Sunday, 29 May 2011


Mitchell's reed frog (© Jonathan R. Walz 2002)
I was inspired to write this note about frogs and field guides after seeing the image of a frog posted online by my good friend Jonathan Walz, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rollins College in Florida. This striking photo was taken in 2002 in Amani Nature Reserve in the East Usambara Mountains of Tanzania, and gives a nice sense of the forested environment that Amani is famous for. Its subject was identified for Jonathan by Kim Howell (another friend, and Professor of Zoology in the University of Dar es Salaam) as an example of Mitchell's reed frog, Hyperolius mitchelli, a species that has also been recorded in Malawi and Mozambique. It might well occur elsewhere in Tanzania, but very little collection or sound recording of frogs has taken place in the country, and our knowledge of the distribution of many species like this is correspondingly sketchy.

Banded rubber frog in one of my notebooks
Despite having lived in environments with a superabundance of cacophanous anurans (most notably amidst the seasonally-flooded wetlands of Usangu and the verdant rice valleys of Pemba island), I don't own a single photo of a toad or frog, and regret now that for many years I didn't have a camera capable of taking one. My notebooks, though, do feature the occasional frog that attracted my attention, like the Banded rubber frog (now Phrynomantis bifasciatus, formerly Phrynomerus) that I stumbled upon one day in 1992 in our garden in Nyali, on the north coast of Mombasa. I identified this with the aid of the only guide that I had at the time, Norman Hedges' Reptiles and Amphibians of East Africa (1983), which includes fuzzy and poorly reproduced colour photographs of fewer than a tenth of the frogs known to occur in the region. Needless to say, the Banded rubber frog is quite distinctive, with two vermillion (or orange, or red) stripes along its black back, and that's why it had caught my eye in the first place. For the same reason it's well known in the pet trade. What I didn't know when I scooped it up was that this bright colour scheme signals the presence of skin toxins that can be fatal to predators and result in a raft of distressing symptoms when they enter the human bloodstream. You'll be glad to hear that we didn't exchange body fluids.

I had less success in identifying other frogs. The 'one that got away' was a delicate yellow tree frog that I saw one evening in the foliage next to our outdoor table at the Jambo Inn in Kilimani in Zanzibar town. It was bright and glossy yellow all over its smooth and tiny body, and I noted it as a curiosity before continuing with the meal. This was in July 1996: much later I asked Kim Howell what it might have been and he merely shrugged. Perhaps this was the juvenile or colour morph of an otherwise well-known tree or reed frog, but I still haven't been able to identify it. Lack of a good field guide also scuppered my sundry efforts to make sense of indigenous knowledge about frogs. When living on Pemba in 1994-96 I recorded bits and pieces of information about the island's amphibians, and in 1997 drafted a short article about the local classification of frogs and toads. But I gave up on this when I realised that my preliminary attempt to map Pemban names onto scientific taxonomy was deeply flawed, and based on little more than unsubstantiated guesswork. I had Pakenham's (1983) checklist of the island's amphibians (which he knew was incomplete), but no illustrated field guide with which to compare local descriptions.

Things began to look up at the turn of the millennium, when I was based in Iringa and became aware of the work of Alan Channing (Professor of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology in the University of the Western Cape) and colleagues. Indeed my sole (and admittedly feeble) claim to frog fame is to have been consulted over the specific name of the newly discovered Red sand frog, Tomopterna luganga, first collected by another of my friends, David Moyer, from Kigwembimbi, 14 km east of Iringa town (Channing et al. 2004). This is in the heart of Uhehe, and the name that I was asked to check, luganga, is one of the Hehe words for 'sand'. I bought a copy of Alan Channing's Amphibians of Central and Southern Africa (2001), and at last had a field guide that provided better guidance than Hedges' slim section on frogs. Channing and Howell's Amphibians of East Africa (2006) came out after I'd left East Africa, and I still haven't got my hands on it, though I do have the boiled-down version that was published in the same year in the Pocket Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of East Africa (Spawls et al. 2006).

When he was working on the main guide, Kim Howell sent me a list of local names of frogs that he and his colleagues had collected, together with older records by the herpetologist Arthur Loveridge. While many dictionaries and vocabularies only give a single word for frogs, it is evident that finer discriminations are made in a number of East African languages. Ethnotaxonomies of frogs have been even less studied than the frogs themselves, and it is not impossible that complex systems of knowledge like those of the Kalam (Karam) of highland Papua New Guinea (Bulmer and Tyler 1968) are waiting to be described. At least we now have better guides to work with, together with an increasing number of images online, and if I ever identify that tiny yellow frog, or figure out those Pemban classifications, I'll write another frog blog.

As should be clear, I couldn't have written this post without the friendship of Jonathan Walz, Kim Howell and David Moyer. I'm especially grateful to Jonathan, who generously provided a copy of his photograph of Mitchell's reed frog and gave me permission to edit and reproduce it.


Bulmer, R. N. H. and M. J. Tyler 1968. Karam classification of frogs. Journal of the Polynesian Society 77 (4): 333-385.

Channing, Alan 2001. Amphibians of Central and Southern Africa. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Channing, Alan and Kim M. Howell 2006. Amphibians of East Africa. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Channing, Alan, David C. Moyer and Abeda Dawood 2004. A new sand frog from central Tanzania (Anura: Ranidae: Tomopterna). African Journal of Herpetology 53 (1): 21-28.

Hedges, Norman G. 1983. Reptiles and Amphibians of East Africa. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.

Pakenham, R. H. W. 1983. The reptiles and amphibians of Zanzibar and Pemba islands (with a note on the freshwater fishes). Journal of the East Africa Natural History Society and National Museum 177: 1-40.

Spawls, Stephen, Kim M. Howell and Robert C. Drewes 2006. Pocket Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of East Africa. London: A&C Black.

Sunday, 22 May 2011


Bukusu novices
 Writing last week about 'Periodic flowering and circumcision cycles', I was reminded of a trip to the slopes of Mount Elgon in July 1992, to belatedly negotiate bridewealth payments. One day we saw a group of boys singing and dancing in the open, and I was told that they were novices preparing for circumcision, which takes place in August every second year. My notes on this trip are sprinkled with reference to the years in which my male in-laws were circumcised, and in some cases the topical names that these years were given, such as Nandege (1960, named after an aeroplane that often flew overhead at night, waking people up), and Namirundu (1976, referring to the guns used by Idi Amin's firing squads). These were important marks of men's identity, reflecting the centrality of male circumcision in local Gisu (Masaaba) culture. I'd long been aware of the psychological effects of this, and earlier in 1992 had asked a young male relative to write notes for me on the practice of circumcision among the Bukusu, on the Kenyan side of the border (Wepukhulu 1992).

When I first read Timothy Wangusa's Upon This Mountain (1989), a novel about troubled transitions to manhood in Bugisu (one young man evades the cut and is forced to wear women's clothing, another has the operation furtively in hospital), I thought it captured the local obssession with circumcision perfectly. It's no accident that Suzette's Heald's ethnographic studies (1998; 1999) and film (Hawkins and Heald 1988) have made much of the violence of male circumcision and the ways in which it engenders an ethos of violence in turn. Homicide rates are unusually high, the Gisu are widely feared, and in the past were rumoured to be cannibals. Uncircumcised men are warned that they visit Gisu and Bukusu country at their peril when the biannual rites are underway, and the newspapers are never short of stories of forcible circumcision when every other August comes around.

Which brings me round to an extraordinary book that I bought in Nairobi in 1987, Dan Omondi K'Aoko's The Re-Introduction of Luo Circumcision - Rite (1986). The Western Nilotic Luo live to the south of the Gisu, Bukusu, and other Bantu-speaking Luhya, and are best known for not practising circumcision. But K'Aoko sets out to demostrate that some Luo are familiar with male circumcision, and to this end details a number of traditional methods for performing the operation. Chapter by chapter these are:

1. The Okoko Method (Soldier Ant Method)
2. The Wino Method (Flywhisk Method)
3. The Opila Method (Sugarcane Rind Method)
4. Tuchruok Method (The Piercing Method)
5. Ridhrouk Method (Peeling Method)

I'll refrain from spelling out the painful and gory details of each of these. You can read all about them in the version of the book that was posted online in 2008 with the simpler title Luo Circumcision Rites. I'm no expert on President Obama's ancestors and their initiation rites, but suspect that at least some Luo must be under pressure from their Luhya neighbours to adopt circumcision. I knew a young educated Ganda man who booked himself into hospital so that he could be circumcised and live more comfortably with his Gisu mother and her family, and wouldn't be surprised to learn that there are also cases like this among the Luo.

More recently, though, Luo have been urged to take up circumcision for very different reasons. Gisu and others who practise male circumcision have long claimed that it is 'cleaner' and protects against sexually transmitted diseases, and this has played a role in the unwillingness of their womenfolk to sleep with uncircumcised men from other ethnic groups. Numerous studies have now shown that male circumcision significantly reduces the risk of infection by the HIV virus as well as other STDs (e.g. Weiss et al. 2000; Auvert et al. 2005; Gray et al. 2007), and this has led to programmes in Kenya and elsewhere to promote the practice. In July 2008 the Luo Council of Elders refused to endorse a Ministry of Health campaign to provide free circumcison services in Kenya's Nyanza Province (Anon. 2008). In September five prominent Luo politicians, led by Prime Minister Raila Odinga, countered by declaring in public that they had secretly undergone the operation, and five other MPs pledged to do so subject to medical advice (Telewa 2008). This bold challenge to cultural tradition seems to have had an immediate impact on take-up of the government's offer, though resistance to circumcision continued. Large numbers of Luo have turned to male circumcision to prevent HIV/AIDS, rather than to revive the ancestral practices that K'Aoko claimed, or submit to the cultural compulsion that exists where the cut outnumber and intimidate the uncut.


Anon. 2008. Kenyans reject circumcision plan. BBC News, Friday, 18 July 2008, online at

Auvert, Bertran, Dirk Taljaard, Emmanuel Lagarde, Joëlle Sobngwi-Tambekou, Rémi Sitta and Adrian Puren 2005. Randomized, controlled intervention trial of male circumcision for reduction of HIV infection risk: the ANRS 1265 trial. PLoS Medicine 2 (11): e298. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0020298.

Gray, Ronald H., Godfrey Kigozi, David Serwadda, Frederick Makumbi, Stephen Watya, Fred Nalugoda, Noah Kiwanuka, Lawrence H. Moulton, Mohammad A. Chaudhary, Michael Z. Chen, Nelson K. Sewankambo, Fred Wabwire-Mangen, Melanie C. Bacon, Carolyn F. M. Williams, Pius Opendi, Steven J. Reynolds, Oliver Laeyendecker, Thomas C. Quinn and Maria J. Wawer 2007. Male circumcision for HIV prevention in men in Rakai, Uganda: a randomised trial. The Lancet 369 (9562) (24 February 2007): 657-666.

Hawkins, Richard and Suzette Heald (dirs.) 1988. Imbalu: Ritual of Manhood of the Gisu of Uganda. Videotape distributed by the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Heald, Suzette 1998 Controlling Anger: The Anthropology of Gisu Violence. Oxford: James Currey.

Heald, Suzette 1999. Manhood and Morality: Sex, Violence and Ritual in Gisu Society. London: Routledge.

K'Aoko, Dan Omondi 1986. The Re-Introduction of Luo Circumcision - Rite [sic]. Nairobi [no publisher]. Online (with the title Luo Circumcision Rites) at

Telewa, Muliro 2008. Kenyan MPs admit to circumcision. BBC News, Tuesday, 23 September 2008, online at
Wangusa, Timothy 1989. Upon This Mountain (African Writers Series). Oxford: Heinemann International.

Weiss, Helen A., Maria A. Quigley and Richard J. Hayes 2000. Male circumcision and HIV infection in sub-Saharan Africa: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Aids 14 (15): 2361-2370.

Wepukhulu, David Masika 1992. Bukusu Circumcision Rites. Unpublished manuscript notes written for Martin Walsh, Mombasa, April 1992.

Monday, 16 May 2011


Last week saw a flurry of news stories about the mass emergence of 13-year periodical cicadas in Georgia and other southeastern states of the U.S. These cicadas all belong to Brood XIX, aka the Great Southern Brood, which last appeared in 1998, and is due now to return in 2024. There are three broods of 13-year cicadas and 12 broods of 17-year cicadas in the States, most of them mixtures of different Magicicada species, and each with its own breeding calendar. It is thought that their long life cycles, periodicity and synchronous emergence have evolved to protect these cicadas against predation. Stephen Jay Gould wrote engagingly about this strategy of 'predator satiation' in one of his monthly columns for Natural History Magazine, reprinted in his first collection of essays, Ever Since Darwin (1978: 97-102). 'Of bamboos, cicadas, and the economy of Adam Smith' linked the phenomenon of the periodical cicadas with the similary periodic and synchronous flowering of bamboos, and it was this botanical example that struck a chord when I first read it, rather than the evolutionary explanation that led Gould to summon the ghost of Adam Smith and his "invisible hand".

Many bamboos (subfamily Bambusoideae) are known to be plietesials, plants that grow for a number of years, flower gregariously, set seed and then die. Gould and his source, Daniel H. Janzen, had written about a Chinese bamboo, Phyllostachys reticulata (syn. P. bambusoides), that only flowers every 120 years or so. I didn't know what a plietsial life history was when I first read Gould's essay in Kenya in 1991, but I knew of at least one ethnographic report that suggested a connection between the periodic flowering of plants and the timing of circumcision and age-set rituals in the Rift Valley and adjacent Kenya Highlands. The plant in question is called setiot (setyot) by the Kipsigis and other Kalenjin speakers, and has been identified as Mimulopsis solmsii (family Acanthaceae) (Kokwaro 1976: 16). Blundell describes this as a trailing, woody plant with "pale blue to yellowish flowers", an "abundant herb of the forest floor in some areas; altitude range 1650-2550m (5500-8500 ft) and showing the phenomenon of mass flowering every five to nine years, after which it may be difficult to find it until it increases agains (1987: 395). Beentje has the flowers as "white or yellowish, often tinged with pink" (1994: 605). Here's an earlier description of periodic flowering on Mount Elgon, in which the flowers were white:

Mimulopsis solmsii Schweinf.
From 1948 to April 1964 we lived on the north-east slopes of Elgon near the forest boundary. Near the house was a patch of untouched virgin forest. I found it was carpeted with a tangle of plants with soft dark green leaves [...] These all flowered regularly each year, but I noticed among them a plant with very different leaves, which did not flower. Each year it grew taller and eventually flowered in December 1952 and January 1953. It proved to be Mimulopsis solmsii Schweinf. By then it was five feet tall and much branched. The flowers were white with a pale brown throat, and came out irregularly a few at a time. The inflorescence was covered with dull red sticky glandular hairs. It flowered in a mass over the whole forest at an altitude of 7,500 ft. to 8,200 ft. and smothered the usual undergrowth Acanthaceae completely. Eventually it died down, and its dead stems covered the ground and all the usual herbaceous plants were buried beneath it. Towards the end of the rainy season young seedlings appeared among the rotting stems, and more in the early rains the following year. By the end of 1954 the usual population of Acanthaceae had taken over, though in rather different proportions. Then the plants of Mimulopsis solmsii with their distinctive leaves began to appear again. In October 1961 they began to flower, and there was a mass flowering as before, followed by a similar dying down, and reappearance of the usual plant population. This gives a nine-year interval between one flowering and another, but I shall not be there in 1970 to see if the interval between flowerings is regular. (Tweedie 1965: 92-93)

The same author described two other Mimulopsis species on the mountain, one of which also certainly exhibited periodic flowering. Beentje (1994: 605) noted three members of the genus in Kenya that are reported to flower at long intervals: M. alpina, M. arborescens, and M. solmsii. It may be that the Kalenjin name refers to more than one species, but this remains to be established.

The colonial anthropologist G. W. B. Huntingford claimed that Nandi initiations were linked to the cycles of mass flowering:

According to Huntingford the opening of a period of circumcision "is fixed by the flowering of a bush called Setiot (Mimulopsis sp.)", a plant found in adjacent forest zones which blossoms spectacularly every seven or eight years (1953a: 62). All proceedings were organized in terms of 24 military/territorial units called pororosiek. When the setiot flowering had been observed, representatives from each area made offerings to the leading orgoiyot, or prophet, and sought his sanction to open the next round of circumcision ceremonies. Approval was announced by a further ceremony held separately in each area. Initiations were held for four years, then closed for several years. Three or four years after the next flowering of setiot, which occurred during the closed period, the saget ap eito ceremony came due, and with the second subsequent flowering the initiations were opened for the next age-set. (Daniels 1982: 8)

But this was strongly disputed by Ian Q. Orchardson, who was a fluent Kipsigis speaker:

Mimulopsis solmsii Schweinf.
It has been suggested that the number of years in an age set might be determined by means of a forest plant called Setiot. Setiot is a forest-loving plant with a rambling rather than a creeping habit. It is inconspicuous in the dense forest growth for a number of years, but gradually envelops the tree trunks and bushes to a height of from ten to fifteen feet with its long thin shoots. It flowers once and then dies. In the year in which it flowers it transforms the forest from an almost monotonous green foliage into a mass of tiny white flowers. It seems to flower one year later in Nandi than in Kipsigis. The setiot flowered in the Kipsigis forests in October and November 1926, probably in 1918 and almost certainly in 1910. These flowerings do not correspond with the sub-sets of the last thirty years. Most Kipsigis give nine years as the flowering cycle, but they always count inclusively so by the European method of counting the period would be eight years.

The flowering of the setiot does not regulate Kipsigis initiation; if it did the period covered by an age set would be 24 years, three sub-sets of eight years duration. Its only connection with initiation is that the ceremonies must not take place in the second year after the flowering of the setiot. At this time the young seedlings are just up and the plants are in a flimsy stage during which they sway with the slightest breeze. It is thought that anybody going to initiation at this time would partake of the same nature and even be afflicted with trembling or a sort of palsy. Such conditions are always attributed to this cause and explained by the expression kiwe setio - 'he went in the setiot'. The second year is called Karatet ('tender') and is preceded by the twig year (Sigorian), when the forest is a mass of dry dangerously inflammable twigs, and the year of the flower (Kinyit ap Taptet). The prohibition on initiation during the Karatet year also applies to all new enterprises such as the building of houses.

There are indications that, far from being a propitious plant, which it would be if closely connected with circumcision, it is the reverse. The common expression rat-setio means 'be a spectator, take no part, idly look on' but its literal meaning is tie setiot. Probably its present meaning has originated from the fact that, at many ceremonies, participants tie sacred plants about their persons or around the mabwaita, which mere spectators do not. In fact, spectators 'rat setio', 'they tie setiot', i.e. they tie nothing and are thus contrasted with those who tie the sacred plants and take an active part in the proceedings. Another plant, ikunggit, with an even longer flowering cycle than setiot, is associated with setiot in the Kipsigis mind. When both flower in the forest in the same year, it is said that a very large number of old people die. (Orchardson 1961: 12-13)

This argument is supported by the American anthropologist Robert E. Daniels in his unpublished papers on the Kalenjin age-sets:

Orchardson denies flatly that setiot flowerings regulate Kipsigis initiations. Instead he states that the association is that "ceremonies must not take place in the second year after the flowering" (1961:12) when it is feared that initiates might share the frailty of the new seedlings. Peristiany gives substantially the same information (1939:7). One of my informants, born before 1880, gave a similar explanation that initiations could not be held when the red flowers appeared for fear the initiates would hemorrhage, and Goldschmidt (1976:104) likewise reports that it was only when the plant was in flower (every five to seven years) that initiations could not be held. From everything else reported about scheduling important social events among the Kalenjin, I think it is clear that setiot flowerings were one of no doubt many omens considered and in no sense should be seen as "a botanical clock." (Daniels 1982: 8; also 1976: 7)

Note that in this account setiot is described as a red flower. According to botanist J. O. Kokwaro the Kipsigis setyot "has magical properties associated with circumcision and other rites which should not take place when this plant is flowering" (1976: 16). This has been reiterated by American missionaries working among the Kipsigis: "Initiation cermonies were not to be performed during the karatet year - the year after the flowering of the setyoot - a plant that blooms about every seven or eight years" (Fish and Fish 1995: 326).

Was Huntingford just plain wrong? Or was he describing a variant practice or belief among the Nandi? He was not alone in thinking that plietesial plants are good to think with and to model age-set periods on. A local historian claims that among the Meru of northeastern Mount Kenya the "theoretical duration of each government", the period of rule of an age-set, is "Fourteen years calculated on the basis of the life span of a mountainous plant called Muruuja" (M'Imanyara 1992: 27). This isn't identified in the text, though it might be noted that one Kenyan population of Mimulopsis solmsii is reported to have flowered after a 13-year interval, while M. alpina is said to flower once every 12 years (Beentje 1994: 605). We also know that the Meru and other Central Kenya Bantu originally took some of their age-set names and related practices from the Kalenjin and other Southern Nilotes (Ehret 1971: 139-140), and this may well have included ideas about these woody herbs. Among the Kikuyu it is recorded that M. alpina is a plant of ill-omen, and that only girls could be initiated when it was in flower (Gachathi 2007: 197). This echoes the Kipsigis reports, and suggests yet another case of divergence. Let me hasten to add, though, that I've only scratched the surface of the literature that might have a bearing on this question. I'd like to think that in some places Mimulopsis spp. were used as botanical clocks, but it may be that I'm allowing myself to be seduced by a model, and that the same happened to Huntingford, M'Imanyara, and/or their own sources.


Beentje, Henk 1994. Kenya Trees, Shrubs and Lianas. Nairobi. National Museums of Kenya.

Blundell, Michael 1987. Wild Flowers of East Africa. London: Collins.

Daniels, Robert E. 1976. Kipsigis age-sets: coordination without centralization. Paper presented at the 75th Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, Washington, D.C., 7 November 1976.

Daniels, Robert E. 1982. The extent of age-set coordinaition among the Kalenjin. Paper presented at the 25th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C., November 1976.

Fish, Burnette C. and Gerald W. Fish 1995. The Kalenjin Heritage: Traditional Religious and Social Practices. Kericho and Marion, Indiana: Africa Gospel Church and World Gospel Mission.

Gachathi, Muruga 2007. Kikuyu Botanical Dictionary: A Guide to Plant Names, Uses and Cultural Values (2nd edition). Gituamba: Tropical Botany.

Goldschmidt, Walter 1976. Culture and Behavior of the Sebei: A Study in Continuity and Adaptation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gould, Stephen Jay 1978 [1977]. Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Huntingford, G. W. B. 1953. The Nandi of Kenya: Tribal Control in a Pastoral Society. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Janzen, Daniel H. 1976. Why bamboos wait so long to flower. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 7: 347-391.

Kokwaro, J. O. 1976. Medicinal Plants of East Africa. Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau.

M'Imanyara, Alfred M. 1992. The Restatement of Bantu Origin and Meru History. Nairobi: Longman Kenya.

Orchardson, Ian Q. 1961. The Kipsigis. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.

Peristiany, John G. 1939. The Social Institutions of the Kipsigis. London: George Routledge and Sons.

Tweedie, E. M. 1965. Periodic flowering of some Acanthaceae on Mt. Elgon. Journal of the East Africa Natural History Society 25 (2): 92-94.