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Tsetse fly in Western Narok, Kenya*

  • Richard D. Waller (a1)

This article studies the expansion of tsetse fly in one part of Kenya Maasailand between 1900 and 1950. It follows the lines of investigation first suggested by Ford's work and examines in detail the interaction between changes in four elements in the Mara ecosystem: climate, vegetation, land use and tsetse. Tsetse was able to expand because its habitat expanded and the spread of bush and fly into the grasslands both caused, and was facilitated by, shifts in patterns of Maasai grazing and occupation in the area. Up to the 1890s, the Mara Plains were regularly grazed by Maasai herds; but the general depopulation of Maasailand in the aftermath of the rinderpest pandemic and civil war left the region vacant until after 1900 and allowed the spread of bush cover which was then colonised by tsetse. When Maasai returned, they altered their grazing patterns to avoid such areas. However, the progressive encroachment of tsetse-infested bush continued and was not halted until bush-clearing schemes and closer grazing forced the fly to retreat by destroying its habitat. The study is set within the wider context of ecological change and capitalist development in East Africa and suggests that the common assumption that colonial capitalism was responsible for the disruption of the ecosystem and, therefore, for the spread of disease and environmmental degradation needs careful re-examination in the light of a more sophisticated understanding of the processes of ecological change.

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1 Ford J., The Role of the Trypanosomiases in African History (Oxford, 1971). Ford's work was, however, received rather cautiously at first.

2 See e.g. Sindiga I., ‘Sleeping Sickness in Kenya Maasailand’, Social Science and Medicine, XVIII (1984). The best and most sophisticated of these studies probably still remains Vail's Leroy, ‘Ecology and history: The example of eastern Zambia’, J. Southern African Studies, III (1977), 129–55 and idem, ‘The making of the “Dead North”: a study of Ngoni rule in northern Malawi, c. 1855–1970’, in Peires J. B. (ed.), Before and After Shaka: Papers in Ngoni History (Grahamstown, 1981), 238–42. See also, Vaughan M., The Story of An African Famine (Cambridge, 1987), 57–9.

3 See e.g. Shenton B. and Watts M., ‘Capitalism and hunger in Northern Nigeria’, Review of African Political Economy, 15/16 (1979), and Sindiga I., ‘Land and population problems in Kajiado and Narok, Kenya’, African Studies Review, XXVII (1984), 2731. For a stimulating overview, see Richards P., ‘Ecological change and the politics of African land use’, African Studies Review, XXVI (1983), esp. 1922, 41–7, 53–6. Colonial theories of conservation and ecology are carefully appraised in Anderson D. M., ‘Depression, dust-bowl, demography and drought: the colonial state and soil conservation in East Africa during the 1930s’, African Affairs, LXXXIII (1984), 321–43, also in Vaughan, African Famine, 5060.

4 McCracken J., ‘Colonialism, capitalism and ecological crisis in Malawi: a reassessment’, in Anderson D. and Grove R. (eds.), Conservation in Africa: People, Policies and Practice (Cambridge, 1987) and Mandala E. C., ‘Capitalism, ecology and society: The Lower Tchiri (Shire) Valley of Malawi, 1860–1960’, (Ph.D. thesis, University of Minnesota, 1983), esp. 261–2.

5 See e.g. Sinclair A. R. E. and Norton-Griffiths M. (eds.), Serengeti: Dynamics of an Ecosystem (Chicago, 1979), and Homewood K. and Rodgers W. R., ‘Pastoralism, conservation and the overgrazing controversy’, in Anderson and Grove, Conservation, 111128.

6 Notoriously, Kjekshus H., Ecology Control and Economic Development in East African History (London, 1977), but also Vail L., ‘The political economy of East Central Africa’, in Birmingham D. and Martin P. (eds.), History of Central Africa, 11 (London, 1983), 204–5, 228–9.

7 Lewis E. A., ‘Tsetse flies and development in Kenya Colony, Part I’, East Afr. Agri. J., VII (1941/1942), 184–7 and map.

8 Glossina swynnertoni and Glossina pallidipes, of the morsitans sub-group. Their principal threat was to the stock population; but both are also vectors of Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense (sleeping sickness) although the mortality among Maasai seems to have been slight–Molyneux D. H. and Ashford R. W., The Biology of Trypanosoma and Leishmania (New York, 1983), 121.

9 See Lamprey R. and Waller R. D., ‘The Loita-Mara area in historical times: patterns of subsistence, settlement and ecological change’, in P. Robertshaw (ed.), Early Pastoralists of Southwestern Kenya (in press). I am indebted to Richard Lamprey for guidance with the literature and for permission to make use of unpublished material.

10 For the dangers of distortion and selectivity, see Iliffe's review of Kjekshus in J. Afr. Hist., XIX (1978), 130–41. For comparison, see studies based on a far richer body of (documentary) source material: Miller J., ‘The significance of drought, disease and famine in the agriculturally marginal zones of west-central Africa’, J. Afr. Hist., XXIII (1982) 1761; Dias J., ‘Famine and disease in the history of Angola, C1830–1930’, J. Afr. Hist., XXII (1981) 349–78.

11 Discussed in Lamprey and Waller, ‘The Loita-Mara area’.

12 For details of the controversy, see Cashmore T. H. R., ‘Studies in District Administration in the East Africa Protectorate’ (Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 1965), 275308.

13 Ford, Trypanosomiases, 272–3.

14 Woosnam R. B., ‘Report on a search for Glossina on the Amala (Engabei) River, Southern Maasai Reserve, East Africa Protectorate’, Bulletin of Entomological Research, IV (1914), 271; Anderson to Macdonald, 6 June 1913, in Bowring to Harcourt, 24 July 1913, (PRO) CO 533/120. Under certain circumstances, cattle can be kept successfully within range of tsetse and calves can recover from trypanosome infection and even acquire a limited immunity. Animals succumb, however, when the intensity of the fly attack increases: Mulligan H. W. et al. , The African Trypanosomiases (London, 1970). This may have been the case on the fringes of the fly areas in Western Narok during the colonial period. The general intensification of infestation can be gauged from the fact that before 1913, at least, cattle could still be grazed over wide areas where, by the 1930s, even sheep and goats, which are less susceptible, were dying.

15 One possible alternative food source was in the hippopotamus population of the Mara River which was unaffected by rinderpest. This would have tended to concentrate tsetse in the riverine pocket. For an analysis of the effect in Zimbabwe, see Ford, Trypanosomiases, 296300.

16 Ford, Trypanosomiases, 231. See also, Sinclair A. R. E., ‘Dynamics of the Serengeti ecosystem: process and pattern’, in Sinclair and Norton-Griffiths, Serengeti, 37. Ford's ideas are discussed in more detail below.

17 Lewis E.A., ‘Tsetse flies in the Masai Reserve, Kenya Colony’, Bulletin of Entomological Research, XXV (1934) 440–2; Anderson to Macdonald, 6 June 1913, in Bowring to Harcourt, 24 July 1913, CO 533/120; Woosnam, ’Report on a Search for Glossina on the Amala River’, n.d. in Belfield to Harcourt, 30 Oct. 1913, CO 533/123. In mid-1913, White passed through the extreme limits of fly country, well to the south and west of the Kenya Mara Plains. He reported, however, that west of Ikorongo in German East Africa ‘the country north of Mara is full of sleeping sickness’ and that overland travel between Musoma and Shirati was impossible: White S. E., The Rediscovered Country (New York, 1915), 167, 215, 226, 251.

18 Hollis to Ainsworth, 11 Sept. 1911, Kenya National Archives [KNA] PC/RVP 6E/1/1; Macdonald to Bowring, 8 March 1913, in Belfield to Harcourt, 15 March 1913, CO 533/117; ‘Report of the Entomological Division’, in Agricultural Dept. Annual Report (East African Protectorate) [ADAR], 1917/18. Tsetse has a tendency to disperse from its foci in the wet season (rather like the Maasai herds on which it preyed) and then to retreat. This made it difficult for Government officers on tour to determine the real extent of infestation with any accuracy and may explain why there is an imperfect correlation between reports of the presence of tsetse and reports of stock mortality. It did, however, enable herders with local knowledge to utilise certain fly areas seasonally–Narok District Annual Report [NDAR], 1928, KNA DC/NRK 1/1/2; ‘Report of the Chief Veterinary Officer’, in ADAR, 1932; Lewis, ‘Tsetse flies in Masai’, 446; NDAR, 1939, KNA DC/NRK 1/1/3.

19 Masai Province Annual Report [MPAR], 1925, KNA PC/SP 1/2/2; NDARs 1925, 1928, KNA DC/NRK 1/1/2; Kenya Land Commission, Evidence and Memoranda, 11 (HMSO, London, 1934), 1207 (evidence of Count Dornhoff).

20 Kenya Land Commission, Evidence and Memoranda, 1203–4 (evidence of Lentingan ole Lololdigir and of Count Dornhoff); interviews MT/M/P 13, 41; MT/M/UN 5, 8; MT/M/SR 16.

21 Lewis, ‘Tsetse flies in Masai’, 452–3; ‘Report of the Chief Veterinary Officer’, ADAR, 1932.

22 The tendency of fly to ‘wander’ or disperse in wet conditions has been noted. It receded again from Barkitabu during the dry season of 1938. See MPARs, 1936, 1938.

23 Veterinary Dept. Annual Reports [VDAR], 1936, 1937; NDAR, 1941, KNA DC/NRK 1/1/3. Tsetse did, later, invade the Sotik farms. See VDAR, 1947. The Chepalungu, on the Maasai/Kipsigis border, was a no-man's land or Grenzwildnis par excellence. Within its thickets, it harboured stock thieves and illegal cultivators as well as game and tsetse. For a description of another such ‘refuge’ area, Nindo in Shinyanga, see Ford, Trypanosomiases, 190.

24 The Lemek Scheme was intended to encourage and stabilise settlement in the area by eradicating East Coast Fever, but failed as the fly proved deadlier than the tick: correspondence and reports in KNA DC/NRK 2/6/2. The intriguing historical connection between ticks (the vectors of East Coast Fever) and tsetse has not yet been studied. In Lemek, the arrival of ticks preceded that of tsetse. Purko, whose herds were susceptible to East Coast Fever, evacuated the area after heavy losses in the early 1940s and it was then occupied by stock-owners from Trans-Mara, whose cattle were immune, until they, in turn, were driven out by tsetse: NDAR, 1941. The expansion of both ticks and tsetse in Maasailand may be the result of similar conjunctions and changes within the ecosystem. For ticks in Maasailand, see Lewis E. A., ‘Investigations into the Tick problem in the Masai Reserve’, Agricultural Dept. Bulletin, 7 (Nairobi, 1934).

25 ‘General Survey of the Lemek Valley, Narok District’, January 1945 and report by Lewis, December 1946, both in KNA DC/NRK 2/6/2.

26 ‘Narok District Development Plan’, 1955, KNA DC/NRK 1/3/2; Darling F. F., An Ecological Reconnaissance of the Mara Plains in Kenya Colony, Wildlife Monographs, v (Chestertown, 1960), 13, 15. For the retreat of tsetse in the 1960s and 1970s, see Lamprey and Waller, ‘The Loita-Mara Area’.

27 Ford, Trypanosomiases, passim; Sinclair, ‘Dynamics of Serengeti’, 3.

28 Ford, Trypanosomiases, 51–5. Tsetse's favoured hosts were nearly all among those animals most susceptible to rinderpest, Ibid. 299.

29 Colonial conservationists, like C. M. Swynnerton and H. E. Hornby who were directors of Tsetse Research in Tanganyika, were well aware of this connection and linked tsetse expansion with the wider problems of overgrazing and poor pasture management. As Swynnerton put it, ‘…the two tsetse species that essentially belong to savanna owe their present distribution to man’. Some officials clearly felt that tsetse was not an unmitigated evil since, by driving away people, it enabled the land to recover from their depredations. Others, however, hoped that the ‘threat of tsetse’ would shake both government and people from their lethargy and stimulate reclamation and better management as a way of breaking the ‘Malthusian’ grip of starvation and disease in the herds: Swynnerton, quoted in Talbot L. M., ‘The Ecology of Western Masailand, East Africa’, (Ph.D. thesis, Berkeley, 1963), 414; Ford, Trypanosomiases, 196–8; Hornby H. E., ‘Pasture management in relation to tsetse reclamation’, East Afr. Agri. J., VII (1941–42).

30 Talbot, ‘Ecology’, 403–8.

31 Talbot emphasises that savanna grassland is not a stable climax and that it was already being modified; ‘Ecology’, 413–5. Osero, the general name for the lower Mara Plains below the Escarpment, which appears in early maps and accounts, has the meaning of ‘scrub-land’ and is contrasted with Olorokoti, the plains grazing above the Escarpment.

32 In 1913, a report on northern and western Trans-Mara, an area which had also been unoccupied, described the grazing as rank and bushy as a result; Hemsted, ‘Report on Trans-Mara’, 3 April 1913, in Belfield to Harcourt, 5 May 1913, CO 533/118. It should be noted here that undergrazing is as potent a factor in pasture change as overgrazing.

33 Macdonald and Atkinson to Hollis, 19 Sept. 1911, KNA PC/RVP 6E/I/I; Belfield to Harcourt, 30 Oct. 1913, encl. map and report by Woosnam, CO 533/123; White, Rediscovered Country, 158–63; Diary of J. Healy, entries for 24 Aug. to 17 Sept. 1922, Healy Papers, Duke University Library.

34 Lewis, ‘Tsetse Flies in Masai’, 444–6; ‘Report of the Agricultural Officer i/c Grassland Improvement’, in ADAR II, 1936.

35 Lewis, ‘General Survey’, Dec. 1946, KNA DC/NRK 2/6/2. I am grateful to Dr R. Lamprey for data on vegetation after the 1940s.

36 See ‘Reports of the Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Survey and Control’, in VDARs, 1949 onwards; Lamprey and Waller, ‘Loita-Mara area’; vegetation map in Glover P. E., ‘An ecological survey of Narok District in Kenya Masailand, Part I’, 1966, typescript, Agricultural Dept. Library, Nairobi.

37 NDARs, 1931–34, KNA DC/NRK 1/1/2. Rainfall figures in MPARs, KNA PC/SP 1/2/1.

38 NDAR, 1933, KNA PC/NKU 2/1/14; VDAR, 1948. The classic pastoral dilemma greatly increased stock losses during drought and figured prominently in the ‘Malthusian’ thinking of the administrators, e.g. MPAR, 1916/17, KNA PC/SP 1/2/2 and ‘Masai Province, Handing Over Report’, Jan. 1936, KNA PC/SP 2/1/1.

39 During the worst years of drought, for example, the Purko abandoned their wet season dispersal altogether; NDARs, 1932–4.

40 For the crucial role played by fire in the ecological succession, see Talbot, ‘Ecology’, 158–9, 366–72, 391–3, and Norton-Griffiths M., ‘The influence of grazing, browsing and fire on the vegetation dynamics of the Serengeti’, in Sinclair and Norton-Griffiths, Serengeti, 320–1, 333–41.

41 E.g. Interview MT/M/P 41.

42 For a much fuller treatment, see Lamprey and Waller, ‘The Loita-Mara area’.

43 The rinderpest epidemic in Maasailand is discussed in detail in R. Waller, ‘Emutai: crisis and response in Maasailand 1883–1902’, in Johnson D. and Anderson D. (eds.), The Ecology of Survival: Case Studies from Northeast African History (London and Boulder, 1988).

44 Gorges G. H., ‘A journey from Lake Naivasha to the Victoria Nyanza’, Geographical J., XVI (1900), 79; Smith G. E., ‘From the Victoria Nyanza to Kilimanjaro’, Geographical J., XXIX (1907), 256–7; Waller R., ‘Interaction and identity on the periphery: The Trans-Mara Maasai’, Int. J. Afr. Historical Studies, XVII (1984), 251–2. Smith, who was on the Anglo-German Boundary Commission in 1904, makes no mention of tsetse along the border.

45 Sandford G. R., An Administrative and Political History of the Masai Reserve (London, 1919), ch. 3.

46 Cashmore, ‘Studies in District Administration’, 270–1, 298301; ‘Memorandum on the Masai’ in Ngong Political Record Book, Part A, KNA DC/KAJ 1/2/1. The revision in this paragraph is based mainly on field data which have not yet been fully analysed.

47 NDARs, 1928–9, KNA DC/NRK 1/1/2; Waller, ‘Interaction and identity’, 256–7, 248.

48 Waller, ‘Interaction and identity’, 263–4.

49 Given the high degree of local expertise required to manage stock successfully in the conditions of Western Narok, Purko inexperience may have been responsible for some of their early losses, and their reluctance to settle in the area becomes understandable.

50 Maasai grazing management is discussed more fully in Waller R. D., ‘The Lords of East Africa: The Maasai in the mid-Nineteenth Century (c. 1840–1880)’, (Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 1979), 2854.

51 In this context, the importance of small stock (sheep and goats) to range management as well as to the pastoral economy should be noted. Certain areas, such as the Loita Plains, were especially known as sheep pastures and small stock could be kept in areas effectively closed to cattle by tsetse. Much later, they were used to spearhead the movement to reclaim fly areas in Mara; Waller, ‘Lords of East Africa’, 35, 62; Darling, Ecological Reconnaissance, 13; I. Grimwood, The future status of Kenya's National Parks’, Wild Life, 11 (1960) 25–6.

52 ‘Notes on a Meeting at Rumuruti’, 27 Aug. 1910, by Collyer, in Belfield to Harcourt, 6 Feb. 1913, CO 533/116; Belfield to Harcourt, 30 October, 1913, CO 533/123; Leys N., Kenya (London, 1926), 108. The Maasai did not then complain specifically of tsetse and the diseases to which they referred were probably tick-borne. Precisely how the question of fly infestation was raised in connection with the Moves is difficult to determine. The Colonial Office was being pressed on the subject in 1912–13, on the basis of unofficial information, and responded by calling for further reports, although the outlines of the fly areas were already known; Parliamentary Questions by Harvey, 31 July 1912 and 23 Jan. 1913, with correspondence and minutes in CO 533/111 and 128.

53 ‘Memorandum on the Masai’, KNA DC/KAJ 1/2/1; MPARs, 1914/15–1915/16, KNA PC/SP 1/2/2; Sandford, Administrative History, 120–1; NDARs, 1914/15–1915/16, KNA DC/NRK 1/1/1.

54 For grazing movements, see Fig. 3 and Lewis, ‘Investigations’, 27 and map.

55 This trend is discussed in Waller, ‘Research on Maasai History, 1914–1939’, unpubl. report to the ESRC, London, 1986, 12.

56 For the development of Lemek, see Waller and Lamprey, ‘Loita-Mara area’. The closure of the Mara station, due to economy measures rather than specifically to tsetse, left the area largely unadministered and tended to draw attention away eastwards; Waller, ‘Interaction and identity’, 258.

57 Waller and Lamprey, ‘Loita-Mara area’; Collett D., ‘Pastoralists and wildlife: image and reality in Kenya Maasailand’, in Anderson and Grove, Conservation, 143–4. It would now appear that the cycle is repeating itself with bush and fly once more on the increase in Mara.

58 See also, Iliffe J., A Modern History of Tanganyika (Cambridge, 1979), 166–7.

59 Sindiga, ‘Land and population’, 37; idem, ‘Sleeping Sickness’, 187.

60 Waller, ‘Research on Maasai History’, 810. The official attitude towards Maasai-land was, in fact, much closer to Hornby's exasperated comment on overstocking: ‘I came, I saw, I deplored and I went away’; Hornby H. E., ‘Overstocking in Tanganyika Territory’, East Afr. Agri. J., 1 (1935/1936), 360.

61 Discussed in Waller, ‘Emutai’, III–12 and in Waller and Lamprey, ‘Loita-Mara area’.

62 Norton-Griffiths, ‘Influence of grazing’, 346–7; Homewood and Rodgers, ‘Pastoralism, conservation and overgrazing’, 117–20. However, whereas the former suggests that these ecosystems have multiple equilibria at different levels, the latter argue for a return to a ‘central equilibrium’.

63 Waller, ‘Research on Maasai History’, 24; Homewood and Rodgers, ‘Pastoralism, conservation and overgrazing’, 111–15. For a similar, but not widely held view in the colonial period, see Hornby, ‘Overstocking’, 353–8.

* The study emerged from a collaborative paper on the historical ecology of the Mara region by myself and Dr Richard Lamprey, whose help is gratefully acknowledged. Earlier versions were presented to the African Studies Association conference, Denver 1987 and to an African Studies seminar in Bloomington in February 1989. In am grateful to colleagues who encouraged me to persist, and, especially, David Anderson.

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