% Buffered Formalin Recipe
Good enough for poo! Makes 1 liter.

  • Pour out 20mL of 10% buffered Formalin
  • Add 980mL of Distilled Water
  • No salt necessary as 10% is already buffered