Monday, 26 December 2011


Kenyans breathed a collective sigh of relief on Friday when it was announced that a 29 year-old woman who had bled to death in Kenyatta National Hospital the morning before was not the victim of an Ebola-like virus, as had initially been feared (for the Nation's version of these events, click here). As readers of Richard Preston's bio-thriller The Hot Zone (1994) were informed in full technicolour detail, Ebola and its congener, Marburg virus, don't take many prisoners. Typically more than half of the people who display symptoms of these highly infectious diseases die; in some outbreaks close to 90% of those infected have succumbed. The symptoms of these deadly viruses can be terrifying: some victims may suffer severe hemorrhaging, bleeding from all of their bodily orifices. And they don't always go quietly: some Ebola victims die an even more horrible death, thrashing about in a uncontrollable fit as they smear and splatter blood everywhere. Thanks in part to exaggerated accounts like Preston's, Ebola and Marburg elicit widespread fear, and panic when they are thought to be anywhere near.*

The recent scare reminded me of earlier Ebola panics. In 1980, during my first few weeks in Tanzania, overland travellers staying at the Moravian Youth Hostel in Mbeya came bearing hair-raising tales of what was then dubbed 'Green Monkey Disease', a killer infection that had led to periodic closures of the roads through the southern Sudan. Although I didn't know it then, this was a variety of Ebola, the virus named after its discovery in 1976 near the headwaters of the Ebola River in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC). The first recorded Sudanese outbreak occurred in the same year, and killed more than 150 people. It was followed by another in 1979, and it was this recurrence (which resulted in 22 fatalities) that had affected the travel plans of my fellow hostellers. Otherwise I didn't really become aware of Ebola by name until the mid-1990s, when there were further cases in Zaire. The Kikwit outbreak in 1995, which killed 250 people, was widely reported in the press and was said to have led to tourist cancellations throughout the region, especially in countries and territories whose names also began with the letter 'Z' (like Zambia and Zimbabwe). One of these was Zanzibar, where I was living and working at the time.

The Ebola virus
(Dr. Frederick Murphy)
 The Ebola-Zaire strain is the most virulent of this family of thread-like viruses. The first of the filoviruses to be described was Marburg virus, named after an outbreak in a factory in the West German city of Marburg in 1967. The Hot Zone opens with a dramatic reconstruction of the first case in Kenya, which took place in 1980 when a Frenchman who worked at the Nzoia Sugar Factory died in Nairobi Hospital. Before dying he vomited blood over the Ugandan doctor who was treating him, and Dr. Shem Musoke was infected in turn. The presence of Marburg was detected in samples of Musoke's blood taken by a colleague, cardiologist Dr. David Silverstein, and after being close to death his life was saved. Silverstein is perhaps best known as former President Moi's personal physician, and as one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Kenya. Coincidentally I was treated by him some years later for a phantom blood clot, and it was Shem Musoke who did me the favour of diagnosing it as imaginary. But that's a story for another day.

Silverstein was also involved in the treatment and diagnosis of Kenya's second Marburg victim, a Danish boy who died in Nairobi Hospital in 1987. These have been the only confirmed incidents in Kenya to date, and it turns out that both of of the victims had visited Kitum Cave on the slopes of Mount Elgon not long before they fell ill. The Hot Zone ends with an account of author Richard Preston's foray into the cave wearing a protective suit, wondering which, if any, of its animal inhabitants or visitors might host the virus. For a time monkeys were implicated, not least because they were the immediate source of outbreaks of both Marburg and Ebola in laboratories on different continents. The first Marburg infections came from Vervets (aka Green monkeys, Chlorocebus pygerythrus, syn. Cercopithecus aethiops) imported from Uganda, and one of Preston's informants believed that there had been an earlier undocumented outbreak of Marburg among monkeys and people on the northern side of Mount Elgon. However, monkeys are evidently not the primary host of either Marburg or Ebola: like people, too many of them die too quickly during an outbreak for the viruses to spread more widely. Not that this has stopped Preston and other journalists from imagining a doomsday scenario involving international air travel...

Richard Preston preparing to enter Kitum Cave (author's website)
It turns out that the association with caves (and in some cases mines) is much more significant for an understanding of the natural reservoirs of Marburg and Ebola. In recent years a number of studies have detected the presence of these filoviruses in otherwise healthy cave-dwelling bats, suggesting that they are their main natural hosts. I've posted links to some of the relevant papers (most of them open access) in the references  below. Bats carrying Marburg and Ebola have been identified in Gabon (which has yet to suffer a recorded outbreak), DRC, and Kenya, and it seems likely that they will also be discovered in other African countries. The bats involved include a growing list of insectivorous species as well as the Egyptian fruit bat (Rousettus aegyptiacus), which has tested positive for both Marburg and Ebola. This is one of Africa's most common bats, known for roosting in large colonies in caves, unlike many other fruit bats. The good news is that health education can now be targeted at cave sites in national parks and other underground locations that receive large numbers of visitors. The bad news is that outbreaks of Marburg and Ebola are likely to occur in hitherto unsuspected places across the continent. At least last week's scare proved to be a false alarm.

* For more sober information about Ebola and Marburg, including details of all the confirmed outbreaks, readers should refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website and the pages for Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever and Marburg Hemorrhagic Fever respectively.


Kuzmin, Ivan et al. 2010. Marburg virus in fruit bat, Kenya. Emerging Infectious Diseases 16 (2): 352-354.

Leroy, Eric M. et al. 2005. Fruit bats as reservoirs of Ebola virus. Nature 438: 575-576.

Pourrut, Xavier et al. 2005. The natural history of Ebola virus in Africa. Microbes and Infection 7: 1005-1014.

Pourrut, Xavier et al. 2009. Large serological survey showing cocirculation of Ebola and Marburg viruses in Gabonese bat populations, and a high seroprevalence of both viruses in Rousettus egyptiacus. BMC Infectious Diseases 9: 159.

Preston, Richard 1994. The Hot Zone. New York: Random House. [the link given here is to a complete typescript of the main text]

Towner, Jonathan S. et al. 2007. Marburg virus infection detected in a common African bat. PLoS ONE 2 (8): e764.

Sunday, 4 December 2011


I've lost count of the number of times I've flown between Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar. But until last month I'd never tried to take photographs of the journey. In the mid-90s, when I flew regularly on light aircraft, I didn't have a good enough camera; and in recent years I've usually been a passenger on larger aeroplanes with misty windowpanes. So in early November I was thrilled to find myself sitting alone on the back seat of a small plane with access to windows on both sides, through which I took most of the photos shown below. It was a sunny morning with a few patches of cloud, and stayed that way until we began the approach to the airport in Zanzibar, where it was pouring down with rain. By this time, though, my camera's memory chip was full, and so I didn't get any shots of the end of the flight.

Coastal Aviation flight to Zanzibar on the morning of 6 November 2011: the view from the back seat

The domestic terminal of Julius K. Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam

The main terminal of Julius K. Nyerere International Airport, Dar es Salaam

Suburbs north of the airport in Dar es Salaam

Suburbs of Dar es Salaam

Dar es Salaam: looking towards the city centre and Indian Ocean

Ubungo and the road out of Dar

The University of Dar es Salaam

Msasani Bay looking towards the peninsula

The Msasani Peninsula

Bongoyo Island

Bongoyo Island and clouds

Mbudya Island


Kunduchi Beach Hotel and Resort

The mainland coast between Mbweni and Bagamoyo

The mainland coast opposite Zanzibar

Reef and rainbow 1

Reef and rainbow - 2

Reef and rainbow - 3

Reef and rainbow - 4

Reef and rainbow - 5

Reef and rainbow - 6

Looking towards Pungume Island and Unguja

Kwale Island and Menai Bay

Reef and the Fumba Peninsula

Reef near the Fumba Peninsula - 1

Reef near the Fumba Peninsula - 2

Reef near the Fumba Peninsula - 3

Looking towards Chumbe Island

Saturday, 10 September 2011


I was going to resume writing this blog with one of my trademark posts about a quirky and largely inconsequential subject. But I couldn't ignore the news. Our phones began ringing before dawn with reports of the disaster that had befallen Zanzibar. The ferry to Pemba, MV Spice Islander, sank off Nungwi last night with hundreds of people aboard. The details are still sketchy: many people have been rescued (as this BBC report shows), but a large number are still missing. Some of the boat's passengers were travelling back to Pemba after Ramadhan and the Eid festival, and it's feared that whole families have been lost. We're praying for them, and for everyone affected by this disaster.

MV Spice Islander in happier times (photographed on 20 July 2011 from the Tembo Hotel in Zanzibar town)

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.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

SPOT THE DIFFERENCE! (a leopard skin puzzle)

Who says a leopard can't change it's spots? Shown below are five black and white photos of leopard skins (taken and edited by my colleagues Helle Goldman and Jon Winther-Hansen), each showing a comparable section of the midbody.* Can you spot any obvious differences between their coat patterns and configuration of rosettes? Can you group them into different categories?

We've shuffled the pictures up and given them random numbers, from 1 to 5. Use these to identify each skin and send me your thoughts, either by commenting on this blog or emailing us via Give it a go and contribute to science! All will be explained if and when we get some answers...

*Note that the photos aren't quite on the same scale, as the rulers show. Some of them have also become a bit squashed in the process of formatting for this blog.

leopard skin 1
leopard skin 2
leopard skin 3
leopard skin 4
leopard skin 5

Monday, 14 March 2011


Last week I returned to the University of Edinburgh for the second time in two years to give a seminar in the Centre of African Studies. In February 2010 I was 'Explaining Popobawa'; this time I was talking about 'Images and Counter-Images of the Zanzibar Revolution', at the end of a day-long workshop on 'Representations of a Continent: Public and private visual images in data collection in Africa', organised by Tom Molony in CAS. It was a fascinating day, with a richly illustrated presentation by Sandy Robertson on 'Picturing Africa', and another by Tom and his colleague Steve Kerr (who had flown in from Saint Augustine University in Mwanza) on the practical, technical and ethical issues raised by their collaborative project on 'Images of Nyerere'. As my old friend Marcus Banks has remarked, "visual research can sometimes lead in unexpected directions" (2001: 74). More than this, it can provide new ways of (quite literally [sic]) seeing a subject, and I certainly found this when preparing my own presentation.

One of the subjects I explored in my seminar was the use that different participants in the Zanzibar Revolution had made of photographs to project particular images of themselves and their role in events. The self-styled "Field Marshal" John Okello (1937-c.1971), who portrayed himself as the military leader of the Revolution, was the master of this kind of manipulation, which mirrored his theatrical comportment and threatening behaviour, and his notorious use of radio broadcasts and verbal violence to spread the "Terror" that accompanied the Revolution. His last-but-one visit to Dar es Salaam in March 1964 was rumoured to include a mission "to pick up the scores of copies of a photographic portrait of himself that he had ordered" (Petterson 2002: 175). And the photos of himself and others reproduced in his Revolution in Zanzibar (1967) have remained a prime source of images for commentators, including scholars and website authors.

Mo Amin in later life
Okello's manipulation of imagery was matched, and in some respects supported by, the machinations of Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu (1924-96), the left-wing intellectual of the Revolution. When the Revolution began in the early hours of Sunday 12th January 1964, Babu was in Dar es Salaam, having fled there earlier to escape arrest in the wake of the banning of his Umma Party by the newly independent government. Although many later accounts imply that he knew nothing about the imminent outbreak of violence, it's clear that he had some forewarning: "On Friday [10th January] I heard over here in Dar es Salaam from someone - a member of the Afro-Shirazis - that something would happen very soon. Well, you know, you always heard those stories. But I thought this might be true" (Babu, quoted in Smith 1973: 96). The next day, Saturday 11th, he telephoned the young photographer Mohamed "Mo" Amin (1943-96). Mo had opened his Camerapix studio in Dar in March 1963, and had made Babu's acquaintaince during subsequent assignments in Zanzibar:
'If you want a big story you should be in Zanzibar tomorrow.'
'There's a big story. Take your cameras. You'll get an exclusive.'
'What kind of story?'
Babu would say no more. When Amin learned from his own sources that the Sultan had given the opposition Afro-Shirazi Party permission to hold a fete, he dismissed the story as non-newsworthy and thought no more about it. Until 0430 on Sunday 12 January, when he was woken by the telephone and a voice saying: 'There's shooting all over Zanzibar.' (Tetley 1988: 46-47)
Okello photographed by Mo Amin (from Tetley 1988: 45)
Mo caught the 0700 hrs flight to Zanzibar, but the pilot was refused permission to land. Later the same day he sailed to Zanzibar with two fellow journalists in a dhow hired from Bagamoyo. The same boat was used to carry Mo's film back to the mainland every day, and for four days his footage of the revolutionary violence and its consequences "led world television bulletins [and] hit the front pages of the world's Press" (Tetley 1988: 48). But he was also used by the revolutionaries:
Soon after landing on the island he was pressed into service to take the first official pictures of the revolution's leaders. One of them - Babu, his confidante - had become the new regime's Minister for External Affairs. Meeting Babu in a crowd of excited revolutionaries in Zanzibar's seething streets he told him he needed permission to charter a plane to ship his film. Time was critical, and the airport was still  closed.
'Give me a piece of paper,' said Babu.
'I don't have any.'
Looking around him, Babu saw a discarded detergent carton, picked it up, tore off the flap and scribbled a crude but official note clearing a plane to land at Zanzibar. (Tetley 1988: 48)
Mo's imprisonment in 1966 (Tetley 1988: 70-71)
In the end Mo's relationship with Babu wasn't enough to make him feel safe, and after armed revolutionaires tried to snatch his camera while he filmed the boat carrying British subjects and deported journalists off the island, he jumped on board and joined them. This didn't stop him from returning to Zanzibar on a number of later occasions, though his determination to get a scoop was eventually rewarded with a 27-day imprisonment in one of the island's most notorious gaols (Tetley 1988: 53, 54, 57-61, 65-72). The Zanzibar Revolution was Mo's first frontline job and he went on, of course, to become one the world's most famous photojournalists. But the Revolution is only mentioned briefly in a more recent tourist guide produced by Camerapix, which includes colour shots taken on the island by Mo (Mercer 1999: 71).

Babu pretending to row (from Okello 1967: between 112-113)
Back to the first day of the Revolution: while Mo was sailing across to Zanzibar, Babu was also looking for transport to the island, together with Abeid Amani Karume (who had only just left Zanzibar, at Okello's insistence), Abdalla Kassim Hanga (who had also hurried across to the mainland, allegedly to discuss a separate plot), and other Afro-Shirazi Party leaders. They eventually obtained the use of an old lifeboat (with a glass bottom for reef viewing) that belonged to Mischa Fainzilber, an Israeli entreprenuer and master-of-many-trades who was already well known to Babu.* They left Kunduchi at midnight but didn't reach Kizimkazi until around six o'clock in the morning (of Monday 15th January): the crossing should only have taken a couple of hours but one of the boat's two engines packed in on the way. At Kizimkazi they were met by a large crowd of people, and borrowed the local headmaster's car to send for transport from Zanzibar town.

We know this and more from a detailed account by the boat's pilot, Ahmed Ali Ghulam Hussein, nicknamed "Shebe" (Chapter 13 of Ghassany 2010). We also know that "On his arrival Babu arranged for himself to be photographed, for propaganda purposes, paddling a canoe" (Clayton 1981: 82, fn.65). Whether this was a  "canoe" or outrigger, it certainly wasn't the boat that brought Babu and his companions to the island. Whether this photo was taken later, in Zanzibar town harbour, or whether Mo was involved, I don't know. Like a number of other photographic plates in Okello's book (1967), it's credited to I.P., an agency that I've yet to identify (International Press?). Whatever the case, it's difficult to escape the conclusion that Babu was hoping to manipulate future perceptions of his less than heroic return to Zanzibar. Okello - or his editor - simply reproduced the photo and (added?) its deceptive caption without further comment.

Despite their skill as propagandists, neither Babu nor Okello foresaw the course of the Revolution. They were both outmanoeuvred by the outwardly less sophisticated Karume, who became the first President. After his early ejection from Zanzibar, Okello later disappeared in Amin's Uganda. After the union with Tanganyika, Babu was sidelined as a minister on the mainland, detained for six years after Karume's assassination, and ended his days in exile in London.

* I met Mischa (whose name also appears as Misha, Fainsilber, Feinsilber and Finsilber) in early 1982 when I stayed at Silversands, the hotel that he'd handed over to the University of Dar es Salaam. My research supervisor Ray Abrahams knew him somewhat better before this, and he was immortalised as "Willi", proprietor of the "Haven of Peace" beach hotel, in Shiva Naipaul's North of South (1978: for this and reference to some of Mischa's other enterprises see Chachage 1995: 66-67).


Banks, Marcus 2001. Visual Methods in Social Research. London: Sage Publications.

Chachage, Chachage Seithy L. 1995. The meek shall inherit the earth but not the mining rights: the mining industry and accumulation in Tanzania. In Peter Gibbon (ed.) Liberalised Development in Tanzania: Studies on Accumulation Processes and Local Institutions. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet. 37-108.

Clayton, Anthony 1981. The Zanzibar Revolution and its Aftermath. London: C. Hurst & Company.

Ghassany, Harith 2010. Kwaheri Ukoloni, Kwaheri Uhuru! Zanzibar na Mapinduzi ya Afrabia. Lulu Enterprises Inc.

Mercer, Graham 1999. The Beauty of Zanzibar. Nairobi: Camerapix Publishers International.

Naipaul, Shiva 1978. North of South: An African Journey. London: Penguin Books.

Okello, John 1967. Revolution in Zanzibar. Nairobi: East African Publishing House.

Othman, Haroub (ed.) 2001. Babu: I Saw the Future and it Works. Essays Celebrating the Life of Comrade Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu 1924-1996. Dar es Salaam: E&D Limited.

Petterson, Don 2002. Revolution in Zanzibar: An American's Cold War Tale. Boulder: Westview Press.

Smith, William Edgett 1973. Nyerere of Tanzania. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd. [originally published in 1972 as We Must Run While They Walk: A Portrait of Africa's Julius Nyerere. New York: Random House.]

Tetley, Brian 1988. Mo: The Story of Mohamed Amin[,] Front-line Camerman. London: Moonstone Books.